New Britain, Connecticut: The Rest of the Story

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On Nov. 2, The New York Times ran a story, “Manafort Family Roots Run Deep in Connecticut City.” Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, who was recently indicted for money laundering and other charges, grew up in New Britain, “the Hardware City of the World,” only a few miles west of Hartford.  Manafort’s father, Paul Sr., had served as the Republican mayor from 1965 to 1971, and a street is named in his honor.

The article by Vivian Yee also mentioned other famous New Britain natives, such as Walter Camp, “the father of college football,” and George Springer, the star of the Houston Astros’ World Series-winning team.  One reason I know about New Britain is because of its fine art museum, which includes an important group of paintings by Thomas Hart Benton that had once belonged to the Whitney Museum of American Art.  I also happen to have met a young woman with ties to New Britain who was murdered.

  I explored this faded industrial city on a few occasions when searching for clues about my father, Eugene’s, upbringing there.  Though he had been born in Hartford in 1915, he spent the first 16 years of his life with his parents, older sister and two younger brothers in New Britain.  Both of my paternal grandparents, Sadie and Isadore, had been born in Eastern Europe; she came to America from Ukraine as an infant, but he did not emigrate from Romania until becoming eligible for the draft.  Fortunately, upon arriving on the Lower East Side in 1902, he brought his skills as an engraver, so he quickly found work. Indeed, Isadore (who had Anglicized his name from Israel) and his older brother, Paul, moved to the Hartford area in order to become more deeply involved with its industrial production. 

After establishing his own Main Street business, New Britain Stamp Works, in 1912, Isadore gradually prospered. Not only was he able to purchase a suburban home, but his young family spent several summers in a rented cottage in Branford, on Long Island Sound. These were the happiest days of Dad’s childhood. In 1931, during the depths of the Depression, his family pulled up stakes in New Britain and drove to Los Angeles, where my grandmother’s parents and five older siblings had already settled (and where I would be born and grow up).

My dad’s mostly positive memories of New Britain, where Polish-Americans predominated, included walking to school, joining Boy Scouts, playing the violin and becoming a Bar Mitzvah at Temple B’nai Israel, a Conservative congregation. In his memoirs about growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, the prominent journalist, Calvin Trillin, mentioned his childhood rabbi, Gershon Hadas, who had been Dad’s mentor in New Britain. 

Regrettably, the recent New York Times article failed to mention one of New Britain’s best-known natives, Abraham Ribicoff (1910-1998), who had a distinguished political career in Connecticut as a U.S. Representative, governor, and U.S. Senator. Ribicoff and President John F. Kennedy had become Congressional colleagues in 1948; Abraham nominated JFK to serve as Adlai Stevenson’s vice president in 1956; and Abraham was JFK’s floor manager at the 1960 convention in Los Angeles, which my parents attended and where they also met the future president. Abraham became JFK’s first cabinet appointee, as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Dad had been far friendlier with Abraham’s younger brother, Irving, his exact contemporary. Not only did they attend New Britain High School together and belong to the same fraternity; the boyhood chums both became successful lawyers. They stayed in touch the rest of their lives.  Dad also maintained some contact with Irving’s widow, Belle, as he did with one of his New Britain sweethearts, Bea Saunders, who married an editor of Forbes magazine.

I remember meeting Irving and Belle’s daughter, Sarai, a 1979 Phi Beta Kappa alumna of Yale, when she moved to Los Angeles, immediately following her graduation, to launch her career in journalism at the Hearst newspaper, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner. My younger sister, Betty, was already writing for that paper, and I attended a dinner for Sarai hosted by our parents.

Although I saw Sarai only a few times, I remain horrified by her fate. She was murdered outside of a Los Angeles restaurant, during an armed robbery, on the evening of Nov. 13, 1980.  In another, never-predictable turn of events, Kenny Barshop, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted her murderer, was one of my Jewish buddies from junior high school. 

The Ribicoff family’s horror must have been unbearable for a second reason. Sarai had a cousin, Gail Rubin, who had been murdered in Israel in 1978 by a Palestinian terrorist.

Dad and his family had never regretted leaving New Britain.  Indeed, they always harbored a bit of nostalgia for it. But the Ribicoff family’s intertwined American, Jewish, and Israeli stories seem as wonderful as they are dreadful.

GEORGE M. GOODWIN, a member of Temple Beth-El, is editor of “Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.”