Bookies, bakers and baseball: A Bronx memoir

At the age of 72, Marvin Korman was discovered.

The former Columbia Pictures and NBC executive, who used to fly weekly from his New York City home to Los Angeles, just couldn’t get used to the pacing of retired life.

So he began jotting down memoirs of growing up in his family’s bakery in a heavily Jewish Bronx enclave, and he gave readings in a cafe within walking distance of his Greenwich Village apartment. A cafe frequented, it turns out, by a literary agent.

Now, four years later, Korman has come out with his first book, “In my Father’s Bakery: A Bronx Memoir.”

Korman’s childhood was stocked with characters more colorful than a 64-box of Crayola crayons. There was Uncle Maxie, the developmentally disabled counterman; Uncle Willie, the playground basketball legend with only one functioning arm; John, the fall-down drunk deliveryman; Ozzie, the magician-turned-cabdriver; a troupe of pan-repairing Gypsies and, of course, Izzy the bookie.

“We never said Izzy. We always said ‘Izzy the bookie,'” said a chuckling Korman, who will make a pair of Bay Area appearances in early May.

He spent a huge portion of his childhood at the bakery, but he did sometimes get out for air. So when Korman’s literary agent suggested he include a vignette about Yankee Stadium — though he initially replied that the men of his family were all diehard Giants fans who detested the “Bronx Bombers” — Korman did come up with something. It was the time Uncle Maxie took him to a Tigers-Yanks game so they could get a glimpse of a hometown kid named Hank Greenberg.

The Kormans sat along the right-field line that day in 1938, just yards away from Hammerin’ Hank. The Jewish legend treated his fans, knocking two doubles and a long homer in a Tigers rout.

“Oh he was huge, huge. Six-foot-4. And in those days, anybody 6-foot-4 was a giant,” recalled Korman. “I went to NYU and we had a great basketball team. And our center, a guy named Walsh, was just 6-foot-3.”

Unfortunately, a heckler sitting directly behind the Kormans showered profane, anti-Semitic abuse on Greenberg all day. By the ninth inning the normally meek Uncle Maxie snapped and told him to “Go to hell, you big fat dummy!”

The heckler thought about taking a swing at his developmentally disabled critic, but instead left without a word, to the jeers of the crowd.

Many years later, when Korman returned in 1988 to his old neighborhood with his four cousins — who also grew up in the bakery — they were horrified. In place of their digs was a filthy ghetto, and the site of Grossfeld & Korman’s was, literally, a hole in the ground.

He didn’t go back again until last year, when he was thrilled to find a thriving Latino neighborhood.

Korman still bakes, turning out challah or more exotic fare such as cornmeal breads with crunchy bits of brown sugar.

“I did not start baking again until my father died” in 1968, he said.

“My wife is the former dean of social work at NYU and she’s given me all kinds of psychological reasons for that. And they’re all probably true to some degree. But I really enjoy it. I like to make challahs.”

“In My Father’s Bakery: A Bronx Memoir” by Marvin Korman (Red Rock Press, 207 pages, $22).

Marvin Korman will give a reading 4 p.m. Sunday, May 2, at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Free. Information: (415) 927-0960. He will appear 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 4, at the Berkeley Richmond JCC, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Free. Information: (510) 848-0287.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.