He would arise just before noon if it had been a bad night. If it had been a good one, he would appear for breakfast closer to one o’clock. He had difficulty sleeping, usually staying up all night reading or working until the Miltowns would finally take effect around five, six or seven AM. It was the either the rheumatoid arthritis or the reflux or some combination that kept him up. He lived on antacids to treat his constant heartburn. His late rising was a long standing habit by then. He would always appear at the table freshly showered, in a starched shirt, slacks, matching socks and wing tip shoes. When he had a tennis match or Jai-Alai lesson planned, he was as smartly dressed for that event. I never once saw my father in a tee shirt. After he showered, he would splash on Royall Lime cologne as an after shave. On weekends, before I rounded the corner to the Florida room, I could smell him before I saw him. Often we kids would have just finished lunch before he appeared for his first meal of the day.
Breakfast consisted of some sort of fish, lox, whitefish or caviar and toast, interspersed with the two days a week he was allowed to have eggs. Born in 1902, he’d had rheumatic fever as a child, before there were antibiotics. As a result, his heart had been affected. In addition, the arthritis that plagued him made it difficult on some mornings even to grip his fork. It is hard to imagine how he carried on in his work at his desk later with pen or pencil in hand as he wrote. He would linger at the table after breakfast, drinking his coffee and poring over the New York Times before retiring to his desk to work most afternoons. He was Editor and Chief of Funk and Wagnalls and had an encyclopedia to put out. A new edition was expected every two years and he was either finishing up on one edition of the thirty six volumes, or beginning that process all over again, adding, modifying and editing articles for the next edition.
He was a handsome man, even then, past middle age. He was not tall, about 5’6” and but with a wiry athletic physique, and a full head of thick wavy hair and a solid mustache which covered his long upper lip. He had large and piercing gray-green eyes with great arching eyebrows and a broad grin with dimples at either side. We saw this grin seldom, but when we did, it lit up the room.
He was at the top of his game then, a self made man from modest circumstances. He had two siblings, an older sister Rosabelle and a younger sister Helen. He grew up in Brooklyn born to Jewish parents, Louis and Gertrude. She was an immigrant from Germany, while Louis’ father had immigrated in the late 1800s from London. Louis was the grandson of an English cigar manufacturer. He was a military man, having served in the army during the latter part of the 1800s. After service in the army, he was involved in the manufacture of cigars on a small scale to support his young family. Cigar manufacture had been the family business back in London whence the Morses came, so it was natural to him to continue in the same line in New York. He struggled to make ends meet. He was a troubled man with a serious drinking problem and was abusive to his only son; once beating Joe so badly that he broke the most of the bones in Joe’s left foot. His mother bandaged the foot, but neglected to bring him to a doctor. The bones healed poorly and for the rest of his life, my father had to have shoes made specifically to fit around the club foot that had resulted.
The circumstances surrounding Louis’ suicide are unclear, but he took his own life in the study, putting a revolver to his head and pulling the trigger. Young Joe was at home at the time. As he was now the “man of the house”, and on his mother’s request, it fell to him to go into his father’s room to clean up the aftermath- in what must have been a horrific and permanent trauma for him.
Grandma Morse, was a quiet bland woman who worked as a bookkeeper to support the family. With Louis gone, it was necessary for Joe to contribute to the family expenses as well. And so, as a boy, he sold newspapers on the street corners of New York. Once, he’d been out in the rain one day for so long that all his papers all were ruined. With no one wanting to buy, he persisted until his uncle came upon him by accident and bought all the papers from him in sympathy. Such kindness was memorable for him, as he’d seen so little as a child.
He told few stories of his childhood, but one of his favorites was how, back then, he and his sister Helen had received as gifts one roller skate each, from their mother. They could never skate together, rather, he or she would have to borrow the other’s skate in order to make a go of it. The story was told with great hilarity as proof of his mother’s dimwittedness. In truth, the lack of a full compliment of skates spoke more to financial straits. His frequent retelling of it likely sprang more from his belief in his mothers inability to recognize the needs of others in general. Natural, in view of her neglect to protect him from an abusive father and the subsequent suicide drama that played itself out as it did.
Years passed, and Joe was an extraordinarily bright student, having sailed through his high school requirements in only two years. By his sixteenth year, in 1918, he enlisted in the Navy, giving false information about his age. Two years later, and out of the Navy, he had pinned his hopes on going to Harvard, but was rejected because of his jewish background. Instead, he enrolled at NYU and subsidized his tuition by buying up all the yearbooks each year in order to resell them to the NYU students at a profit.
He graduated early from NYU as well, and proceeded immediately into the law school there, intending to become a criminal law attorney. He achieved this goal, but eventually gave it up somewhat early in his career.
Apparently he was so emotional in the courtroom, that although he lost only one case, he was a bane to every judge that sat before him, pounding the desk with his fist and generally carrying on in defense of his clients. He took every case to heart and was not able to keep the cool decorum that is required of the profession. Eventually, with the case of a man that in his words was “so guilty” that he “couldn’t find a way to defend him”, he gave the profession up for good.
In between his legal career and the long-held one at Funk and Wagnalls, he tried his hand at many different types of work. He wrote and directed off-Broadway plays, and wrote and even published at least one song. Later, he worked as a radio interviewer in New York, and even had a stint as a writer for the National Review. I still have his resignation letter to William F. Buckley, Jr. on the grounds of a political position the magazine had taken that went against his personal beliefs. During the cold war, he even wrote an article that appeared in Look magazine with a plan on how to keep communism at bay.
In the end, he found his calling in his work as editor with Funk and Wagnalls, where he worked for many years until 1968, a year before his death. During the mid sixties, he would recall his childhood by making sure that his encyclopedias were available for purchase in grocery stores, one volume at a time, ensuring that kids like he’d been got a chance to have encyclopedias in their homes with no financial hardship to their families. Before then, only affluent families were able to afford a set of encyclopedias. It was a point of great pride to him that he’d achieved this. The campaign had been so successful that Rowan and Martins T.V. show Laugh-In began to use the phrase, “Put that in your Funk and Wagnalls!” He began to watch the show, enjoying the free publicity. As it was, the show had never asked permission to use the phrase, but in a letter to me at the time he wrote, “The fresh kids are saying it to their parents and the parents in turn are going out and buying them!”, to his surprise, sales of Funk and Wagnalls soared. As it turned out, he couldn’t have paid for better advertising!
Dad had his first heart attack when I was a year old, and continued to have heart attacks on average every other year, (thirteen in total), until his death in 1969.
Each time he had a heart attack, he was prescribed a year in bed for his recovery. So many of my memories of my father are of him in bed, reading, writing or watching television. While he slept, we were expected to be very quiet, to avoid waking him early, depriving him of needed rest. Even though he would comply in the beginning, he could only be kept in bed for so long. No doubt, this stubborn refusal to relax for the prescribed amount of time extended his life, as he always returned to his tennis and jai alai as soon as he could.