1892 – 1972
It was a rags-to-riches story of the first order. Jennie Grossinger, born to a poor family in a village in Austria, came to the New World, where she became not just successful, but reigning royalty of the Catskill circuit. Warm, kind, and generous, she was doyenne to an opulent resort affectionately known as Waldorf-on-the-Hudson. She was friend to governors, cardinals, and stars, and a philanthropist who enriched the world.
Jennie Grossinger was born on June 16, 1892, in Baligrod, a small village in Galicia, at that time a district of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father’s family included landowners reduced by hard times, and her father, Asher Selig Grossinger, was an estate overseer. Her mother, Malka Grossinger, was the daughter of an innkeeper.
Times were hard, and prejudice against Jews was common. One of her father’s cousins had already immigrated to New York, and Selig decided to join him. There wasn’t enough money for the family to go with him, so Malka, Jennie, and her sister Lottie stayed behind. Finally, after three years, Selig was able to send for his family to join him in New York. Jennie was eight years old.
The family moved to the Lower East Side, which was in its Yiddish heyday. Jennie enrolled in a Hebrew school, as well as P.S. 174. She was old enough for the third grade, but couldn’t speak a word of English. She was demoted to first grade and still couldn’t manage. It was a humiliating time.
While Jennie was in elementary school, her mother gave birth to a son who proved to be deaf and mute. When no American doctors were able to help him, Jennie’s mother decided to go back to Austria and consult with doctors and rabbis there. Since Lottie was so young, Jennie’s mother took her as well. The family had to borrow from friends and neighbors, but the money was found for tickets. Jennie stayed in New York with her father.
This put a strain on the family finances, and when Jennie and her father moved to a new apartment, she took her chance and quietly disappeared from school. At age thirteen she got a job to help out. She started sewing buttonholes piecework at a factory, earning $1.50 her first week. If a single stitch was out of place, the foreman rejected it and she had to start over. But she became proficient, and her wages rose to ten to twelve dollars per week.
Jennie put up her hair in a bun and wore a long coat in an attempt to look older, but she still had to hide when the inspectors came around looking for underage workers. Her family needed the money, however, so she would not leave. Her father worked in the same factory, and at length the hard work began to wear on him, so he started to look for other work. He tried his hand at several businesses in New York, each of which failed. Finally, in 1914, he decided to buy a farm in the Catskills. He would be a farmer again, and the family would prosper.
However, the farm he bought was a run-down place, a likely prospect for another financial failure. Jennie had helped her father in his previous businesses, and she came to the Catskills to help with the farm. Her husband, Harry Grossinger, a cousin whom she had married two years before, stayed in New York and saw her on the weekends. It was soon apparent that the farm would never pay, so, like many other Jewish families in the Catskills, they took in paying guests from New York.
The guest house wasn’t promising, but Jennie Grossinger’s naturally warm and welcoming personality helped to make it a success. The house was without electricity, heat, or indoor plumbing. However, Malka was a good kosher cook, and the place became popular with guests. Harry helped by sending customers from New York. By 1919, they had done well enough to sell the original farmhouse and buy a hotel nearby, which had a proper building and extensive grounds.
There was an economic boom soon after World War I, and the resort thrived throughout the 1920s. The family developed the place into an opulent compound with tennis courts, a bridle path, a children’s camp, and a seventeen-hundred-seat auditorium with first-rate entertainers. This was the beginning of Grossinger’s as an institution. For East Coast Jews, it was the place to be. It still had kosher cooking, but now patrons could dine under crystal chandeliers. Jennie provided world-class service, and hardworking Jews from New York gravitated to it, enjoying their new prosperity.
Grossinger’s was hit hard by the Depression, but it managed to stay open. Always innovative, the family not only provided entertainers but brought in well-known boxers to train in their compound before their big fights. Grossinger’s was a place where you might rub shoulders with Rocky Marciano, the boxer, or Nelson Rockefeller, the governor. Eddie Fisher got his start at Grossinger’s when he was spotted by Eddie Cantor, who was a guest. By the 1940s, Grossinger’s fame had spread so that it began to attract a non-Jewish clientele as well. Its palatial grounds and splendid service brought celebrities from all over. It was very nearly a social experiment: Jews had long been banned from the most prestigious resorts; now Grossinger’s had become so prestigious that gentiles flocked to it. In the years that followed, such prominent people as Eleanor Roosevelt, Bobby Fischer, and Senator Robert Kennedy came to visit. All were made at home by that outgoing democrat, Jennie Grossinger.
When Jennie’s husband, Harry, died in 1964, she turned over her role in administration to her children, Paul and Elaine. Grossinger’s had grown to thirty-five buildings covering twelve hundred acres. The resort hosted as many as 150,000 guests a year. Jennie stayed on in a cottage on the grounds.
For several decades Jennie Grossinger was very active in charitable work. This part of her life began during the Depression. Grossinger’s wasn’t prospering, but so many other people were suffering worse fates that she felt compelled to do what she could. In time she became a noted philanthropist to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, garnering a number of awards and two honorary degrees.
On November 20, 1972, Jennie Grossinger died of a stroke, in the heart of the family empire she had helped to create. She was, in the words of Notable American Women, “the best-known hotelkeeper in America.”
AJYB 74:556; EJ; “Jennie Grossinger Dies at Resort Home.” NYTimes, November 21, 1972, 1:1; NAW modern; Reynolds, Quentin. “Jennie.” Look (July 13, 1965); WWWIA, 5.