Reflections on The Sunset Gang

by Warren Adler

Originally published in Humanistic Judaism Volume XIX, No. III, Summer 1991; reprinted in Volume XXXIV, No. II, Spring 2006.

My parents moved to Florida in 1971, Considering their origins in the ghettos of Europe at the turn of the century, it seemed an ironic ending to a life of struggle and incessant migration, from the shtetl across the ocean through the constantly changing Jewish ghettos – now called neighborhoods – of Brooklyn.

Settling in Florida did not break the pattern of their “ghettoness,” which had taken on new textures and tones, but remained the overriding condition of their mentality. Florida developers, many of them sons of like-minded parents, plugged into this mind-set by creating new ghetto forms: huge condo-complexes. Thanks to the efficiency of mass production, retirement homes were finally within the reach of lower middle-class Jews, all survivors of the great American adventure that had taken them through the devastating Depression and the first and second world wars.

This was the generation that survived and sacrificed for the kinder, the children, who visited them now in their big cars, designer clothes, and fancy jewels and regaled them with tales of their latest purchases of master paintings and vacation villas in the South of France and whose yearly income was more money than their parents and grandparents and generations beyond had made in their combined lifetimes.

They were mostly retired teachers, bookkeepers (like my father), small shop owners, and government workers. This was the generation to whom compassion and grappling, loudly, with deep moral questions was still both obligatory and fashionable, to whom liberalism was a way of life, who voted straight Democratic, whose idea of leisure activities was canasta, Mah Jongg, gin rummy, and pinochle. Golf and country clubs were for Gentiles – or fancy German Jews, sons of an earlier migration.

But these condo/ghettos had the patina of Gentile mores, the big “country club” clubhouse, the golf course, tennis courts, man-made lakes and streams, manicured lawns, and barrack-like buildings disguised as fancy complexes with old English names like Sheffield, Chatsworth, and Fieldcrest. My parents’ pleasant one-bedroom condo in West Palm Beach cost them $13,900 in 1971. Theirs was a corner apartment – an inside one was cheaper.

Not that all the owners of these condos were Jewish. Many were Italians, whose own ghetto sensibilities melded quite easily with their Jewish neighbors’, especially if they were from New York.

To my mother, Florida, in the early years of their sojourn, was Nirvana. She reveled in it. My father, used to his subway commute, coffee shop bagel-and-breakfast, The New York Times, and the bustle of the city beat, merely tolerated it.

Visiting them periodically, I discovered that these people had created a hybrid culture patched together out of their own rich experience. They would, of course, deny to themselves the richness of it, their view distorted by the economic struggle and pain of displacement. The whole idea of tropical Florida for this generation of northern survivors was a fantastic irony, and the humor if it could provoke both a wryness and a belly-laugh. Troops of fat-butted “athletes” roaming the streets on tricycles, pennants waving from chrome masts; card rooms stretching beyond even the most far-sighted vision; lines waiting for the restaurants’ “early bird” special; men, once at home hanging around the corner candy store, now finding a substitute in the laundry room while the wash spun; the incessant petty gossip and eternal battles of the matriarch, that breed of tough Jewish hausfrau who rules the roost with an iron hand.

The children of these mock country clubbers would come to bask in the loving pride of their forebears, exhibiting themselves in the spotlight of their parents’ loving admiration. A visit from an adult child meant that a call would go out to the neighbors to come see “my Solly or my Herman or my Milly or my Molly,” and a bragging contest would ensue, complete with photographic evidence.

A visit was good only for a few hours or an overnight or two, but it was enough to salve one’s sense of duty and to rediscover the mysterious joys of connection. After a few hours, the sentiment and nostalgia would become repetitious and the incessant rhythm of the Florida lifestyle would weary the visitor whose frantic life of success and acquisition was planets away.

Out of these visits to my parents came the first incarnation of The Sunset Gang. The collection of nine short stories was published with much moral support and emotional commitment from Viking, perhaps my compensation for a rather modest advance. It received many ecstatic reviews. The reviewer from The New York Times, however, was troubled by the fact that, since the theme of the stories was “aging,” the specter of death was nowhere to be seen. He had missed the point entirely: the “aging” are not obsessed with death, but with life, which these stories abundantly celebrate.

Indeed, the limp sales of The Sunset Gang and the lack of any paperback or foreign deluge were attributed to the fact that no one really gave a fig about older people, especially a bunch of old Jews. In 1976, the youth culture was still ascendant, and the portrait of old Jews dripped with the clichés of saccharine sentiment that the fiction mills had created.

Nevertheless, The Sunset Gang took on a new life. It continued to thrive through libraries and senior citizen groups, a number of which dramatized one story or another or reprinted them in their various publications. Often people of all ages would come to me and respectfully – even reverently – ask if I was the Warren Adler who wrote The Sunset Gang. Naturally, I was flattered, also bemused by the book’s staying power and apparent attraction for younger readers.

Almost a dozen years after its publication, the perceptive and remarkably talented Linda Lavin was casting around for a project for her own production company, Big Deal Productions. She approached my agent, Peter Lampack, for the rights to The Sunset Gang, the book having struck an emotional chord in her, since her own father was currently living a similar lifestyle in Florida. But it took her additional years of persistence and persuasion to convince Lindsay Law of American Playhouse to produce the trilogy.

For years I have been baffled by the amazing survival of The Sunset Gang. Only recently has it begun to dawn on me that something is imbedded in these stories that I should have recognized from an incident that occurred back in 1976, a month after the book’s publication.

I was sitting at home – then Chevy Chase, Maryland. A murderous snowstorm had totally paralyzed the Washington area; my driveway was covered with drifts of seemingly impenetrable snow.

A man called and asked me to autograph a coy of the book. I told him I would be delighted and suggested we get together when the snow cleared.

“No,” he said. “You must do it today.”

“You’ll never make it to my house,” I protested.

“Yes, I will,” he insisted.

Two hours later, there he was trudging up the driveway. I signed the book and fixed him a cup of hot coffee.

“Why does it mean so much to have braved this weather for a signature?” I asked him.

“My mother,” he explained, “lives in a nursing home in Jacksonville, Florida. The stories in that book have given her great happiness and made her life a bit more tolerable. She wanted to, in some way, touch the author. To meet this wish is the greatest thing I can do for her.”

Naturally, I was greatly moved. Isn’t this the true reward of the writer?

But what truly puzzled me was my own narrow assumption that the ethnicity of the stories had so limited the book’s appeal that the only people who might be taken with it would have to be Jews of that era and experience. This man was not Jewish, yet his mother had related to these stories on her own terms.

It is only now, years later, as the aging process begins to work its way into greater personal awareness that I have begun to understand the universality of the theme. Like birth, aging flattens all differences. There is nothing exclusively ethnic or exclusively anything in the process. It is nondiscriminatory and nonjudgmental. It is the last lap of the human journey, the way of all flesh.

It is also, in its own way, more of a triumph than a tragedy.

        – Warren Adler