As someone born and bred in the borough, I am well acquainted with Brooklyn royalty. In fact, only great modesty prevents me from even mentioning my own royal blood.
Brooklyn, of course, was once part of the British Empire, and many reminders can still be found. I grew up just a block from our neighborhood’s main shopping strip, Kings Highway. Just off the Highway is a well preserved pre-Revolutionary farmhouse, the Wycoff-Bennett mansion. In recent decades, it was owned by Annette and Stu Mont, who sometimes called their home the Wycoff-Bennett-Mont house.
Annette and I met at James Madison High School and became friendly again about twenty years ago. She invited me to monthly political meetings and occasional parties at her home. She and her husband had restored the house to look much as it did during colonial times. There were even numerous oil portraits of the home’s earlier residents, as well as furniture and farm implements dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
When new guests arrived, Annette graciously showed them around. Sometimes I could not resist telling the more gullible among them that I too had descended from the Wycoffs or the Bennetts – or even both families. Annette smiled when she overheard me, but she never bothered setting the record straight.
Another structure surviving from colonial times was a store on Montague Street, in historic Brooklyn Heights. If you looked in a Brooklyn phone book from the 1970s, you’d find a listing for King George Pizza. It’s still whispered that after their victory in the Battle of Brooklyn, scores of Redcoats stopped in for a celebratory slice, while Washington’s army escaped to New Jersey to fight another day.
Three members of the royal family lived in the neighborhood where I grew up. Two of them held court in Kelly Park – and I mean that both figuratively and literally.
When we were in elementary school, our classes lined up in the schoolyard each morning before entering the building. But in the event of rain or snow, we lined up in the cafeteria. One spring morning there was a tremendous downpour, with heavy showers predicted for the rest of the day.
A scholarly-looking kid named Marty Marks made his way around the cafeteria assuring us that the sun would come out that afternoon, and he would see us all in Kelly Park. And sure enough, he was as good as his word. And though there were still some puddles, the park was filled with kids playing stickball. Smiling benevolently, Marty made his rounds, accepting thanks and congratulations. He had accomplished the impossible! And so, to this day, Marty Marks is known as the King of Kelly Park.
I was also blessed to be acquainted with the Duchess, perhaps the best handball player that Kelly Park had ever known. We were both about sixteen at the time, and though I was very attracted to her, I never was able to get up the courage to ask her for a date.
One day, she had a bandage across the bridge of her nose. Some of the other kids asked her if she had walked into a wall. But she just smiled, and they were left to wonder what the big secret was.
It must have been a year or so later when I asked the Duchess about the bandage. She laughed. It turned out that some of the girls in our neighborhood had had expensive nose jobs and she was jealous.
“But why would you have a nose job? You have a beautiful nose!”
“Why thank you, Steve!”
“So, what was with the bandage?”
“I wore it so everyone would think I had had a nose job.”
“But why, if you didn’t need one?”
“I wanted everyone to think my parents could afford to pay for one.” I guess if you’re a duchess, you do need to keep up appearances.
Besides the Duchess and the King of Kelly Park, there was the Countess. A very thin, pale woman in her fifties, she lived directly above my friend, Arnie, on Homecrest Avenue, just a few blocks from Kelly Park. He told me that he would often hear her pacing the floor all night.
I guess that she was known as the Countess because of her haughty, aristocratic manner and her refusal to associate with anyone too far below her station. Her neighbors believed she was married to a European count that would one day be joining her. His castle would surely be several steps up from her furnished apartment.
And then one evening, the phone rang in Arnie’s family’s apartment. It was the Countess. She was almost breathless with excitement. She had time to utter just two sentences, “Abe is here! I made him some soup.”
Royalty is part of every Brooklynite’s DNA. One of the stars on the Brooklyn Dodgers was their centerfielder, Duke Snider. He was known throughout the borough as “The Duke of Flatbush.”
There was a rather absurdly titled popular song back in the 1950s, “The Duke of Earl.” Huh? There are dukes and there are earls. But wasn’t calling yourself the Duke of Earl a bit excessive? Why not go for something a little more refined like Countess, or Duchess, or perhaps even King?
Let the record show that until now, I have held off talking about my own royal connections. But I do prefer, at least on formal occasions, to be addressed as Steve Slavin, OBE. If you’re a Britisher, you would certainly be familiar with this title. It stands for Order of the British Empire. It was granted to me when I was just thirty years old, when I was spending a summer in Barbados.
There are tens of thousands of Bajans who have migrated from the island to Brooklyn, but I had done the reverse. Actually, I was there to research my doctoral dissertation, entitled, “The Economic Cost and Effectiveness of the Barbados Family Planning Association.”
It was while doing that research that the OBE was bestowed upon me. I had gotten to rub shoulders with many of the movers and shakers of the island, some of whom were benefactors of the BFPA. Among them was the Honorable Clyde Gollup–who held three important government positions simultaneously–and appeared to know nearly everyone. As we drove around Bridgetown, the capital, he waved at hundreds of different people, and they waved back.
“Clyde, is there anyone you don’t know?”
“Well Steve, surely you noticed we have a very small country.”
During my stay, I was introduced to Lady Adams, Sir Frank Knight, and dozens of other luminaries. While they were all quite gracious, I felt that my status as an impoverished graduate student put me at quite a social disadvantage.
Once I’d received my doctorate, of course, I’d have a recognizable title. But what could I use in the meanwhile? It didn’t take long for me to come up with Order of the British Empire, an honor that the Queen had been handing out quite generously. So from that day on, I introduced myself as Steve Slavin, OBE.
Did my ruse actually work? Well, it was pretty hard to tell, because everyone was so polite. If some had their doubts, they kept them to themselves. But then one day, the manager of the Barbados Family Planning Association referred to himself as “a Britisher.”
“Lionel,” I pointed out. “You’re a Bajan, not a Britisher.”
“Oh, is that true?” he replied. “And since when does the Queen grant OBEs to people from Brooklyn?”
Despite having rubbed elbows with Brooklyn royalty for so many years, I had never even heard of the Queen of Brooklyn. Then, one evening, I actually met her.
I didn’t realize straight off that she was a queen because we met at a Halloween party. She happened to be dressed like a queen, so I had no way of knowing that she was one.
How can you spot a queen? And what’s the difference between a queen and a mere princess? Their years of experience ruling their subjects? Maybe it’s that old noblesse oblige, if you get my drift.
Whatever it was, this lady had it! She simply expected everyone to wait on her. Indeed, she was, by far, the laziest person I had ever met. I mean, yeah, there were energetic queens like Elizabeth I and Victoria, but then there was Queen Sheila – Queen of Brooklyn.
Pushing fifty, Sheila confided that she never worked a day in her life. She got by, it seems, on a monthly “stipend” she received from her father, whom of course, she detested.
“You do take his money,” I pointed out.
“Trust me, Steve, it’s guilt money. The man has never done a thing for me in my entire life.” I was too polite to say anything about the “stipend.”
We never actually dated, but just had a few casual get-togethers. One of those times was having dinner at my friend Barbara’s house. After dinner, when Barbara was doing the dishes, Sheila offered to help. As theatrically as possible, I fell to the floor.
They both smiled as I lay there, doing my best to maintain an expression of great shock.
Then Barbara thanked Sheila for asking, but said she was almost finished. I told Sheila that I was truly amazed by her generous – and highly uncharacteristic offer.
“Well, I knew Barbara would say ‘no.’”
Another time, Sheila asked me to escort her to a wedding in Brighton Beach where a Russian woman she knew was getting married. She was looking forward to stealing the spotlight, as that certainly was her queenly due.
She wanted me to drive her to the wedding. No problem. But she also wanted me to wear a suit. I didn’t own one. So I would have to miss the wedding – and she would need to find someone else to drive her there–and, of course, to play a supporting role when she made her grand entrance.
As things turned out, Sheila almost missed the wedding. She had made a blind date with someone she had met through a computer dating service. He was supposed to pick her up in front of her building, but he never showed up. So Queen Sheila had to call a cab and be further humiliated by having to make her grand entrance without an escort. Luckily, by the time she arrived, few of the guests were sober enough to take note of this embarrassing detail.
A few weeks later Sheila again needed me to give her a ride. She was having a medical emergency. Would I please drive her to the hospital?
“Of course,” I replied, “but wouldn’t it be better to call the EMS, since they’re trained for these occasions, and you might need medical attention on the way to the hospital?”
“No, Steve. I need you to take me. You’re the only one I trust.”
When I got to her apartment, I needed to half-support and half-carry her to my car.
“Which hospital should I take you to? The two closest are Community Hospital and Kings Highway Hospital.”
“Either one is fine.”
“OK, we’ll go to Community because their emergency entrance is more accessible.”
“Steve, I need you to change my will.”
“I might die tonight. I need to cut my father out of my will.”
“Look, Sheila, I know you hate the man, but we can’t just stop now to change your will. First things first!”
“No? Are you nuts? I’m not going to stop the car now. I need to get you to the hospital as quickly as possible.”
I couldn’t believe we were having this argument. Then she amazed me.
“Can’t you do both?”
“No, Sheila! I can’t drive and alter your will at the same time.”
Then, to change the subject slightly, I asked her why she wanted to cut her father out of her will considering that he had given her every penny she had.
“It’s a matter of principle.”
“And what principle is that?”
“That he should have given me a lot more money. So is it fair that he ends up with still more of my money?”
Thankfully, at that very moment we pulled up at the hospital, and a couple of orderlies rushed out with a wheelchair.
I parked a few blocks away and went back to see her. A doctor had just finished examining her. She then had Sheila walk the length of the emergency room and back again.
Sheila seemed fine. The doctor told her that she could go home, and then asked, “Do you have any questions?”
“Yes, doctor. Do you know anything about wills?”