To most, Irving Jaffee will best be remembered for the two gold medals he won in the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid. To others, he will forever be the man over whom two legendary Catskill hotels went to court one winter.
Jaffee was among the greatest speed skaters of his generation. He turned in the fastest time in the 10,000 meters at the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, only to have the event canceled without an official winner because unseasonably warm temperatures had thawed the ice. Four years later, in Lake Placid, Jaffe won gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races as American men swept all four speed skating events.
There was no big endorsement money automatically awaiting Olympians back then, particularly Winter Olympians, and Jaffee soon found himself in financial straits. In a 1998 article, Dave Anderson of the New York Times reported that Jaffee had at some point “pawned his two Olympic medals and some 400 other speed-skating medals. When he later tried to buy them back, the pawn shop had closed.”
”Nobody knows where the gold medals are,” he once said.
Jaffee ended up as the skating instructor and the winter sports director at Grossinger’s in Liberty, ultimately bringing to the hotel the Catskills’ first artificial ice skating rink, Olympic speed skating trials, professional ice shows, and the World Barrel Jumping Championships popularized on ABC television’s “Wide World of Sports.” But shortly after hiring Jaffee in an attempt to establish some sort of winter sports program at the hotel in the winter of 1934, the Grossinger family found themselves in court, accused of stealing him away from the rival Laurels Country Club in Sackett Lake.
The trouble began when Grossinger public relations genius Milton Blackstone came up with a plan to capitalize on Jaffee’s presence at the hotel. At Blackstone’s urging, Jaffee announced that he had decided to attempt to break the long-standing world record for the 25-mile skate.
His training for the attempt, as well as the attempt itself, would, of course, take place on Grossinger Lake. The announcement came at a New York City news conference arranged by Blackstone, and provoked a number of stories in the sports pages of the many New York daily papers. No sooner had the stories appeared than Jennie Grossinger was served with court papers restraining the hotel from employing Jaffee. The Laurels was claiming that they had signed the skating champ to an exclusive contract.
“That evening there was a council of war,” wrote Harold Jaediker Taub in his 1952 book, “Waldorf in the Catskills.” “‘For the time being, it’s simple,’ the lawyer explained. ‘We can get the restrainer lifted, but then we’ll have to go to court and fight a permanent injunction. Once it gets to that point, the publicity is bound to be unfavorable. Even if we win, it’s going to look as though you were stealing employees from other hotels.’ Clearly, he thought that the simplest thing to do was to let Irv go.”
Jennie Grossinger decided to fight. She told the family that she believed the publicity would be good for the hotel.
“Now we have drama,” she reportedly said. “Now people will come to see this wonder that two hotels are fighting over.” The Grossinger’s lawyer indicated the hotel was ready to go to court if necessary to retain Jaffee’s services.
“The Laurels took the first round,” Taub wrote. “They conducted a press interview and gave out statements. Irv Jaffee was under exclusive contract to them. If he wanted to give exhibitions and break records, he didn’t have to do it on Grossinger Lake. He could do it on Sackett Lake. He had been hired away from them in an effort to damage their business, and they weren’t going to have it. They had rights.
“Jennie held a press conference of her own, in which she pointed out that Irv had come to her of his own free will, that he preferred working for her, and that the Laurels couldn’t make a slave of him. He was free to work where he pleased in these free United States.”
The newspapers were delighted with the controversy. They published both points of view fully, with their own embellishments. The Laurels had the contract, but Jennie had Irv, and if a fascinated public wanted to watch his exhibition training, they had to go to Grossinger’s to do it.
The matter was eventually settled out of court, Jaffee remained employed at Grossinger’s, and he broke the world’s record on the hotel’s lake.
“The unusual event drew a crowd of over 5,000 spectators,” Joel Pomerantz wrote in his 1970 book, Jennie and the Story of Grossinger’s.
“It also made a few sports headlines when Jaffee succeeded in shaving several seconds off the old record and establishing a new mark of one hour, 26.9 minutes racing around a one-third mile track 75 times.”
Irving Jaffee helped to firmly establish winter sports at Grossinger’s, and remained a fixture at the hotel for decades. He and his second wife Mildred were living in San Diego when he died in 1981 at the age of 74. His obituary listed his widow and a sister as his only survivors, leaving a daughter he had from his first marriage – and had seen only twice – to wonder why her famous father had forsaken her.
Photo: World record setting speed skater Irving Jaffee.