Stephen M. Silverman grew up in Los Angeles and admits he knew nothing about the Catskills before coming to New York to attend college. And yet, despite that rather late introduction to the area, he has managed to write what promises to become one of the most important books about the region, released last month by Knopf.
In fact, from the first glimpse of its colorful dust jacket to the final profound phrase on the last page of text, The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America is about as impressive a book as you are likely to find on this or any subject. The history is comprehensive, covering virtually everything from the Hardenbergh Patent to Washington Irving to hydraulic fracturing to casinos; the illustrations are magnificent, including some of the most breathtaking renderings of Asher Durand and Thomas Cole; and the sources are impeccable, most notably hours and hours of videotaped interviews with respected modern authorities.
“The breadth of what we have covered has amazed people,” Silverman said in a recent interview for this column. “It is so much more than just the Borscht Belt. In fact, I have been telling people that the Jews don’t even show up until page 215.”
The comment might seem flip if it wasn’t so accurate. What started out more than ten years ago as a film documentary about the rise and fall of the Borscht Belt — a story that has been told many times before — fortunately morphed into so much more, and what would no doubt have come across as a warmed over blintz was transformed into a scrumptious and filling apple pie, no longer ethnic, but sweeter and considerably more satisfying.
The original project was conceived by the accomplished husband and wife film making team of Raphael (Ray) Silver and Joan Micklin Silver as a video chronicle of the era of Sullivan County’s big hotels, including their demise. The couple was convinced early on that the broader history of the entire Catskills region was a better story, however, and shifted gears before the cameras rolled. Approached by Knopf to do a book as a companion piece to the documentary, the couple began a collaboration with Silverman, who did the actual writing.
Ray Silver passed away unexpectedly in 2013, with the documentary still in progress, and it has never been completed, but Silverman capitalized on the videotaped interviews the couple collected to augment his own research and finish the book.
Silverman, who spent twenty years at People Magazine before embarking on a career as a book author—he has penned ten previous to this one– was no stranger to writing, but found the subject matter daunting nonetheless, simply because of its scope. Still, the final product does not disappoint.
“I learned a long time ago there is only one way to write a book,” he says. “You’ve got to sit your [self] down in front of the keyboard every day. “
It was an exhausting process, even with the help of the interviews the Silvers had conducted.
“Ray did the legwork, and the interviews he videotaped are intertwined throughout the book,” he says. “It took me five years, but I wrote every word, and I spent an entire year just going through photos, starting out with about 400 and eventually selecting 200 of them for the book. After the final editing, there are 175 that made the cut. ”
Asked what he found most interesting about the history of the Catskills, Silverman is torn. He says he loved learning about the gangsters, particularly the colorful bootleggers who utilized the topography of the mountains to ply their trade in secret, but also found that the story of Jennie Grossinger’s rise to world renown fascinated him.
“Her work ethic was extraordinary,” he says. “She is in a sense the Jewish Horatio Alger.”
In fact, it is Silverman’s fondness for personalities and his skill at telling their stories that comes through loud and clear in the book, not only setting it apart from more antiseptic histories but establishing it as one of the most significant books ever written about the area.
There is little dispute that the two most important books about the Sullivan County portion of the Catskills are James Eldridge Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County, published in 1873 and Manville B. Wakefield’s To The Mountains By Rail, published in 1970. If one considers the broader Catskills, Alf Evers’ The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, originally published in 1972 and updated in 1984, must be considered paramount among books on the topic. This new release can rightfully takes its place alongside those esteemed works.
Silverman has managed an effort that is more colorful than David Stradling’s 2007 book, Making Mountains, another important work, and avoids the obvious factual errors that detracted from Stefan Kanfer’s ambitious 1989 work A Summer World, while also covering a much broader scope.
While there are a few fairly minor inaccuracies, The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America is a must read, just in time for the holiday gift giving season. It is available from the Sullivan County Historical Society’s gift shop in Hurleyville, as well as online.