|It’s the steaks that kill
me, really break my heart. Not the Hungarian pastry, famously divine. Not
the built-to-scale Broadway-style amphitheater, nine-hole golf course or
beloved sunset cocktail hour on the beach. Not even the landscaping,
wistful vestiges of which still trace the contour of a bridle path or band
shell--- a stray hydrangea here, a blowsy lilac over there. That’s not
what makes my heart go boom when old-timers, reminiscing about the
long-gone glory decades between the twenties and the sixties, get that
look they get, that misty middle-distance gaze that says, I can still
taste it, even now. Done to perfection: New York strip. Filet mignon.
Prime rib. Back when steak was steak and nobody knew from cholesterol or
the destruction of the rain forest except maybe what they saw in a movie
called The Naked Jungle with Charlton Heston and the army
ants---and didn’t they show that at Scaroon, sometime after the sirloin
dinner and before the hot-pastrami midnight nosh?
Scaroon Manor: To the Adirondack summer scene what the Concord was to the Catskills. Only careful, please. A delicate analogy. Yes, Scaroon Manor was a Jewish resort that could be depended on to provide guests with services, rabbi and a Torah for the high holy days and Passover, a place where Jewish singles from New York city, Albany and Montreal could meet over shuffleboard or doubles or a rumba lesson under strings of pink paper lanterns in the pines. Yes, the same Sophie Tucker and Alan King and Joey Bishop who did the Concord and Grossinger’s did Scaroon and, for that matter, Jewish resorts in Saratoga Springs, Saranac Lake and Chestertown.
Even so. The Borscht Belt was one thing, the Adirondacks was another, and in the difference was three-fifths of Scaroon’s allure. For starters, the North Country was a lot harder to get to, nothing like the hop-the-milk-train bungalow colonies and hotels of the Catskills, and with the inaccessibility came a certain cachet. Anyone could do the Catskills. Anybody did. But it took time and money to beat a path from the Grand Concourse to Schroon Lake. And something else, something maybe more like nerve. This region was notorious among Jews for its many hotels, clubs and camps at which "Hebrews" were not welcome. For some, that was a reason to avoid the Adirondacks and hew to more familiar, accommodating Catskills. Other vacationers were less easily deterred. Whatever its social reputation, the Adirondack park looked just as lovely to Jewish vacationers as it did to members of the Lake Placid Club. The only answer for it, short of avoiding the region entirely, was to build or claim a summer world of your own.
This the Adirondack-loving summer Jews did at many places besides Scaroon. At Long Lake there was the Hotel Sagamore; near Brant Lake, Crystal Lake Lodge. Outside Saranac Lake, the Seven Keys, and at Chestertown, Green Mansions. Bungalow colonies flourished in Schroon Lake, Warrensburg and Lake Luzerne, and for generation, Jewish families returned to tent sites on Lake George’s islands. Each of these retreats had its own style, its special tone or pull. Some were big on modern dance and hip new theater; others drew the lefty-liberal campfire-and-Kumbaya folk-dancing-the-beach crowd, lots of swirling dirndls and brisk hikes at the crack of dawn. What defined the special feel of each resort was the owner’s personality. And Joseph Frieber of Scaroon Manor was the most flamboyant, pull-out-the-stops, no-business-like-show-business owner of them all.
In 1920 Frieber, a Hungarian-born restaurateur (with his brother William, he owned and managed Dubonnet and La Tosca in Manhattan) bought George Gobel’s place at Spirit Point on Schroon Lake. Gobel, a New York lawyer, had picked up the ramshackle resort four years earlier from the Taylor family, who ran it for almost four decades as the beloved Taylor’s-On-Schroon. By the time Frieber came on the scene, hotels like the Leland House, the Little Club and several children’s summer camps as well had put Schroon Lake on the map as at least one corner of the Adirondacks where middle-class Jews could count on bed and board. Even at its peak the colony of camps and resorts was no match for the Catskills, where the guest facilities held as many as five hundred, but scarcity, like distance, generates its own kind of elite. Pickings may have been few, but they were choice---no funky bungalows on muddy ponds with torn screens and a blind xylophonist after dinner, but rare, exotic outposts tucked away at the tail-end of their long manorial drives, woodsy aeries that after a few days in the DeSoto could look as grand and fine as Oz.
And at Scaroon, there was even a wizard to match. Joe Frieber thrilled at giving guests the backstage tour of the all-stainless-steel kitchen, with its professional ovens and gleaming grills. When vaudeville succumbed to big-band orchestras, Frieber constructed an acoustically impeccable two-orchestra open-air theater. When air conditioning came along, Frieber plugged it into every room. Speedboats! Water polo! On-site hairdressers! "Golf? Why, yes, dear friend. A course fit for a Donnachie…Caddy, my sticks please!" read the heart-shaped promotional brochures. While much of his three-hundred-person staff came from New York City (house security consisted of retired Manhattan detectives), Frieber hired local too, and made a point of underwriting and supplying top-flight entertainers for annual summer benefits for the Schroon Lake fire department and the chamber of commerce.
At Scaroon you could meet a nice guy, the kind you might even take home to meet your parents. And hey, if he wasn’t Mr. Right, you could always have yourself a little exploratory moonlit fun--- which expectation gave rise among waggish vulgarians to a counter-motto to the resort’s "Scaroon Loves You!" (and you love screw-in’). A goodly chunk of Herman Wouk’s best –selling novel of Jewish American postwar life, Marjorie Morningstar, was filmed at Scaroon Manor, and was just about the biggest thing to hit the village since the wild and wooly days when Route 9 was a freeway for revenuers giving high-speed chase to Packards loaded to the bumpers with hooch. Scores of locals worked as extras and got a lasting taste of the resort life and Frieber’s memorable hospitality. "Even on days when we weren’t needed, we still got these gorgeous lunchboxes with these exquisite steak sandwiches," Schroon Laker Janet Friedman dreamily recalls. She’s in the movie. "Just for a minute. My children know where to find me. I’m standing by the pool when the uncle’s found drowned."
Then, the sixties. Hard times for splashy, big resorts, Jewish or gentile, from the White Mountains to the Adirondacks to the Poconos. Expenses soared, insurance loomed and vacationers lost interest. Frieber still booked up the place with conventions---district attorneys, state republicans---but solo travelers were sampling Europe, the Caribbean, Club Med. The demise of quotas and social anti-semitism opened up a world of leisure options to Jewish Americans. A weekend getaway at a country inn, a second home, a time share---all these gave the old fashioned every-minute-something-doing Jewish resort a hard run for the money. Frieber, ill with the cancer that would kill him, sold Scaroon to the owners of the Sagamore Hotel at Bolton Landing in 1965, but they couldn’t reverse a national trend. After a few years they sold the resort to the state.
Up in smoke, down to rubble, back to weeds: well over a hundred buildings, and with them went an annual tax payment to the town of twelve thousand dollars. There was some sweet-sounding talk about opening a recreation area with a golf course, maybe a marina. Nothing happened. The bed-and breakfasts that flourished in the wide wake of Scaroon’s success, the stores that peddled Madras shorts and tennis balls to tourists, the dozen-plus camps that introduced three generations of city and suburban kids to war canoes, tent inspections and s’mores---all that’s gone now. In ten or twenty years, the undocumented living memories of Scaroon Manor will be gone too.
Or most of them. One I plan to cherish, from a silver-headed octogenarian who revealed to me recently she too had been to Scaroon Manor. Dropped in with her best friend in the late thirties not long after their college graduation. "Two Boston girls," she laughs. "Real snots. I remember we were driving this snappy red convertible from New York to Montreal. We made a very splashy entrance in to the New York enclave. Heads turned, believe you me." So how’d it go? "Well we had dinner there. Spent the night." Steak? "Oh honestly, I don’t remember. But I do know girls saved up a lot of money to go there for a weekend in hopes of reaping a larger reward"---a reward she failed to realize. Which is fine by me and I reckon by her, too, since a few months later she was falling hard for the dashing if impoverished college government instructor she would soon marry, and that, as Mom would say, was that.
A Pleasing Manor