Zei Gezunt, Gil
We weren’t there to say goodbye, but goodbye is what it was.
On the first day of September this year, photographer Jim Burger and I visited the grand Baltimore storyteller Gilbert Sandler in his Roland Park Place apartment on West 40th Street. I needed background on the former mansions of the city’s German-Jewish elite in and around Reservoir Hill, and Burger had promised to buy breakfast.
Sandler, 95 and not well, rose to the occasion.
“That stretch of Eutaw Place from Lanvale Street to North Avenue was the Champs-Elysees of Jewish Baltimore,” said Sandler. “There were beautiful fountains and a social register as the Jews tried to imitate the WASPs with their balls and dinner parties and houses they built as monuments to themselves.”
My reporting needed the kind of first-person detail that only Sandler, one of the last of Baltimore’s World War II mentsches, could provide. I came seeking info on 1714 Eutaw Place, the childhood home of Sandler’s fellow newspaperman, the financial columnist Julius Westheimer (1916 to 2005).
A block from the former Hutzler Mansion and other nearby urban castles of Baltimore’s early 20th century Jewish machers, 1714 has a plaster violin sculpted into the parlor ceiling, and Mencken is said to have attended nights of music and revelry there.
“The Westheimers were Jewish society,” said Sandler, born on the second floor of a Park Circle rowhouse at 3608 Cottage Ave. on Feb. 3, 1923. “I was a street urchin who walked donkeys around the track at Carlin’s Park and worked the carney strip.”
And then Sandler intimated that it wasn’t much of a jump from such labors to journalism.
“If I was ever inside [1714 Eutaw Place], it was probably to deliver milk,” he said.
But he did dine at 229 South Exeter St., next door to the St. Leo the Great church rectory, the home of Angela Pompa Matricciani. It was the early 1970s and Gil was doing research for his Little Italy book, “The Neighborhood,” published in 1974 with photos by A. Aubrey Bodine and drawings by Jacob Glushakow.
“I was maybe 11 or 12 years old when he came over one Saturday morning, and my mother served him lemon cake and coffee,” said Willie Matricciani, owner of the Fence Fair business in Dundalk started by his mother and his father, Luigi, in 1972. “[Sandler] had gentle, inquisitive eyes. You could tell he was genuinely interested in what you were telling him.”
Years later — long after Mrs. Matricciani’s death in 1988 — Gil and Willie had the chance to meet again at the old Burke’s Cafe at Light and Lombard streets, now a Royal Farms convenience store. As soon as Gil found out who Willie was, the old scribe lit up and said, “Oh, Angie and that great lemon cake!”
“It gave me chills,” said Matricciani, recounting the story the day after Sandler’s Dec. 19 death from cancer. “And he still had that same gentle look in his eyes.”
An usher at St. Leo’s now living in Bel Air, Matricciani allowed how there was one story from Sandler’s knocking about in Little Italy that didn’t make the book, a slim volume which Matricciani cherishes as he does the family photo album.
“Gil got a call from one of his sources telling him to get down to Fawn Street [in Little Italy] right away,” said Matricciani. “He wanted to know what for and the guy said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just get there.’”
When Sandler arrived, a very large truck was parked near Mugavero’s fabled lunch room. The truck was filled with brand new clothes, and the offerings could not be refused. Recounting the story at Burke’s, Sandler laughed and said, “They had a suit — in my size, too!”
Growing up in a neighborhood frequented by Sinatra and Mantle, a true village that produced father-and-son mayors Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. and his son, “Young Tommy” D’Alesandro III, Matricciani was used to Little Italy being in the news for all sorts of reasons — food, family and faith; politics and the crime that accompanies it; and folklore, both good and bad.
“But Gil was the one who got it right,” said Matricciani. “More than anybody, he’s the guy who captured the feel of what it was like to live there.”
Back at Roland Park Place, after about an hour of prompting him to remember everything from Eutaw Place to Exeter Street and back again (I did not know how ill he was), it was obvious that Gil was getting tired. In a very diplomatic way, he more or less told me and Burger that it was time to go.
“Did you get enough?” he said. “Did I give you enough?”
No, Gil. Sadly, you only gave us 95 years. Not nearly enough.
As we got up to leave, Gil glanced at the scribbles I’d made on my pad and said, “I don’t even pick up a pen anymore. It’s over. I did my little dance and I sang my little song and that’s it.”
Rafael Alvarez — a storyteller greatly in Gil Sandler’s debt — is the author of Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.