The Story Behind the Legend

The Truth About Ben Graham’s Powerful Rivals for Hazel (#16)

Benjamin Graham met my grandmother Hazel Mazur when they were both driven teenagers. Ben attended Columbia College on scholarship, excelling at his rigorous course load while working more than full-time, on track to graduate second in his class. Hazel, still in high school, brought rare energy and sparkle to her own endeavors. In his published autobiography, Benjamin Graham: The Memoirs of the Dean of Wall Street, my grandfather describes her as “pretty, intelligent, with remarkable poise and practical knowledge of all sorts.” Along with her comeliness and smarts, Ben appreciated her business acumen.

“[Hazel] was energetic and ambitious, and earned a fair amount of money teaching dancing and elocution to the children of the neighborhood, as well as to some adults.”

These words knock me sideways. In 1911, sixteen-year-old Hazel ran her own business. That would be extraordinary today, when American girls and women feel far more empowered than they did a century ago. Ben held down innumerable after-school jobs, ranging from paperboy, furnace ash shoveler, and math tutor, to (while a college student) movie theater cashier and manager of a complex punch card operation. None of these jobs would have been open to Hazel, or to any girl growing up in the 1910s.


Program from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Comic Opera, “Patience,” performed in 1911 at Erasmus Hall High School. Photo by BeyondBenGraham.


I’m thrilled to be able to show you these mementos that point to the skills Hazel acquired as a girl—skills in dance, elocution, and dramatic musical performance, which she parlayed into a profitable enterprise. This yellowing program for a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera, Patience, displays Hazel (“Miss Mazur”) in the role of The Lady Angela, one of the principals, performed at her Brooklyn high school in 1911. Hazel’s silver “Elocution” medal, earned circa 1910, sits atop this post, shown on her glam beaded sweater that she gave me in the 60s. I salute my teenaged grandmother for having the fortitude to defy societal constraints and launch her own business.

Hazel Mazur performed the role of The Lady Angela in a 1911 production of Gilbert & Sullivans’ “Patience.” Photo by BeyondBenGraham.


How Did My Grandparents Meet?

In an earlier post, we saw how Ben’s older brother Leon liked to trot out Ben as “the family genius” and display Ben’s remarkable math prowess to girls.

“Leon had been interested in Sylvia Mazur, who lived in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. When Sylvia got engaged to one Armand, Leon started paying his visits to her younger sister, Hazel, then only sixteen…Soon Leon needed to show off his famous younger brother to Hazel, and vice-versa. Besides, the journey from the Bronx to outer Brooklyn was long and tedious; he could use company on these expeditions.”


Before he even met his future wife, Ben had a rival for Hazel—his own brother, Leon! Discovering this in my grandfather’s Memoirs would have surprised and unsettled me, if my mother—Ben’s eldest daughter, Marjorie—hadn’t revealed this inside information to me long ago. I normalized it in my mind, recognizing that brothers who were close in age, like Ben (seventeen) and Leon (nineteen), might wind up having eyes for the same girl. Ben continues the story.

“One Sunday I went along with [Leon] and found myself in the parlor of a small frame house. Hazel came in to greet us. She was plump, but pleasingly so, and the deep brown hair falling over her shoulders gave her a deceptively childish appearance. We found each other most interesting. I became a frequent visitor to the Mazurs, sometimes with Leon, sometimes alone.”

Competing with his brother for Hazel’s attention didn’t deter Ben. What about when Cousin Louis made fun of them?

“This double courting of the same girl did not escape the notice of Cousin Lou, who made many a jest at our expense.” 

Louis’s opinion mattered to Ben because he looked up to his cousin as an esteemed role model.

“My cousin, Louis Grossbaum—universally known as Louie—exercised a great influence on my life. He was the second son of my oldest paternal uncle [Emanuel], and the same age as my brother Leon. I have never met such an extraordinary collection of abilities as he possessed. On the one hand, he was an extremely brilliant scholar, outstanding in Greek, Latin and mathematics, winner of the fabulous Pulitzer Scholarship and of many prizes at Columbia College and Engineering School. By my modest standards, he was an excellent athlete, when the studious were expected to be weaklings. Most surprising of all, he seemed to be a businessman to his fingertips… [And] he seemed to know everything about everything—including girls, a subject long destined to remain a closed book to me.”

Louis was the reason Ben faced terrible disappointment when he failed to win the Pulitzer Scholarship. The Registrar’s Office at Columbia got Ben mixed up with Louis. Ben changed his last name to Graham in 1914, but at the time, both boys shared the last name “Grossbaum.” The office staff thought Ben had already been awarded a scholarship, and turned him down.

As a boy, Ben sold fold-out postcards like these, which feature photos of the 1906 New York Giants, including such stars as John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Roger Bresnahan, Joe McGinnity, Mike Donlin and others, along with a scorecard and view of the Polo Grounds.


As a kid, Ben followed Louis’s lead to start selling “Baseball Mail Cards” at the Polo Grounds and Highlanders’ (later Yankees’) stadiums. Ben kept track of his earnings (“two cents on each pair of cards”) and the games, sometimes in rhyme. When Ben showed Louis his notebook, Louis “condescended to start it off with his own composition, in the form of words of advice to his younger cousin.” Louis wrote “Know Thyself”—a maxim inscribed upon the Temple of Apollo in Delphi—in Greek with commentary in Latin.

“I was lost in admiration for all this erudition, and solemnly vowed that I too would become a scholar of Latin and Greek.”

Ben found Louis’s intellectual attainments so inspiring that he did exactly that—became a Latin and Greek scholar, a pursuit that imbued his retirement years with creative effort and meaning. Meanwhile, Ben’s high opinion of Louis sparked a yearning to gain his cousin’s approval of Hazel.


The Masque of Comus, a poem by John Milton, illustration by Edmund Dulac, The Heritage Press. Photo courtesy of Esty.


An Ambitious Endeavor

Some months later, Hazel was busy arranging an entertainment to display the progress and talents of her young pupils. For that purpose I composed a masque, in the genre of Milton’s ‘Comus,’ entitled ‘A Fairy Festival,’ which Hazel set to music from various sources. The piece began with a female Prologue, age seven:

                  ‘Far from the rural haunts of Bensonhurst

                  And old Bath Beach, in slumber deep immersed,

                  There lies the joyous land of Faerie…’”


Reflecting on this elaborate enterprise, I’m hugely impressed with my young grandparents. I’ve attended many youth dance recitals, and I’ve never seen one so ambitious. The show featured dancing, singing, and an original drama, penned in verse in the style of Milton, by seventeen-year-old Ben. How fascinating that Milton’s Comus, presented in 1634, champions a female heroine who resists the male sorcerer Comus’s pressure to revel in food, drink, and sexual pleasure, choosing instead to uphold virtue. Ben’s composition was, no doubt, less moralistic and more playful. Hazel took charge, acting as teacher, impresario, creative director, choreographer, and production manager.


Band of Rivals

“To assist in this grand undertaking, Hazel had assembled all her beaux, past, present and even future. They made up a numerous team of ushers, ticket sellers, and scene shifters. Hazel even enlisted my brother Victor into service.”

 What an exceptional girl Hazel was! She not only kept myriad male admirers at her beck and call, but also organized them into an effective crew to staff her gala theater production. I remind myself that a girl taking charge of a bevy of young men was practically unheard of in the patriarchal New York of 1912. With her all-volunteer team, she might even have turned a profit.

Ben penned the verse for Hazel’s “entertainment” while contending with a swarm of suitors. His band of rivals came to include not just one but two brothers.

“[Hazel] knew everything, including [Victor’s] talents as an amateur stage performer. The high spot of the evening was a duet in which long, lanky Victor and a microscopic six-year-old boy sang Al Jolson’s current hit, ‘When the grown-up ladies act like babies, I’ve got to love’em—that’s all.”

It takes a skilled director to see her cast members’ potential and give them the chance to shine. Apparently, Ben and Hazel’s masque stretched to include at least one crowd-pleasing number suitable for a variety show.


A Startling Revelation

“The applause was terrific. But Cousin Lou, who somehow had been persuaded to attend the event, waxed cynical. What? All three of us in the clutches of a girl scarcely more than a child? It was disgraceful, a blot on the Grossbaum escutcheon.”

An escutcheon is a shield which displays a coat of arms. Collins Dictionary defines “a blot on one’s escutcheon” as “a stain on one’s honor” or a “disgrace to one’s reputation.” Apparently, Ben, or Ben and his brothers, urged their reluctant Cousin Louis to attend the performance—only to face his disparagement. Bear in mind that “A Fairy Festival” was meant to showcase Hazel’s young pupils, not to please a young man who had traveled all the way from the Bronx to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Ben, in particular, wanted Cousin Louis to see Hazel in all her glory and to deem her worthy of his admiration.

“But soon [Louis] was part of Hazel’s entourage.”

This is a startling revelation. Ben’s entreaty succeeded too well. After mocking his cousins for being in thrall to Hazel, Cousin Louis fell under her spell. Now the three brothers and their first cousin had all become members of “Hazel’s entourage.” The four Grossbaum men seemed to have no qualms about competing with each other.


What Made Hazel Irresistible to Men?

I would have thought that boys and men would find Hazel intimidating, and choose to stay away from this powerhouse of a girl. On the contrary, “all her beaux” flocked to her, eager to do her bidding. She summoned them into service and gave them orders, without causing offense. Still a high school student, she exuded authority, charisma, charm, and sexual magnetism. Men wanted to be near her, to help her—they wanted her to include them in her undertaking and to notice them. As for Ben, the more rivals vying for Hazel, the more interesting he found her.

For her part, Hazel enjoyed attracting male attention, according to my mother. Growing up, I knew my Grandma Hazel well—well enough to call her “Hurricane Hazel” like the rest of the family. She was a force who exerted power over everyone—men, women, children—to an incredible degree. In the ’50s, the patriarchy dominated every aspect of American life, including family, business, government, the arts, and the law, perpetuating gender inequality and excluding women from positions of power. Yet during our vacations at Grandma Hazel’s ramshackle summer home on the Vineyard, she barked orders and we obeyed. I have never met a more commanding woman.

Classroom in the Emerson School for Girls,  circa 1850, sixty years before Hazel attended. Photo by Josiah Johnson Hawes, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Hazel disappeared from Ben’s life for a year while she attended the Emerson School for Girls in Boston. Few girls went to college in the 1910s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art calls the Emerson School “the most prominent school for young women in Boston, established in 1823 by George Barrell Emerson, second cousin of the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.” During the interval that Hazel attended Emerson, Ben met Alda Miller, and they fell in love.

“Alda was not as pretty as Hazel, but she had an animated, interesting face.”

Even in her absence, Ben had “pretty” Hazel on his mind.


The Grossbaums’ Mutual Courting of Hazel

“Hazel returned to Bath Beach after spending a year at the Emerson School in Boston and took up at once with all her old beaux, including me.”

I’m struck by Hazel’s wherewithal to draw her former boyfriends back into her circle, without the dramatic performance that had rallied them a year before. In the quote above, Ben doesn’t mention Victor, Leon, or Louis. I’m certain that at least one of Ben’s brothers was still wooing Hazel because my mother told me this story: Ben, Hazel, and Leon would ride three abreast on the box seat of a horse-drawn carriage, with Hazel sitting between the two boys. Hazel squeezed Leon’s hand, as if to say he was her chosen man, and then she squeezed Ben’s hand, conveying that Ben was her choice. Evidently Hazel relished the attention and was quite the flirt.

The story had legs, because the mature Leon and Ben told a different version to Ben’s Beverly Hills neighbor, Dr. Bernard Sarnat, over dinner in the 1950s. In his biography, The Einstein of Money, Joe Carlen writes that “the whole table got a good laugh from hearing Leon and Benjamin recount their mutual courting of Hazel.” In this rendition, “Hazel would walk down the street smiling, holding hands with Leon on one side and Ben on the other.”

“Gradually and carefully Hazel made up her mind that I was the boy she wanted, and having done so, she set about convincing me to like effect…There were no embarrassing professions of love, Alda-fashion, nor even enthralling confessions to me in private. It was best for both of us to wait until the proper time.”

 Ben maintains that Hazel chose him. I have a different interpretation. I think Ben set out to win Hazel—to best not just one powerful rival but two. Leon was one. Ben’s admired role model, Louis, was the other. I have indisputable evidence that Louis was still in the picture, just when Ben “graduated from Columbia in the spring of 1914 and was making a start in [his] career.”


What Louis Wrote to Hazel

Louis Grossbaum’s letter to Hazel Mazur, dated June 6, 1914. Hazel herself and Ben’s daughter Marjorie saved the letter.


My grandmother Hazel saved this letter Louis wrote to her on June 6, 1914—a letter written in an informal tone. My mother Marjorie must have found it after Hazel died in 1977, and kept it until shortly before her death, when she gave the missive to me. No doubt Hazel found Louis’s words meaningful. Perhaps she held this older man in high esteem, the way Ben did, and Louis’s positive attention validated her and boosted her sense of self-worth. How amazing that she kept his letter, all through her marriage, her childbearing years, and her exciting stint as a globe-trotting photographer and filmmaker. I get goose bumps, marveling that I hold in my hand a letter our cousin Louis wrote to my teenaged grandmother over a hundred years ago.

“My dear Girl, I really can’t write you properly because I don’t want to put on paper what I could so easily tell you in person.” –Louis Grossbaum

The greeting—“My dear Girl”—and Louis’ assertion that he could talk with her face to face, tells me that they often saw each other.

“You can be sure that I felt very deeply after leaving you Sunday—and my thoughts were all pleasant, because it’s much better that we understand each other.” –Louis Grossbaum

Louis admitted he felt strong emotions after their last meeting. Something significant happened—something that changed how things stood between them. Perhaps Louis confessed that he had feelings for Hazel, or she disclosed feelings for him. Perhaps they touched, kissed, even embraced. I doubt they went further than a kiss. In his Memoirs, Ben sheds light on the social mores of their time. Ben writes: “To sleep with a respectable girl, or even to marry one before you could provide for her suitably—such things were like stealing or drunkenness. For a decent, ambitious young man, they were unthinkable.”


“Just Good Friends, as Before”

Louis Grossbaum’s letter to Hazel Mazur, part 2, dated June 6, 2014.


“To be sure, you are young, and so am I. In my case, especially, quite a long time must ensue before I shall even know that I am going to be a great success. Till that millennium arrives, we shall of course just be good friends, as before. I think we shall let this sentence be the last word on this subject for a time, shall we not?” –Louis Grossbaum

Louis is right about them being young. In 1914, Hazel was nineteen, Ben was twenty, and Louis was twenty-two. Louis tells Hazel he won’t know for a long while if he will be successful enough—that is, if he’ll earn sufficient money—to marry a girl like her.

I feel a surge of sympathy for these young people. Abstinence propelled them to want to marry early, but a young man couldn’t ask for a woman’s hand in marriage until he “could provide for her suitably.” Young male Jewish immigrants who came of age in early twentieth-century New York faced extreme pressure to rise above their parents’ income level and social standing. Louis and Ben felt this pressure keenly.

Whatever happened that stirred deep emotion, Louis wants to be “just good friends, as before.”

He leaves the door open for something more, implying that wedlock glimmers on the far horizon while he strives to become “a great success.”

“Now that the status quo is restored, I must ask you how you are…” –Louis Grossbaum

Louis goes on to resume their conversation, apparently initiated in person, about scant job opportunities for Hazel and his view that she “should rather swim and play tennis and have an enjoyable summer.” After their last meeting—a meeting that left them in a disquieting state of being more than “just good friends”—Louis wrote this letter to restore “the status quo.”


The Last Word on the Subject?

We don’t know if Hazel or Louis kept seeing each other, or if either of them told Ben what had transpired between them. Yet Ben certainly sensed and likely witnessed the attraction between his cousin and his girlfriend.

How did Ben respond? In a future post, I will plumb the mystery of how he made up his mind to marry my grandmother.

First, Benjamin Graham must survive the Wall Street Panic of 1914.