When I was a kid, everyone in my family called me Happy. When I was born, my dad wanted to name me after himself so there would be a Big Bert and a Little Bert, but my mother didn’t want to put me through the hassle of being called Bertram, as my dad had been when he was a boy, so they compromised on Burt. But even though our names were spelled differently, people would always ask my mother, “Oh, is your son Bert Junior?” and she would say, “No, he’s not.”
To lessen the confusion, my mother finally just said, “Let’s call him Happy.” I’m not sure where she came up with that name, because I don’t think I was very happy as a kid. In fact, I was lonely most of the time. Since my dad was working as a buyer of men’s clothing in Kansas City at the time, he probably never thought that either of our names would ever be known outside our neighborhood.
Neither set of my grandparents thought my parents were a very good match for each other, and I think my mom and dad moved to Kansas City to keep their marriage a secret. I was born in Kansas City on May 12, 1928, but my childhood memories don’t begin until we moved to Forest Hills, Queens, where I grew up in an apartment on the second floor of a three-story building at 150 Burns Street, just a couple of blocks from Queens Boulevard.
No one in my family ever went to synagogue or paid much attention to being Jewish. We also didn’t talk about being Jewish with other people, so I got the feeling this was something shameful that I needed to hide. I didn’t have a lot of friends in Forest Hills but the kids I knew were Catholic, and most of them went to church at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. Whenever we played football against a team with Jewish players, our captain would say, “Let’s go and kick the shit out of these Jews,” and I would say, ‘Yeah, let’s kick the shit out of these Jews!’ ” Because I wanted to be with them, I thought I had to talk that way, too.
As a teenager I was very short. At Forest Hills High School there were three thousand students, but not a single one of them, not even any of the girls, was smaller than me. So I already had enough problems without having to also admit I was Jewish.
I didn’t read a lot as a kid, but one book I really loved and read over and over was The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. I really identified with the hero, Jake Barnes, who couldn’t perform sexually because he was impotent. That was definitely not a problem for me. I was socially impotent because I was carrying around all this baggage, and I never felt like I fit in anywhere, not in school or in my neighborhood.
As a kid growing up in Forest Hills, I was Jewish but I didn’t want anybody to know about it. I was too small for any girl to even notice I was alive. I was reading The Sun Also Rises and I was walking around with a name like Happy. And while I might have been able to find myself by really learning how to play the piano, there was nothing in the world I hated doing more than that.
I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old. Every day when I came home from school in the afternoon, my mother would make me sit down at the upright piano in our living room and practice for half an hour. In my house, the push about music always came from her. What I really wanted to do was be out in the street playing ball like everyone else I knew. Whenever my mother said I had to practice, there was always a fight and I would only do it because she didn’t give me any other choice.
My mother played piano by ear, which I thought was remarkable, and I wondered, “Why can’t she teach me to do this? It would be so much easier than sitting here doing scales over and over again.” But whenever I argued this point with her, she’d say, “You have to learn to play properly.” When she was young, my mother had wanted to be a singer. I don’t know what happened to those dreams, but after the career in music didn’t work out for her, she really leaned on me a lot.
My mother was born and raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her father, Abe Freeman, owned a very successful cut-rate liquor store, until Prohibition put him out of business. Then he ran a pharmacy on the boardwalk, where he made enough money to send his three daughters—my mother, Irma, and her sisters, Dottie and Julia—to private school.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Abe lost everything. Although he was president of Beth Israel, the Reform synagogue in Atlantic City founded by one of my Bacharach cousins, Abe could no longer afford to pay his dues so he went to the board to offer his resignation. When they accepted it, he never returned. Whatever connection my mother might have had with being Jewish also ended right then and there, which helps explain the way I was raised.
To the day she died, my mother had great taste in clothes and art and and music. One of my cousins who used to visit us in Forest Hills still remembers our apartment as the most beautifully designed and decorated residence he had ever seen. It had high ceilings, wooden floors, and big windows that let in lots of light. At a time when everyone else had white walls, ours were all different colors and decorated with framed original oil paintings, some of which my mother had painted herself.
By the time I was a teenager, my father had become a well-known newspaper columnist. He and my mother went out to dinner a lot, but they never had to pay for anything because my father might write an article about the restaurant. I never really felt comfortable with them in a restaurant, because even though we weren’t going to be paying, my mother would still always ask the waiter, “Do you have orange juice?” And when he said, “Yes,” she’d say, “Are you sure it’s fresh?”
My dad was really driven and worked all the time but when it came to me he was the most gentle, no-pressure guy in the world. More than anything, I wanted to be like him. On Sunday mornings while I was waiting for him to wake up, I would go through all of his old scrapbooks, because he was definitely a hero to me. Like my mother, he’d grown up in Atlantic City, where he had worked delivering newspapers and then as a lifeguard on the beach during the summer.
A big guy who stood six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds, my dad looked a lot like his father, Max Bacharach, whom everyone called “Backy.” Always immaculately dressed in a high-collar shirt and spats, my grandfather would get in his hand-cranked Model T Ford and drive through Pennsylvania to all the small towns where he sold men’s clothing. Although Max made a good living as a salesman, his cousin Harry, who was the mayor of Atlantic City and after whom the Bacharach Giants, the local team in the Negro League, were named, and his cousin Isaac, who served eleven terms as a United States congressman, were a lot more successful than my grandfather.
When my dad was eighteen years old, he went off to college at the Virginia Military Institute, where he lettered in four sports. My father played fullback on the football team and captained the All-Southern conference championship basketball team. During World War I, he left college for a year to enlist as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps.