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Sara Greenberg: In Big Band Era, A Sense Of Design And Fun


June 29, 2012

Sara Greenberg — everyone called her Sooky, like cookie — thought that her birth date, 10-10-10, gave her mystical powers. Not everyone was convinced, but there was a consensus that Greenberg found life a lot of fun, and she showed that great enthusiasm for more than a century.

Greenberg, a West Hartford resident, died Dec. 15 at age 101.

She was the youngest daughter of Karl and Alice Theodore, Russian immigrants who came to Hartford in the early part of the 19th century. They had nine children, but twins died in infancy.

Her father was a cabinet maker and furniture refinisher, and her mother was a seamstress who could cut and sew a dress after seeing it a store window, but the family was large and poor and lived a simple life. As a little girl, Greenberg made the occasional trip to the butcher to buy a chicken — a treat, though she hated seeing it slaughtered.

While she was young, Sara Theodore lived for several years in New York City with an aunt and uncle who were better off, and she got a taste of the possibilities — like college — that would be available if there were more money. Though the aunt and uncle adored her, she returned to her parents' home with a drive to be educated.

Though her siblings dropped out of high school to work and help support the family, she resisted, and became the first in her family to graduate, even though the family had to live without the income she could have provided.

At Hartford Public High School, her yearbook said, "This girl can step," a reference to her tap dancing skills. She also excelled in French, and became adept at making dinner out of scraps. Her pastries, made from leftover dough, were savory and sought after.

After high school, she got a job as a clerk at Traveler's Insurance Co. She concealed her religion, though, because it was difficult for Jews to get jobs there, according to her daughter, Carole Goldberg. People thought she was Greek because her last name was Theodore.

After her sister Mollie married Bernie Greenberg, who went on to own Scoler's Restaurant in Hartford, Sooky married George Greenberg, Bernie's brother. George Greenberg was a musician who had dropped out of high school to play the trumpet professionally. He toured with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra and in the lesser-known Will Osborne Orchestra, among others, performing at auditoriums, night clubs and colleges.

It was a glamorous life — Sooky accompanied him on tour, and would dress up for concerts while George would wear a tuxedo to perform.

Once when they were on tour, the city-raised couple spent the day on horseback.

"Neither had been on a horse before," said their daughter, Phyllis Pagano. "The next day, they were prostrate."

The couple met famous singers like Les Paul and Mary Ford, and once, George Greenberg told a young tap dancer she didn't have the chops to succeed. The woman was Ann Miller, who became a famous dancer; Greenberg was wrong, and he never lived it down.

Even during the Depression, people still found the means to go out and celebrate the Big Band sound, and George Greenberg toured with orchestras for 11 years, until Carole, his first child, was born in 1941.

The couple returned to Hartford and moved to a one-bedroom apartment in the North End. Though money was tight, there was always summer at the shore as respite from the summer heat of a third-floor apartment. George continued to play the trumpet for the house orchestra of WTIC radio's dance band, the Merry Madcaps, which had a half hour noontime broadcast. Under the name "Georgie Greene and his Orchestra," he played clubs, wedding and bar mitzvahs.

In 1955, the family moved to a house in West Hartford.

Sara Greenberg cut an elegant figure when she went out dancing with her husband. With a mink stole and fashionable clothes, she kept up with the current styles. She kept her hair light brown with gold streaks until her death, because she believed it was important always to look her best. George Greenberg became the sales manager for Gold Bond Mattresses, but died at 57 in 1968.

Sara Greenberg's friendliness extended to everyone. She befriended the produce salesmen at the supermarket and the manager at the drug store. "They knew her by name. She'd ask for their kids," said her daughter Carole.

After her husband's death, Greenberg went back to work. She was always interested in clothes, and went to work first at a store in West Hartford called Modern Woman, and then for William Travis, owner of three Florence Travis women's clothing stores. Florence's frequent trips to New York ensured that the latest, most elegant styles were always displayed, and Greenberg did well at the store.

"She was an excellent sales person who had a wonderful fashion sense," said Sandra Zieky, the Travis' daughter, who ran the stores with her mother after her father's death.

In addition to her sense of humor and willingness to pitch in when other salespeople were sick, Greenberg had strong opinions she was not reluctant to voice. Zieky would go to New York and do the buying, "but if Sooky didn't like it, she told me," said Zieky. "She was straight from the shoulder."

Greenberg's interest in people made her a good saleswoman, and she could outfit a woman from head to toe, regardless of age or shape or taste. She retired at 86 — when the last Florence Travis store closed in 1996.

Greenberg was interested in politics, and sat her children down to watch the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. She was interested in her daughters' teenage friends, and was the rare adult willing and eager to listen to tales of adolescent angst without offering judgment or criticism.

"She had opinions, but people had the right to be whoever they were," said Goldberg. "She wasn't going to yell at you. She always had something to say and it was often amusing. She was funny and lively."

When her grandchildren developed interests in sports or music, Greenberg followed right along, and kept up. "You didn't feel like she was someone from another time," Goldberg said.

For the past 30 years, Greenberg had lived in an apartment on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford, and she wasn't too old for a risquι remark. "You can send him up to my apartment," she'd inform the property manager when a handsome young firefighter came for inspections.

In addition to her two daughters, Greenberg is survived by four grandchildren. She died of congestive heart failure.

Greenberg' interest in fashion was evident until her death. A social worker, who was wearing a very stylish outfit, said goodbye to Greenberg during her final illness. She had barely spoken in recent days

"Suddenly my mom looked up, clear-eyed, and in a strong, authoritative voice said, 'That girl really knows how to dress,'" Goldberg said. "Then she lapsed back into the fog of illness, never to re-emerge. But for those few seconds, the real Sooky Greenberg, who always knew how to dress and appreciated good taste, was back with us."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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