Longtime Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, once the most-feared man in Hollywood, was pushed “up and out” yesterday. What’s interesting about Bart, and what I sent Hollywood Jew blogger Danielle Berrin, is just how uncomfortable he is as a Jew.
Here are a few things Bart wouldn’t tell me: Both his parents were born in Austria. His mother, whose maiden name was Clara Ginsberg, arrived at Ellis Island in 1914. Her passenger record includes this notation: “Ethnicity: Austria (Hebrew).” There is no record of a Max S. Bart entering the United States through Ellis Island. Bart’s father may have traveled under another name. But there is a listing for a Moses Bart, which was the name of Bart’s paternal grandfather. Moses came to America in 1913, when he was 57 years old. His ethnicity: “Austria, Hebrew.”
Bart has kept even his closest friends confused about his past. “He was brought up a Quaker, wasn’t he?” asks Evans. It’s an honest mistake. You can’t spend more than an hour with Bart without hearing about his attending Friends Seminary and Swarthmore College—both Quaker institutions.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bart says of his religious heritage, as one of his knees begins bouncing up and down. “I resent people’s militancy on these issues. Everyone wants to peg everyone else because everyone is predictable. And I’m not.”
Over several months he will volunteer that he has never once dated a Jewish girl, never attended a seder, and has been inside a synagogue only once, for the bar mitzvah of then-agent Michael Ovitz’s son. (“I wanted to see what one was like.”) “Listen, I got berated by the vice president in charge of business affairs at Paramount,” he says, “because I did not take off Jewish holidays. And I was affronted. I basically told him to mind his own damned business.”
At one point he tries to explain his discomfort by comparing himself to his longtime assistant, a light-skinned black woman: “She struggles with this, too. She feels she’s a black person. But she’s about as black as Felix [Bart’s Siamese cat]. I feel she is a bit victimized by, again, that need to identify with some subculture that will help you.
“You talk to a lot of the better-educated, wealthy black people. You know, they’re not very black. The big distinction is between the people they call ‘niggers’—who are the ghetto blacks, who can’t even speak, can’t get a job, and bury themselves in black-itude—and those people who are better looking, better educated, smarter, and who own the world: the black middle class,” he says. “A lot of people in Hollywood—let’s say if they happen to be Jewish people who come from Brooklyn—they are most comfortable with those people. Which is fine. It just doesn’t happen to describe me.”
A few minutes later he asks, “Can you and I make a deal about this whole thing about religion? I would love it if we could dodge it in some way that you don’t think is dishonest.” He will repeat this request more than once.
Before I move on, I should note that Bart was temporarily suspended after this article appeared because of comments that were seen as—and I would agree—abjectly racist. But what about Bart’s Jewish identity?
It seems odd in Hollywood, an industry more identifiably Jewish than anything short of the guild of Torah sofers, that Bart wouldn’t want to discuss his own Yiddishkeyt. But as Danielle points out, and as I read in Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own,” Hollywood’s founding fathers shared the sentiment:
It’s unclear whether Bart is anti-religionist, atheist or ultimately a self-hating Jew. His apparent fear of professional reprisal, however, indicates a shift in Jewish pride from the early days of Tinseltown. Bart might have fit in better with Hollywood’s founding moguls, many of whom wished to escape their Jewish past and reinvent themselves as simply American.
What say you?