Making personal connections, 60 years later

When I launched this blog last December, I intended it to be a place to disseminate all of the quantitative data analyses I was conducting for my own amusement. Such a repository, I theorized, would force me to write up the results of these analyses into short articles. Short, at least, by peer-reviewed journal standards.

And that is what has happened over my first 30-plus posts, for the most part.

Sometimes, however, data analysis is less about using math to find patterns in quantitative data and more about discerning connections between disparate qualitative data points, as, say, a private investigator might do.

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Just bear with me while I review recent history I have detailed in previous posts.

Last month, I began to write a book. This book is ostensibly about why I enjoy and study film noir to the point that I attend a 10-day film noir festival in San Francisco every winter (and am actively in the process of finding a repertory theatre in the Boston area to host a satellite festival in 2018).

My original idea was to follow the path hinted at here: trace the steps in my life, from my first detective stories and some old radio mysteries through a love of the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films through college film societies and classes through hours upon hours scouring video rental places and bookstores (used and new) for films and books through becoming associated with the Film Noir Foundation.

At the same time, I was slowly wrapping my mind around the idea of tracing the true circumstances of my conception and in utero adoption (my legal parents, D. Louis and Elaine Berger, brought me home from the hospital when I was four days old). This idea first took tentative root after my legal mother died in March 2004. I had resisted before then out of an unexamined, perhaps misplaced, deference to her discomfort with the idea. When my wife’s and my two daughters were born a year later, I realized they were the first genetic relatives I had known since I left the hospital where I was born.

And whatever story I had told myself (a mix of half-remembered details, conjecture and rumor) about my “true origins,” what I call my “dark past” (from the 1948 film noir The Dark Past, directed by Rudolph Maté), well, it was no longer my story alone.

It was my daughters’ story as well, and to a great extent my wife’s.

I had planned to have all legally-available details by my 50th birthday last September, but the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records drew a blank. Their form letter did helpfully inform me in which Court my adoption had been “managed,” should I wish to petition them.

It felt like a dead end. Or maybe I wanted it to be a dead end.

Last month, however, my wife shoved me further down the path of origin-story discovery when she ordered us both 23andMe genetic testing kids. She sent back her saliva sample quickly and enthusiastically, while I dragged my heels.

But once I sent back my sample, my personal Rubicon had been crossed.

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As I started to write my book, I realized that my adoption story, as I understood it, was a real-life noir tale: unmarried young woman (18?) has adulterous affair with married older (28?) man (her professor? teaching assistant?), becomes pregnant and faces an agonizing pre-Roe-v-Wade decision, following which all records of the adoption are destroyed in a fire.

There are at least two films from the classic noir era—Abandoned (directed by Joseph M. Newman, 1949) and Not Wanted (Elmer Clifton and Ida Lupino, 1949)—that address similar issues.

I remember reading and John Jakes’ The Bastard as a boy because I related to the title, although I suppose few people today use the term “bastard” to refer to a boy born out of wedlock. Photograph from here.

The_Bastard_John_Jakes_novel_1974_first_edition[1]

To help sort out the details of my adoption, I reached out to my 80-year-old aunt, my legal mother’s sole sibling. Besides telling me that she is regularly partnered at bridge with 97-year-old retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, she gave me a key detail I had either never known or had forgotten.

My adoption had not been arranged through an agency, but privately, through a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Herman M. Modell.

I would write an entire post on the fascinating Mr. Modell (whose photo I found here—graduate of Wharton and Harvard Law, early champion of clean water and equitable public school financing as a member of the Pennsylvania State House, Assistant City Solicitor of Philadelphia, country club president when few Jewish men were even allowed into country clubs (let alone in the historically anti-Semitic Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia)—but then why would anyone read my book?

I will, however, share one entertaining coincidence. In 1961, when Modell was concluding his time as Assistant City Solicitor, his supervisor—the City Solicitor—was named David Berger. Five years later, Modell would arrange for another David Berger—though he preferred D. Louis or simply Lou—to adopt a baby boy.

In retrospect, given that my adoption was arranged while my genetic mother was still pregnant with me, I should have realized that it was done so privately. I have found three other documented cases where Modell was the attorney for the adopting parents, and in at least one of those case, the adopters were Jewish. I have also learned that 62% of children adopted privately are placed with the adoptive family when they are newborns or less than one year old.

The question that then began to rattle around in my head like a pinball was this:

How did D. Louis and Elaine Berger ever connect with Herman M. Modell in the first place?

I understand why my legal parents sought to adopt a child in the summer of 1966. After marrying in January 1960,

Elaine Berger suffered two miscarriages and contracted uterine cancer, resulting in a hysterectomy in 1964. Two years earlier, in March 1962, my sister (whose legal guardian I now am) was born after a difficult, 18-hour-long labor (during which her baby girl lost a great deal of oxygen to the brain). Within a few months it was apparent that she was severely mentally retarded (an official diagnosis); she has been institutionalized most of her life.

Still, even after her hysterectomy, Elaine and her husband D. Louis wanted a “healthy” child. And in 1966 Modell arranged for them to have one, sight unseen.

But how did they connect with each other in the first place? I don’t think one simply looked up “private attorney—adoption” in the Yellow Pages in 1966.

My aunt offers a very simple explanation: both the Bergers and the Modells had a cabana in the summer of 1966 at the exclusive Presidential Apartments (where his widowed mother Rae Berger also lived). It was easy for my aunt to envision my “very personable father” playing cards with Modell, perhaps after being introduced by my formidable (though I adored her) Nana Rae. I had always understood her to be the doyenne of a select group of well-off West Philadelphia Jews. Her husband Morris, who died in 1954, had been the Vice President of the congregation at Beth El Synagogue (located at 53rd and Walnut in West Philadelphia until it merged in the late 1960s with Temple Beth Hillel in Wynnewood; a not-quite-13-year-old me would have his Bar Mitzvah there in September 1979).

Here are Rae and Morris Berger in Atlantic City sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s (the zenith of the classic film noir era):

Rae and Morris Berger, Atlantic City, late 1940s early 1950s

And that may well be the truth. My legal father would go to the Presidential pool on summer weekends in 1966, swim, play cards with Modell and others, and…what? Discuss how much he wanted a second, healthy child, now that his wife could no longer bear children? Is that really something a man would have discussed with a relative stranger in the mid 1960s?

Or was it Elaine and Virginia chatting about children (so far as I can tell, the Modells never had children) that spurred the attorney to take action.

By now, my deep dive into the story of my adoption had also become an even deeper dive into the history of my legal family, particularly the black box that was D. Louis Berger’s family (he was noticeably reticent to discuss his family, much less see them).

Here is a photograph of my legal father (sporting the swimming trunks) and me at the Presidential pool, probably in the summer of 1971, with an unidentified man.

Lou Berger and I with unidentified man Presidential pool 1969-71

Incidentally, there may be no greater, nor more rewarding, set of “rabbit holes” to descend than those offered to Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com subscribers.

And here is where I began to make interesting, only slightly conspiratorial, connections.

In 1950, four years after losing the Democratic nomination for a State Senate seat, Herman and Virginia Modell were living in an upscale West Philadelphia apartment building called Wyngate Hall, on Spruce Street between 49th and 50th Streets. My legal father, his parents and older sister were living less than three blocks south on 49th Street. Wyngate Hall was also only a few blocks south and east of Beth El Congregation, whose Vice President was Morris Berger (and where my legal father had his Bar Mitzvah on Christmas Day, 1948—those were very different times).

I have no idea at what synagogue the Modells prayed in 1950. Beth El Congregation was for Conservative Jews. Modell’s March 1973 obituary reveals that he had once been President of Main Line Reform Temple, also in Wynnewood. Main Line Reform Temple opened in 1952, entering its current building in 1960

Would Modell have switched from a Conservative to a Reform synagogue? Or had he simply switched to a different Reform synagogue when he moved to the Presidential (which sits just across City Avenue from the Main Line suburb of Bala Cynwyd)?

I will likely never know.

Here is what I do know, however.

One of the few things of value I inherited from my legal father when he died in June 1982 (from a massive heart attack at the too-young age of 46) was a beautiful blue-bound Masonic Bible. Its value is not religious (I call myself an Agnostic, though in braver moments I prefer Atheist) so much as personal: it was the Bible he received upon Initiation into the LaFayette Lodge #71, F. & A. M. (Free and Accepted Masons).

Title page of Lou Berger Masonic Bible

Both obituaries I have found for Herman M. Modell emphasize that he was not just a member of LaFayette Lodge #71, F. & A. M., he was a past master[1]. In fact, of all the groups to which Modell belonged, whose members were invited to attend the afternoon funeral services at Main Line Reform Temple, the only one actually specified by name was LaFayette Lodge #71, F. & A. M. This was clearly a vitally important membership for the late Mr. Modell.

Do you think D. Louis Berger attended those services to honor the man who had “managed” the adoption of his beloved son, a man he probably had known since his Masonic “raising” in June 1957?

Until next time…

[1] Yes, I observe that Herman Modell was NOT the master of LaFayette Lodge #71, F. & A. M when my legal father was initiated, passed and raised. However, my father did all of those things soon after his 21st birthday. Apply the same entrance criterion to Modell, and he would have been initiated, passed and raised in 1926.

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