Thomas Schwartz was born in Hungary, before World War Two. He spent his adolescent years in Bergen Belsen. After liberation, he spent his early manhood roaming around the Continent. Tommy, a polyglot, felt at home in any country after just a few weeks, having already learned the local language. Possessing a beautiful natural tenor, he found himself in Italy, seeking out the great voice teachers to hone his craft. A manual laborer at first, he studied watchmaking in the evenings, and became a master watchmaker. He was able to make good money to feed his vocal study addiction. After some years, he found his way to Toronto, where his few remaining relatives lived. Tommy met a lovely Jewish girl there, and soon they married. Thomas saw the writing on the wall with the advent of the battery powered watch, and sought out another profession. Having fond memories of his observant Orthodox Jewish childhood, and a fine tenor, he chose the Cantorate.
I met Thomas at the Hebrew Union College (HUC), School of Sacred Music, where we both studied. I was fresh out of high school, and gravitated to Tommy—He was ten years my senior, and much more worldly than I. I found him rather exotic, with his penchant for embracing every facet of life with tremendous “brio.” Being a depressive, it was fascinating for me to watch this man who had gone through such adversity, squeezing every last drop out of life. Why couldn’t I do that? Everything he did seemed to excite him—nothing more so than food. It was as if, having once been hungry, he was making up for lost opportunities. With every bite of food he ate (and eats to this day at age 77), comes an audible grunt of pleasure, sort of like a tennis player while hitting the ball. By the way, Tommy is an “A” tennis player who plays every day of his life. To list just some of his obsessions beside food and tennis, I would say: sex, tenors, wine, tennis, sex, scotch, sex, and Howard Stern—all of which are on equal footing. A regular patron of an “all you can eat” Toronto restaurant, the owners cross themselves in fear when he strides in with his grinning, dimpled face.
There is no greater pleasure for me than sitting in a car with Schwartz and hearing a great tenor on the radio. If it’s a really good one, at first he screams with excitement. When the yelling dies down, he tries to match him note for note, then I join in, and it becomes a high note contest between the three of us. In 1968, while driving his green Chevy Nova on first avenue, we were listening to the New York Classical station, WQXR, when on comes a tenor we had never heard before. Schwartz hits the brake with a squeal and pulls over to the curb yelling. It was the first radio broadcast of Luciano Pavarotti’s debut album for London Records. Sharing that with Tommy remains for me to this day, my greatest “first hearing” experience of all time.
Schwartz had (and has) no boundaries. He will say anything to anyone at anytime. As an 18 year old, totally enamored with this man, I made a fatal mistake:
We were downstairs in the conference level at HUC, having lunch with the entire student body of Rabbinical and Cantorial students. I was totally repressed sexually at that time, and had never even so much as gone on a date. Women were totally mysterious and exotic creatures to me. Starting at age 11 till 17, I studied with a Viennese Cantorial and voice teacher named Bogzester. (pronounced “buck-chester”) We called him “Bogie,” as in Bogart. Bogie was a wild character. His wife was a long suffering woman of great beauty, who was the object of many a young Mendelsonian fantasy. Whispering to Schwartz, I confessed my eternal love for Regina Bogzester, and described, in detail, what I would do to her if I had the chance. Schwartz, without skipping a beat, jumps up and yells: “HEY GUYS! (no women in Rabbinic or Cantorial school then) JACKIE WANTS TO [redacted] WITH BOGIE’S WIFE!”
I went into shock.
I ran from the room and went home in shame. I didn’t speak to Tommy for two weeks. Finally, one day Schwartz grabs me by the collar and takes me across the street to a bar. There I discovered another of his obsessions: single malt scotch. Practically pouring it down my throat, he lectured me on what was serious in life, and what was not.
Every summer, Fredda and I drive up to Toronto to visit Tommy and Leslie. I’ll never forget my wife Fredda’s face, when on the day she met Tommy, he walked out of his bedroom stark naked and came over to say “hello.” Fredda, bless her, cooler than I, took it in good humor. That’s Schwartz!
Back in the early 1980’s when we were living in Queens, Tommy and Leslie stayed with us for a week in New York. It was a week of intense fun, with eating, drinking, going to the Opera, smoking cigars (Tommy’s love, not mine, but he tried to convince me to enjoy it), and yelling at Leslie. Tommy would always argue with Leslie, with the breaking point coming when he would scream: “I’M GETTING CLOUDY!”, which Leslie endured with a Mona Lisa smile, knowing she would win at the end. In reality, he was was henpecked.
One night at about 2 am, Schwartz pounds on our door, waking us up, demanding that we come into their bedroom. Rubbing our eyes we said, “What’s wrong?” “She won’t give me oral sex!” Schwartz screams. An hour’s debate ensued, ending with a vote of 3 to one in favor of the plaintiff.
Leslie held her ground.
This summer, as in every summer, when we made our pilgrimage to the Schwartz’s home, he answered the door with scotch in hand. The four of us walked over to the piano (leaving the luggage outside), and we sang arias to each other, taking turns singing and accompanying one another. Then the fun began…
What kind of life would it be without that?