Being Jack Moskovitz, Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered
Writer Jack Moskovitz is like the comic strip character with a dark cloud over him wherever he goes, always seemingly in a blue mood no matter the situation. I first laid eyes on him as he kvetched from his writer panelist perch at the Omaha Lit Fest. He looked and sounded like a character from gritty crime or hard-boiled fiction. I sought out some of his own work as an author, and not surprisingly his short fiction reads on the page much like the man reads in life. That is to say it’s thick with gloomy irony but make not mistake about it, the man can write. The following profile I did of Jack for the Jewish Press takes an unvarnished look at the man and his peccadillos and idiosyncrancies, moods and laments.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Jack Moskovitz long ago concluded his writing, like his acting or DJing, wouldn’t put him on Easy Street. That’s OK, you tell him. The mere fact you do write and write well is something to be proud of. He points out he’s only published by small vanity presses. That his book sells and royalty checks amount to little or nothing. Not important, you explain. Talent is talent, and you’ve got it, Jack. Thanks, he says, before launching into a riff about still being an obscure author after 60 years and how he’s destined to remain unknown.
Like the world-weary souls who schlep through his hard-boiled fiction, the Omaha native takes a cynic’s view of life. He reminds you of Rodney Dangerfield with his deadpan “I don’t get no respect” gripes and self-deprecating cracks about “my hunched back, my wide feminine hips and my flabby body.” The retired civil servant bends your ear about supposed failures and slights — unpublished manuscripts, lost parts and so on. He doesn’t mention his well-reviewed novellas, short stories and plays or that he’s been an invited reader and panelist at the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. He does acknowledge the event’s founder/director, renowned author Timothy Schaffert (Devils in the Sugar Shop), “has been in my corner.”
Instead of enjoying his inclusion among Omaha’s literati, Jack talks about “not being in their class.” “I’m the kind of guy that’s whistling in the dark and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “Just like I thought I could have a career as a writer just because I loved to write. But it’s like a steer wanting to sire off-spring: the desire might be there but because of certain limitations the steer can’t.”
“Every time I feel sorry for myself it comes out in my writing,” he said.
He also takes a bleak view of his work as a character actor in local community theater, this despite working with some of Omaha’s finest players and directors since the mid-1950s. He still bristles with resentment over the late Charles Jones’s refusal to cast him at the Omaha Community Playhouse. But as recently as last spring he played four parts — a judge, a reporter, a physicist and a tourist — in the Playhouse’s Give ‘Em Hell Harry, one of dozens of plays he’s acted in there and on other stages. As soon as Harry closed he went into rehearsals for the Blue Barn Theatre’s Six Degrees of Separation, in which he did a funny turn as a doorman.
He’s had on-screen bits as well, including as “featured atmosphere” in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and a scene-stealing cameo as a cross-dressing grandfather in Jeremy Lerman’s Nebraska Supersonic. But to hear Moskovitz tell it his film work doesn’t amount to much. He says the same thing about his decades-long career in radio, a field that saw him work as an announcer-DJ for stations in Omaha and Lincoln. He was good enough to work for some of this market’s top call letters — KOIL, WOW — yet he ruminates over lost chances.
Acerbic and neurotic in an Oscar Levant sort of way, Moskovitz, 72, compulsively sells himself short and finds a dark cloud in every silver lining. He speculates his depressive nature is “in-born, and all it takes is just a little push.” He suggests he’s never really gotten over losing his father as a teenager. The death, he says, devastated his mother, who “had a complete physical collapse” and depended on Jack to help her out. When she passed, the last semblance of family went with her, as he and his two brothers suffered a falling out that never mended.
“The dissolution of a family is exactly what happened,” he said. “I went through four years of depression, which writing helped alleviate to a degree.”
In truth, he said, the fissures in his family were always present. He felt apart, not just from them but from society. “I am estranged from just about every unit or community I tried to be part of. I’m always on the outside,” he said. “There’s a panoramic photograph from a family picnic back in the late 1940s and, stage right, who’s this guy standing all by himself? Me.”
His radio work offered a sanctuary. “Radio was kind of like the glue that held everything together. It got me out of the house,” he said.
It’s only after you spend some time with him you understand his bitter jags are just Jack being Jack. He kvetches not so much to wallow in self-pity or elicit sympathy, as to frame the world for his sardonic stories. His terse style is inspired by pulp fiction and its tradition of gritty action and gloomy sensibilities. His titles, The Tuxedo Square Job and Feast of the Purple Beast, are in keeping with the genre. Jack himself is the model for his cranky, Guy Noirish protagonists. Like him, they’re wise-cracking figures with a chip on their shoulder and a thankless task to perform.
His hand-to-mouth characters are habitues of flophouses, dive bars, diners, after- hours joints and dead-end jobs, all of which he’s familiar with from personal experience. Once a heavy drinker, he knows the despair of the bottle. He’s had his share of women, too, and therefore is on intimate terms with the emptiness of one night stands and the loneliness of mornings after. The hard road he’s traveled has given him insight into what it means to hustle, scrape by and see dreams fade away.
That’s not to say Jack or his work is all dour. Indeed, he and his characters engage in the kind of witty, edgy repartee Dorothy Parker and her vicious set went in for, only his verbal sparring matches unfold at the corner cafe, not the Algonquin. In the last decade he’s found a measure of calm with his companion Johnnie Mae Hawkins, a voracious reader like him. She’s also a writer. Besides their shared love of words, the two are fellow travelers in another way — as outsiders.
He’s Jewish, she’s African-American. He confronted anti-Semitism here, she endured racism down South, where the Arkansas native was of the last generation to pick cotton in the fields. She sharecropped alongside her folks, doing backbreaking labor unfit for man or beast. Based on her recollections of those times he wrote a poignant poem called The Voiding Tree.
Late in life these two seemingly disparate people found each other as kindred spirits do and they’re not about to let each other go now.
“The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting her,” he said. “She’s a very sweet-natured woman. Very understanding, very considerate, very helpful, even in my writing. Dependable, loyal. You know, everything I never found in a woman.”
His recent books feature the dedication: “To Johnnie Mae Hawkins, who likes thrift shops, kittens, and me.”
Until she came along, he admits his taste in women left much to be desired. “They weren’t the kind of women you brought home to mother,” he said. “In my glory days it was the beginning of the sexual revolution where you locked your valuables in your car and carried just enough money for the night. It was just like Frank Sinatra sang, ‘Strangers in the Night,’ and still strangers the next day.”
One relationship, with an actress, ended badly. “I fell for her. I really fell for her,” he said. But then he learned her declarations of “I love you, I need you” were mere lines she practiced on him in order to seduce the man she was really after. “It was just really bad melodrama…bad soap opera.”
After years of abusing alcohol, he long ago cleaned up his act.
“I haven’t had a drink in, what is it, 45-50 years. I was getting to the point where I was looking forward to losing myself in…things like Screwdrivers and Vodka Collins. I used to drink when I was really feeling kind of happy, but then I found myself drinking more when I wasn’t happy, which was most of the time. That’s when I stopped. I changed jobs and dropped the lady I was seeing at the time and kind of got some other things taken care of. I just had no more need for it. “
Growing up, he often felt things spinning out of control and the solitary pursuits of reading-writing-acting were escapes into worlds of his own dominion.
“When you’re the only Jews in a Catholic neighborhood, that’s really tough,” he said. “Back then, there wasn’t this liberal bent. These blue collar guys living here didn’t have any use for Jews or any minorities. If you weren’t Catholic, forget about it. If you were Protestant, that was almost as bad as being a Jew. So it was very unpleasant…the Jew bashing.
“When you have the insularity of a family you get a sense of security, even though you know when you walk out the door somebody’s going to throw something at you. In fact, a good day for me…was not having hard objects hurled at me. A good day was when all that was hurled at me was invective.‘Jew boy.’ Geez, I don’t know how the hell I survived that, but I did.”
The sense of injury Moskovitz carries around with him was exacerbated when he saw his father, a restaurant fixture sales manager, get demoted and take a pay cut.
“We were in a helluva fix,” Jack said.
His father later partnered with others to start their own supply house, but soon thereafter Bert Moskovitz fell ill. “The cancer got him,” is how Jack puts it. Rabbi Myer Kripke officiated at his father’s and mother’s funerals at old Beth El Synagogue, just as he did at Jack and his brothers’ bar mitzvahs.
Jack was 14 when his father died and to help make ends meet he went to work for one grocery store after another, cleaning, stocking, bagging, delivering, whatever needed doing. His mother worked at Hayden’s Department Store.
With few friends, Jack slipped increasingly into his interior life. He’s never married. He has no kids. “It’s been a lonely life,” he said. His imagination was fired by the stories that transfixed him on radio, the stage, in the movies and in books.
Moskovitz was fated to be a writer when, as a child, he steeped himself in the “beautiful library” his immigrant grandparents kept at home. The library contained the complete works of Dickens, O Henry, Sir Walter Scott, et cetera. There were full-length play scripts. He read it all.
“That’s where I would do my reading,” he said. “It was something I looked forward to doing.”
His creative side was nurtured by his mother, who played violin “beautifully,” he said. She’d trained on the instrument and could read music. He still has her violin and the original case for it and displays them on the dining room table. Also, his older brother, Mayer, brought him to plays. Jack adored musical theater. Mere blocks from where he grew up was the original Omaha Community Playhouse site at 40th and Davenport, where he saw many productions
But, always, there were books. Piles of books surround he and Johnnie Mae today.
As a young man he devoured coming-of-age classics like the Signet edition of Catcher in the Rye and the Studs Lonigan trilogy and he found his niche in the spare, masculine style of Ernest Hemingway, Mickey Spillane, James Jones, Leon Uris, Richard Prather, John MacDonald, Vin Packer and others. His work betrays the influence, too, of realists Raymond Carver, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.
“They all wrote in a fast-paced, very terse style and each word was carefully chosen,” he said. “It whips along.”
He strives for the same efficiency of language.
“I write the flabby prose on the first draft and then I go take each sentence and try to telescope it. I weed out chunks.”
He began writing stories and plays way back at Saunders Elementary School, just up the block from the stucco house he grew up in and occupies today in the Cathedral neighborhood. His love for theater sparked his interest in writing. Cast as the lead in a school play, he heeded the ham in him when a castmate got a bad case of stage fright and missed her cue and he covered for her by ad-libbing. That’s when he fell for acting and got it in his head that maybe he could craft his own dramas. “That’s what I started doing,” he said.
As a boy he began sending out his work, even play scripts, to publishers, once getting a reply from the famed play publishing company, Samuel French. “I got back what I thought was a personal letter from Mr. French himself and, of course, it was your standard rejection slip,” he said.
He was serious enough about acting that he began auditioning at the Playhouse right out of high school and soon landed a role in its production of Secret Service, which was part of Omaha’s centennial celebration. He averaged about a play a year at the OCP until Charles Jones arrived in the ‘70s.
Jack also went to the west coast with the idea of trying to break into Hollywood. He had the cockeyed notion of being “the Semitic Troy Donahue,” but was dissuaded by family friend, Lynn Stalmaster, already a casting director scion, who warned him of the struggles and heartbreak ahead. Jack appreciated the straight talk. “What a mensch he was,” he said.
Even with the intoxicating scent of Jasmine in the air, all that gorgeous sun, the ubiquitous palm trees, meeting stars and limited prospects back home, Jack heeded the advice. He’s not sorry he did.
“I’ve never looked back,” he said.
With “no marketable skills,” he returned to doing “stoop labor,” content to act and write on the side. Besides the Jewish grocers he worked for, he was a grunt in an appliance warehouse and washed and bused dishes at a restaurant. When he worked at Shaver’s market on 40th Street, between Dodge and Farnam, he hit upon an after-work routine to indulge his passions for good eats and good stories.
“I’d get me a bowl of chili and I’d buy a Gold Medal paperback for 25 cents. I was reading Westerns written by Vin Parker. They were real hard-boiled, lusty, action-packed plots that Gold Medal was famous for. Then I’d go across the street to the Admiral Theater and see whatever was on there. Then I’d walk over to the West Dodge Pharmacy and get me a Lime Ricky at the soda fountain.”
Another favorite pastime was sitting in front of the radio to hear the world come into his home. He and his old brother Mayer loved listening to network radio broadcasts like The Shadow, The Bell Telephone Hour and Stella Dallas. They were so crazy about radio they wormed their way into the studios at KFAB and WOW as audience members for live shows whose formats ran the gamut from quiz to music.
He said it was heady stuff for a boy with a flair for the dramatic. “Wow, this is kind of fun,” Jack recalls thinking. “The announcers would be personalities. What kind of clinched it for me was when I met a neighbor who was in radio. That’s when I thought, Maybe I ought to try radio, too.”
By 1956, at age 21, he was on the air in Denison, Iowa, learning the ropes for no pay at tiny KDSN. A year later he got his first paying on-air gig at KLMS in Lincoln. Then he went over to the capitol city’s KLIN. When he lived in Lincoln he stayed at the Sam Lawrence Hotel, a low rent roomer that often shows up in his stories. He and his radio cronies bent a few at after-hours hangouts like Hamp’s.
One night he was going to help a KLIN staffer celebrate the birth of his first child when an urgent phone call came in. Moskovitz said the new father took the call, “turned to me, and said, ‘Jack, there’s not going to be any celebration tonight. We’ve got a triple homicide.’ Well, that was the beginning of the Starkweather spree.” Moskovitz covered the morning police briefings from the start of the manhunt to the suspects’ capture and arrest.
This was the start of his itinerant, he’d call it checkered, radio career — from the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and DJ’s spinning records on turntables to the age of talk radio and automation. He worked for KOIL and at WOW with such local legends as Ray Olson, Dale Munson, Ray Stevens and Jim Murphy. What he lacked in the “basso profundo” voice department of his colleagues, he made up for with personality.
He did stints at KOWH, KEMO, KBON and KCRO, “a holy station where four people worked and nobody got along. Can you imagine that? It wasn’t very brotherhoodish, that’s for sure.” His last radio job was with “easy listening” KESY in 1989.
In the ‘60s he pulled an Army Reserves hitch. He also worked a year as a reporter-photographer for the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.
As much as radio and the theater fascinated him, his true heart was in writing.
By the time he graduated from Central High School, where he appeared in some plays, he disciplined himself to write every day. It’s a practice and ritual he follows to this day. Now that he’s retired, it’s no problem applying himself to his craft. But when he worked steady, it was tough.
“It was hard working some of these crappy jobs I had and then coming home and trying to get the energy to sit down and write something that was possibly commercial,” he said. “As tired as I was, I turned out some stuff…”
His last regular job was working for “the fed” as a Grade 3 clerk-typist at Douglas County Veterans Hospital, OSHA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He wasn’t crazy about the work, “but by God I liked the security, that paycheck, the benefits,” he said. A back problem forced him to take early retirement in 1985.
Moskovitz was in good company when it came to toiling at a 9 to 5 job and still maintaining a writing life. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. held an insurance post for decades while churning out his award-winning verses.
Jack doesn’t go to a job anymore, but old habits are hard to break and so he still bangs out copy on his Olivetti typewriter. He prefers it to chancing his work on a computer, which he professes to be “illiterate” at. Call him old school or old fashioned, he doesn’t mind. Another example of how he and Johnnie Mae lead a simple life, is their lack of a car. They walk or ride the bus most everywhere.
Unlike his brothers, who graduated college to become professionals, Jack went his own way, did his own thing. He studied radio broadcasting at then-Omaha University, but didn’t get a degree. As the family’s black sheep, he said, he felt his brothers’ contempt for squandering a life to pursue this writing dream. When you hear enough disparaging remarks, he said, “you get to kind of believe it.”
Where his brothers may have had the edge in book smarts, Jack has native intelligence. His instinct for thinking on his feet goes back to childhood, like the time he saved the school play by ad-libbing when his co-star went AWOL.
Fast forward five decades to Jack at the Playhouse. The actor was on stage one night in Over the River when he once again found himself playing for time. Unbeknownst to him, a fellow actor banged his head against a heavy picture frame back stage. “I throw a cue for him to enter and he staggers on stage, holding his eye,” Jack recalls. “I could tell something was wrong. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ and he said, ‘Yeah…no, and then he walks off. I said to the actress playing my wife, ‘Ida, go see what’s wrong with him,’ and she went off and so did the other two actors on stage, and I’m standing there by myself.”
Seizing the moment, a resourceful Jack filled the silence the best way he knew how — by talking. The audience thought his improv was part of the show.
“In the story I’m supposed to be learning to play the mandolin and I’m standing there with this out-of-tune mandolin I wouldn’t know how to play even it was in tune,” he said. “So I start ad-libbing, telling a few jokes. Like, ‘Why does it take two actors to change a light bulb? One to do the work, one to point and say, Hey, that should be me up there.’ Or, ‘The hottest day of the year this old rummy staggers into a bar and says, Whaddya got that’s tall and cold? The bartender says, Have you met my wife?’ You know, doing these little Henny Youngman routines.
“Then I started singing show tunes of the 1920s and ‘30s. ‘42nd Street, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’… I did that because in always auditioning for musicals at the Playhouse and never even getting picked for the chorus, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance to sing there again.”
What gives him the moxie to make up bits out of thin air? “The same chuztpah that got me interested in theater at Saunders when I was 10,” he said. Moments like these, he said, give him “such a sense of empowerment, because I’m controlling this thing.” Much like the mastery of events reading and writing provides.
Words have always offered solace for the turmoil inside him. “After all these emotional setbacks — the deaths, the betrayals, the antipathy, and so on — what I would do just to get away from the house is walk down to the library.” Alone with his prose, he found peace. Writing and DJing gave him a satisfaction he misses.
“It really heightened my life. It provided the toots and whistles for an otherwise monotone existence.”
He talks about this being the end of the line. About his window of opportunity having passed. How he’s done putting himself through the “pain” of rejection. “I’ve pretty much given up any possibility of getting anything produced or published. I took the pledge to quite wasting my life on that,” he said. But he still plugs away. Only last year he finished a new novel, Brothers and Sisters. It’s with a publisher now. He’s even learning to write Haiku. He still scans the trades seeking outlets for his work. He also continues to audition and win parts in plays. If a radio gig were offered tomorrow, he’d jump at it. If a publisher called, he’d dance a jig.
When the phone rings at his place, his sense of anticipation is palpable. He interrupts a conversation with a guest — “Hang on a minute” — to ask Johnnie Mae, “Is that a call from a publisher?” He’s ever hopeful his writing will find an appreciative audience. Having a major publisher discover his work would be his legacy, which is much on his mind given he’s the last of the Moskovitz line. He’s already achieved a legacy of sorts. Several volumes of his work are carried by the Omaha Public Library.
Do Jack a favor and check his work out. You won’t be disappointed. And he’ll be glad you cared enough to read some of what he’ll leave behind.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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