Liel Liebovitz’s recent piece took a big swing at a well-known target. Rather than venture into the article’s broad thesis, I’d like to focus on the parts of his assessment of Billy Joel’s life that I believe, based on personal experience, are fundamentally flawed—and which, if viewed correctly, might very well have led even Liebovitz himself to different conclusions.
In January 1939, some days after traveling from Switzerland through France to England, Billy Joel’s father Helmut (later Howard), age 16, boarded the Blue Star Line’s luxury ship the Arandora Star. Escorted by parents Karl (later Carl) and Meta, he was in flight from the Nazi repression that would soon lead to the mass genocide of the Holocaust. He’d arrive two weeks later to refuge in Cuba—where he’d study at the same school as Fidel Castro before being admitted to the United States, when refugee quotas finally eased, in 1942.
One could wager that a relatively small percentage of the fans who fill concert halls to see Billy Joel have any real awareness of that family history. Born a decade after Howard’s voyage to freedom, he is at some level a son of the Holocaust. “I am eternally grateful,” he would tell me in one of many conversations we had as I wrote a biography he greatly aided, “that my father’s family was finally allowed to enter Cuba—that the Cuban authorities allowed Jews to find asylum in their country was probably my salvation.”
Even many fervent fans of the singer who would become known as the Piano Man (in a sort of enduring homage to the most familiar of his 33 top 10 hits) probably presume a different genealogy. With his plaint to Virginia that “you Catholic girls start much too late,” he may have lent a hint as to his own religious background, but if “Brenda and Eddie were still goin’ steady in the summer of ’75” in a song called “Scenes From An Italian restaurant,” and “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” features Mama Leone, Sergeant O’Leary and Mister Cacciatore, are we not touring the New York metropolitan area in the company of a card-carrying Catholic kid?
Well, no. The old saw to trust the art, not the artist, is as misleading as it is tempting, because William Martin Joel (again, there’s a name fit for an altar boy) would grow up unobservantly if at times uncomfortably Jewish in a housing development built by William J. Levitt, who, as the New York Times noted in 1997, “although he was the grandson of a rabbi … built housing on Long Island that excluded Jews.” (And sold only to “Caucasians.”)
Such restrictions would not deter young Billy from idolizing James Brown, whom he saw play Harlem’s Apollo Theater, nor blind him to the ferocious inspiration of Sam & Dave and Ray Charles. But before he was the cover-band keyboardist wowing the girls in church halls and local clubs, he was the wide-eyed kid to whom the neighbor girl said, “Very matter-of-factly, when I was about 6 years old, `You’re going to grow horns because you’re a Jew.’”
Billy Joel will tell you he actually felt for the horns that night. But he isn’t looking for sympathy. He’s fully aware that with over 110 million albums sold, with a row of Madison Square Garden concerts bolstered by arena and stadium gigs for a total of $68 million in ticket sales in 2016, he’s free to enjoy his happy fourth marriage with a lovely baby daughter now on board.
That said, as recently as 2009, as I would find during the travel and talk involved in building the biography, he could have used some consoling. In pain from hip joints that would both be replaced (a few too many flips off baby pianos), from his third divorce (ending five years of marriage with Katie Lee), and from the death of his father, he was seemingly stoic (“I’ve had worse,” I heard him say more than once) but to his friends, often worryingly downcast.
The loss of father Howard inevitably mingled with some of the old residue of early neighborhood anti-Semitism. Having disembarked from Cuba into the streets of Manhattan in 1942, Howard was quickly drafted, and as part of the Fifth Army slogged up the boot of Italy to the mountains where such bloodbaths as the battle of Monte Cassino won that front. Soon he’d be in France with Patton, and he would be part of the liberation of Dachau when Germany fell. Howard divorced wife Rosalind when Billy was just eight, and life changed. Adding to the religious bias of their compact enclave of cookie-cutter homes was a clear disapproval of the now single Rosalind, struggling financially in a neighborhood of staid domesticity.
If uninterested in sympathy, Billy Joel had an inner urge for reconciliation of all sorts, and as his career was on the cusp of a breakthrough (though the Piano Man marked time playing an obscure L.A. lounge “while the businessmen slowly get stoned”), he reached out to find Howard, still a remote character but one who would ultimately welcome him to the older man’s adoptive city. The trip generated the brooding song “Vienna” and a friendship with half-brother Alex—a classical music prodigy who was becoming a credentialed European conductor.
It was via this friendship some Holocaust ghosts would be faced, if not exorcised. As Austrian documentarian Beate Thalberg prepared a film on Alex, she learned details of the Joel family’s history. She learned how Howard’s father Karl had been targeted by the Nazis—the infamous Julius Streicher’s Nazi propaganda sheet Der Sturmer called him a “Yid” who abused his workers—and not long after Kristallnacht he saw his thriving textiles business “Aryanized” and effectively stolen. Even the expansive family house, which sat in earshot of the Nuremberg parade grounds where the Nazis noisily rallied, was taken over. (Billy would play there in 1994, as reported by German historian Steffen Radlmaier, dedicating “Vienna” to his dad and shouting out, “I hope this Nazi shit will never happen again.”) Traduced by a low-ranking Nazi “town councilor” named Fritz Tillman, Karl would be pushed into the clutches of rising businessman Josef Neckermann, but resisted—until almost too late. Karl and Meta were visiting Berlin in one last try at being fairly paid when word came the Gestapo was on the hunt, and as Billy recounts, “My grandparents fled in the night, and using fake passports, escaped via the Banhof Zoo station, across the Swiss border to Zurich.”
What followed was the cross-continent trek and Atlantic voyage to a new life. A tragic footnote to that escape is that Howard’s uncle Leon Joel, who sought refuge in Cuba with wife Johanna and son Gunther, was turned away with the other 900-plus refugees aboard the St. Louis (the story of America’s indifference to their fate is well known) and returned to France only to be bundled off to Auschwitz where the couple would die in September 1942. (Their orphaned son would escape, be rescued by a network of aid workers, and make his way to America under Karl’s sponsorship. He’d have a life here that included service in the Korean War, dying in 2009 and now interred in a national cemetery minutes from where Billy Joel grew up and now lives.)
As Thalberg learned of the central role played by Neckermann—who served a year in jail post-war but emerged during the “Economic Miracle” to be Germany’s “Mail Order King” (Time Magazine, 1960)—she sought out Neckermann’s grandchildren with the proposal that Billy and Alex were willing to see what manner of understanding might be gained from a face-to face meeting. Sadly, the siblings—one of them declaring himself a huge Billy fan—offered almost no remorse or empathy. One declared that their father’s role in the war—repurposing the textile operation for troop uniforms and reportedly for prisoner’s garb—was “giving people work.”
Thus the victimization traveled down the years without being fully emotionally processed. The grandfather whose business was expropriated found a new trade selling ribbons, eventually repatriating, and son Howard found work with General Electric in a post-war housewares boom, only to desert the family home circa 1957—unable, some say, to rebalance after the war’s darkness. The son who took up piano—a battered, second-hand piano—not only survived but thrived. Still, the memories persist: “I found myself trying to replace him as the provider and head of the family … but I was constantly searching for my own identity. In some ways this can free you up—you can be anything you want, go in any direction. But in other ways, you may not feel that you ever have a center.”