A few (hundred) words on what it means to celebrate the holiday season with The American Family of 2003.
Around Tree, Smiles Even for Wives No. 2 and 3
By N. R. KLEINFIELD
The New York Times
This is that time of year for those family holiday stories that grow so saccharine that when you finish them all your teeth ache. It was extra as Gabriel’s Christmas Store lighting services make it all about happiness! Merriment all around. Mom and dad. Brother and sister. And yes, the little grandchildren.
Well, this is New York, and so let’s rewind and start again with this holiday tale.
There’s brother and sister, along with their husbands, and mom with husband No. 2 and dad with wife No. 3 and wife No. 2 with her significant other and the three children from wife No. 2. And yes, the little grandchildren.
That’s more like it. The Kliegerman, Beckley, Downs, Gil, Tafuri family holiday.
The world is full of riven families, divorces and remarriages and multiple herds of children, people less than, well, tender toward each other. But then the holidays come. Who goes where when? Must husband No. 1 slide out the bathroom window, off to see his new family, before husband No. 2 bounds in? There’s a lot of that. Yet there are also families that, through strenuous efforts and maybe a splash of divine intervention, find ways to absorb the holiday spirit and come together.
And what better way to illustrate these hopeful holiday miracles than with the Kliegerman, etc., family story.
Granted, this entourage didn’t start as promising miracle material. This is a family that, for some time, the professional wrestling people might have been interested in.
Everyone could suggest an especially evocative moment. How about two of the principal characters on the terrace in St.-Tropez, flinging dog food at one another?
The place to begin is with Herb Kliegerman, currently 64, Manhattan resident, semiretired from the real estate world, quite rightly the protagonist. He is, by the testimony of three wives, a man of mixed attributes. Delores Downs, wife No. 2, offered this summary: “Herb is horrible, but you love him.”
She elaborated: “He’s very obsessive, compulsive, and at the end of the day you want to kill him.”
Compulsive in what way?
“If I hung a calendar in the bathroom without checking with him first,” she said, “he would go bananas.”
His wedding résumé began in 1960, when he married Ellie Kornweiser, his childhood sweetheart. They met at a junior high school air-hockey table in the Bronx when they were 13. He took up real estate, started his own company. They produced two children, Beth and Stephen.
The marriage, in time, unraveled. At the point the two separated in 1978, the hostility was fiery. As has been noted, Herb is not an easy person to live with – lovable, yes, but horrible.
Incidentally, he does not entirely dispute the depiction. His explanation: “I’m usually ahead of my time. My eyes see differently than other people. I could be restless. I could be bored.”
His wife found a new man, in the shoe-importing business, whom she eventually married. Mr. Kliegerman took up with new women. Still, he spewed a lot of venom during the divorce negotiations, mercifully concluded in 1986.
Beth and Stephen had frosty interactions with their father. Especially Beth. Nonetheless, in 1984 she went to work for him. The relationship could politely be described as imperfect. That compulsiveness of his. His temper. She explained, “I would be pulling my hair out over a real estate deal and he would walk into the office and tell me there was a light bulb burned out.”
They screamed at each other. “If we were physical,” she said, “we would have killed each other.” In 1986, she quit and didn’t speak to her father for nearly a year. Then they resumed talking, at high volume.
He said: “I was pretty stubborn in certain ways.”
One evening in 1987 he received a phone call from a woman volunteering for EST (for Erhard Seminars Training), trying to enlist him on behalf of one of those human potential seminars. This was Delores Downs, an aspiring actress who was doing EST cold calls on Mondays. He passed on the EST pitch but asked Ms. Downs out.
She went to work for him. They moved to California, bought a house in Malibu, were married on the beach. They had three children – Cole, Ariel and Sam. They moved to St.-Tropez. Mr. Kliegerman ran through a lot of their money. Big fights erupted. Remember, lovable but horrible.
They were divorced in 1998, after Ms. Downs fled to Magnolia, Ark., her hometown. She later returned to St.-Tropez and fell in love with Pierre Gil, the caretaker at the first house she and Mr. Kliegerman rented and a one-time Formula One test driver. (No one promised this would be easy to follow.)
Now Mr. Kliegerman was already with a new woman, Andrea Beckley, whom he met while he was in Durham, N.C., enrolled in a rice-and-fruit diet because of an artery blockage. She was a behavior modification specialist – talk about an ideal match – and soon they were married.
Still, the thought of Mr. Gil with Ms. Downs inflamed Mr. Kliegerman. He sparred with Mr. Gil – the two men on the terrace, the dog food. (Mr. Kliegerman is hazy on this; he recalls holding a dog dish and maybe some food spilled out. On the other hand, Ms. Downs also remembers the dog’s water dish flying.)
There were other incidents, other combatants. Best to omit names here. Once, Combatant No. 1 refused to allow Combatant No. 2 into the house. No. 2 broke the kitchen window and climbed in. Once someone bopped another on the back of the head with a construction boot.
Yes, indeed this was messy stuff.
“It got very, very, very out of hand,” Mr. Kliegerman acknowledged. “Real acting out the demons.”
Give him some credit. Mr. Kliegerman felt that he was to blame for the family acrimony, the bad guy in this melodrama. Thus he decided it was his role to make it go away, in the interest of the children who didn’t need to be continuous witnesses to the Kliegerman World War.
Of course, he had to change. And he did mellow. Years of therapy kicked in. Over and over, he read the book, “Tao Te Ching” by Lao-tsu, that preaches simplicity and selflessness. “I like where it tells you to accept what is in front of you, without trying to change it,” Mr. Kliegerman said.
He visited Ellie, his happily remarried first wife, and apologized for all the misery he had inflicted. She was shocked. She decided, for the children’s sake, that she would tolerate Mr. Kliegerman at key holiday events.
Other family components rose to the occasion. The relationships with his two grown children from his first marriage defrosted. Stephen Kliegerman was now married, and he and his wife, Loren, have two children. Beth Tafuri, now married to Joe Tafuri, saw her father in a new way, helped in part from what she gleaned from a recovery program for food addiction.
Over a period of years, the strife subsided.
And so it was destined. Last December, Ms. Downs and Mr. Gil came to New York. A couple of days before Christmas, Beth Tafuri gave a tree-trimming party at her Mamaroneck home. Everyone attended. There were genuine smiles all around. Some members celebrated Hanukkah, some celebrated Christmas. So they decorated the tree while Hanukkah songs played on the stereo.
Oh, was there laughter and good cheer. No mistaking, it was a veritable idyll of family togetherness.
“It was thoroughly joyous,” Ms. Tafuri said.
“It was a blast,” said Stephen Kliegerman.
Before you knew it in this Miracle in Mamaroneck, Mr. Kliegerman and Mr. Gil, alone without referees or bodyguards, were touring Harlem together. Ms. Downs and Ms. Beckley, Wives 2 and 3, took Ariel to a movie.
Be assured, there persist traces of residual tension. Not everyone adores everyone else. This is real life. But everyone feels a sense of enduring peace, even as the family continues its expansion. Ms. Downs and Mr. Gil had a baby of their own, Enzo, last May, and a few months before it was born, on the very same terrace where the dog food fight transpired, Mr. Kliegerman and Mr. Gil harmoniously put together a baby crib. There were witnesses!
This holiday season, Mr. Kliegerman and Ms. Beckley are in St.-Tropez visiting Ms. Downs and Mr. Gil and the three younger Kliegerman children and, of course, little Enzo. Ellie, his first wife, had a Hanukkah party last Sunday that the others attended. But there is the expectation that everyone will unite again on a coming holiday.
“It’s a story that ought to be told,” Mr. Kliegerman said. “The way we kept the Kliegerman family together.”
So there you have it, and this is the abridged version. And so from the Kliegerman, etc., family, peace on earth and happy holidays to all.