People

Newsstand owner was a street-corner witness to history

Simon Weingarden stands beside the newsstand he ran at the corner of Michigan and Woodward from 1910 to 1960. This picture is from the spring of 1933.

 

 

Simon Weingarden was 93 when he decided to jot down his memories of mayors and mobsters, punch-drunk boxers and phony film promoters, big-time business owners and street-corner preachers.

And the day he accidentally threw a clock through Henry Ford’s window.

The Forrest Gump of his day, Weingarden witnessed major Detroit events while selling newspapers on streets and docks, often starting before dawn. For a time, the newsstand he ran at Michigan and Woodward from 1910 to 1960 was the world’s largest. Once, competitors threw Weingarden into the Detroit River to discourage him from selling papers on the waterfront, but he returned.

He died in 1981 at the age of 99. However, as Detroit celebrates its 300th anniversary, Weingarden’s unpublished memories, either typed or dictated in 1978, paint a picture of a city swirling with people and businesses, boxy automobiles and boundless pride.

For most of his life, Weingarden sold newspapers, but he had too much drive and ambition to pour into just one job. He used to give railroad brakemen cheap booze, so they would toss free coal into the bin at his family’s home on Clinton. Later, he ushered in a burlesque house, peddled prime tickets at the Whitney and Temple theaters for a profit and organized a messenger service that delivered pricey furs and gowns.

He could remember that day in 1916 when some 150,000 people gathered downtown to watch Harry H. Gardiner, better known as “The Human Fly,” climb the front of the 14-story Majestic Building at Woodward and Michigan. And he had lots of other memories, too.

“I saw the old Detroit baseball team when they played on the Brush farm on Brush street,” he writes. “I remember when Detroit was called ‘Detroit the Beautiful,’ and they had a large iron sign to proclaim that title.

“I remember when Harold Jarvis sang his sword song on Belle Isle … I remember when Jefferson’s upper end was called the stove area. I remember when the First World War’s end drew the largest crowd downtown in the history of Detroit. John Phillip Sousa and his band played Stars and Stripes Forever.

“… I still can remember Frank Drew, who took over the Wonderland (Vaudeville Theater) and called it the Avenue Theater and made a horse player out of me. I also can remember washing dishes for my meals after I was through selling New York Sunday papers.

“I also can remember Ben Falk, the kingpin of the gamblers, who had the notorious Purple Gang as his protectors. … Yes, I knew R.R. Fyfe, the shoe man; (Judge) Bill Connolly, who, with (Mayor) Wm. B. Thompson, led the Grand March at my wedding when I had 650 guests. … Yes, there was food for over 1,000 people, that was how cheap food was.”

Born on Sept. 26, 1881, in a village on the border of Austria, Hungary, Weingarden and his family came to Detroit in 1887. Though he had only a fourth-grade education, Weingarden gained what he called “a curbside education” by listening to soap box orators and lecturers. And he had a knack for creative hustling.

He and a friend rented the basement under Clothiers’ Tailor Shop on Shelby between State and Grand River and turned it into a gym where, he says, “we had all the punch-drunk fighters training at our place, including Noah Brusso, a Canadian … who changed his name to Tommy Burns.”

Burns claimed the heavyweight championship on a 20-round decision over Marvin Hart in 1906 and held it until 1908. He then lost it to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion.

Weingarden was also an usher at the Avenue Theater, a downtown burlesque house with street-side photos of blondes draped in ostrich feathers. He would go to the job after selling out the first edition of his papers. He sold papers at the Windsor ferry dock, too, catching Detroiters coming home from shopping trips.

Through it all, though, he sold newspapers, calling out the headlines in a loud baritone voice. Four Detroit mayors patronized his stand, including Thompson.

“I got a lot of glamour out of meeting and making friends with practically every prominent politician in the country,” he writes. “I met presidents and many of those who were beaten.”

He often reminisced about a long-separated brother and sister who met by chance in front of his stand in 1927. The brother was the only customer for a paper from a small New York town, so Weingarden stocked only one copy of it.

Then, a young woman began buying that paper. The young man came early one day to see who was buying his paper and discovered it was the sister he hadn’t seen since their family home broke up.

Part of Weingarden’s success as a newspaper vendor came from his insistance on getting up early. He liked to recall one election morning when he set his alarm for 3 a.m. Angry when it didn’t go off on time, he threw it out the window of his home at 52 Bagley. Later, he discovered it had crashed into the bedroom of his neighbor, Henry Ford.

He was in Detroit’s Borman Hall Jewish Home for the Aged when he either dictated or wrote his recollections and gave a copy to Kathleen Yorke, then dietary supervisor at the home. “I would always go up to the third floor where he was,” she says. “On good days, he’d come down in his wheelchair and find me in the kitchen. He was (93) when he wrote that, but he was alert.”

So he was, from the days when he played an extra in a stage production of Quo Vadis to the years when he ran the world’s largest newsstand.

And his stories endure.

Detroit memories

Excerpts from the unpublished memoirs of Simon Weingarden, who died in 1981 at the age of 99:

“My father learned of a Jewish loan association who loaned money to emigrants who wanted to migrate to the United States. He lost no time in getting the necessary money by giving them a note of assurance to return the money as soon as he could, after paying the fare for the five os us. We were put on the lowest deck called the steerage of the ship. We were packed like a lot of cattle. Many of the passengers became sick and eventually died, while some got some kind of disease which they brought to the United States with them, most of it due to lack of food and water.”

“One day Mother intended giving me a bath. She put a wash boiler full of water on the stove to heat, and when it boiled, Mother and I wanted to carry the boilerfull of boiling water upstairs to put into the bath tub. Mother took one end and I the other. And, as we were going up the stairs, my end of the boiler got heavier and heavier, until I no longer could keep the bottom end of the boiler up high enough to match Mother’s end, and as we couldn’t do that, the boiling water spilled over on my hands. As it got heavier and more water spilled ove on me, I lost my grip on the handle of the boiler, and it all spilled over on me. My shirt and trousers were no protection, and I was scalded from head to foot. It was a good thing the black people were home as Mrs. Walker really saved my life by cutting my shirtwaist, trousers, stockings and shoes off me. She painted a can of lard she had over my entire body, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, put me to bed and covered me with a featherbed cover so I wouldn’t chill and catch a cold. It was a matter of two weeks before I was able to put any clothes on.”

“While selling newspapers in that area (Monroe near Libary), I heard a woman’s voice. A man who turned out to be her husband sneaked out from the back of a pile of bricks with a razor in hand. He had his wife’s head tilted back and was trying to cut her throat. Right there and then I wanted to help her. I jumped at the man, pulled on his arm and finally yanked the razor from his hand. While the police were wrestling with the husband, I took the razor to Central Station and told the deskman that the police were bringing the owner of the razor to the station. Then I ran out. In some way or another, the police found out who I was and brought me in for a statement. When the would-be slayer was put on trial, I was the main witness. I still can see that man shaking from head to foot from where he was sitting at the accused table. The wife couldn’t speak above a whisper. Needless to go any further, the man was sent to prison for life.”

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Betty DeRamus / The Detroit News