"Peter, I'm not sure if I want to tell you this or not."
It's a lovely fall afternoon and I’m listening to Muriel Cohen – Mickey to friends and family. She’s unsure whether she should share a story from the past with me. It’s about her sister.
Mickey’s been regaling me and her nephew Tom Sandler with stories about growing up with the extraordinary Ruth Lowe, her older sis who wrote the song that dynamited Frank Sinatra’s career into the stratosphere back in 1940, “I’ll Never Smile Again”. That tune went on to break all records as a huge international hit, leading to Ruth going on to write Sinatra’s theme song, “Put Your Dream Away” and about 50 other Tin Pan Alley tunes throughout her illustrative career. Mickey is telling me how Ruth came to write the song “heard round the world” for the that book I’ve been writing with Tom, about his mom – “Until I Smile At You” (ruthlowestory.com).
I had learned from Tommy (himself named by his mom after bandleader Tommy Dorsey) about his Aunt Mickey, then 95 years of age and spry as a gingersnap. When he suggested we might talk with her, I immediately signed on. We met Mickey at her suite in the Baycrest in Toronto. Founded in 1918 as a Jewish Home for Aged, this facility has grown to include Baycrest Health Sciences, a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. "What I like about Baycrest," Mickey tells me, "is that we embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions: improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe."
I must tell you, I was thrilled to meet Mickey and have her tell me stories about Ruth and their family. We spent a delightful afternoon during which I learned what a huge fan of her older sis she was, and particularly of the accomplishments she attained in music. I got first hand facts about Ruth – consumed with sorrow over the sudden death of her young husband – one day just having the song that changed the lives of both girls literally pour from her soul.
But then, Mickey stopped and said, "Peter, I'm not sure if I want to tell you this or not."
"Go ahead Mickey," I encouraged her, "if you're ultimately not comfortable with it being in the book, don’t worry, it won't be there." The thing is, when you get to be 90+ years of age, I figure there ought to be a moratorium on embarrassment. Still, Mickey, who I‘d learned was pretty forthright at the best of times, seemed to be hedging a bit…
But then: "Alright, here it is," she confessed. "I think it was 1938 or '39... doesn't matter really. Anyway, Ruthie and I ended up going to a teacup reader. Now, don't laugh. But here's what the reader told my sister: ‘One day, you will write a song that will be popular all over the world. As a result, you'll be rich and famous.’ Seriously, that's exactly what the reader said! And you know what, a year later Ruthie lost Harold and wrote 'I'll Never Smile Again'."
I raise my eyebrows, narrowing my gaze. I look to Tommy who’s got a wondering glance too. I mean, sure, I've read about the fortune-telling methods that seek to divine patterns from tea leaves. But c'mon...
Mickey catches my dis-believing glance. "See, I told you! You think it's crazy, don't you!"
I realize I've offended this charming lady when the exact opposite is my aim. "No Mickey, I don't think it's crazy," I fight back. "I'm not saying I'm a believer, and for sure I'm always open to new notions and never feel my limited knowledge is enough to shut down ideas. But if you and Ruth –"
"Ruth laughed it off too," she states emphatically. "She thought, just as you obviously do, that it was some ridiculous fantasy."
At this point, Mickey paused for effect and looked me right in the eye. "But then it all happened, didn't it. Coincidence? Possibly, but..."
This week, I received the sad news from Tommy that his aunt had died, just shy of her 100th birthday. I will miss Mickey.
"Of course, Ruth is with me every day," she had told me. "Visibly, you know... look at that needlepoint hanging on the wall. Strange that for someone as busy and sophisticated as she was, Ruthie loved doing handiwork. She made blankets and pillows... all sorts of things. She had a real knack for it.”
And indeed, Muriel Cohen had a knack for living.
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have known Mickey and feel such a connection with her sister I could otherwise not have known.
RIP, beautiful lady.