Taffy Epstein interview, 25 September 2011

At 91 years old and having lived in Shaker Towers for more than 45 years, Taffy Epstein is one of the oldest and longest-standing residents of the towers. Professionally Epstein produced and sold dance and gymnastics apparel. In this interview Epstein relates her many of her experiences she has had living in the towers and how they have changed over the years. Of particular interest are the descriptions she gives of the large parties that she used to throw and her involvement in the integration of Shaker Heights. Along with these details, Epstein as describes how the aging population of Shaker seeking to downsize from their large homes coupled with the restrictions on Jews in area apartment buildings led to the construction of Shaker Towers.

Participants: Epstein, Taffy (interviewee) / Latoski, Jean (interviewer)
Collection: Shaker Towers
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Jim Dubelko [00:00:00] OK.

Jean Latoski [00:00:01] Taffy, in order to have this information for the record, would you please state your full name and the place from which we're speaking your full name?

Taffy Epstein [00:00:17] You mean my legal name?

Jean Latoski [00:00:18] Your legal name.

Taffy Epstein [00:00:20] I hate it. You know from that article. Don't call her Harriett. I'd rather not if I don't have to. [Epstein changed her name after World War II.]

Jean Latoski [00:00:30] OK, so what is the name with which you live on a daily basis?

Taffy Epstein [00:00:34] Taffy.

Jean Latoski [00:00:35] Taffy Epstein. And where are we meeting? Where are we sitting?

Taffy Epstein [00:00:40] We are sitting at Shaker Towers' living room of suite 212.

Jean Latoski [00:00:47] OK. How long have you lived in this lovely suite?

Taffy Epstein [00:00:53] Well, it's forty-five and three-quarters years.

Jean Latoski [00:00:58] OK. Now you did say 212, suite 212. With whom have you lived here? With whom have you lived here?

Taffy Epstein [00:01:11] You mean my children?

Jean Latoski [00:01:12] Yes.

Taffy Epstein [00:01:14] I have lived here with my two children. Years ago. They emptied the nest by 1970.

Jean Latoski [00:01:27] You came here with two young children.

Taffy Epstein [00:01:31] Two teenagers.

Jean Latoski [00:01:32] Teenagers. OK, and what moved you to move to this building?

Taffy Epstein [00:01:40] Oh, I lived in a rented big home on [00:01:46]V___[inaudible street name] [0.0s] and my daughter was afraid to stay home alone. And she was a young teenager and I had to work to support them. So very often my job was in the evening. It ran over, and she said, it would be okay if she found an apartment where she would not be afraid. And so we moved to Shaker Towers.

Jean Latoski [00:02:36] And why did you select Shaker for starters?

Taffy Epstein [00:02:40] Why did I?

Jean Latoski [00:02:41] Why did you select Shaker for starters on Ludlow?

Taffy Epstein [00:02:44] She picked out the apartment.

Jean Latoski [00:02:46] But you lived on Ludlow first right?

Taffy Epstein [00:02:48] Yes. On the other side of the square. I lived at the square for 63 years, and she was told by her dance teacher of an apartment for rent here. And it sounded wonderful to Susan and so she told me and I promised her I'd look. And of course, two minutes later we... It was a rental at that time. And we rented this suite and the patio was the crowning glory, because with teenagers and they had had a home and a lawn and they were out, this was a perfect place. It gave them an outside and plenty of room so that they could entertain their friends.

Jean Latoski [00:04:07] I understand that using the gardens is somewhat restricted now, using them for social...

Taffy Epstein [00:04:14] Start this again.

Jean Latoski [00:04:14] I understand that using the gardens for social purposes is quite different today than it was when you moved in.

Taffy Epstein [00:04:28] The garden... The whole patio when I moved here. Unfortunately, we had a lovely young lady, Adele Anthony, who lived here. And she was the president of the board and she wanted to start a history of Shaker Towers. And unfortunately, I gathered together the newspaper pictures of the patio and the exterior of the whole garden area and everything from the beginning. And I don't think I gave them to her, but I cannot locate them. I don't know what I must have done so that it would have shown what it was like. Yes, some people did have gardens. There was a Mrs. Goodman who had a beautiful rose garden on the other side. I'm in the middle of the U and she was on the East, and she was the one who every year planted her Christmas trees out there. And then Mrs. Dawes, Jean Dawes had a garden, and Mrs. Kirkland had a rose garden right outside my patio. So there was... And my children planted a great deal and they tended it. They had vegetables but they never harvested them. We had enough cucumbers for Shaker Towers and Shaker Courts.

Jean Latoski [00:06:44] Oh, I know the gardens are still used and enjoyed by all of us, but I was talking about social gatherings.

Taffy Epstein [00:06:55] Oh.

Jean Latoski [00:06:55] We're rather limited in the ability to use the gardens, but I know from you from the last time we talked that you were able to use the garden freely as an entertainment spot.

Taffy Epstein [00:07:10] Well, my son was married out there. We had two hundred and fifty people and we always... I've had many big parties out on the patio. In fact, in 2000, I had a reunion of all the dance people that were working with me or friendly, and, oh, I had choreographers and everything, all the managers of my store, and we have about two hundred people and used the patio. We were lucky it did not rain. No, I had many, many big parties here, ballet companies, but it always poured out. Well, that's why we furnished the apartment with no beds per se. We all had studio couches. I still do and Susan's room still has it and Stephen's room. And it's a perfect place for my children to entertain in their own room. And then I had the living room. I got rid of them that way.

Jean Latoski [00:08:47] Well, you, as we've talked, you've referred to your business and to working with entertainers and actors. Could you tell a little bit about your business? What kind of business you were in?

Taffy Epstein [00:09:03] Oh, I outfitted dancers, gymnasts, anybody that moved. And, it was a lovely business because my customers were doing what they wanted to do in their life. So they were very happy, happy people.

Jean Latoski [00:09:33] And what did you sell?

Taffy Epstein [00:09:35] Pardon?

Jean Latoski [00:09:35] What did you sell?

Taffy Epstein [00:09:38] Well, I sold them all of their leotards, tights, warmup for gymnasts, warmups, shoes, toe shoes. I imported shoes from all over the world. And I exported what America's famous for, our majorettes. [Laughs] It's very interesting because majorettes in sync in leotards and things like that were unknown and Burton fell in love with it, but it was a fun business. And because I was a woman, the U.S. government treated me as a minority. And so I had priority to get all the contracts for their, you know, base, an Army or Air Corps base. They always had special services unit, that handled the families, and some of them had dance classes, etc., and they had recitals just like we do. And I was the priority to bid on furnishing the costumes. And this was after World War II. And I did recitals in Okinawa, I know the U.S. government sent planes in to pick up their boxes of costumes for the children. And the Philippines... It was a fascinating business and fascinating people.

Jean Latoski [00:12:02] I'm afraid we're going to have to move away... It sounds very, very fascinating, but we're gonna have to move away from that back to Shaker Heights.

Taffy Epstein [00:12:10] Oh, that's fine.

Jean Latoski [00:12:12] Okay.

Jean Latoski [00:12:13] I'm sure I know the answer to this, but do you continue to enjoy living here, and why is that?

Taffy Epstein [00:12:24] Well, I think one of the most interesting things about my getting older at ninety-one, Shaker Towers, because of their fully attended garage and their lovely porters, almost offer what I would call assisted living. One night about three weeks ago, the cross ventilation slammed the door to my bedroom in the middle of the night and I could not open it, and I called down to the garage at 4:30 a.m. and the garage attendant came right up and opened the door to my bedroom, freeing me. And little things that you normally would have to call an electrician, a plumber. Different things happen, you know, while you're living and the apartment has excellent help and reasonable charges when you call for help. And I don't believe I could live in a home at this point. It would be a very annoying situation not to have all this and if my temper held up and I could do it... And also, I don't know if everyone living here does have a friend, a neighbor that is helpful if you need help. But I do. And I ask my neighbor very often to unscrew a bottle and in fact, if she is isn't home, I use the garage. And how many places would you have that... I have not mastered lefty loosey, righty tighty. [Laughs] My son-in-law keeps telling me. Lefty loosey, righty tighty.

Jean Latoski [00:15:28] In turning caps.

Taffy Epstein [00:15:29] Pardon?

Jean Latoski [00:15:30] In turning caps, you're referring to?

Taffy Epstein [00:15:32] Yeah. Yeah.

Jean Latoski [00:15:34] Well, let me ask you. You have spoken about the parties that you had in the garden and how wonderful it is to have help from garage folks. Are there other memorable experiences that you can share about living at the Shaker Towers?

Taffy Epstein [00:15:52] Such as... i.e.

Jean Latoski [00:15:54] Other things in the social realm or in the neighborhood area in entertainment, culture.

Taffy Epstein [00:16:04] Well, am I'm devotee of Shaker Square. I'm, unfortunately, the best is that Shaker Square had to offer has gone away, but perhaps it will come back.

Jean Latoski [00:16:27] And what was that?

Taffy Epstein [00:16:29] We had magnificent stores, a variety. We had... When my children were very, very little, we had Helen Hale, which outfitted little children, and as they grew up, we had, my son could get outfitted at Bunts Brothers, the men's and teenage, we had a store Kelly... Joan Kelly, I think. And for Mama, me, we had Hathaway, a very lovely women's store. And we could walk Shaker Square, the area. I used to walk my dog at midnight around the square and window shop. But of course, it isn't only the square that's deteriorating. You do not even walk in the center here without someone knowing you're out there with the dog. Everywhere, I think, you're much more cautious. But we used to have big doings at the square in the summer, very highly organized. We had concerts and we had fairs, and three or four every summer, organized. We were all volunteers to bring people into the area. It was a totally different world. I remember watching this apartment being built. You know, I had a baby and wheeled a baby carriage.

Jean Latoski [00:18:48] Well, so we've talked about changes that have taken place at Shaker Square. Let me bring you closer into the building. What do you think of all the changes that residents in recent years have made within their apartments? I'm assuming that you're familiar that lots of residents have done some vast redos in their units. Are you familiar with that?

Taffy Epstein [00:19:18] Well, you know, everything has been so gradual here, only for the better. It always was a wonderful place to live. And when it went condominium in 1978, none of us knew how to run a condominium. Nobody knew. It was a brand-new experience. And because, well, because of my son, computer, in the '70s, he graduated from Case as a computer engineer. Of course, my business had to have a computer. Naturally, oh boy, and so I was very computer savvy when Shaker Towers went condominium, and we had just set up each suite as to the owner name, where their mortgage was, how many cars they had in the garage and, or how many square feet in each suite. All of that had to go into the computer in order to issue invoices very month. And we had to set up the people that worked, we had to come up with a budget and I, of course, no doubt about it, I was elected to the board, naturally, because they had me prisoner. I worked with Cleveland Trust, setting up everything on computer because I knew how to keystroke. And we wrote... My son helped us write the programs, etc. And in fact, Chuck Schulman [of] Carlyle Management told me he bought the software from Cleveland Trust. So they are possibly still using some of the original work, and that made everybody in the building know me even on the telephone because I had to get all this information. So, of course, I was number one on the board. [Laughs]

Jean Latoski [00:22:30] So.

Taffy Epstein [00:22:33] But, you know, Shaker Towers has only... I think the board has done a magnificent job of running... It is a thankless, thankless, time-consuming... Imagine doing the garage and figuring out the methods of pay, and it must have taken... I understand Barbara McElrey[?] was the prime person who set up the whole pay schedule. Marvelous, marvelous, thankless job and anyone who criticizes them... Just stupid, stupid people.

Jean Latoski [00:23:35] Even though everybody in the beginning, everybody worked very diligently, and I know that they're still working, so... But things are different. Have you noticed changes in the way things are run and the way people function in the building?

Taffy Epstein [00:23:58] Unfortunately, I find that, of course every generation might say this, but it was a much gentler, kinder area to live in. I went to just one more meeting recently because I don't hear well and I was appalled at the anger. Some people are critical. I just... It would not have happened in 1978 or the '80s. People were respectful and they honored the board. I heard people standing up--I don't even know their names--and blasting decisions. But I guess the whole world was kinder and gentler. I don't know but, not to make an effort to be so negative is... It's a beautiful place to live. Why not enjoy? Why put boulders in the path of people who are trying to make it easier for us to live?

Jean Latoski [00:25:53] So to speak... Speaking of boulders, how aware are you of the deed restrictions that were imposed by the Van Sweringens on Shaker Heights and the Shaker Square area?

Taffy Epstein [00:26:08] Now, I'm not familiar.

Jean Latoski [00:26:11] The deed restrictions? Are you familiar with them?

Taffy Epstein [00:26:17] What restrictions are you referring?

Jean Latoski [00:26:19] There were... The Van Sweringens created deed restrictions, actually I think the Rockefellers did, too, on certain groups that were not allowed to live in certain apartment buildings or certain private areas in homes that were built by the Van S's. They were...

Taffy Epstein [00:26:46] No.

Jean Latoski [00:26:47] They were anti-black, anti-Semitic...

Taffy Epstein [00:26:49] Is this something new?

Jean Latoski [00:26:50] Oh, no, no. This was early on.

Taffy Epstein [00:26:54] I go back to the Van Sweringen days.

Jean Latoski [00:26:58] Yeah.

Taffy Epstein [00:27:00] I always found the whole history of Shaker Heights and Shaker Square fascinating. And I lived, uh, came out of the army and the Van Sweringen Brothers had no Jews and no Blacks and no Chinese and no this...

Jean Latoski [00:27:23] That's what I'm referring to.

Taffy Epstein [00:27:24] And I moved onto Ludlow, which is actually Shaker privileges, most of it's in Cleveland, same as this, and I belonged to the Ludlow Association. I was a charter member and we fought it. And we had open houses to attract professors from Case Western Reserve and the Cleveland Clinic because we had the rapid transit, and I was asked very often to open my home and I did. And when my first child, Steven, went to Ludlow School, there was one black child. And three years later, when my daughter went to Ludlow School, there was 45 percent black because the area around Becket and those streets around Ludlow were Cleveland and the blacks moved in. We brought them in purposely so that our children were raised in an integrated situation. Ludlow School was very, very small. I think all together we had a hundred and twenty children. And when my daughter was in the sixth grade, they had, always at the end of the year, we had a teachers appreciation dinner and we used to have it in the gymnasium, that's how few we were. This gorgeous, gorgeous black woman--I used to say, move over, Lena Horne, she was just stunning--and her husband was a physician and they were black and her son was in my daughter's sixth grade. I don't want to use her name because I haven't her permission. But she said to me, Taffy, when do you think we should tell the children that they can't get married? That's how close the children were to each other. But my daughter told me that when she went to Woodbury, that that's where the breach began. And the same children that would come to her birthday parties used to call her Whitey from junior high. So. We've tried... We tried to integrate. And it was such a relief. Moreland Courts did not allow Jews or blacks, and that's why this building was built.

Jean Latoski [00:31:18] Could you elaborate on that a bit? Why this building was built?

Taffy Epstein [00:31:25] Oh, well, this building... There were so many older, not billionaires, but very comfortably finance peak couples who had these huge homes on Shaker Boulevard. And we're talking about the '50s when Jews were allowed. In fact, I had friends that came back from World War II that you couldn't have a home in Shaker Heights. No Jews. And it changed, and the Jews managed to build homes and live here. And when they became empty--their children went to college and got married and moved--and their homes were too large for them and so the Shanes, the first people that built here, that's how I got in. [Laughs] I dated one of the Shane boys.

Jean Latoski [00:32:48] S-H-A-N-E?

Taffy Epstein [00:32:50] Pardon?

Jean Latoski [00:32:52] Shane. S-H-A-N-E? How do you spell Shane? How do you spell the name Shane?

Taffy Epstein [00:33:01] Oh, I don't know.

Jean Latoski [00:33:02] Okay.

Taffy Epstein [00:33:05] I really... I don't think I've ever seen that. Chuck'll know 'cause Carlyle ran the whole thing. But I think all the money was put up because the Jews couldn't live in Moreland Courts, and there were limited apartments then. And so this apartment was filled before the first brick was laid. And that's the rooms are, I think, just gorgeous. And the, so many nice things that... Three baths in an apartment like this. And the garage and we had a tailor shop and they did alterations and dry cleaning and the beauty shop and toys in the garage. The head of the garage, he worked on the building while it was being built. I don't know in what capacity, but then he bid on the garage and he ran it. I guess it was a separate entity, you know, like a store, he ran it. But before he came here, he handled the leather department, which is shining shoes and taking care of hats and things, at Stetson's on East 6th Street, a men's haberdashery. So he took care of all of our cleaning with... He used to clean my bags. They looked like they were brand new and my shoes, I used to take down bagfuls to him. And he ran a wonderful... can I say something off the record?

Jean Latoski [00:35:54] Anderson. OK.

Taffy Epstein [00:35:54] His son is, well, I imagine still is, a well-known designer of clothes, women's clothes in New York. A fascinating... The family was great, but the garage has doors leading to the next apartment, and then the next apartment has doors leading to the next. My children walked up to the square in the middle of winter through every door.

Jean Latoski [00:36:36] We don't use those anymore, do we?

Taffy Epstein [00:36:38] No. Because that's how the robbers got in for the Cadillacs that were... so no, it's not a safety... I used to work a great deal at night, not here, out of the building, and I came home and one of the garage attendants, Smithy said, Taffy, I'm gonna walk you up to your apartment and he pulled out his gun as he walked me up. He said we've had strangers. I said, put that gun away, I'm scared to death. But evidently in the garage guys were armed and it was organized crime. It wasn't petty thieves. They would handle a lot with the cars and I know who was head of that ring. [Laughs] I'll never tell. I'd be scared to death. But, it was a bunch of fun. They taught my kids how to skateboard down the ramp. I wouldn't allow them to have skateboards so they got them and hid them and they used to skateboard. I had the only children really ever raised here, you know, and now I suppose it's different. But it was a bunch of fun. We did not... I was the new kid on the block.

Taffy Epstein [00:38:39] I was forty... forty-five when I moved in, a single woman, divorced, everything. And in business, a Jewish girl in business and housekeepers would take care of her children, you know, that kind, and then when my father died, I moved mother into the apartment on this floor next to me.

Jean Latoski [00:39:14] And what number was that?

Taffy Epstein [00:39:18] 214... 214, and my mother was of the generation that the women that lived here, she knew most of them. She played cards with them, and she had a card game one day and my mother was telling me about it. She said you do know, because her name it last name was different than mine so many people don't realize that that was my mother, and she said the women at the game today were talking about you. The young woman that moved in with two children and who has these big parties and who dates men. You know she said you were quite the topic. I said. So what did you say, mother? She said, Nothing. I kept on dealing. She never owned up to me. But these older women were so kind to me, the older couples that weren't. There wasn't a young couple here when I moved in, and I went to work so early in the morning that I knew all the men as they left for work and their chauffeurs. The place was loaded with chauffeurs. It was wonderful. Gorgeous cars, Jaguars, Bentleys, Rolls... The garage was a real picture.

Jean Latoski [00:41:22] This has been very fascinating, but I think the time has come to end, though I would like to ask you if there is anything else that we didn't cover that you'd just like to discuss about Shaker Towers and the neighborhood?

Taffy Epstein [00:41:41] I'm so full, so full of memories that it's difficult to pick any phase. I know it's totally different. People are different and but it's a lovely, lovely place to live. I can't... Our management is excellent and garage and hail porters is just lovely, you know, people would just accept it and say, hey, I'm lucky to be alive. I'm lucky to be able to live here, to be able to afford it. How much love does anyone ask for? I've had a ball.

Jean Latoski [00:42:47] This is a wonderful note for ending on a high note, and I thank you very much for participating.

Taffy Epstein [00:42:56] Well, you know, it's much fun for me. And lovely meeting you.

Shaker Towers

Nina Friedlander Gibans initiated this interview series, which includes interviews with prominent Clevelanders living in Shaker Towers near Shaker Square.