Grossinger’s Heiress on Life as ‘Elaine From That Famous Hotel’
Elaine Grossinger Etess’s maiden name evokes the landmark resort where heimishe hospitality flourished amid the pine-paneled rusticity of the Catskill Mountains. The story began in the early 1900s, when her grandparents, Asher Selig and Malke Grossinger, bought farmland in Liberty, N.Y., and began renting rooms to visitors from New York City. By 1919, their daughter Jennie Grossinger—Etess’s mother—was running the hotel. After her mother’s death in 1972, Etess and her brother, Paul Grossinger, were left in charge. Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel grew into a 35-building resort that had its own airport and post office until it closed in 1986. Today, Etess, 91, lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and last visited the Catskills in 2017. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What made the hotel so special?
It was a fun place to enjoy many activities plus incredible food and entertainment, all in one package. I think Grossinger’s captured the atmosphere of a country club at a time when Jews were restricted elsewhere. Here anyone could play golf or tennis without any discrimination. Making people feel welcome was very important. My mother used to greet guests in the dining room every night, and she remembered people’s names.
Can you describe growing up at Grossinger’s?
We lived nearby, apart from the hotel. My mother worked 20 hours a day in season, but she always came home for family dinner and then went back. I knew it was a busy place but wasn’t even aware how well-known it was until I was in college and heard someone say, “Elaine from that famous hotel.”
Tell us about some of the celebrities who came to Grossinger’s.
The celebrities were very approachable. Barney Ross, a Jewish boxer from Chicago who came to train because he kept kosher, put us on the map. We had many notable guests—sports people, politicians, ambassadors, etc. Top singers and comedians—Tony Bennett, Alan King, Milton Berle, Red Buttons and many more—headlined the entertainment. The Eddie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds wedding in 1955 brought a lot of publicity. Israeli President Chaim Weizmann spent six weeks in the hotel to recuperate from an eye operation and became good friends with my mother. His signed photo hangs in my house.
What are the Hadassah connections in your family?
Four generations of life members, from my mother to myself, my daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. To me, Hadassah reinforces our relationship with Israel and gives us great pride in its accomplishments. My mother and I were active in the local Liberty chapter. The hotel could not accommodate the major national conventions, but we hosted local groups—I remember one from Roslyn, N.Y.—and gave them special deals, such as complimentary meeting rooms.
We visited the new Hadassah Hospital on our first trip to Israel in the early 1960s. My husband, a doctor, was most impressed.
“The Art of Jewish Cooking”—also known as the “Jennie Grossinger cookbook”—was first published in 1958. What was the most popular recipe?
Probably Paul’s Brownies, named for my brother’s favorite treat. The cookbook contained my mother and grandmother’s family recipes. People couldn’t buy the book fast enough. It’s still a classic, on sale on Amazon and eBay. My mother once did a program with El Al as a food consultant. And First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used to serve pickled herring from the Grossinger’s kitchen, delivered to her at Hyde Park.
Helen Hill, a freelance writer based in Florida, lived in the Catskills many decades ago.
For more on the Catskills, read Hilary Danailova’s feature, Young Jews Are Bringing the Catskills Back to Life, travel report, The Allure of the Catskill Region for the Jewish Traveler, and a roundup of poignant reader memories of summers and honeymoons spent in the mountains.