(The Bermuda Jews History Series was originally published in The Bermudian Magazine)
In the early 1900s, Jewish tailors among the Eastern Europeans who arrived in America in droves. Only one tailor, my great grandfather, ended up as one of few Bermuda Jews. Picking up an Americanized version of his Russian last name, he became Axel Malloy passing through Ellis Island in New York City. He was better known by the first name of David, a name change that happened when he seriously ill. The family kept to the Eastern European Jewish tradition changing one’s name to hide from the Angel of Death.
Now an American citizen David, with his wife, Esther, followed tailoring jobs down the East Coast to Atlanta, adding children to the family along the way; Morris, Frank, Barney, Myer, and Rose. By the time he answered an advertisement for a tailor for Trimingham’s in Hamilton, the children were mostly grown, but several immigrated to the island with him. The youngest son was my grandfather Myer Malloy.
In his fifties, Myer gave an interview to The Bermuda Royal Gazette about his early life. At the age of ten he sold newspapers on a street corner in Richmond, Virginia and completed school only through the 8th grade. Myer returned to that same corner in Richmond, Virginia, as a gray-haired businessman, selling newspapers to raise money for the Newsboys’ Home. He and several newsboys sold 700 papers in one hour. Born to sell, Myer became a traveling salesman for the American Tobacco Company at age sixteen. In an interview with the Bermudian newspaper, he shared how he joined the family in Bermuda six years later.
“I came here by The Evangeline. It took three days and the round-trip fare was twenty-five dollars. I arrived with two second-hand trunks and samples of things to sell . . . I sold anything people would buy. When I collected enough money from customers to order, I ordered. Once I got a horse and buggy as a down-payment on a piano.”
The Malloy family left the tailoring business behind and concentrated on selling dry goods, often door-to-door, traveling by horse and buggy. The new business was called The Bermuda Trading Company (BTC). According to the interview, Myer sold goods from a small building, formerly a chicken coop, arriving by ferry to work at the Dockyard by 6:00 am and returning to Hamilton around 10:30 at night.
The early years of the BTC remain somewhat mysterious given the frequent travel of the Bermuda Jews between the island and the States, the deaths and marriages and few written records. Daughter Rose married Sam Chomsky who brought refrigeration expertise to the family business but they moved back to Atlanta in 1928. David Malloy died in 1923 and is buried his wife Esther in the States. Barney and Myer married Americans and lived for a time in the States. Son Frank had been gassed during WW I and lived and died in an American veterans’ hospital. Oldest son, Morris, returned to Atlanta where he worked as a tailor for Rich’s Department Store.
Rose Chomsky’s daughter, Lenora claims that that David established the BTC as early as 1917. Whatever the BTC’s beginning, we do know that Barney Malloy was clearly the businessman behind The Bermuda Trading Company. He had divorced and returned to Bermuda with his son, Howard, the first known Jew actually born on the island. Barney eventually brought a new bride to Bermuda, a lovely southern lady from Atlanta; Ann, and her son, Edwin. Adorable daughter Tobene joined the family and I treasure a photograph of my teen-age mother holding baby Tobene while Ann Malloy beamed at them both.
Myer met his wife, Ida Swig, when her family took a cruise to Bermuda. Ida, the youngest of eleven children of an affluent Jewish family, told me that her brother, Howard, smuggled her out a porthole to a dance at the naval base where she met Seaman 3rd class, Myer Malloy. However, a close cousin, Lura Swig, claims that they were formally introduced on the cruise ship and chaperoned. Regardless of the different versions, Ida and Myer kept up a passionate correspondence and became secretly engaged through the mail. Myer inadvertently announced the engagement at a bar in New Orleans, asking fellow sailors from Boston if they knew his fiancé. One of the sailors turned out to be Ida’s brother, who dragged Myer to Boston and a quick wedding.
After World War I, Myer opened a shoe store in Keene, New Hampshire, but the Depression hit the family hard. Ida went to work in her father’s office and their two daughters, Estelle and Pauline, were farmed out to relatives. My mother talked nostalgically about that summer playing with the American cousins without much adult supervision, giggling about trying to float her younger sister out to sea on a raft. Eventually, Myer and Ida decided to return to Bermuda where Myer joined the Bermuda Trading Company as Barney’s assistant.
The Bermuda Trading Company (BTC) developed branches in Somerset and St. Georges. The different skills of the Malloy Brothers made the enterprise work. Barney was a detailed business executive while Myer was an extrovert salesman. BTC became the headquarters for American brand names and the latest technological advances. The store carried Frigidaire refrigerators and sold to the many homes that once bought ice in blocks for their iceboxes. The BTC had the franchise for National Cash Register and IBM office machines and sold to businesses around the island. Customers bought other name merchandise like Simmons, Philco, RCA, Armstrong and Fruit of the Loom from the BTC. The Malloys also handled Otis elevators when the concept of elevators on the island was a novelty. Continuously supporting modernizing ventures, BTC helped set up Bermuda’s first pasteurizing plant, Dunkley’s Dairy.
The Bermuda Trading Company’s success didn’t depend solely on the products it carried. The BTC was the first business on the island to extend credit, to promote “buying on time.” The BTC credit policies benefited many poor Bermudans, particularly the black community. Previously, customers either had cash for the entire purchase price or they could not buy what they needed. Occasionally, the BTC re-instituted their unconventional bartering. One customer who couldn’t pay cash offered a racehorse, War Ray, as payment. Myer loved hanging around the horse track and youngest daughter Polly reported that only two people ever bet on that horse, herself and Myer. Unfortunately, War Ray ran about two races and fell over dead.
Myer was a social animal and people remembered him decades after his death, often embellishing the memory. An elderly black taxi driver said. “When I was newly married and expecting a baby, your grandfather showed me how to establish a good record for credit so I could purchase a crib and other furniture for the baby’s room.” One man told me that my grandfather had sold him his first pair of pants and had made sure that people would get a good deal on clothing. A woman getting out of her car on Reed Street in Hamilton chatted happily about how Myer had represented Bermuda Jews and was a well-known member of Bermuda’s Parliament. In reality, he had never held elected office. A volunteer greeter at the airport said that Myer and his wife were famous for their charitable work and were alive and well in their home in Warwick. Both my grandparents were long gone, but to many, their death was irrelevant.
The Malloy Brothers were in business together until the late 1930s when World War II was on the horizon. Myer become one of the island’s first professional realtors and Barney and his family eventually left for the States. I have no memory of the story, but Polly described the BTC as a cheerful maze of furniture and appliances. Customers wended their way through the jumble to reach the office of BTC’s business manager, John Chiappa. When I met John in 1996, he still had the original, thirty-five year old letter typed by Myer personally offering him the job. John was the Organizer and became a partner with Myer in his real estate ventures.
I ponder old letters and photographs of people I never new in their youth. In an early photograph, my mother, Estelle is a cute roly-poly baby with straightish brown hair, hazel eyes and the sweetest of smiles. My grandmother had tied an extravagant bow in Estelle’s hair. It was the first and last picture of my mother with a bow. Mom was not a fan of fashion and frills, preferring sensible, comfortable clothes. She battled with life-long plumpness but managed not to take it too seriously. At age sixteen, she scribbled a caption under a photograph of her lifeguard class at the Eagles’ Nest pool, “I’m the one with the big rear end.”
I treasure a photograph of my mother awkwardly posing on the Bermuda grass wearing a dance costume of clogs, an absurd Dutch apron, and cap with blond braids attached. She smiled sheepishly as if to say, “Yes, I know I look ridiculous but I didn’t want to disappoint the family.” Estelle was sentimental and kept her senior yearbook from the Bermuda High School for Girls, the 17th edition of the Bermuda High School Chronicle. The Chronicle was a wonderful glimpse into life in Bermuda in the mid-thirties. The featured activities in this calm-before-the-storm time included the upcoming Netball Match, Mothers’ Association Meeting, Elocution Evening, Rev. Hancock’s Lecture on Modern Poetry, and Dr. Wheeler’s Lecture on Whaling.
Not a gifted athlete, Estelle opted for a leadership position in Hastings House at BHS Houses. Her annual report for their activities ends in a very typical Estelle-ism, “Although we are very pleased with the progress that our House has made, we hope that the girls will not be satisfied with their present success, but will strive to attain to higher levels of work, conduct and games.” Gentle, firm, and optimistic, Mom’s style was already defined.
BHS young ladies pursued proper appearance as well as excellence in academics and athletics. The advertisements in The Chronicle show the prevailing culture of uniforms and femininity. T.J. Pearman & Sons offered a very chic version of gym shoes: “SHOES: A varied assortment of these rubber soled Shoes in Lace, Strap and Tie Models. Crepe or white rubber soles, with or without heel. Suitable for all Games (Tennis, Hand Ball, Gym).”
H A& E Smith Ltd. extolled the quality of their BHS uniforms. “To school in English blazers of the finest quality navy blue flannel featuring both single and double breasted models, each of which have brass buttons like a seaman’s coat. Also Irish poplin ties with navy and gold stripes.”
Estelle entered Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts at age sixteen, an unsophisticated product of Bermuda Jews who was out-of-step with American ways. Despite her awkwardness, she kept her sense of humor. As a sophomore she vowed to make newcomers feel at home and targeted a freshmen from China whose parents were missionaries. The freshman turned out to be a sophisticated blond, stunningly dressed and coifed. Mom, our adorable, life-long frump, stuttered and stammered a welcome. The worldly freshman charitably invited her in for tea and polite conversation about the weather. Mom laughingly recounted how all she wanted was a dignified exit but had a civil cup of tea first.
Civility was vital on the small island. I picked up on this early, with great fervor. I was a 4-year old picnicking at Horseshoe Bay when a naked little girl approached, crying that she was lost. Mom soothed her, promising to find the missing mother. I informed her that the correct response to people appearing in public with no clothes was to pretend that they weren’t there. “But she’s lost!” said my mother. “Doesn’t matter,” I said in my best take-no-prisoners voice, turning my back on them both. Mom guffawed, I sniffed at her, and she laughed till she cried.
Leaving the island was infrequent in those days. The Bermuda version of cabin fever was common and even had a name; “rock happy.” Cruise ships were expensive and early air travel was primitive. Mom described the early seaplane as one large unheated cabin holding a few passengers who wore life jackets for the entire trip. The seaplanes landed in Hamilton’s harbor and small boats took passengers to shore. Travel gradually improved, but when the American military built a usable airport and access roads, the impact was monumental.
Bermuda Jews were few and far between in the 1930s, but the Fergusons were among them. Ralph Ferguson and Myer started a suit manufacturing business over a Hamilton storefront until the WW II made suit material a rare commodity. Walter Winchell’s joked about their names on his famous radio program saying there were only two Jewish families in Bermuda, and they were both Irish. As the war progressed, the Winchell story was welcome relief to a Jewish family for whom humor was in short supply.
Jewish in Bermuda Series © Deborah Levine
originally published in The Bermudian Magazine
See following articles in the Bermuda Jews History Series…