This is Nat’s bio from the back of his book, Of Things that Used to Be.
Nathan Lobell (August 28, 1911 – August 11, 1995)
Nat’s way up and out of the South Bronx was through law as his profession and through writing, painting, sculpture, and music as his passions.
After graduating from City College and then Columbia Law School, he went to Washington to join with other New Dealers, eventually at the Security and Exchange Commission, ultimately rising to become top staff officer. He resigned to work on Wall Street and to own a small business.
After retirement, Nathan spent many happy years in the woods of Wilton, Connecticut writing, painting, sculpting, making and playing violas, and gardening.
This is the Preface to Nat’s book, Of Things that Used to Be by his son, John Lobell. It is a longer bio.
One fall afternoon late in my father’s life I was walking with him along a lane cut through the woods in Wilton, Connecticut. He started speaking: “Als Zarathustra dreissig Jahr alt war…” (When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home…), the opening lines of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. He then remarked, “I haven’t read that since I was seventeen.”
Nat (as he insisted on being called in our home—he disliked “Dad,” etc.) loved art, music, and making things and he was very talented at all that he did. He also loved language and literature. My name is John Joyce Lobell because he was making his way through Finnegans Wake for the second time when I was born. When my high school and college friends were discovering French Existentialists and advocates of a Nouveau Roman as rebellions against their parents, I was discovering them on my father’s night table. He didn’t reread Nietzsche; he didn’t have to. He retained what he read, so that when I was reading Gide I could discuss books with him that he had read many years earlier. But about every five years he would dig out his old, battered, Modern Library Jane Austen and reread her novels. He insisted that my sister read the classics and discuss them with him, an exercise that serves her to this day in her writing.
And it was not just art, music, and literature that interested him. My father subscribed to The Scientific American, and to this day I recall articles I read and discussions we had in the 1950s about computers and self-replicating machines. My friends liked to hang out at our house.
Nat was one of the most educated people I have ever known, but he was also attached to his Bronx background. In one instance while he was at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) he had a week of meetings with a Boston lawyer named Lewis over regulatory problems of a company Lewis was representing. When things got testy Lewis would turn on more and more of a haughty Boston accent and manner. In response, my father would become more and more Bronx in accent and manner. By the end of the week they had settled things and Lewis asked my father out to lunch. My father thought for a moment, and then decided that since everything was settled, it would be ethically all right to accept the offer. (Apparently some government officials in those days were more ethically careful than many are today.) At lunch, Lewis asked my father if his family was from Czernowitz. He said it was, and Lewis then asked what their name had been before going through Ellis Island. My father said Löbl, and Lewis replied, “I thought so. We’re cousins, if distant. My branch of the family arrived in Boston rather than New York, and it quickly became apparent that it was not going to work to be Jewish in Boston, so we adopted the name Lewis.” The story is interesting in several ways. The one I like is that my father could revert to his Bronxness if he wanted to.
It would have been wonderful if Nat had written about all of his life with the vividness of his depiction of his life on Fox Street, but he didn’t, so, for the orientation of readers of his memoir, I will provide a very brief biographical overview.
Nat’s parents came from the town of Czernowitz in the Carpathian Mountains in what was then the Austro- Hungarian Empire, and which has had several national masters since. His father came here first, and the plan was that he would make some money and send it to his wife so that she could come with the children. He neglected to send the money, so, working as a spy for several factions in the region, his wife got the money on her own to come with the children. She was apparently somewhat of a Mata Hari.
Nat was born in the Bronx on August 28, 1911, into the life you read about in this book. His visits to the Metropolitan Museum led to an interest in art, and he dropped out of high school to paint and sculpt. He shoveled coal in exchange for a basement apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village and studied at the Beaux Arts Institute, the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art, and the Art Students League, among other places. He was discouraged when told that entrance into the sculptor’s union, which would have assured public commissions, cost fifty dollars, an impossible amount. He had a perpetual cold while living in the chilly apartment, and when his brother, Larry, hunted him down and told him, “Mom says you can come home if you go back to high school,” he accepted the offer. But for as long as I remember, Nat always had an art studio.
By the time he graduated high school we were in the midst of the Great Depression and there was little prospect of work. By then Larry had established a medical practice and he suggested that Nat move in with him and go to City College. He did, and while attending college he helped his brother with his practice and became quite medically knowledgeable.
City College was then a great educational institution, free for any New York high school graduate with qualifying grades. Nat had usually gotten As or Ds in high school depending on whether or not he was interested in the course, so his grades did not qualify, but he was admitted on the basis of an entrance exam. City College was famous for its radicalness. One of Nat’s classmates had turned down a full scholarship to Harvard in order to go to City because, he said, City was better. But also because of the now famous political discussions in the cafeteria alcoves.
Job prospects were no better when Nat graduated from City and Larry suggested he go to Columbia Law School, saying he would pay for the first year and after that Nat could get a scholarship. So he did. At Columbia Nat met Griselda Holzinger, who had been born in Queens, New York, and who became his wife and my mother. After having attended Barnard College, she became one of the first women to attend Columbia Law. At Columbia, Nat became a protégé of Adolph Berle, an architect of Roosevelt’s New Deal brain trust. Nat taught Berle’s course when he was in Washington, and Berle got him a job in Washington on the staff of the Temporary National Economic Commission and then the Hoover Commission. He became counsel for a House committee and went on to the SEC where he rose to executive adviser to the commission, the highest position short of a presidential appointment. He wrote speeches for Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson, but was otherwise not very political.
I was born in 1941, and my sister, also named Griselda, was born in 1944. During World War II, the SEC was moved to Philadelphia to make room in Washington for war related agencies, and we lived outside of Philadelphia.
My father and mother wrote a well-received mystery novel, The Shadow and the Blot, published in 1949 by Harper. Griselda’s father, John Holzinger (my namesake, along with Joyce), was a mystery writer. Lying in bed one night, my mother asked my father, “How would you commit a perfect murder?” My father responded. Then my mother asked, “If you were the detective, how would you solve it?” My father again responded, and my mother said, “We have to write a mystery novel.”
Nat had a real affection for my mother’s father, and was often at his future in-laws’ house for dinner and for chess with John. When we moved to Great Neck on Long Island in 1951, my mother’s parents moved in with us. Nat once described to me an illustration in a book he had as a child. It showed a family of squirrels in their cozy home, the father squirrel in his chair reading the newspaper, the mother squirrel in her chair embroidering, and the children squirrels playing with their toys on the floor. He said that when he saw that illustration, he knew it was what he wanted, and he achieved it. He made a painting of our family in our living room in Great Neck. It shows me languidly slumped in a chair petting our dog, my sister holding a cat, and my mother reading. You can see my grandparents in the next room, my grandfather reading and my grandmother clearing the dining room table. And my father showed himself seated with a drawing pad in his lap, perhaps sketching the scene.
Nat set up a studio in the basement of our home in Great Neck and made paintings and sculptures. And he painted a large abstract nude on an outer wall of the garage. I spent many wonderful hours watching him sculpt, paint, and make pottery, and made sculpture myself. Nat was an accomplished artist. When he would sculpt a portrait bust, he would build an armature, place a large lump of clay over it, and then begin building it up with pieces of clay rolled into tapered cylinders that built the character of the subject as it built their features. Similarly in his paintings his brush strokes would build the subject’s character along with their features. At one point in the 1940s when we were living outside of Philadelphia my mother suggested that he leave the SEC and set up an art supply store in the house so that he could paint full time. Nat decided against leaving the security of the law, but I think he did not regret it. He was satisfied painting for himself. He had no desire to sell his paintings.
Today Great Neck has a reputation as an affluent suburb, but at the time we lived there, many residents had come from backgrounds similar to that of my father, typically from the Bronx or Brooklyn. At the time Great Neck was strong in the arts as well as in the professions. Prominent performers and writers lived near us, and the brother of Man Ray, the Surrealist photographer, lived around the corner. He would occasionally try to sell one of Man Ray’s photographs to my father for $100. Today they sell for around a million.
One of the things Nat had done while at the SEC was to draft the laws under which mutual funds work. When he left the SEC and we moved to Great Neck, he became in-house council for a mutual fund. But he never liked working for someone else, so he stopped working and spent about a year looking for a small business to buy, buy into, or start. He finally settled on a company in the South Bronx that manufactured house-painting brushes that he bought into with a former New Deal colleague. Due to a change in U.S. import policies, their business strategy soon went out the window and the company struggled.
About that period he writes, “I kept walking the wrong way on the world’s most famous one-way street [Wall Street] and landed back in the South Bronx as part owner of a paintbrush factory. My partner, also a former New Dealer, and I ran that factory the way we had run the U.S. government, as a deficit-financed welfare institution. I soon returned to Wall Street, walked the right way, and after some years was able to retire.”
His partner had, shall we say, a colorful political past. In 1954 when I would come home from school and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings on television, my mother was joining other women in her circle to bring casseroles to my father’s partner’s home as a show of support. He was in hiding and there was an FBI surveillance car parked outside the home.
In the early 1960s Nat received a call from the owner of a major mutual fund for which he had once worked. The industry was under legislative attack and the leading funds wanted him to mount a coordinated defense. He did, leaving the paintbrush company to set up an office in the financial district. He began the defense with a law review article articulating his strategy and then entered into a series of court battles. He remarked at the time, “I have been out of the law for over a decade, but ten years ago I could not have done what I am doing now. Somehow, things had been percolating in my mind all this time.” Around the time I finished architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, my parents moved from Great Neck to Manhattan, where Nat had an etching press in the basement. A few years later they moved to Wilton, Connecticut, in a beautiful wooded area where Nat had an entire old stables for his studio in which he not only painted, sculpted, and made etchings, but also made violas. And played music.
After my sister and I left home and my mother’s parents died, Nat and Griselda had a few years alone, but then they raised my sister’s kid, Michelle, and many of Nat’s interests became revitalized. Michelle joined him in his studio as he painted, she read Russian novels, and she was an appreciative audience for the elaborate stories he composed in his letters to her. She became a musician, graduated Yale School of Music with a masters degree, and played the French horn in orchestras in Europe.
Wherever he was, Nat was part of a string quartet in which he played the violin and later the viola, and he often participated in amateur orchestras. And he composed string quartets. Classical music was often playing on the radio or on the phonograph in our home, and to this day when I hear certain music, memories of where I was when I first heard it come drifting back.
Nat died on August 9, 1995, just after a visit from Michelle and her baby daughter, Skye, his great grand daughter. He would be delighted with Skye’s literary interests and would have enjoyed discussions with her.
My mother, Griselda, died in 2006. You can find out more about her in her book about growing up in Queens, New York, which I will publish in the future.
John Lobell, 2014, New York
Bios of Nat and his wife Griselda from the back cover of their 1949 mystery novel, The Shadow and the Blot.
Nathan D. and Griselda G. Lobell
Nathan Lobell was born in the Bronx in 1911, and lived in New York City until he joined the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D. C. in 1937. His formal education was in the public schools of New York, at City College and Columbia Law School.
Before he turned to law he had tried painting, sculpture, playing the violin (he still plays in amateur chambers and symphonic groups, and has written “several small pieces for string quartet”), poetry and short story writing, and pot cleaning in the kitchen of the S.S. Washington.
His last publication, before this novel, was for the Columbia Law Review of April 1948, entitled “Revision of the Securities Act.”
He met Griselda while he was in his second year of law school, she in her first. He saw her walking down while he was walking up the main staircase of Kent Hall. At that moment he decided to marry her. The next day he took her to lunch, proposed over the dessert, and was accepted.
Griselda was born in New York in 1916, spent three years at Barnard and one at Columbia Law School. She is an avid fan of the detective story, and says she approaches it in the old-fashioned way, as a contest with the detective to see who solves it first. Thus she has “pretty strong notions about the ethics of the game.”
Mrs. Lobell says: “Strange as it may seem The Shadow and the Blot fulfills a very specific ambition that predates my marriage: to collaborate in writing a detective novel. Writing is fun for us. This book was written while we were living in a converted schoolhouse. In the evening, when the children were quiet, the dog had been whistled back, and the dishes stacked, I would curl my aching legs under me and poise my pen over a stenography notebook. My husband would pace the room and ask what we were going to write about that evening. I would outline the scene for him, then he would dictate something quite different and surprising, casually leaving it for me to integrate his inspiration into a tight plot. Then I would rewrite, and he would re-rewrite. Writing together gives us co-operative occupation and (generally) keeps our arguments impersonal.”
This is Nat’s obituary from the Wilton Bulletin in August, 1995
Nathan (Nat) Lobell, a financial attorney, writer, artist, musician, and viola maker, died Wednesday, Aug. 9. He was 83 and had lived in Wilton for 30 years.
Mr. Lobell was born in the Bronx of immigrant parents from Czernowotz in the Carpathian Mountains. He went to New York City public schools, City College and Columbia Law School. He also pursued artistic studies at the Beaux Arts Institute, the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art and other institutions.
Mr. Lobell was interested in all of the arts, in literature, language and ideas. At Columbia, he became a protégé of Adolph Berle, an architect of Roosevelt’s New Deal brain trust. Mr. Lobell went to Washington on the staff of the Temporary National Economic Committee and was counsel for a House committee.
He also served on the Hoover Commission as well as the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC where he developed the Shingle Theory, dealing with broker liability. He eventually became executive adviser to the commission. Mr. Lobell also wrote speeches for Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson.
After leaving the SEC, he worked in the mutual fund industry and wrote several articles on understanding mutual funds for the Virginia, Columbia and Yale Law Reviews.
Mr. Lobell married Griselda Holzinger, whom he met at Columbia University, in 1939. Besides working in business together, they coauthored a mystery novel, The Shadow and the Blot.
After retiring to Wilton in the early 1970s, he added viola-making to his activities and played in symphony and chamber music groups.
Mr. Lobell is survived by his wife of 56 years, a son, John Joyce Lobell; a daughter, Griselda Steiner; a granddaughter, Michelle Vikstrom and a great granddaughter, Skye Vikstrom.
[Note: Michelle Vikstrom’s name is now Michelle Prochazka, and Skye Vikstrom’s name is now Skye Lobell.]