Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Phyllis Lieberman Schlesser Swern 1922-2017

Phyllis Lieberman about 1944
    Phyllis and her twin, Jerry Lieberman, were born on December 15, 1922, in Philadelphia to Nathan and Ida (Grosser) Lieberman.  Phyllis told me that she was overweight and always felt unattractive as a child.  The family moved to Trenton, NJ in about 1940. Phyllis, who had dropped out of high school, studied cosmetology and hairdressing.  The family was not a happy one, and the stress grew worse when Phyllis' twin Jerry was killed in 1943 flying for the USAAC (see post here).
    As she grew older, Phyllis learned to highlight her beauty.  In May 1944, Phyllis became engaged to David Bernard Schlesser, son of Selig and Minnie Szlesser of New York City[1].  The Szlessers had immigrated to the US from Austria in 1932[2], and David had signed up to fight for his new country in 1942 at age 20[3].  He was a private in the US Army, probably stationed at nearby Ft Dix.  When they married on September 5, 1945[4,] he had recently been mustered out of the Army and returned to Trenton.  The couple was active in social activities at the Har Sinai synagogue and in October 1948, just before the birth of their son, David purchased a delicatessen at 64 Market Street in Trenton [5]. The marriage only lasted a few years, part of which the couple spent living in the Lieberman home.  By March of 1949, David posted a notice in the newspaper disavowing any debts not contracted by himself[6].  David moved to Miami, Florida, and after the divorce in March 1951[7], Phyllis officially became a single mother.
Phyllis and her son
     Phyllis wanted a more exciting life, and by 1953 she and her son had moved to Manhattan where they lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side, a block from Central Park[8]. Looking back, I suspect that the apartment was subsidized by her long time gentleman friend, although my family never said as much in my hearing. She became a dress designer.  She was always very chic. I remember frequently visiting her there as a child. She took me to lunch at elegant restaurants and ordered me my first oyster. She travelled to the Caribbean, and to Europe.  Her son soon began his education in a series of boarding schools and overnight summer camps, and Phyllis enjoyed the New York social life. By 1960 they had moved to a high rise apartment building at 3 Washington Square Village [9] and she had opened her own dress shop in Greenwich Village.  She designed and made all of the clothes, often using hand painted fabrics made by other artists in the Village.  The clothes were popular, but she was not a good business person, and the store closed, despite contributions from various family members who tried to keep it afloat.  Despite her financial troubles, Phyllis was always generous.  She always had a gift for me, even if I now realize that she was often re-gifting something that had been bought for her.  Sometimes the gifts were not perfectly appropriate.  I remember after a trip to Switzerland and France, she brought my six year old brother some skis, and she brought eight-year-old me a french string bikini.  I loved it, but the rulers of the Jewish Community Center swimming pool decreed that I could not wear it to swim there.
Phyllis in India
    Meanwhile, like many people in Greenwich Village and elsewhere, by the mid-sixties Phyllis had become interested in Eastern religions, and she embraced the idea of shedding worldly goods and living a simpler life.  She moved back to Trenton for a while, and in 1967 briefly married Marvin Swern[10], a widower from a prominent Trenton family who was also going through some difficult times.  They were divorced in 1973[11], although they had separated before that time.  She then went to to India in the mid 70s to study with her guru.
    Although I would see her often at family gatherings in Philadelphia or in Florida over the next decade, I was too involved in making my own life to be aware of hers.  I'm not sure where she was living or what she was doing.  Sometime after her son married and had sons of his own in the mid 1970s, she moved to Portland Oregon to be near his family. In her mid sixties, she decided to take advantage of a program for seniors and continue her education.  She got a GED, and then went on to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine art.
     Phyllis finally moved into a senior citizen apartment building on Northrup Ave in Portland and lived there until the end of her life.  She had a small but nice upper floor apartment with a spectacular view of the city.  She continued to use her designing and sewing talents, making items to sell at crafts fairs for some years, and then in the last few years, making hats for a local charity.  When I visited her last year, her apartment was filled with boxes of fabrics and her dining table was shared with a cutting mat and sewing items.  She was very independent, continuing to drive her car and running her own errands.  Her son and grandchildren were the focus of her life.  In December 2016 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She refused treatment, staying in her apartment and continuing to be independent as long as she could.  She died on March 2, 2017.

1.   Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ. Sunday May 14, 1944. p.10 "Society: Number of Engagements, Miss Phyllis Lieberman" GenealogyBank.com database on line.
2.  Ancestry.com, New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2006), www.ancestry.com, database online.  Record a SS Alfred Bain from Hamburg.
3. Ancestry.com, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death file, 1850-2010 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011), Ancestry.com. Record for David Schlesser.
4. Trenton, Mercer, New Jersey Marriage Certificate:  David Bernard Schlesser and Phyllis Lieberman 5 September, 1945. original document. Papers of Phyllis L. Swern.
5.  Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ. Sunday October 10, 1948. p.16.  "Delicatessen Store Changes Ownership" GenealogyBank.com database on line.
6. Trenton Evening Times, Trenton, NJ. Thursday March 3,1949 p.35.  "Personals" GenealogyBank.com database on line.
7.  Ancestry.com, Florida Divorce Index, 1927-2001 (Provo, UT, USA.The Generations Network, Inc., 2005), www.ancestry.com.
8.  Ancestry.com, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011), Ancestry.com, Record for Phyllis Schlesser.
9.  Ancestry.com, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011), Ancestry.com, Record for Phyllis Schlesser.
10.  Kettubah between Marvin Swern and Phyllis Lieberman Schlesser, Dec 23, 1967., Dec 23, 1967, Phyllis Swern papers; privately held by Phyllis Swern, Portland OR, 2017
11. Divorce of Phyllis Swern and Marvin Swern June 1973., Papers of Phyllis Swern; privately held by Phyllis Swern, Portland OR, 2017.