‘Claremont Boy’: The Boyhood (and Town) That Made the Man

Joe Steinfield left Claremont at age 18 to go to college and then law school, and has not lived there since. But in his mind he’s still a kid from Claremont, the place that was for him growing up, he writes in a recently published collection of essays, “the center of the universe.”

Claremont Boy: My New Hampshire Roots and the Gift of Memory (Baughan Publishing) compiles 90 columns that Steinfield has written since 2006 for the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript in Peterborough, N.H.

“I kept writing them and they kept printing them,” he said in an interview from Boston, where he works as a trial lawyer, and lives with his wife Virginia Eskin.

But first things first. Please don’t confuse him with Jerry Seinfeld. Note that Joe from Claremont has a “t” and an extra “i” in his name; once invited to a friend’s house, he disappointed two boys there who were sitting expectantly at the top of a set of stairs waiting for Jerry to show up.

For many years Steinfield was a partner in the distinguished firm Hill & Barlow, which was dissolved in 2002 but gave rise to the political careers of former Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld, and present governor Deval Patrick. He is now a partner at Prince Lobel in Boston, and in 2012 was appointed by Gov. Patrick to the Boston Finance Commission, a watchdog agency.

How Steinfield, with a B.A. from Brown University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, got into the columnist business stems from a chance meeting with Daniel Ellsberg, the intelligence analyst who passed the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971.

He’d heard Ellsberg speak at a conference in California in 2006 and knew Ellsberg was the son-in-law of the founder of the Marx Toy Company, which manufactured, among other objects, toy airplanes. As a boy, Steinfield received a Marx silver toy airplane from his parents but it broke on its maiden flight.

He’d sent off a heartbroken letter to the company and received a response from Mr. Marx himself, apologizing for the loss and promising a new toy plane. Steinfield waited in vain for that plane to arrive. When he told his mother he wanted to send Marx a follow-up letter holding him to his promise, she rejected the idea, implying that it was beneath his dignity, and the family’s, to berate the toy manufacturer.

He regaled Ellsberg with the story, and then, on a whim, decided to turn it into a short and sweet piece called My Lost Plane and Daniel Ellsberg , which he mailed off to the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. Although Steinfield no longer lived in Claremont, he and his wife Virginia Eskin had a second home in Jaffrey, N.H., where they subscribed to the Ledger.

The paper accepted it and then took a second article from Steinfield that he called My Cousin’s Bar Mitzvah and Dominic DiMaggio. Steinfield, then 14 and attending his cousin’s bar mitzvah at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, was seated at the same table with DiMaggio, retired Red Sox center fielder and brother of Joltin’ Joe.

Steinfield is one of those people who seems to have a knack for meeting famous people. Readers of his book will note that he also rubbed shoulders with Julia Child, Duke Ellington and, of all people, Ozzy Osbourne, whom he represented briefly when Osbourne and his band were told by Boston’s Licensing Commission that they couldn’t play the Boston Garden because of Osbourne’s alleged fondness for eating heads off of live chickens. (Steinfield got Osbourne back into the Garden.)

The book is intended to be a humorous, light read, with more ruminative columns about the meaning of family. “I never intended to write a book that would be a National Book Award candidate — and sure enough I didn’t,” Steinfield said.

Steinfield’s column, titled Looking Back, ranges over a large array of subjects, from sports to family to travel, but much of the focus has been on his youth in Claremont in the 1940s and 1950s, when there was a relatively flourishing population of Jewish immigrant families, as well as Poles, Italians, Greeks and French-Canadians.

“I spent the first 18 years of my life in Claremont. My mother remained in Claremont for a number of years and I still go back. My family lived there for several generations,” Steinfield said.

Steinfield’s maternal grandparents were both immigrants from Poland who, before they met, both made their way through Ellis Island to Lowell, Mass., where they met. Once married, they moved to Boston, and then to Littleton and Berlin, N.H., and finally to Claremont.

In 1900, Steinfield’s paternal grandparents moved to Claremont, the second Jewish family to live there. His father Frank and his two brothers owned the Claremont Waste Manufacturing Co. on the Sugar River. Claremont Waste made flock, a soft material used both to stuff cushions and on wallpaper, where it creates the illusion of a raised velvet surface.

By the time Steinfield was ready to be bar mitzvahed, Claremont had a synagogue, housed in an old school and named Temple Meyer-David, for two young men from Claremont who were killed in World War II. There aren’t as many Jewish families left in Claremont now, and the synagogue is not as well attended as it used to be, one of a handful of significant changes that Steinfield has seen on his visits back.

“The most profound change has to do with the life of downtown Claremont. As a kid, it was the shopping center of the county. The stores could stay open till 9 o’clock and the sidewalks were filled with shoppers. I don’t know if that’s true today, I suspect it’s not,” he said. “There was never in my memory a vacant storefront.”

But don’t mistake Steinfield’s reminiscences in Claremont Boy for rose-colored nostalgia. “That’s not a useful way to feel. I believe that from what I know the city has made efforts at self-improvement and has had some success and has attracted new people.” Cities like Detroit, he added, “would do well to inhale a breath of Claremont optimism.”

Then Steinfield segues into an analysis of why such communities as Claremont were more than just pleasant places to grow up. The point isn’t that Claremont was a perfect place. It was homogeneous in the sense that although it was ethnically diverse there was but one African-American family there, and like all towns it had richer people and poorer people, and its share of social ills. This was also the era of McCarthy and bitter racial segregation.

But for most of the children who went to school with Steinfield, the town fulfilled an indispensable civic function, which was to nourish them socially and intellectually and then send them out into the world with a degree of confidence that they would succeed.

Take Steinfield’s high school English teacher Normand Paquette, who was not only a stickler for grammar and spelling, a man from whom Steinfield learned to abhor the split infinitive, but an impassioned teacher of how to think more clearly and argue more forcefully.

When Paquette died a few years ago, Steinfield said, “two or three generations of Stevens High School students went into collective mourning. ... He was extraordinary and he changed our lives for the better.” There were 110 people in his graduating class and a high percentage of them went on to college, Steinfield said.

Then there was the golf course, where Steinfield played with his friends. The stereotype of a golf course is of wealthy people in plaid pants, but in his experience it didn’t “break down by wealth or class at all.” The people who used the course came from the mills, the stores downtown, the local businesses. “It was, I think, a pastime or sport of equals,” he said.

And if there was anti-Semitism in town he didn’t experience it, except for one incident when another kid used an epithet but they sorted that out in a tussle.

“Where you grow up does or does not prepare you for the rest of your life,” Steinfield said. “There are plenty of bumps and detours along the way, and yet, we are the product of our youth. We’re shaped, in a real sense, in our personalities, in our outlooks, in our attitudes towards other people and in our view of the world. Certainly growing up there for me has stood me in good stead. I think that’s the point that I would make. I think it prepared me for life in ways that I should be grateful for.”

Steinfield will read from “Claremont Boy” at 3 p.m. on June 7 at Violet’s Book Exchange in Claremont.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.