I was born on the 17th of January 1911, in Bound Brook, New Jersey, the third and final child of Joseph and Minnie White. Minnie Bourke and Joseph White met each other at a New York City social club. They were attracted to each other because they were both Free Thinkers who were intensely interested in advancing themselves and humanity through personal achievement. Joseph's father was a Jewish immigrant who came to the US from England, but originally the family came from Poland. Minnie's father was a Catholic immigrant from Ireland. You can find out a lot more about my parents and their upbringing in Margaret's A Portrait of Myself and Vicki Goldberg's Margaret Bourke-White, a biography.
I had two older sisters. Ruth, the older, spent a lot of time with me as a youngster. She taught me many things such as, how to manage roller skates in the summer and ice skates in the winter. Also how to study my home work, play a harmonica, and run a sewing machine. My sister Margaret was not unfriendly or aloof, but she was very busy making a name for herself by being tops in her school classes and being a leader where ever and at whatever she undertook. Often she entered a school class to learn, with no intention to lead, but soon found herself helping other students in the class.
I did very well in my first school year and I was placed in the third grade at the start of the second year. My mother and I were very proud of this promotion, but it lasted only one day. Apparently some higher-up in the school system decided that I should not thus skip the second grade so they put me back into the second grade. No explanation was given us, and this put-back was a terrible shock to me. After that I did very poorly in school, and to see if she could find a solution to the grades problem, mother moved me from school to school, but none of these moves solved my problem.
I got to know a few classmates at the first private school but I was shy and did not make friends easily. This constant switching certainly did not help. When I did make a friend I would tuck his name way back in my memory so that I could feel safe from my mother's questioning. Perhaps this is why I have never been able to quickly remember names of new acquaintances.
My mother loved to question me about all sorts of things. I didn't like this because the result of the inquiry was usually a criticism. So, with time, I learned to plead ignorance whenever she inquired. I remember my mother waking me early and immediately asking me what had I been dreaming about. This frightened me. I would answer, "Nothing." I was afraid that I would be blaming my mother for things that I did not like about myself? However I certainly did not really dislike mother. When I was older I felt more comfortable about describing my dreams to mother, and to others also.
Ruth and Margaret got good grades in school. I barely got through my school years. During these preteen years I didn't have many friends, so I turned inward for my satisfactions. I remember having fun with many private adventures, but often I didn't reveal these to my mother. One of these was a an underground cave digging project in an empty field near by. I knew this was dangerous, and I knew mother would not approve. I said nothing to her and indeed nothing bad happened. In the fall of the second year I quietly filled in my beloved cave. I do not recall that I ever told my mother about this adventure.
Mother required that I always come straight home from school so I never had close school friends. There was only one boy that lived near our home. He was three years older than I, and my mother said, "I don't want you playing with Jimmy." I did not understand why, but later I realized that he enjoyed getting me into trouble.
My father was a very creative engineer. He was employed by a large printing press manufacturing company, R. Hoe & Co. in Plainfield, NJ. There he developed many new improvements in the design of their printing presses and his employer obtained numerous patents for his innovations. One was a means of precisely registering different colors in printed matter. In those days the newspapers printed the "funny paper" pages in color but the different colors never quite matched and such things as a flesh colored face or other object would display an unwanted color at the edges. My father invented, and his company patented, a technique for properly registering the different funny paper colors. This achieved a big boost in the company's sales and profits. He got recognition from his boss, but no raise in pay. I can remember hearing mother chewing out father because, "Your company isn't paying you enough considering your many great contributions." and, "You should be insisting on a raise in pay." She may have been right about that but father was by nature a quiet unagressive person.
My father was a very quiet person. He was not exactly aloof or unfriendly but he rarely spent time with me and he seldom invited me to participate in whatever he was doing. But one day he did show his fondness for me. I remember clearly an occasion when he had to go back to his factory on a Saturday and he took me along. He set me up at a work bench with various wood working tools and pieces of wood for me to amuse myself with while he went about his business in an adjoining room. I started carving a piece of wood, my chisel slipped and I made a deep gash in my finger. I screamed and he came to my rescue. He wrapped my finger in Band-Aids and we headed home immediately. I was devastated. It wasn't the cut finger that troubled me. It was knowing that my father would get the very devil from my mother because he had left me alone at a work bench full of woodworking tools and some of these tools were dangerously sharp. (To this day I still carry a minor but visible scar on my left forefinger.) Father had a minor stroke in his late 40's. At first he could not talk but when his boss came to call on him he kept trying to say something to him. This man guessed what he was trying to say and told father he need not worry because the project he was working on would be on hold until he was ready to come back to work. Father relaxed immediately. Three months later he went back to work . Three years later, at the early age of 52, he had a second stroke. This one was fatal. I was devastated. I still remember crying uncontrollably on my mother's lap.
Mother decided to move us to Cleveland, Ohio. She bought a duplex house in Cleveland Heights and her plan was to rent out the first floor to Case Western students. That didn't work but she rented that space to a nice young working couple.
I learned most of our family history from my sister Ruth who was ten years older than me. At that time Jews were frowned upon by the Christian majority in America. Mother did not tell us about father's Jewish background until 1922 when I was eleven years old. Prior to the mid-twenties mother knew that revealing father's Jewish background would make life unpleasant for her children. When we were grown and Jewishness had finally become a non-issue among most American citizens mother explained father's Jewish background to us and that we could acknowledge it when asked, but also that this did not mean touting his religious background. It just meant that seeking friendship with Catholics, blacks, Orientals, and other Jews need not be an issue. I adopted this stance with enthusiasm. This became a valuable asset to me throughout my life. Ruth helped me in many ways when I was a boy. I felt at ease with her.
Thanks to a rich uncle's financing (Uncle Lazar) all three of us White children went to college. Ruth took four years of law training at a woman's college in Boston. Margaret went to Cornell University where her grades were tops and also she began her career as a photographer. Mother wanted me to go to MIT, but my high school grades were too low for admission. After a year of preparation at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH I had done well enough to be accepted at MIT in Cambridge, MA, just north of Boston.
Margaret took photographs of the Cornell campus buildings. She displayed some of them on a campus bulletin board. She found that students and staff were eager to obtain prints of her work. Her photo career advanced quickly, so it wasn't long before she was selling her work at fancy prices. The word got around and she got a job offer from the about-to-be-published "Life Magazine". She accepted with enthusiasm. Her work appeared generously in the first issue. Soon thereafter World War II broke out and Life Magazine sent her overseas. Her war time photos became world famous.
Soon after graduation my sister Ruth got a managment job at the American Bar Association. She advanced to Executive Secretary there. She was very popular in this job. Ruth died of cancer in her late forties. For years after that I found I could ask almost any lawyer, "Did you know Ruth White?" I would get, "Oh sure... did you say she was your sister?" Ruth was a mainstay at the American Bar Association headquarters.
One of my fond early memories is the daily newspaper route which I undertook as my first responsible work assignment. I distributed the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper each morning. It earned me a little spare cash of my own. In the winter I would come home with nearly frozen hands and mother would tuck them under her arm pits for them to thaw. This was a very great blessing to me.
When summer came I found additional work taking care of a nearby private clay-surface tennis court. Also at that time I found a friendly neighbor boy of about my age. He was a son of the then manager of the Plain Dealer. We got along fine. We played together, and we discovered that we could make up sandwiches and sell them at noontime to workmen on a nearby construction project. Thus I got my first serious business experience.