The Suicide Club

By Larry Teren

hershel_bernardiBaby boomers recall the popular television commercial from the 1960’s of Charlie the Tuna in cartoon form trying to convince fishermen that amphibians with good taste also taste good. If you aren’t aware, Charlie’s voice is dubbed by Hershel Bernardi. Bernardi’s other claim to trivia fame is a short-lived television series (48 episodes) called Arnie, in which he plays a typically put-upon husband at home who gets promoted from his blue collar to white collar job at work.

Hershel came from a theatrical family- in the Yiddish theater, that is. In 1971, his brother Jack authored a book about the life of their father Berel, a famous comic actor in the Yiddish circuit from the turn of the century until his death in 1932. Jack recounts a macabre incident when Berel took on a job for a short run in Toronto, Canada.

Berel had a good relationship with the theater manager named Pearlman. The weekend business was good enough and during the week special performances were promoted to bring in the traffic. So it was strange for Pearlman to one day ask Berel if he would lend him $300 by Thursday and pay back with 2% interest the following week. Berel had the money, but not much more. He told his “boss” not to worry, that if he needed it he would give it to him that evening and that he should forget about the interest. Pearlman thanked him and promised Berel that he would get the money back. In fact, Berel received a written I.O.U.

Berel had a sleepless night worrying that he had made a mistake in lending the money to his boss. He went to the theater the next day to rehearse only to see all the members of the troupe milling about outside with two policemen keeping order. Asking what was going on he was told bluntly, “Pearlman committed suicide.” Now for sure, Berel knew he would never see the $300 again. Suicide victims don’t return IOU’s, right?

Wrong! An investigation determined that Pearlman’s real name was Hertzog and that he had belonged to a suicide club. The previous night, he had received a phone call telling him that his number came up in the random selection, and it was now his turn to commit suicide. He swallowed a small vial of potassium cyanide that he kept with him and died almost instantly. The fact that he borrowed money from Berel was coincidental. The authorities found in his safe the $300 he had borrowed with a note saying that the money belonged to Berel.

robert_louis_stevensonThe concept of a suicide club was first conjured up to the public in a short story of three small episodes published by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1887. In recent years, the mantle seems to have been taken up by several crazed individuals who want to go out in a blaze of glory taking as many people as they can- especially those whom they believe wronged them at one time or another.

In the summer of 1971, I decided to call a former high school classmate to see if she would like to go see the movie M*A*S*H. I wasn’t really attracted to her but figured I’d give it a chance to see if any sparks would subsequently fly. We agreed to meet at a Sunday matinee showing at the movie theater. Apparently she was not too keen on the concept that this was a date and decided to go dutch. (Hey, more power to her). One of the underlying plots in the film was that a surgeon in a Korean War MASH unit was contemplating suicide. None of his buddies were taking him seriously and even went to the extent of humoring him by putting on a fake funeral as they gave him a placebo to swallow.

mashThere are some very funny scenes in the anti-war movie that poorly masked the author’s anti-Vietnam War position. Still, there was a cavalier approach to showing death as well as treating the suicide subplot as a joke. Compare that to today’s terrible statistics of too many suicides in the military by those who think they are signing on to play and not really put themselves into harm’s way.

My date didn’t seem fazed by all the gore on the big screen. Heck, I found out she was dating a guy who was studying to be a doctor. I guess she figured she could get used to gore. They did marry, have children but subsequently divorced. Me- at my age, like George Burns used to say- I’ll take two 25 year old’s.

One should be very careful how they tempt death. It will get you when it is ready, even if you aren’t. In Jack Bernardi’s recounting of the characters his family gets to know, one is of a fellow who likes to take advantage of a tragedy to make a few bucks. He mentions how one time an elevated train takes a bend in the tracks too quickly in Brooklyn. A few cars fall to the ground. Innocent passers-by are both killed and injured. This fellow happens to be passing by at the accident scene and quickly reacts by lying down near other victims writhing in pain hoping to cash in. Not too long after, as he is crossing the street, he is hit by a car and suffers a lot of internal injuries. He stays in the hospital for a couple of months before he succumbs.

Groucho Marx was fond of saying that he would never belong to a club that would want him as a member. Yep- the suicide club is one organization that no one should ever consider joining.

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