April 2006

Carrie Jones

nonfiction

Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen

Sweet and Low is one of those books that doesn’t come along often in the memoir genre, a story that meshes family tales with footnotes so that they nest perfectly like an antique Fiestaware place setting. The apt subtitle is “A Family Story,” but Sweet and Low reaches beyond the Brooklyn family who created the Sweet’N Low empire and envelops the often dysfunctional clan of American dieters, shady politicians, historical figures and more into its familial fold.

Rich Cohen, who has written about the Cohen side of his family in his other books, uses all the tools of a hack on a hot lead to get the scoop on his mother’s family, the Eisenstadts of Sweet’N Low and the Cumberland Packing Company. This is not just journalistic skill in action, Cohen and the rest of his mother’s children were unceremoniously cut out of his grandmother’s will, simultaneously drawn deeper into the family’s suffocating web and dropped from the powerful information loop that kept the family fortune out of the disinherited Cohen pockets, and his extensive research is part of reclaiming this story for his immediate family. Rich Cohen is both inside and outside; his memories light the motivations of his mother’s side while his disinheritance give him the freedom to speculate and exhume.

While the reason for the disinheritance of Cohen’s mother Ellen’s family is never really solved, though the author gives his hypothesis: Ellen hooked up Cohen’s grandfather Ben with a well-known doctor (also Cohen’s cousin on the Cohen side) for treatment of a serious heart ailment and he died shortly after. In his family’s minds, Ellen killed Ben. Grandpa Ben is the patriarchal genius behind Cumberland and Sweet’N Low, a man who embodied all the values of the perfect American success story: hard work, innovation and loyalty to the “little” people who worked on the sweet, dusty factory floor. His wife Betty, later to end any possibility of reconciliation with Ellen and her “issue," is the sad product of a legacy of emotional scarcity and an almost cartoonish example of a mean grandma.

Their other children, golden boy Marvin (Uncle “Marvelous” to Cohen and later to the Sweet’N Low workers) who almost pulls the company under with his cowardice, and Gladys, a bedridden, but powerful, control freak, and Ira, who accepted his “crazy uncle” role with glee, fill out Cohen’s story. The circumstances behind their archetypical roles in his family lore are fascinating and Cohen’s tender analysis only adds to the reader’s understanding of the complicated family dynamics that so influenced a powerful company.

Cohen gets as much descriptive color from his own memories and chats with his estranged aunt and uncles as he does from court documents from various prosecutions and his mother’s never realized challenge of her mother’s will. As powerful and convincing as Cohen’s voice is, it is in these affidavits and witness stand testimonials that the aunt and uncles become fully realized characters. For Cohen these documents represent the problem of writing this book as well as the intended result: “I sent away to a federal record center in Georgia for all the boxes and files on the Cumberland prosecution, which I examined over several days… If I had been an anonymous reporter, I would have thought ‘Gold mine!’ As it was, I felt like a stalker lurking in the weeds behind my uncle’s house.” It is Gladys, almost never physically present, who haunts this story. Cohen describes her this way, even in the ugliest part of the Sweet’N Low saga: “Because she is a shut-in, Gladys has become an artist with the telephone. She can play it like Dizzy Gillespie played the horn, dazzling riffs ending in a slow fade, or the crisp percussion of a slammed receiver. She can reach out with the telephone, or punish. To my aunt, the telephone is a blood-swelled part of the anatomy, the antenna that feels out the world.” That Gladys is greatly implicated by Cohen in his disinheritance and other bad blood makes Cohen’s passionate description intensely moving.

Luckily, like the awesome, bright pink comic book cover of Sweet and Low says, for Rich Cohen, to be disinherited is to be set free. He used that freedom to write an amazing example of memoir and, along the way, anecdotal history. That Cohen seems genuinely at peace with the conclusion of the Sweet’N Low saga, and his own family drama, is perhaps the sweetest reward for the reader.

Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374272298
288 pages