American holidays are a time of family traditions. Most of us have some sort of routine, a ritual if you will, that we repeat year after year. It might be the menu. My family adopted scallop chowder as a Christmas Eve food tradition many years back quite by accident, but it has become a staple of our holiday menu. It is a must-have. Where and when gifts were exchanged and opened are things most adults can still clearly recall from their childhood memories. Your family’s practice for this may have been very different from my family but I’m willing to bet whatever it was, it was nearly the same for you year after year after year.
Can the same be said for celebrities? Do the rich and famous actually have traditions that appear annually or do they simply indulge themselves in whatever celebratory excess pops to mind in any given year? As it turns out, celebrities are people, too.
It might be natural to think that someone who is a #1 New York Times best selling author, actor and former Saturday Night Live writer would be more likely to be impulsive during the end of the year. If I tossed in that his mom was an Academy Award-winning actress and his dad is arguably Hollywood’s greatest comic genius, your assumption might be furthered down that same path. You’d be sadly disappointed however.
In November, I called “World War Z: An Oral History of Zombie Wars” writer Max Brooks to ask him if we could talk a bit about family traditions during the holiday. His immediate reaction was that if I was looking for celebrity high jinx and crazy stories of excess, I’d come to the wrong place. I assured Mr. Brooks that I actually found great comfort in the fact that his holidays were normal.
Now if we could just define “normal.”
Max Brooks is a best selling author. “World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide” are just a couple of his works. He is also the son of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks. Max lives in Southern California with his wife and 11-year-old son and thanks to his extensive writing is generally recognized as the world’s foremost expert on zombies. So what are his holidays like? Are they filled with the undead and strange occurrences? To the contrary, they are delightfully normal.
Mr. Brooks tells me that as a kid, family was most definitely the center of holiday celebrations. “Family was very big. We had a big Italian family on my Mother’s side for holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter - it was always Yonkers, my Grandmother’s house in Yonkers. The first dime my Mother ever made, she bought her mother and sister a duplex, so that’s where we went.”
Mr. Brooks says his mom (Bancroft) had two sisters, both of whom had four children, so there was an explosion of activity as they all gathered. He describes it as “very, very blue collar Italian American.” The Italian food played an important role, with Mr. Brooks saying it was so good that the “rest of the world’s food seemed so bland” in comparison.
He says at these gatherings he learned about life and about culture from his cousins, all of whom were years older than him. “I learned about a band called KISS and a guy named Bruce Springsteen” from those cousins. “I learned a lot about music and movies from them.”
The holiday gatherings set the table for other family get-togethers as well. Mr. Brooks‘ cousin bought two rather rustic homes on Fire Island which were turned into what he describes as “sort of a family compound for three months in the summer. We did a lot of gardening, a lot of fishing, and put a lot of fish guts in that garden.”
It was during his teen years that actor and family friend Alan Alda took Max under his wing. Mr. Brooks had written his first story at age 12 and by ninth grade had authored a 400-page story. Mr. Alda, a great communicator himself, gave Max feedback and advice. Mr. Brooks says, “He was very practical. He was critical and offered detailed feedback. He encouraged me to do research for my writing. He was a good professor (with) tough love.” Mr. Brooks says he never would have enjoyed his Zombie successes if not for Mr. Alda’s mentoring.
As a kid, Mr. Brooks says, “Holidays were always built around Mom.” That all changed however when his Mom passed away at just 73 years old. “It was very hard. When my Mom died we moved back to California. The large family gatherings all kind of faded away. Now our Christmases and Thanksgivings have gotten much smaller.”
Mr. Brooks says his family had to become tighter after his Mom’s death because of a variety of factors. The loss left his Father adrift. At the same time Max and his wife were just getting a routine down with their newborn boy. “That new life required constant care, so we all kind of circled the wagons around my baby. He sort of anchored us all.”
Max Brooks bristles when he perceives as even a hint that someone believes life may be easy for Hollywood’s big names. “My mother was a poor kid from the Bronx. My father was a poor fatherless kid from Brooklyn. These so-called Hollywood elites came up from grinding poverty.” He continues, ” The media tries to portray it that once you hit it, it’s a life of luxury and coasting and that’s absolutely not the truth at all. You don’t know where your next job is coming from. Your career can be over in a dime through no fault of your own. Anyone in the arts lives in this constant level anxiety that one day you’re done.”
Max is the star now. The middle aged husband and father organizes the holidays around his family these days. He describes his 2020 Thanksgiving in one word. “Cautious.”
His legendary father is now 94 years old. While Mel Brooks is perfectly healthy, his age bracket puts him among those at greatest risk from the coronavirus so the entire family takes the COVID-19 crisis extremely seriously. “We were not able to get together at the beginning of Hanukkah because we were not able to get tested.” Max explains his son had to go to the dentist for his braces and the resulting risk of exposing his father was just too great.
“Usually our Christmas is very low key. What we would do was we’d go over to my Dad’s house. We’d get Chinese food. It’s a very Jewish tradition to get Chinese food on Christmas Eve.”
“We’d watch an old movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life” which is one of my son’s favorite movies, we’d spend the night at my Dad’s and the next morning we’d have Christmas under the Christmas tree and open our presents. My Mother in Law would come over and my brother in law would be there …” Brooks drifts off for a moment and then wistfully picks up again, “but we don’t know what we’re going to do this year. We really don’t.”
Where there is a will, there is a way, however. Max says the way things are looking right now the family may be forced to have Christmas Eve without his Dad, “then go over to his house Christmas Day and maybe open our presents on the front porch and he may be behind the glass. It’s the only way to be sure.”
Let’s hope this isn’t a practice that becomes tradition.
There is a clear concern and strong passion about COVID in Max Brooks‘ comments. I ask him if he considers himself an optimist, a pessimist or as most pessimists say, a realist. His answer is emphatic, “I am a huge optimist because I am an American and that’s all we have. We are a hodge podge, this patchwork. We all came from somewhere else. The only thing holding us together is our ideals.” Brooks then puts it all in perspective. “To be idealistic in other countries is a luxury. To be idealistic in America is a necessity.”
Max Brooks grew up with famous parents. He has earned great success himself. His holidays, like most of us, are rooted in family and friends. Like with so many of us, 2020 has altered the Brooks holiday plan, but even a pandemic can’t defeat the love of family and meaning of the season.