Someone recently asked if my grandfather, who ran a Detroit bar for 60 years, was more like the affable Sam Malone from the TV show Cheers or Moe Szyslak, the bartender from The Simpsons who was known for his bad temper and suicidal attempts.
In fact, he was more like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, minus the pearls and the black sheath.
Like the New York call girl who loved to eat pastry and peer dreamily in the window of the iconic store, my grandpa always paused for a moment or two in front of Szmienski’s jewelry store on Michigan Avenue and sipped a cup of coffee before he opened the doors at the Rose Café.
His customers, rough Chrysler and Cadillac factory workers, didn’t realize that my grandpa had a secret life as a jewelry designer — everything from tiaras to cocktail rings.
One of the first pieces of jewelry he created was an engagement ring for my grandmother’s sister Caroline — his first fiancé.
Before he hooked up with my grandma Rozalia, my grandpa Mike Krzemienski had proposed to Caroline Orzech in 1925 in Poland, but Caroline broke off the engagement after going on a religious retreat and realizing that she had a calling, not as a wife, but as a nun.
She joined the Ursuline Sisters and returned the ring to Mike. My grandma quickly moved in and caught his eye. The ring went from Caroline to Rose. The broken engagement became a dim memory and my grandparents were married a short time later.
My grandpa had designed Caroline’s ring while he was a factory worker at the Graham-Paige auto plant in Detroit and he paid a jeweler in Krakow, Poland to make it. Instead of looking for an American girl, my grandpa briefly returned to the Old Country seeking a wife from the village where he grew up. He planned to go back to Detroit with his new bride, not to grind it out on the auto line, but to start his own business.
The Art Deco ring has a rectangular white topaz and an intricate setting featuring tiny rose-gold roses with green-gold leaves. It was clear to me that he had the wrong sister all along, because my grandma’s name was Rose. Surely, she deserved the namesake ring.
After he opened the bar and began making some money, my grandpa started sketching out all kinds of baubles. He commissioned a tiara for my mother when she was in the second grade. She wore it when she played the accordion in local concerts. And he added a rhinestone strip to the musical instrument for additional sparkle.
He came up with the idea for an opal necklace with an unusual twist. He had the jeweler take chips of opals, put them in a teardrop-shaped piece of glass and fill it with water before capping it with a gold top. Unbelievably, the water has not evaporated and is still in the glass some 80 years later. An aquamarine bracelet, another creation, was inspired by the color of my grandma’s eyes. A silver ring in the shape of a shamrock has a pearl nestled in the middle of it.
Some of his jewelry has an industrial heft and look. Most notable is a chunky silver pin he came up with that I swear was inspired by the Diego Rivera murals of the Detroit auto industry at the city’s art institute.
Some of his designs were duds. The biggest gaffe was a ring he gave my grandma on their 25th wedding anniversary. It featured a large number 25 in pavé diamonds in a gold setting and is perhaps the most garish piece of jewelry I’ve ever seen. It’s still in the family, but I’ve never seen anyone actually wear it, not even my grandma.
And unlike many small business owners who frame the first dollar they’ve made, grandpa had a different idea. He took a Morgan silver dollar and had it made into a necklace for my grandma. Wisely, she never took that out of her jewelry box either.
My grandpa also had a reputation as a patron of the arts in his neighborhood and kept at least one local artist busy with his ideas and orders for still-life paintings and portraits. The artist, Janusz Dib, who had an art gallery on the same block as the Rose Café, had my grandma sit for a portrait at my grandpa’s request, an unusual one in this blue-collar neighborhood. She wore a blue suit and a diamond pin that my grandpa designed for the special occasion.
Apparently, Dib was an artist from the naturalist school because he painted my grandma with dark circles under her eyes. She was something of an insomniac, so it’s not surprising that she might have looked tired. Grandpa had a fit when the wraps came off the portrait and ordered the artist to redo her face to make her look well rested.
Grandpa’s artistic bent extended to local theater, where he played the lead role in Rumpelstiltskin. One of my favorite pictures shows him clowning around in a Chinese hat and tunic, perhaps from another play. He also built an elaborate replica of his Polish village in the basement of his house on St. Lawrence Street in Detroit. It even had tiny outhouses with crescent moons carved on the doors and a little pond made of a mirror with a tiny man fishing from a dock.
My mother remembers that her father loved shopping and often picked out special outfits for her. In the midst of the Depression, there was a burgundy leather coat with a matching purse that he bought for her at the J.L. Hudson department store in downtown Detroit. She was in the fourth grade. Another outfit featured a matching coat and derby hat. A picture from the 1930s shows her wearing the outfit with a delighted look on her face.
My grandma, a fine seamstress, would sometimes make my mother’s prom gowns, with artistic input from grandpa, the Oscar de la Renta of the old Polish neighborhood.
At the same time that grandpa was exploring his creative — some might say feminine — side, my grandma liked to occupy herself with manual labor when she wasn’t tending bar or sewing. This included making concrete repairs on her driveway.
Grandma, who stood no more than 4-10, loved watching workers putting a roof on a house or landscaping a yard. She was as handy with tools as any man and thought a trip to the hardware store was a real treat. In fact, anyone who knew her even briefly often heard her say wistfully, “I should have been born a man!”
She rarely wore the lipstick that my grandpa bought for her and the only perfume on her dresser was a dried-up bottled of Tosca 4711 that she never used. Of course, grandpa was the one who picked out the scent, a heady fragrance that debuted in 1921 and was described as a “feminine classic.” If she were alive today, I’m sure she would side with the women who say that make-up is just another way of exploiting and objectifying women. She was ahead of her time.
There were no discussions about gender identity or fluidity back in the day. But now I wonder what was really going on with my grandparents, three-dimensional people who defied categorization.