Book Review: A Penny From Heaven

A Penny From Heaven by Max Winkler  (Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc 1951)

Anyone suffering through the trepidation of an uncertain job market and being out of work with no savings, would find comfort and inspiration by reading Max Winkler’s, 1951 autobiography and ode to America,  A Penny From Heaven.

Even for those not being in the same circumstances, Winkler’s book is a page-turning, lively recreation of the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Achieving the American Dream and leaving behind the “old country” forever, was the goal of millions of ignorant, poor and helpless European immigrants and Winkler conveys the struggle as well as any writer ever has.

Max Winkler was born March 15, 1888 and begins the story with his upbringing in a rural town without electricity or a schoolhouse, nestled deep in the Carpathian Mountains of Bucovina (the region is now divided between Romania and Ukraine). His father, Bernhard Winkler, was the manager of a sawmill which employed 5,000 people, many from neighboring villages. The tight-knit, hard working Winkler family not wealthy, but they owned one of the eight houses that were in the main village. The workers had much harder lives and worked in two shifts, 24 hours a day, from 5 am until 7 pm, and from 7 pm until 5 am, six days a week and camped out in tents.

In 1897, Winkler and twin brother, David,  were sent to live with their grandmother in Radautz, a large town of 20,000 inhabitants so they could receive a formal education. Winkler also received training on violin which would play a major role in his future.

Winkler’s decision to emigrate to the United States as a teenager with two of his brothers and his father’s blessing would result in what he described as  “the greatest honor ever bestowed upon me, my United States citizenship.”

The brothers arrived in New York on February 19, 1907 after a journey on land and sea fraught with excitement and danger. On the ship, the S.S. Gerty, many of the passengers literally fell to their knees when they saw the Statue of Liberty. Winkler describes a feeling that few today could possibly relate to, the gratefulness they felt upon coming into view of Manhattan.

“Everybody was on deck, and the deck was rocking with ever-growing waves of laughter, tears, embraces, kisses and dances. Nothing that had happened to us in the past mattered any more. And as the Manhattan skyline revealed itself in its unmatched greatness before our astonished eyes something even stranger happened. We all stopped dancing, laughing, crying and kissing. We just froze. We stood and looked and looked, speechless, motionless, wondering that this tremendous mass did not sink into the ocean.”

The brothers spoke German and set up a temporary home in a small room at an aunt’s crowded apartment on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan. Within weeks, they quickly burned through what little money they had brought over and were desperately looking for work.  Max Winkler was literally down to his last penny and he used it to mail a postcard for a job at Carl Fischer’s Music House.  How Winkler got the job that started him on his road to success is an inspiring story in unrelenting doggedness.

Winkler would work for years in the basement of the sheet music department at Fischer’s doing back-breaking chores six days a week.  He picked up a vast knowledge of music while working there. One anecdote about a runaway best selling song, “Hearts and Flowers” is hilarious. “Hearts and Flowers” sold millions of copies and the composer, Theodore Moses Tobani, was an employee, one of many composers  for the Fischer Company.  Because he was a staff writer, Tobani didn’t profit from the song at all. He was paid his salary and relinquished all rights completely and forever.  Winkler felt horrible that Tobani was exploited and never shared in the huge profits his song generated.

That is the way Winkler felt until years later, when he absent-mindedly looked down at the sheet music from a very old piece by Alphonse Czibulka that Fischer’s had imported from Europe called “Love and Roses” subtitled “A Flower Song.” Glancing at the music melody Winkler realized the song was in fact “Hearts and Flowers” note for note!  Tobani had “borrowed” the entire song for his runaway hit.

Within five years of his arrival in America, Winkler came up a unique idea which transformed his life. In the early days of cinema, large orchestras or more often the case, a sole piano player would musically accompany the films which were silent.

It was unusual for the motion picture company  to supply music to go along with what was happening on the screen.  So left to their own devices,  the musicians would sometimes play inappropriate music for what was transpiring on the screen. With Winkler’s encyclopedic knowledge of music he realized if he compiled and selected music that could be played for the films, it would make the films much more enjoyable. Suspense music would be played when it was called for, happy music for happy scenes and so on. It was a revolutionary idea and through his own initiative his “cue sheets”were first tried out by Universal Pictures. They were a resounding success.  While still working at Fischer’s, Winkler worked on these film cue sheets at night and  he writes:

“I had always been told that America was the land of opportunity. Now, for the first time, opportunity had knocked at my own door. I had heard it knock and opened the door for it to come in. I was filled with happiness and pride.”

The rest of Winkler’s family by this time had joined him in America. He marries, goes through business failures and triumphs, raising a family, caring for his aging parents and all of the other things that many readers today can relate to.  Winkler gets taken in a mortgage housing scam in a scenario eerily similar to the current sub-prime mortgage crisis.  Throughout the book, Winkler’s voice is one of optimism, regardless of the dire situations that were confronting him.

Winkler would go on to found his own company Belwin, Inc and eventually become one of  largest music publishing houses in the country.

He may come across as overly sentimental sometimes, but you know he is sincere when he writes near the end of the story:

“But what is material success, physical comfort and exterior elegance, without happiness of the heart and the mind and the spiritual peace of the soul? I have found happiness of the heart and mind in the companionship and the love of the girl I married, and in the pride of accomplishment. I have found spiritual peace of the soul in the process of right thinking, right living and in the memory of my mother, my father and those who so dearly loved me and are now blessed with the peace of eternal rest.”

This book is a great portrait of a vanished New York. Describing the feelings of what it was like to be alive in New York in the early part of the twentieth century, Winkler captures the excitement and marvelous change that was occurring on an almost daily basis. He tells of the closeness of family and its importance in life. His description of arduous working conditions in New York is among the best of its kind.

The evident pride Winkler displays in his adopted country jumps off the pages. Putting down the book you realize that maybe America still has opportunities to offer,  even if we sometimes lose sight of that fact in these tumultuous times.

Max Winkler died at the age of 77, on October 5, 1965 at Miami Beach, FL. The book he left behind is worth reading.

A Penny From Heaven was in print from 1951 until 1968. Copies are available on many used book sites for between $2-10 plus shipping.

We will be profiling and and pointing out more books that may have been overlooked and forgotten as time has passed them by, but remain noteworthy. And of course we will also look at current books.
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4 thoughts on “Book Review: A Penny From Heaven

  1. Yvonne Wait

    I have a copy of this book signed by the author. ( To Maureen Hodnell from Max Winkler). Just started to read it and already engrossed by the tale.

  2. Janita Black

    I found the book on a used book table sale and loved it. I have been a music teacher for many years and it was so interesting to learn of the history behind the publishers of so much of the music I have used.

  3. Gary Eisenberg

    In the mid-70’s, I worked under the direction of Martin (“Marty”) Winkler, son of Max Winkler. He was a very astute businessman, who built somewhat of an empire, Belwin-Mills Music. I learned some valuable lessons through my interaction with Marty Winkler. I knew about this book by his father, but never bothered to read it. The time has come. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Jon Baker

    Thanks for this. Winkler was a distant relative. We had the book when I was little, and I used to like it a lot. He’s my cousin’s husband’s uncle. Max Winkler’s brother Jack had a son Gilbert, who married Florence Goldfarb, my mother’s cousin, also from a musical (cantorial) family. I don’t think they’re related to Henry Winkler the actor, whose family came from Germany, not Bukovina.


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