Marty Katz (left) and Bernard Marcus share memories at the Vi retirement community. (Photo/Carly Nairn)
Marty Katz (left) and Bernard Marcus share memories at the Vi retirement community. (Photo/Carly Nairn)

From Bronx to Palo Alto, these nonagenarians walked parallel paths in life

Bernard Marcus and Marty Katz grew up one block away from each other in the South Bronx and attended the same high school. But it was 80 years before they met in Palo Alto, 3,000 miles away from where they began. How did this happen? It was all because of a book.

One day last August, Katz, then 91, was walking by a library cart after a workout at the Oshman Family JCC when one of the titles caught his eye: “Only in America: From the South Bronx to Silicon Valley.” It was a memoir by Marcus.

“Oh my God, that’s me,” Katz exclaimed at the time. “I can’t believe this.”

What he couldn’t believe, he recently told J., were the striking similarities between Marcus’ life and his own, and that was after merely flipping through the pages. He checked out the book … and read it all in one night.

Zooming into detective mode, Katz soon discovered that Marcus attends Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills — some friends said they had just seen him at Torah study. In short order, Katz sent an email to Marcus outlining how his own history lined up with Marcus’ autobiography.

“No middle initial … Parents were Russian and Eastern European immigrants … South Bronx born and raised … James Monroe High School.” The list went on and on.

Marcus read the email and invited Katz to lunch.

They discovered both parallels and differences in their early lives. Katz spent a lot of his youth in the 1930s hanging around Coney Island, where his father and uncle were in the penny arcade business. “I knew all the vendors, freaks and girls,” he recalled.

Marcus, meanwhile, spent much of his childhood romping around a neighborhood filled with Jewish, Irish and Italian gangs. His parents, he wrote in his memoir, “tried to keep me off the streets as much as possible. They wanted me to be well-informed and intelligent.”

“We were two smart kids,” Katz told J.

However, because they are five years apart in age, they didn’t run into each other in the halls of Monroe High.

After graduation, both of their fathers thought that studying business at City College of New York would be the best way for their sons to make a living. However, both young men had other ideas — scientific ones. Marcus, who turned 97 on May 14, earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, and Katz chose biology.

On the night following their first lunch, Marcus’ wife, Ruthie, bought last-minute theater tickets at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Who should be sitting in right in front of them but Katz and his wife, Gabby!

As the friendship rolled onward, more details emerged. Katz began keeping a list of their similarities: their military service, the deaths of their first wives, moving cross country, their contributions to society through their work.

After World War II erupted, both men had enlisted in the military and served as staff sergeants, and both bypassed most of basic training to become intelligence officers. Eventually, they ended up at the same Army base in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Each was released from duty in 1946, and each got married in 1947 — to women who worked at department stores on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Marcus had one significant life experience that Katz did not. In the 1950s, he was called back into active duty and appointed as an aide to Joseph McCarthy as the senator from Wisconsin went after what he called “the communist menace” at Fort Monmouth (among other places). Of the 34 engineers at the military base McCarthy suspected of spying, only one was not Jewish. When Marcus asked the Army why he was chosen for the position, the general who assigned him answered, “We don’t want anyone to accuse us of being anti-Semitic.”

“It was some rarefied atmosphere that Bernie traveled in,” Katz joked while telling their stories.

If being tangentially involved in McCarthy’s Red Scare was something of a “Forrest Gump” moment for Marcus, Katz had his own while working for Syntex, a pharmaceutical company. Through Pfizer, he was in charge of setting up operations for the manufacturing of progesterone for the birth-control pill. “We had no idea of the empowerment to women that it would produce,” Katz said, playfully calling himself “the uncle of birth control.”

As the ’50s rolled on, work brought them to Palo Alto: Marcus in 1959 after he started working for Itek, an optical company that created camera systems for spy satellites and contracted with the CIA, and Katz in 1962.

Though they are now in their 90s, they “didn’t sit back and become couch potatoes,” Katz said. Marcus took up playing the piano at 80 and published his memoir in 2017 at 95. And Katz is a late-in-life sculptor with some noted works to his name, such as “The Moebius Loop Torah” in the meditation garden at Beth Am.

The two men continue to get together about once a month to discuss recent developments or resurfaced memories, and to enjoy their connection from the past and their friendship in the present.

Carly Nairn
Carly Nairn

Carly is journalist and a writer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mongabay, Guernica, SF Weekly and KQED, among others. She lives in San Francisco.