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September 2008
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DOUGH by Mort Zachter
Filed under: Recent Press 新公告
Posted by: Big Apple @ 4:48 pm
Pinching pennies all life long
September 10, 2008

My late mother wouldn’t take taxis because she found them too expensive. It’s not that she couldn’t afford a cab ride. But she hated doling out the dough.

We bought her prepaid taxi chits. Still, she didn’t use them.

Older relatives can be stubborn that way. They lived through the Depression and great wars.

Frugal habits are never discarded, even when affluence arrives.

So, I was touched by a memoir by Mort Zachter about his two bachelor uncles, who owned the Ninth Street Bakery on New York’s Lower East Side.

Zachter’s mother worked at the bakery, but never earned wages. She got free bread and cakes.

Uncle Harry and Uncle Joe made Zachter’s parents look rich. They drove a 20-year-old Buick that had been rear-ended, went to a deeply discounted dental clinic and wore suits dating back to the New Deal.

Zachter grew up to become a certified public accountant. He went to law school at night, but really wanted to be a writer.

Then, in 1994, he got a call from his uncle’s stockbroker asking what to do about a million dollars sitting in a money-market fund. Who keeps so much in a money-market account? Could his uncles have millions more in stocks and bonds? By this time, one uncle was dead and the other had dementia. Zachter found in their apartment all their brokerage statements.

“Uncle Harry was the real Six Million Dollar Man,” he writes in his book, Dough: A Memoir (Collins, $14.95), referring to the 1970s TV show, starring Lee Majors.

“But who in his right mind accumulates the wealth of a prince yet continues to live like a pauper?”

The book never resolves the question, as Zachter struggles to understand his uncles’ penurious ways and the parched lives they chose to lead.

He recognizes the same tendencies in himself. As heir to his uncles’ fortune – almost $3 million after estate taxes – he inherited their attitudes to money.

“They were my example, workaholic hoarders who had no idea what charity meant.”

Surprises abound when the second uncle dies and Zachter’s family clears out the apartment. They find bank books galore and stacks of annual reports – some shares worthless because the companies had gone bust long ago.

In a cardboard cake box, he finds roll upon roll of paper money held together with rubber bands.

“Uncle Harry must have neglected to clean the cake boxes before placing the money inside them. Most bills were fused together and could not be separated.” More cake boxes are found, but only a few hundred dollars could be salvaged. Canvas bags with pennies, nickels and dimes come out of the closet.

“Mort, you’re from old money,” his brother-in-law tells him.

I spoke to Zachter about his book, which languished for years until he won a writing prize for unpublished manuscripts. Excellent reviews led to a bidding war for the paperback rights.

A full-time writer at last, he stopped working as an accountant and tax lawyer after Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers exploded near his own office.

Now 50, he’s bought a beautiful house in Princeton, N.J., and keeps most of his inheritance invested in stocks. He also gives to charity, which his uncles did not.

Readers tell him of relatives like his, whose frugality bordered on pathos.

“I ended up blessed among men. A great story fell into my lap and I’m financially secure.”

Ellen Roseman’s column appears Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. You can contact her by writing to Business c/o Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6; by telephone at 416-945-8687; by fax at 416-865-3630; or by email at

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