The Holocaust survivor who birthed a rock star
In ten years as a reporter, I have interviewed hundreds of couples. But no two people, not Taylor and Burton at war, or Belushi and Aykroyd at play, have made me laugh, and cry, and think, as much as Gene Simmons, the rock star, and his mother.
Gene is an accomplished producer, manager, and actor. But he is best known as the lead singer of Kiss, the phenomenally successful rock band distinguished by its garish white makeup and monster costumes. For years, Simmons refused to appear in public without that makeup, although it took him as long as two hours to apply (he carried a cosmetics case loaded with more than forty tubes, brushes, and bottles). At concerts, Simmons breathed fire, belched smoke, and flashed his trademark: a tongue of absurdly long and menacing proportions.
But Kiss is more than the sum of its gimmicks: Its twenty heavy metal albums have sold an incredible 65 million copies.
I had my first encounter with Gene Simmons in a fabulously rock-starrish apartment. Gene had constructed, from scratch, a penthouse on the roof of a Manhattan building, and now he was decorating the place with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and "Mesopotamian" columns. But after we had talked for a few minutes, he asked me to accompany him on a visit to his mother on Long Island. Downstairs, a stretch limo complete with bar and Betamax awaited us. Forty minutes later, the limo was in another world: outside the split-level home that belongs to Gene's mother, Florence.
"Isn't she gorgeous?" Before the limo has even stopped, Gene has leaped out and is hugging his mother on the driveway. In her foyer, Florence, a petite blonde with a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent, has hung a banner: WELCOME HOME, MY DARLING ONLY SON. Upstairs, Florence serves the kind of meal that kept Gene at 220 pounds through high school, including bagels and lox and all the trimmings. She chides Gene for starting his cheesecake before eating his sandwich ("The only thing that worries me is that he'll gain"). Then, when Gene flashes his trademark, Florence sighs, "I told him never to stick out his tongue. He didn't listen."
Otherwise, Florence has no complaints about her son. "As long as he doesn't smoke or take drugs," she says, "I'm happy." She calls Gene "Chaim," his given name and the Hebrew word for "life," and wears a photograph of him in full Kiss makeup in a locket. The only records Florence owns are Gene's-except for a few discs she puts in front of them, "so if a burglar gets in, hopefully he'll see those first."
Playing one recent Kiss album, she sings along, seemingly oblivious to the lyrics: "Lick it up, there's something sweet you can't buy with money; come on, lick it up, lick it up." "I think it has something to do with sex," Florence observes. Protecting her ears with cotton, she comes to all of Gene's New York-area concerts. In one of the four bedrooms of her house, Florence has a small clock radio continuously tuned to New York's WNEW-FM. "I never turn it off, because I never know when they're going to play Kiss." When the band does come on, she turns it up so loud that her husband, Eli, "goes crazy." She has also filled more than a dozen scrapbooks with articles about Gene: "My friends send them to me. They know I'm crazy."
Florence has turned her home into an unofficial Kiss museum. Three downstairs rooms are packedwith Kiss memorabilia, including letters in which fans promise slavelike devotion to Florence's son. There are also gold and platinum records, a complete wardrobe of black leather and metal spikes (Gene's stage clothes) and a sampling of the Kiss merchandise that has made him rich. But the most elaborate artifacts are the huge needlepoints of a firebreathing Gene done by his mother. One, which took her three years to complete, bears the legend: "To my darling only son, who's the greatest star of rock and roll in the whole world." Says Florence, "I want to be able to look around the house and think of Chaim. It's a wonderful feeling having such a good person for a son."
She is equally loyal to Gene's friends. At first, Florence confused his longtime flame, Diana Ross, with Donna Summer. But now she says, "Diana has been a real good friend to Gene. It's hard, in his business, to have any real friends, because people are jealous." One year, Gene brought Diana and her ex-husband, Bob Silberstein, to Florence's house for a Passover seder. At another seder, Gene's guests were Cher, her daughter Chastity, and her son Elijah Blue. "I said, ‘Gene, you're bringing Cher? She's such a fancy, schmancy lady.' And Gene said, ‘No, she's just an ordinary, nice person.' And Gene was right." The seder guests, who included Gene's chauffeur ("I always invite him in. What's another plate?"), all put on yarmulkes, and Simmons led the service.
For her devotion, Florence claims she is amply rewarded. Gene phones her every week, "no matter where he is, even Japan," Of course, Florence calls him every day, and if his answering machine picks up, she talks for up to half an hour. "I just go blab, blab, blab," she says. "It's important for children, no matter how old they are, to know there's somebody who cares. Even when you're famous, you can still be lonely."
Does she overdo it? "My family thinks so," shrugs Florence, "but I'm not ashamed. He is my life. I don't have any other children. And his father wasn't here. We made it on our own-just me and Chaim." Florence's concern for Gene is the happy result of a life filled with almost unbearable hardship. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, a subject she is not afraid to face. "Even when Chaim was little," she says, "if there was a TV show about it, I let him watch. Our children have to know what happened."
Born in Jund, Hungary, in the 1920s, Florence worked in her parents' general store while apprenticing to a beautician. But the Nazis interrupted her training, moving her first to a Jewish ghetto, in 1942, and then to Ravensbrück, the first of three concentration camps in which she managed to outlast the war. She survived only because the commandants' wives needed beauticians. Still, when the camps were liberated, Florence was near starvation. And she was just hours away from being gassed by the Nazis "so the Americans wouldn't find us."
The next two years were hardly better. She returned home to Hungary to find that her parents were dead and that strangers had taken over their house. She found solace in a Zionist youth group, where she met Gene's father. "He was the best-looking guy, and he said I was the best-looking girl." They married three months later, which, Florence says, was a mistake. "You need to know a person better." The couple moved to Palestine, risking arrest by violating the British blockade. Gene's father went into the army; Florence was exempted because she was already pregnant.
Life in Israel, she recalls, "was incredibly hard. There was no money to buy things. I made Gene's first winter coat from an army blanket."
When Gene was six, Florence divorced his father and followed her two brothers to New York. She found a job in a dress factory in Brooklyn, sewing buttons and buttonholes for "very little money." Her workday, including commuting, stretched from 6:30 A.M. to 9:30 P.M. "I was never home," she says. "It's lucky Gene went straight." When he wasn't studying at Yeshiva, Gene kept busy. By the time he was in high school, he had learned enough English (on top of his Hebrew and Hungarian) to sell his own mimeographed science fiction magazine, typed on a typewriter Florence had shlepped home on the subway.
She also shlepped home a guitar. Soon Gene had formed his first rock group, the Long Island Sounds, and was a hit at weddings and bar mitzvahs. But he fulfilled a promise to Florence to finish college. When he graduated, Florence wanted him to be a teacher. So he tried teaching. But, Gene jokes, "no matter how good I was, the kids never applauded."
Gene begged Florence to let him become a professional musician, and she relented. With high school chum Stanley Eisen (later Paul Stanley), Gene created Kiss, working as an office temp (or, as his mother puts it, a "Friday girl") to support himself until the band began attracting a following at concerts. Soon the money was rolling in. Florence had trouble recognizing Gene in costume. Showing her a picture of the group, "Gene asked me if I knew which one was him. I said, ‘Sure,' and I pointed to Stanley."
But the fans recognized Gene, and soon crowds were gathering outside Florence's house. "They would not believe Gene wasn't home," she says. "They would throw rocks at the windows, hoping he'd come out." Eventually, Gene bought her a place in a quieter neighborhood, where no one knew that Florence was a rock star's mother until her photograph appeared in People. Now the neighbors know, but Florence doesn't let them treat her like a celebrity's mother. "When people act like I'm special," she says, "I say, ‘I'm not the one. My son's the one.' The pleasure is all mine, but the credit is Chaim's."