Family & Friends

Countdown to Mother’s Day: ‘Diamond Bea’ Knopf—Big, Bawdy, and Bodacious

BeaBea Knopf in the 1930s.

She was a cross between Sophie Tucker and Mae West: big (in personality and girth), bawdy, and bodacious. Born in 1905, she was an early feminist (she did what she felt was necessary, with or without input from her husband) and a risk-taker. After she graduated from college—the first in her family to do so—she bought and drove a red roadster to her secretarial job at the Trenton Cracker Company. When the car needed repairs, she took it to Dave Knopf’s Garage, fell for the handsome owner, and eloped with him, because her mother did not approve of her choice of mate. For a full year, my parents stayed secretly married and lived apart. One night, when my dad was visiting my mom—who was already his wife—my grandmother asked him to leave. . , permanently. They confessed that they were married. My grandmother eventually came round to accepting him.

Knopf FamilyThe Knopf family. Ellensue is “the googly one with the glasses in an awful taffeta dress like my kid sister’s.”

We lived in Trenton, in a small, ranch-style house on East Brown Street that my father had built. But soon there were not enough bedrooms; Mother gave birth to five children. My dad worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, to support his family; my mother reared us with the help of a housekeeper who had been a prostitute in her early life (unknown to us until she died); she had been taken in as a nanny, first by my mother’s sister and then my mother. Mrs. Harris was more like a grandmother, because she did not cook or clean, but rather kept an eye on the five of us. She was very strict, especially when it came to dating.; no doubt her past life accounted for her suspicious attitude about girl/boy relations, and I believe my mother was glad for her strictness. She was married to an African-American, a crossing of the line not countenanced in those days; we would visit him in the Veterans’ Hospital. My mom did not discriminate against anyone—richer, poorer, gay, straight, of a different faith or a different race. She was practical, open-minded, and comfortable with who she was.

Bea was a card sharp. That’s how I think she earned the nickname “Diamond Bea.” She could remember any cards that had been shown; she beat the boots off whomever she played with, of whatever economic level. Or maybe her efforts toward improving my dad got her the nickname: She often said my father was a diamond-in-the-rough and she had polished him.

She was forthright; she would talk about sex to us long before sex was an appropriate topic for open discussion, and she told us dirty jokes when we became old enough to understand them. No traditional nurturer she: Her domestic skills were few and her parenting style laissez-faire. She overcooked everything, and even her repertoire of unappetizing dishes was limited. But there was always fresh fruit in the fridge, and she often sent us out to eat at a local restaurant when she was too tired to cook. Food was always plentiful, even during World War II, when there was rationing, because there were eight in our family. (Mrs. Harris lived with us.)

Our mother did set religious boundaries. For example, she (and my dad) preferred that we marry partners in the Jewish faith. Mom, especially, felt that marriage was difficult enough without two different religions under one roof. However, those boundaries were flexible. When my younger brother told us that there was a prince in his Harvard class, I was very excited. I fantasized meeting him, falling in love, and becoming a princess. When I asked my mother if it would be okay to marry outside our religion for royalty, she said, “For a prince I would make an exception.”

Clothes for the five of us were a big issue with my mom. Because she was very heavy (200 pounds at five-foot-two), she wore black almost every day, purchased in a bargain basement. But for her children, especially the three sisters, price was no object. My clothes were so expensive that I often turned down an offer for a new red crinoline or another pair of shoes. (I had 40 pairs!) We looked like fashion plates while my mother looked as if she were in perpetual mourning.

Living with four siblings and three adults in a small house was an adventure. My father had a customer who could not pay his repair bill, so he gave my father the car instead: a black Cadillac limo! My mother would pile us and all the neighborhood kids in the back, where the chairs could be folded down—no seat belts in those days—and drive us to school in bad weather. She often threw a long coat over her even longer nightgown, and was nonplussed when she had a flat tire and had to leave the car to call our dad to change the tire, her nightgown rippling in the wind around her feet.

Diamond Bea was a true gem. She loved her offspring fiercely, and often compared the five of us to the five fingers on her hand. She said that each finger represented one child, and without all of them she could not make a real fist. I miss her strong presence, her bawdy jokes, and her love of life, and I hope that I have imbibed some of those traits by osmosis. Each of my siblings remembers a slightly different version of our mother, but for sure we all remember her as a bodacious woman of many traits we all admire. She left a legacy of laughter and love that we all carry in our hearts.

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  • Eileen Akin May 23, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Beautifully written story Mom! And I love the photos. I remember Nanny as larger than life and full of love but I learned a lot about her from your story. I only wish she had lived longer so we all could have spent more time with her.

    Reply
  • Harry Knopf May 17, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    On Diamond Bea Knopf:

    Good job, Ellen Sue… Mom was all that and maybe more!
    Glad others now know about her.

    Reply
  • Joan Kaplan May 17, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Love the description of your Mom….In many ways you remind me of her….Never had the pleasure of meeting her but have had the honor of calling you dear friend for many years and you’ve absorbed many of her positive qualities.
    Thanks for sharing these memories!

    Reply
  • Joyce Eisenberg May 13, 2015 at 1:01 am

    I loved reading about your mother and your family, and thereby discovering things I didn’t know about you – such as that you were one of five children.

    Great, heart-warming essay.

    Reply
  • Dori May 13, 2015 at 12:23 am

    I love hearing stories that bring nanny and pop pop to life. I was only 4 when nanny died but I wear her wedding band every day. She was a character! Just today my dad was telling me how pop pop built your house. So many interesting tales to still hear. Thanks, aunt Ellensue for sharing your memories.

    Reply
  • Rosie May 12, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    As the youngest of the five Knopf children, I love that my talented sister is able to recall and bring to life such colorful memories of our Mom.We are so lucky to have such a wonderful family historian! Thanks, Ellen Sue!
    Love, Rosie

    Reply
  • Harriet Rubin May 12, 2015 at 8:29 am

    So well written. Proud of my friend’s capabilities to write realistically,interestingly–making all her words come to life. What a wonderful way to describe a mother who was different by many standards yet loved and wanting to be emulated..
    Harrietk

    Reply
  • -amparo May 11, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    Beautiful writing, Ellensue, you bring words to life;that’s for sure! Like Jackie, I too feel like I knew your mother, so well you described her. Great family pic too.

    Reply
  • Carol May 11, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    Loved this column. It was very touching and brought back memories of my own mother.

    Reply
  • Diane May 11, 2015 at 6:19 am

    Ellensue,

    just read your article on Mothers day and your family roots So many wonderful memories. Love the picture, never seen you with so much HAIR !

    Reply
  • Jackie May 10, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Great article about your Mom! Your description of her made me feel like I had the good fortune of knowing her. Also – love your family picture. Your anklets look so good with your shoes.

    Reply