Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

The Provocative Baron Cohen Clan

October 7, 2011 in 2010 July-August, Culture
3 Comments

Morris found a job in a menswear shop and the family settled in Morganstown, on the northern outskirts of Cardiff. As Jews, the boys stood out. “I was the only Jew in my school, but unusual, as I was tall, blond and an athlete,” Vivian recalls. “I became school captain. [But] I got a lot of anti-Semitism from teachers. They would mock me about my math ability. When I was 11 years old, a teacher said, ‘You vant to buy a vatch? Go to Baron Cohen.’ It was very hurtful.”

Unlike the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s, when newspaper advertisements for secretaries and clerks specified that Jews would not be hired, anti-Semitism took a more subtle form for Vivian’s generation as it entered the labor market after the war. Vivian encountered it in 1951 when he came to London after earning a degree in economics and English from the University of Wales. At an interview he was bluntly asked, “Which one of your parents wasn’t English?” As Vivian remembers: “I suddenly realized he meant ‘which one was Jewish.’ I said, ‘They’re both Jewish, and so am I,’ and I said, ‘Whatever job you’re going to offer, I’m not interested.’ And I got up and walked out of the room.”

I am talking to Vivian in his London menswear shop, Baron of Piccadilly, which he is closing after 45 years of operation because the building is about to be demolished. Like many other Jews of their time, Vivian and Gerald ended up joining their father in the family business. The three built a thriving menswear retail company, Morris Cowan, with outlets in Cardiff and London. Vivian focused on merchandising while Gerald handled the bookkeeping. Their success made it possible for their children to receive first-rate educations and pursue riskier careers. Vivian’s son Ash, the Hollywood producer, has called his father and Uncle Gerald “creative rebels”—a quality he believes rubbed off on him and his cousins.

Later, Vivian gives me a tour of his cozy brick and wood home designed by the famous British architect Edwin Lutyens in the prosperous, tree-lined Hampstead Garden Suburb, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in north London. His wife Judith, who died in 2008, was from Montreal and was a therapist specializing in bereavement. The harp she played still stands in the living room, surrounded by sculpture and paintings, much of it by family members, and invitingly comfortable furniture with an informal, almost bohemian flair.

Gerald also found a creative woman. His wife, Daniella, is the daughter of a German Jew whose dream to become a dancer was destroyed by Hitler. Sacha has observed dryly that his grandmother, now 95, “was basically the last Jewish girl taught ballet in Germany.” Daniella, who grew up in Israel, followed in her mother’s footsteps by opening her own fitness studio. She is also a photographer.

Together the couples had eight children. Daniella and Gerald had three sons: Amnon, Erran and Sacha. Judith and Vivian had five children, including Ash and Simon. The families were close and lived not far from each other within the safe comfortable confines of north London. Their homes were kosher, if not always strictly religious, with an emphasis on family and community—and creativity. Simon recalls that his mother introduced dramatic performances and shadow puppetry into their Hanukkah celebrations and invited all the neighbors. “It was very much opening up Jewishness to be shared in the wider community: Chinese kids—whoever we were friends with,” he says. “She would stretch a sheet across the living room and put lights behind it so you could act out the story of the Maccabees.”

3 Comments
  • susan williams 13:31h, 25 November Reply

    Clearly, I have come late to your article. I knew Judith and Vivian Baron Cohen for a brief time in Oxford in the early 2000s, the year Billy Bob Thornton’s “Slingblade” was shown at a Oxford cinema. I was wondering about them the other day and googled Vivian’s name and came across your article, which I have very much enjoyed reading. However, I am very sorry to learn that Judith died in 2008, but I am glad to know this because she will be more firmly set in my memory.
    Judith and Vivian were lovely hosts, and I most especially appreciated Vivian’s showing me the most understated plaque to the memory of Robert of Reading, who, after his conversion to Judaism, called himself Haggai of Oxford and was murdered for his faith. The time Vivian gave me has sparked my continuing interest in the Jewish history of Oxford, and I am a Roman Catholic. Indeed, since knowing of Haggai of Oxford and coming across several instances myself of antisemitism among the dreaming spires, whenever I think of Oxford I think of its continuing current of the antisemitism Judith found so worrying.
    I will always feel blessed that Judith spoke to me after that particular showing of “Slingblade” and began an acquaintance I wish could have been an enduring friendship. She and Vivian were wonderful to me.

  • Graham 12:39h, 11 April Reply

    I spoke with Vivian today. What a lovely man. He told me all about his new book – Joe and his magic snout.

    I will be purchasing this book from Amazon as all proceeds will go to cancer research.

  • Kathleen 19:36h, 17 November Reply

    Very good in depth story – even though I had trouble navigating it. I worked for Vivian, in his menswear store for many years. Very charming and generous man. I was young at the time and was mainly interested in dancing and of course boys. He, Vivian, did talk about his family -very proud of his wife of course and the children. Thank you for your work on this article. Kathleen

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