Myrna Katz Frommer, 80, Dies; Oral Historian of Catskills and Brooklyn


Myrna Katz Frommer, who channeled the voices of comedians and busboys in the Catskills and teachers and rabbis in Brooklyn through vivid oral histories she created with her husband, died on Aug. 8 at her home in Lyme, N.H. She was 80.

Her son Frederic said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Ms. Frommer died just a week after her husband, Harvey Frommer.

Ms. Frommer edited her husband’s many books, which were frequently about baseball, before he submitted them. But she was not a sports fan. When they began to work on oral histories in the late 1980s, however, they found common ground.

Their first book, “It Happened in the Catskills” (1991), started as a conventional narrative history of the fast-fading world of summer resorts and bungalow colonies known as the borscht belt. But they recognized that the stories they were hearing from waiters, guests, agents, bellhops and other personalities would be better told in their own voices.

“To capture a phenomenon shortly before it disappears into the mists of memory,” they wrote, “there may be no medium more effective than oral history.”

In a review in The New York Times, Roslyn Siegel wrote that “between the seven kinds of herring in the dining room and Simon Says at the pool,” the Frommers had taken readers on a “sunny cruise down memory lane.”

They followed that book with “It Happened in Brooklyn” (1993), a natural subject for the Frommers, who were both born there. In their introduction, they wrote about the many things shared by people from the borough, including a love of “a half-sour pickle straight from the barrel, a charlotte russe from the bakery in the wintertime” and “lime rickeys and malted milks.”

They also produced “It Happened in” oral histories about Broadway, Manhattan and Miami, and another, “Growing Up Jewish in America” (1995).

“They had a great tag-team approach,” Frederic Frommer said in a phone interview. “They did all the interviews together. They were outgoing personalities in different ways who complemented each other very well.”

They extended their collaboration in the mid-1990s when they began teaching a course in oral history at Dartmouth College. Ms. Frommer retired in 2017. Mr. Frommer retired earlier this year.

Myrna Katz was born on March 29, 1939, and grew up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her father, Abraham, was a furrier; her mother, Gertrude (Bernstein) Katz, was a homemaker.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from New York University, where she met her husband. They married in 1960. Over the years she taught high school English and worked as an editor at McGraw-Hill and a professor of speech and rhetoric at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn.

In 1987, she earned a doctorate in media ecology, also at N.Y.U.

In addition to her son Frederic, Ms. Frommer is survived by another son, Ian; a daughter, Jennifer Frommer; six grandchildren; and a sister, Caroline Katz-Mount.

In 1979, she wrote — in her own voice — an article in The New York Times about her family’s move to a house in North Woodmere, on Long Island.

The past is permanent and comes along into the moving trucks,” she wrote, describing “bottles and high chairs giving way to bicycles and roller skates; Jennifer in a white rabbit coat and hat; Freddy in the tartan plaid shorts and vests we brought back from Bermuda; Ian in his red snowsuit like a bright winter bird.”

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