In June of this year, I read the history column in my local paper, that’s written by my friend Mike Lawler, head of the Crescenta Valley Historical Association. The column described how a Dr. Max Gecht had owned a sanitarium in La Crescenta on a site that I can see from my kitchen window. I wondered – could this Max Gecht be the same Max Gecht that my grandfather’s sister had married? As the family genealogist, I had to find out. So I hopped onto several genealogy databases to which I subscribe, and 3 hours later I had a soap opera on my hands.
My mother told me that her father’s sister, Bertha (known in Yiddish as Brucha), was married to a doctor named Max Gecht. According to my mother, he was an abortionist, which is partially supported by a news article in which Gecht is described as being involved in “irregular practices”. Bertha supposedly divorced him because he beat her (although there was no easily accessible record of a divorce in Chicago, so, perhaps Max was a bigamist as well?). Max remarried at least twice — and he beat his second wife, Sarah Rolnick, too (according to a newspaper account).
In 1929 he married his third wife, Georgia Wunderlich, a violinist and singer who was 16 years his junior, and quite a looker. The two of them were kidnapped by a gang of criminals in December 10, 1931 in Chicago (The era of the St Valentine’s Day massacre and of Al Capone. There were 49 kidnappings in Illinois between 1930 and 1932 ). The story made a quite a splash in newspapers around the country, especially during May, 1932, when Amelia Earhart’s transatlantic flight spanned the front pages of the papers. Apparently, Max offered to get the ransom money. The criminals demanded either $5000 or $50K, depending on which newspaper story you believe, but were eventually satisfied with $2000, while Georgia stayed a hostage (sweet guy, huh?). While he was away, Georgia made goo-goo eyes at one of the kidnappers, and arranged to meet him on a specific corner in Chicago after they were released. Georgia then arranged for the cops to nab the no-goodnik, who sang like a bird. All six kidnappers were imprisoned, although one managed to escape.
By 1940, Max, Georgia, and her father and brother had moved to the Los Angeles area, where Max continued to be controversial. He bought the Hillcrest Sanitarium in the mountain town of La Crescenta. He may or may not have fiddled the books during World War II, when his sanitarium had a contract with the US government to provide medical care for Japanese who were slated to be sent to internment camps. At one point, he hired his daughter Jean to be a social worker at the sanitarium – a decision that led to one happy result. Jean met David Bronfman there, the man who later became her husband.
After Gecht died, there was a major battle over his will. By that time, Max was estranged from all three of his children, and named his brother Abraham the sole heir to his estate, which was substantial.
At this point, I still had no proof that Max Gecht of Chicago and La Crescenta was “my” Max Gecht. I decided to try and find out more about Abe Gecht. After tracing my way through several different databases, it turns out that Avram Gecht (who was from Berdichev, the town where my grandpa and his sister had been born) arrived in New York on the same ship on the same day in 1909 as Brucha Gecht, but was listed on a separate page of the passenger list. Bingo! Don’t know if this process would meet the requirements of the Genealogical Proof Standard, but it’s good enough for me.