Insider’s Perspective: Joe Eszterhas, Author
EDITOR’S NOTE: We talked to a few notable Clevelanders and asked them what they liked about Northeast Ohio. Today’s interview is Joe Eszterhas, famous author living in Cleveland, Ohio and raising his family in a place with “no hidden agendas.”
I know you were born in Hungary but you moved to Cleveland at an early age. Where did you live and what are your memories like?
I grew up on 41st and Lorain and I went past the West Side Market every morning on the way to school. Later on, we moved to Buckeye Road and then my parents lived in Cleveland Heights and I lived with them for a little while. I went to California in 1971.
How would you say that childhood experience informed your screenplays and books?
It was a very blue-collar neighborhood and a lot of my scripts have blue-collar characters. The first one, F.I.S.T., was actually set in Cleveland but it couldn’t be shot here. We needed an underground cable and there were so many TV antennas that we couldn’t do it here. There is no doubt that my view of the world was initially set at 41st and Lorain. I was an immigrant kid and couldn’t speak the language and my view of America was very much shaped by that. It became a very patriotic view and a number of people were really wonderful to me and helpful to me and treated me with great warmth. That was the beginning of being cemented with a terrific amount of love for this country. I still go back there and the neighborhood hasn’t changed that much. Nick’s Diner, which was the focus of the neighborhood, was a tough place to get by. Back in those days, a lot of teenagers in black leather jackets would congregate around there and sometimes you had to fight to get through. The diner is still there and when I was back for the Telling Lies in America shoot and I was standing around watching the shot, a guy handed me a card that said I was entitled to a free dinner at Nick’s Diner. I was very touched.
I think you now live in Bainbridge Township. What’s the best thing about your neighborhood?
Well, it’s got a terrific amount of privacy. We found the house and fell in love with it partly because my wife grew up in Mansfield near a little lake. She said, “This is the kind of area that I always loved when I was growing up.” It’s a very real neighborhood. I would describe it as suburban/rural. There aren’t a lot of houses in the development and we can live with a terrific amount of privacy. It’s very funny because I walk every day and as you probably know I went through cancer surgery in 2001. So I started walking the neighborhoods and people would drive by and stop and say, “Hang in there and keep walking.” They would say, “We’re glad you’re back.” One person said, “You never should have gone out there in the first place.” That really made me laugh. We have four boys and there is room for the guys to play baseball and they love fishing and they fish in the back. There’s warmth and privacy that we didn’t experience in Malibu where we had a mailbox that was ripped off all the time. We finally had to put one up that people couldn’t steal for a souvenir. That’s not how it is here. The school bus comes by every day and the kids go running out. The driver tells them off for being late. We got little league games to go to. It’s the best decision we ever made.
Do you have a favorite restaurant or bar?
I don’t drink much anymore. In 2008, my doctor said I could have a couple glass of wine a day. The place in Solon called Station 43 that we go to a lot. We go to Sushi Rock and to Balaton, the Hungarian restaurant on Shaker Square. We go to Brio on Sunday after mass. Occasionally, when we want to splurge, we go to the Sunday brunch at the Ritz Carlton. The guys absolutely love that. We go to the Market a lot. I think it’s a great thing to see all the generations going back. I remember the time I stood next to the candy place and now my grown kids can stand there. Frank’s Bratwurst is the best bratwurst in town and we never fail to go there. It’s absolutely great. We sneak it into that market café that’s literally right in the market. You’re not really allowed to bring food in there but we bring in eight bratwursts. My grown son who is 16 years old eats about five of them himself. We sneak them in there and we discovered that as long as we order French fries, we can eat the brats. One of the things that I love about Cleveland is that you can move around the town and look at different things. We love Johnny’s Downtown. I’ve been going there since the early ’80s, I guess. When my wife Naomi and I go out alone, we usually go there.
I know you worked at Rolling Stone for some time. Any bands from Northeast Ohio that you particularly like?
Of course, I love Chrissie and the Pretenders from the very beginning. I have all of her stuff. I think she is a rock idol and makes wonderful music. There was a band way back in the ’60s called the Damnation of the Adam Blessing. They played down in the Flats. They had a great, terrific sound that I really used to love. In the ‘80s and ‘90s when I came back, I used to go down to the old Euclid Tavern. They had a lot of blues stuff and jam stuff. It was really fun. I would wander down and just sit there and listen to the music. I loved the vibe. I wrote a story about the James Gang when I was at Rolling Stone. It was a snooty, California look at the James Gang and if there is any piece of journalism, I would rewrite, that’s the one I would do. I thought they had a terrific sound and the older I got, the more I appreciated them. They were really genuine.
You recently wrote an article for Playboy in which you defend Cleveland. What kind of reaction have you gotten?
Oh man, what’s amazing about that is that I’ve gotten greater and better reaction to that than to anything I’ve ever written. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking out of church and we see people who stop me in the vestibule and they tell me they love the Playboy piece. I don’t really think that’s the best place to talk about it. But they usually say, “That’s a great piece and I’m glad somebody wrote it.”
It really is true that you have to be tough to live here, isn’t it?
I think it’s true. The weather, for one thing, really sets that agenda. People have taken a lot of hits in this town and the economy hit people very, very hard here. One of the things I love is and one of the reasons that we came back is that we have these four kids and I didn’t want to raise them as Malibu kids. I didn’t want to raise them as fast-lane kids. I wanted to raise them the way my dad raised me. And they get that here. Remember the old Mike Tyson thing? He said, “Be Real.” This is very much a real town. I can’t tell you how much I welcome that. I remember that from growing up and I came back here a lot when my dad was alive. I came back for the Indians and the World Series. People are very real. You don’t have to worry about hidden agendas. People are who they are and they tell you the truth. That’s a magnificent thing, especially when you’re raising kids.
– Interviewed by Jeff Niesel
Tags: balaton, brio, Cleveland, cleveland author, cleveland author eszterhas, Cleveland Plus, euclid tavern, f.i.s.t, frank's bratwurst, joe eszterhas, johnny's downtown, Ritz-Carlton, Shaker Square, station 43, Sushi Rock, telling lies in america, West Side Market, West Side Market Cafe
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