Philip Roth's 'Swede' Inspired by South Orange Resident
South Orange's Seymour Masin inspired the character of the The Swede in Philip Roth's "American Pastoral."
To mark Philip Roth's 80th birthday, Patch is looking at local connections with the author.
As if it wasn’t enough to be known around South Orange, where he lived for 51 years, Seymour “Swede” Masin was “a great father,” according to his son Bob, successful in the liquor business, and a memorable athlete at Weequahic High School in Newark. Then, in 1997, with the publication of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Masin became known to the universe of Roth’s readership.
According to the story told in The New Yorker, (and confirmed in my conversations with him at that time) Masin was browsing a in a bookstore. He knew of Philip Roth, who had graduated from Weequahic High School 12 years after him, and had read Portnoy’s Complaint. Masin opened American Pastoral to find a main character named Seymour “Swede” Levov, a high-school sports legend from the Weequahic section of Newark, who resembled him physically.
“My father was surprised,” says Bob Masin, who wrote Swede: Weequahic’s Gentle Giant, a book about his father. “He wasn’t unhappy, though, and the book meant that he heard from people all over the country.”
The attention Masin gained from American Pastoral, though, wasn’t unfamiliar. Growing up in Newark in the 1930s, he was known widely for his success in every sport that he tried. Masin starred in basketball, track and football, and captained the basketball, soccer and track teams at Panzer College, now part of Montclair State University, and led its basketball team on a streak of 44 straight victories.
Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg said of him, "He was the guy that the entire city of Newark knew. He was so complete, he had the physical strength to match his talent." When Bob Masin, Columbia High School class of 1966, contacted fellow Weequahic alumni in the course of research, he heard similar stories.
Hal Braff, President of Weequahic Alumni Association and father of South Orange’s own Zach Braff, told Bob Masin that, though he had graduated years after his father, “There was Superman and there was the Swede” at Weequahic High School. NBA player and championship coach Al Attles told Masin, “I heard your father’s name every day” when he was a student at Weequahic.
According to the younger Masin, the Swede, whose nickname came from his fair coloring and blue eyes, was the son of Russian immigrants. “My grandfather came to this country at age 15 with two rubles in his pocket,” says Masin. “He and my grandmother knew nothing about sports, but my father and his brother loved the outdoors and love playing games.” Masin explains that his grandparents didn’t encourage sports, especially football, and coaches, teammates and even local sportswriters convinced them to “let Seymour play.”
Perhaps it was that home environment that kept the elder Masin humble. “For him,” explains Bob Masin, “when the game was over, it was over. He was so strong, with great hands, an ability to jump, fast; he had all the tools for being an athlete, but the word unassuming describes my father best.”
When Seymour Masin found himself the subject of a novel, and especially when American Pastoral earned Philip Roth a Pulitzer, he and the author were in touch and met once in Newark. “Philip Roth was extremely gracious with my father,” recalls Bob Masin.
Masin was invited to speak to book groups and with the media, but he remained grounded, exercising daily around his Mountain House Road home. “Especially in retirement, he was a huge sports fan. He loved to watch Columbia games, Seton Hall Prep,” recalls Bob Masin. Masin, who remembers his father watching him and his brother play sports and his sister cheerlead, says that Seymour “Swede” Masin “was truly a gentle giant.”
The elder Masin died in 2005 at age 85. “He always told me that sports is no reason to idolize somebody,” recalls Bob Masin of his father. “With him, there were lots of other reasons, too."