Obituary: Irving Cohen / King Cupid of Catskills was kosher hotel maitre d'

May 11, 1917 -- Oct. 1, 2012

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Irving Cohen, who was known as King Cupid of the Catskills for his canny ability to seat just the right nice Jewish boy next to just the right nice Jewish girl during his half-century as the maitre d' of the Concord Hotel, died Monday at his home in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 95.

His son Bob confirmed the death.

By all accounts, Mr. Cohen, the borscht belt's longest-serving maitre d'hotel, worked at the Concord, in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., from his early 20s until he was in his early 80s. He would have worked there longer, he said, had the hotel not closed in 1998.

Officially, Mr. Cohen presided over three meals a day in the vast kosher empire that was the Concord dining room, helping thousands of patrons navigate its towering shoals of gefilte fish, pot roast, potato pudding and a great deal else.

Unofficially (though only just), he was the matchmaker for a horde of hopefuls, who flocked to the Catskills ostensibly for shuffleboard and Sammy Davis Jr. but in actuality to eat, drink, marry and be fruitful and multiply, generally in that order.

Thanks to Mr. Cohen, many did. In the 1940s, he paired the Concord's original clientele. In the '60s, he paired their children. And in the '80s, he paired their children's children. It is no exaggeration, Bob Cohen said Tuesday, to say that thousands of marriages resulted from his father's sharp-eyed ministrations.

And thus, simply by doing his job -- which combined Holmesian deductive skill with Postian etiquette and a touch of cryptographic cloak and dagger -- Mr. Cohen single-handedly helped perpetuate a branch of American Jewry.

Irving Jay Cohen was born on the Lower East Side of New York City on May 11, 1917. After graduating from Seward Park High School, he found work as a busboy at Grossinger's, another well-known Catskills resort. He eventually became a waiter there, serving the likes of John Garfield (ne Jacob Julius Garfinkle), Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor and Irving Berlin.

Mr. Cohen joined the Concord as a waiter in the late 1930s. In 1943, he became the maitre d', commanding a dining room that seated more than 3,000. Before long, he was taking phone calls from a multitude of mothers, who beseeched him to seat their eligible daughters beside eligible young men.

Corresponding calls from mothers of sons were rarer, Mr. Cohen said, though not unknown.

For making matches, Mr. Cohen relied on his keen ability to suss out subjects at a glance. Age, sex and marital status were of crucial concern, of course, but so too were occupation, tax bracket and geography.

"You got to pair them by states and even from the same cities," Mr. Cohen told The Daily News of New York in 1967. "If they come from different places, the doll is always afraid the guy will forget her as soon as he gets home."

To keep track of demographic information, Mr. Cohen used a specially built pegboard, 10 feet long, on which each of the Concord's hundreds of dining tables was represented by a circle.

Around each circle was a set of holes, and as Mr. Cohen seated each diner, he stuck the appropriate hole with a color-coded peg -- pink for single young women, blue for single young men, white for older people and several other colors denoting characteristics so secret they appear to have been known only to him.

Though Mr. Cohen plied his trade well into the computer age, the pegboard endured.

"Can a computer get to the human element?" he said in the Daily News interview. "I ask you, can a nice widow, maybe a little on the plump side, but nice, can she tell all her aches and dreams to a computer? Never!"

Mr. Cohen's first wife, the former Sarah Berzon, whom he married in 1944, died in 1982. He is survived by his second wife, Christine Golia; three children from his first marriage, Bob, Arnie and Barbara Cohen Parness; two stepsons, Ed and Christopher Ventrice; and grandchildren, step-grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Cohen's dining-room savvy extended far beyond matters of the heart. As he recounted in the 1991 book "It Happened in the Catskills," by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, he was accosted one night by a guest, purple with rage.

"My wife almost choked," the man told him. "I'm going to sue the hotel for a million dollars."

The offending object was a small metal tag, called a plumba, affixed to meat to identify it as kosher. The tags were normally removed before cooking, but this one, on a chicken, had been overlooked.

"What's your name?" Mr. Cohen asked the woman hurriedly. "Your address?"

He raced to the dining-room microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," he intoned. "Mr. and Mrs. Sam Weinstein from Cedarhurst, Long Island, have just won a bottle of Champagne. Mrs. Weinstein is the lucky lady who wound up with the chicken with the plumba."

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