Ancestral Echoes, Ballroom Dancing, and CIA Missions

When did this happen?

Last week, my sons, who both live in California, blessed us with a rare visit. It was a magical weekend for many reasons, including a big party we gave for 50 of our closest friends and family.

The night before the big party we did Chinese takeout from Ho Ho Kitchen, which our boys now grown, swear is the best in the country. Over egg rolls and spareribs, we reminisced about long-gone aunts and uncles who they both remember fondly as kids.

The standout was Uncle Siggy. He lost an eye as a child while riding a bicycle with scissors in his pocket. Yet he lived a full life, drove a car (always a Lincoln), and had an enormous apartment on Central Park West in Manhattan and another on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Why two apartments and how did he afford all this?

Sigmund “Siggy” Barban was the number one wholesale furniture salesman for the United Furniture Company in the 1950s and 1960s. He was charming and always perfectly dressed. In fact, clothes, and specifically shirts, became his obsession. Shirts and his IBM stock.

He needed his Philadelphia apartment during the week as home base for his work. His sales territory was mostly in and around Pennsylvania. On weekends, he would drive the New Jersey Turnpike to New York and spend the weekends with his wife Ethel and his recalcitrant stepson, Michael.

Central Park NYC

I remember the New York apartment, as it had seven rooms and a grand view over Central Park. Every year mom and us kids watched the Thanksgiving Day parade from open windows overlooking the floats and marching bands as they strode by, the cool November air with the aroma of the city blowing in. One year as the massive inflatable Popeye floated by, his arm got caught in the apartment window until we pushed it back out. True story.

The CIA Mission

So, as we moved on from spare ribs to chicken and broccoli in garlic sauce, I shared more Siggy stories that the boys had never heard before. Like when the CIA recruited him for a mission. What?! The boys exclaimed. Siggy was the most unlikely of people to do such a thing as a fifty-ish, one-eyed, impeccably dressed furniture salesman–which is exactly why they chose him.

Back up. Why him and how? Burlington Industries, the largest textile manufacturer in the U.S. at the time, bought out United Furniture. They invited Siggy to a dinner one night in North Carolina during the annual furniture show. North Carolina was and maybe still is the state where most U.S. furniture is manufactured. Anyway, at that dinner was the then President of Burlington, Frank Greenberg, and Senator Sam Ervin of Watergate fame.

Ervin had friends at the CIA and got to talking with Siggy. The spy connection was made. Months later, Siggy got a call and a strange voice asked, “Can you be at JFK airport tonight at eleven?” He always wanted to serve his country but with one eye he couldn’t. This was his chance. The next morning, he landed in Tehran where he met two young female agents.

The cover was the rich American with arm candy on tour. The plan was to follow some Iranian officials as they flew to China and met with Chinese officials. Siggy and the women acted like tourists taking lots of pictures. They even visited the Great Wall as part of the tour capturing photos of the Iranians with their Chinese counterparts. After this successful surveillance, they flew to London to be debriefed. Mission accomplished.

“Yeah, but wasn’t he not supposed to talk about this? I mean isn’t this secret?” My younger son asked.

“If you knew Siggy… With him, nothing was secret,” I said.

“Wasn’t there something about the shirts?” my older son asked.

Sigmund Barban

Sigmund Barban

Ballroom Dancing

Once Siggy retired and was now divorced, he moved to a one-room apartment at the Hampshire House on Central Park South overlooking an alley. The Hampshire House was and is a ritzy building where Sophia Loren and Pavarotti lived. The apartment was small, but Siggy had the ceiling painted like the sky with subtle gray clouds against a pale blue. The walls were hand-painted to look like the inside of a bamboo cottage in Bali.

One-third of that one room was a long closet. One side of the closet held twenty identical blue blazers with gold buttons. Solid gold. It was his way of secretly storing some of his wealth, and he devoted the rest of the closet to shirts. In retirement, Siggy’s daily routine was to go to Saks or Bloomingdales and shop for shirts. He was always looking for a bargain and would buy one shirt a day, every day.

He had hundreds of shirts. Many were still in their original wrappers. I know this because when he died. My Aunt Claire and I rummaged through the closet trying to find a home for all the shirts. Although small, I took a few and distributed the rest to family and Goodwill.

That was the daytime. At night, Siggy went ballroom dancing. He always had a much younger girlfriend that would go with him. Latin dancing was his thing, and he was great at it. He sailed across the dance floor. He seemed to come to life and was twenty years younger when he danced. He danced three to four times every week, well into his eighties.

The Millrose Games

Eccentricities and adventures do make the best stories. But in fairness, Siggy was an incredibly generous man. He helped my suddenly widowed and financially strapped mother pay her rent. He helped pay for my education, for which I am eternally grateful. And as I was fatherless from age one, he would take me every year to the Wanamaker Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. It was like an athletic three-ring circus. While runners raced for world records around the track, others pole vaulted and did the long jump. I can still smell the beer and popcorn. I loved it.

Years later in Siggy’s last days, I had the pleasure, of taking him to Madison Square Garden to see his and now my beloved Millrose Games. Fond memories. Like Wanamaker’s, the famous Philadelphia department store, after which the Millrose Games were named, Siggy passed away in 1999.

On to fortune cookies. Our boys were dazzled and amused by these family stories. Siggy and all the other aunts and uncles, parents, and grandparents are gone. Now it’s just us, my brother, my sister, and my wife. We are the older aunts and uncles now. We’re that generation with lots of our own stories. I even have a personal CIA story to tell, but it’s top secret.

So, I wonder. When did we become them? And will our kids be telling their kids crazy and loving stories about their eccentric aunts and uncles someday?


If you have a crazy or loving aunt or uncle story, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to share it in the COMMENTS below.

Meanwhile. catch up on my original fast-paced thriller NOT SO DEAD and the Sam Sunborn Series They are available on Amazon and
If you like short reads you can really finish, grab a copy of my short story collections: The Last Appointment: 30 Collected Short Stories
Or my children’s adventure book: Nougo and His Basketball.

And read for FREE some of Charles Levin’s short stories:

I’m Processing
Books Unread
Nora Delivers the Package
The Permission Slip
10 Life Lessons I Learned from Playing Poker
Missing the Ghost in the Palace Theater
Moon Landing Memories
Word Drunk

Oh, and please do join the Mailing List for future stories and posts

Share This Post

Related Posts


  1. Neil MacNeill on September 11, 2023 at 1:26 pm

    I heard about lots of interesting family lore when I was a kid. The real eye-opener was a story about Great Uncle Arthur, who was sitting on the toilet, doing his business, when a severe thunderstorm struck. Lightning hit the vent stack on the roof and cracked the toilet in half, not only leaving an awful mess but supposedly a scorched derriere for poor Uncle Arthur. Even today, I try to avoid going to the bathroom when a storm is approaching!

  2. Charles Levin on September 11, 2023 at 1:37 pm

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jan on September 13, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    My Dad’s uncle was a union organizer and rum runner back about a hundred years ago. (If Dad were alive today, he’d be 100 now). The family was scandalized, and considered him a ‘black sheep’. When my sister and I became aware of the stories in the mid-1960s, he became one of our heroes.

    • Charles Levin on September 13, 2023 at 1:12 pm

      How great to have a rum-runner in the family. Thanks so much for sharing.

Leave a Comment