Jewish history: Wonderfood, death rays and monokinis

There is nothing new under the sun,” Ecclesiastes tells us, but what about Los Angeles? In the city’s history, lost in the files of patents, oral histories and news stories, we find Jewish innovators — scientists and designers, who through their inventions, concoctions and designs have beamed lasers into our lives, fed the hungry and dressed us in both the latest and barest of fashion.

Three, in particular, have affected our lives today: 

• In the 1940s, Caltech biochemistry professor Henry Borsook and Clifford Clinton of Clifton’s Cafeteria created a 3-cent meal to feed the hungry. 

• In 1960, physicist Theodore “Ted” Maiman demonstrated the first ruby laser in Malibu.

• And in 1964, Los Angeles fashion designer Rudi Gernreich captured America’s attention with his topless swimsuit, the monokini.

Ever wonder how a hungry world could be fed? For Henry Borsook, the thought came in 1945 at Caltech when he was visited by another man also interested in feeding the hungry — Clifford Clinton, the owner of Clifton’s Cafeteria, who had come to the Pasadena campus with his wife, Nelda.

Foreseeing a food shortage in Europe and Asia with the end of World War II, Clinton proposed a remedy. According to an April 1978 interview with Borsook, conducted by Mary Terrall as part of a Caltech oral history project, Clinton wanted Borsook to “devise a food where a meal would provide one-third of the recommended daily allowances of everything, but it was to weigh not more than two ounces, and it was to cost not more than three cents,” said Borsook (1897-1984), who was born in London, England, and immigrated to America from Toronto, Canada, in 1929.

“We could provide a protein that’s as good as meat or milk,” he suggested, including all the vitamins and minerals, “at the desired weight and cost.” Borsook believed a good diet was not necessarily tied to eating specific foods, but could also be manufactured.

A can of multi-purpose food (MPF), created by Henry Borsook.

“I had a pretty good idea how to do it,” said Borsook, whose father was a tailor. He knew that during World War II, the U.S. government had invested in growing soybeans to extract their oil, and had been throwing the rest “down the sewer.”

Clinton offered the professor $5,000 to pursue the project, some of which Borsook wisely put toward hiring a cook “who would learn and draw up recipes.”

“We decided to call it multipurpose food (MPF),” Borsook said. “Neither Clinton nor I wanted to patent this food, and we agreed that we would give the information to anybody who asked for it,” he said.

In 1946, the two formed an organization called Meals for Millions (its successor organization is called Freedom From Hunger) to distribute the MPF but found the U.S. government preferred its own “food” and farming programs.

MPF, which Time magazine in 1947 described as looking like “speckled beige cornmeal” — you just added boiling water — was distributed instead by Catholic World Relief and Church World Service. It would later be distributed on the Navajo reservation, and, in the 1960s, MPF even found its way into bomb shelters. By 1963, more than 90 million meals had been distributed.

After the war, while visiting Germany with his daughter, Borsook met a man who was an orphan in Germany and had been fed “this wonder food from California.”

“It was very gratifying,” Borsook remembered.

In a city of searchlights, another L.A.-area scientist, physicist Theodore “Ted” Maiman, caught the world’s eye by beaming a new kind of light. In 1960, working at the Hughes lab in Malibu and competing against other, better-financed research groups with the same goal, he built and demonstrated the first working laser, which had at its heart a ruby cylinder. 

Although at the time, a Los Angeles Herald headline declared, “L.A. Man Discovers Science-Fiction Death Ray,” the laser — its name an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” — has since become a fact of life. We find them in home DVD players, at the supermarket for scanning bar codes, as a tool for surgical procedures in operating rooms, and even dangling from our key chains.

The first ruby laser, invented by Theodore “Ted” Maiman. 

Growing up in Denver (Maiman was born in Los Angeles in 1927 and died in 2007), his father, Abe, was an electronics engineer who kept an electronics workshop in their home. Not surprisingly, his son got his first job at 12 at an electrical appliance repair shop and worked his way through college by repairing electrical and electronic devices.

In that workshop, as a child, “He learned how to destroy things as well. Damaging a few of his father’s instruments,” said Andrew Rawicz, a former colleague of Maiman’s at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia, where Maiman was an adjunct professor. 

According to Rawicz, Maiman’s practical experience gave him a leg up on the competition for creating the first laser.

“Not only did Ted know how to make things, but he knew why,” said Rawicz, an SFU engineering sciences professor. “There was a simplicity and elegance to his invention,” he added.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Maiman’s invention in 2010, SFU fired up the original laser. “It will work forever,” Rawicz said.

Maiman was nominated at least twice for the Nobel Prize but never won. However, he was awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1984 by Israel’s Wolf Foundation, and in 1987 he won the Japan Prize.

Maiman’s wife, Kathleen, related that unlike the stereotypical scientist, “When Ted explained things, it was so understandable.” 

Another innovator, L.A. fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, readied America for the future by changing our look. Born into a
well-to-do Viennese-Jewish  family in 1922 — his father was a stocking manufacturer — Gernreich was a teenager when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1938, a short time after the Anschluss.

One of his first jobs was working at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital morgue, washing bodies. Later, reflecting on that time, he said, “I do smile sometimes when people tell me my clothes are so body-conscious I must have studied anatomy. You bet I studied anatomy.”

After a stint in a modern dance troupe and doing freelance fashion design work, in 1953 he began designing for Westwood Knitting Mills in Los Angeles, beginning a trend in knitted tube dresses.

“Rudi was radically different,” said Kaye Spilker, a curator in the costume and textile department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which owns photos of the work as well as a collection of Gernreich’s fashions and drawings. In the 1950s, “Clothing was constructed. His bathing suits had no wiring or boning, no padding,” she said. Perhaps as a result of his dancing experience, “He was interested in the body being free.”

In 1964, Gernreich would gain national and world attention with his topless swimsuit, the monokini. “Of the 3,000 women who bought the suits, at least two were worn in public,” wrote fashion writer Marylou Luther in the introduction to “The Rudi Gernreich Book,” by Peggy Moffitt, who was Gernreich’s model and muse. One was worn by Carol Doda, a San Francisco topless dancer, and the other by 19-year-old Toni Lee Shelly, “who was taken into custody by Chicago policemen for wearing the topless bathing suit at the beach.” At her arraignment, “She asked for an all-male jury,” Luther wrote.

In the book, Moffitt notes that Gernreich — whose studio was on Santa Monica Boulevard, near La Cienega Boulevard — was the first modern designer to combine bold clashing colors, use cutouts and vinyl and plastic in his designs. He developed ethnic and workmen’s clothes into fashion, as well as introducing androgyny.

In 1967, Gernreich was pictured on the cover of Time magazine under a banner that declared, “The Mini-Skirt Is Here to Stay.” Later, he would introduce a thong bathing suit, coordinated outfits and a “no bra” bra.

“He was a pioneer in the development of American fashion,” Spilker said. Gernreich designed “the kind of clothing women would wear today.”