Every once in a blue moon an author is uniquely and singularly qualified to write about their subject. That’s the case with The Little Gate-Crasher: The Life and Photos of Mace Bugen and its author Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, a Philadelphia author, disability awareness educator, and blogger (The New Normal: Blogging Disability) who also happens to have penned books dedicated to celebrating being Jewish in America (The Creative Jewish Wedding Book) along with features in New York's Jewish Week, Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, and Kveller.com.
Moishe Morris “Mace” Bugen (1915-1982) also happened to be Kaplan-Meyer's great-uncle, so that helps with the singularity.
Bugen was a hugely successful real estate developer in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, area and neighboring New Jersey. He was famed for his deep philanthropy, and when his pockets weren’t filled with cash for those in need, they were full of candy for his nieces and nephew. He also dedicated himself to mentorship within the Valley’s Jewish community.
“Mace” made big money and lived large, driving around town in an open-air Jeep, grandly making and spending money on all, and receiving yells of "Hey Macey" everywhere he went. Everything about “Mace” was big, expect his body. Born with achondroplastic dwarfism, Bugen stood 43 inches tall and had a hump on his back and small, twisted legs – all at a time when disabilities such as his saw few public accommodations and fewer human kindnesses.
Kaplan-Meyer doesn’t focus on the downside. Neither did Bugen. Happily obsessed with the childhood notion of wanting to be the kid on the football team who stood out for his heroism, “Mace” found another way to show his worth: his flash. “I gotta do something special to let ’em know I’m me,” he once said.
A star is born
Bugen found fame beyond Lehigh Valley (and his so-called limitations) as a driven and tenacious celebrity photographer. Selfies were his specialty, as he always made himself part of the portrait. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, Bugen more often than not simply walked into tony nightclubs, busy backstages, and various meet-and-greet opportunities and was met and greeted warmly by bombshells (Jane Russell), boxers (Muhammad Ali), baseballers (Joe DiMaggio), politicians (Richard Nixon), crooners (Sammy Davis Jr.), and many more.
Bugen made such a public name and reputation for himself that even syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell took note. “The dwarf who crashes the gate at most major sports events, past the cops and attendants, is ‘Mace’ Bugen, an insurance and realty man of Phillipsburg, N.J.,” Winchell wrote in 1955.
You can sense -- through Kaplan-Meyer’s warm yet analytical tone -- that Bugen proudly achieved the feeling of heroism he so desired, perhaps to compensate for what he lacked in height. Beyond his hunt for celebrity, though, Bugen seemed to have a desire to make everyone around him feel as big as he felt, always interviewing friends and family with a portable tape recorder as if fashioning his own talk show, all while maintaining his role as a Jewish community role model and mentor.
Fame, at present, feels like a slick and scummy place. For “Mace” Bugen it was heaven, a means to a fabulous end for himself and the ones he loved.
What, When, Where
The Little Gate-Crasher: The Life and Photos of Mace Bugen. By Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer. Sager Group, 2016. 110 pages, paperback, $16, available at amazon.com.