We all remember genealogy week in elementary school. As if talking about family weren't awkward enough, there always seemed to be a hotshot related to a famous celebrity, inventor, or worse—Constitution signer. I grew up loving art. My mother used to let us skip school to see special exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There was, I realize now, an important artist in our lineage, but I didn't see that at the time. As far as I could tell, my family tree's most notable branch grew from the snack aisle at the grocery story.
It took me years to fully appreciate that my great, great uncle’s Nabisco box designs literally made us the Ritziest family of all. His name was Sydney S. Stern, and he turned personal tragedy into the most prolific commercial art career you’ve never heard of.
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Stern was the brother of my great grandfather Alfred. They were two of six siblings, the children of Hungarian immigrants living in a tenement in lower Manhattan. All the siblings went on to be successful in their chosen fields, but Stern quickly distinguished himself through his love of drawing.
He began his career as an independent commercial artist, but in 1928 his wife died from childbirth complications, leaving him alone with an infant, a kindergartener and a fourth grader. My grandmother’s cousin Donald Stern recalls that his dad made three major decisions: moving the family to Long Island, temporarily placing baby Henry in a home for infants and accepting a nine-to-four job with Nabisco Biscuit Company. Sydney Stern and Nabisco were a fortuitous match. In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, Stern had one weekend to come up with a marketing gimmick to compete with Sunshine Biscuits’ most successful cracker. Inspired by the circular label inside his hat, he debuted a blue circle with a four letter word in yellow lettering: Ritz. He stuck this cardboard circle in the band of his fedora and modeled it for his family, including his new wife and Henry, no longer a baby.