Michael Swerdlow, who belonged to the congregation, says that he admired the smartly dressed Epstein men when they arrived at services: “I recall Harry Epstein attending on high holy days and being followed into the synagogue by Brian and Clive, wearing bowler hats, which was quite fashionable for British synagogue goers to wear.”
Harry Epstein helped support the synagogue, and the family’s reputation was one of financial and social solidity. “Whenever I saw the Epstein family, they looked just like a very Jewish family, the kind I would see in the Bronx or Miami Beach,” recalls Nat Weiss, who was later to become one of Brian Epstein’s closest friends and a business partner. “Their values were very Jewish.”
Unfortunately for Epstein—who preferred the arts to sports and academics—much of his childhood was not spent in Childwall but in expensive single-sex boarding schools that children of his class were expected to attend.
At age 10, he enrolled at the prestigious Liverpool College. “Brian was rapidly convinced that there was an anti-Semitic strain running through it,” wrote Coleman. The school insisted that Brian attend school activities on Saturday mornings, which prevented him from going to synagogue with his father. Another Jew who studied at Liverpool College, Brian Wolfson, has said that the culture of the school wasn’t anti-Semitic, but “there were 600 boys, a half dozen Catholics and 25 Jews. Life wasn’t easy,” especially for a sensitive boy like Epstein.
Later Queenie and Harry decided to send him to Beaconsfeld School, a Jewish boarding school. “This I enjoyed a little better and I took up horse-riding and art, both of which I did pretty well,” Epstein recalled in his autobiography. “I began to feel more at evens with the world and I made friends with a horse called Amber, who got on very well with Jews and didn’t care that I’d been expelled from Liverpool College.”
Epstein flourished in acting and painting, and at one time wanted to be a dress designer, a calling his parents discouraged. With mediocre grades, however, he couldn’t get into a top school like Eton, and attended what was called a “minor” public school. “Naturally, my first term at public school was slightly marred by the ragging—being a Jew and not showing a great keenness for sports, the boys had good enough reason for my persecution,” Epstein wrote.
His school experience left an indelible mark on his psyche, according to Rex Makin, a Queens Drive neighbor. Makin—president of the Stapley Home for Aged Jews in Liverpool while Harry was treasurer—told Geller he believed that these anti-Semitic experiences at school left Epstein ambivalent about religion and gave him “an inferiority complex.” But Epstein would emerge from his formative years with a perspective on life that set him apart from most Liverpudlians. As Geller observes, being Jewish was an important factor in Epstein’s makeup. “It meant he was an outsider who appreciated the importance of transcending society’s view.”
Life on the stage was Epstein’s dream but he was destined for the family business. “I am the elder son—a hallowed position in a Jewish family—and much was to be expected of me,” he wrote. “My father… naturally sought in me some sign of an adequate heir to the family business, but alas, he scarcely saw a sign of any quality at all beyond a loyalty to the family, which, thanks to the steadfastness of my parents, has never faltered.”
In 1950, at age 16, Epstein dropped out of school to join his grandfather and father at the store on Walton Road in Liverpool. I. Epstein & Son was a proper, even stuffy establishment that outfitted households throughout the region. Young Epstein brought a fresh eye to the business that at first may have aggravated his grandfather but, as it turned out, he had quite a talent for display work and interior decorating, making him an ideal furniture salesman. Epstein possessed a reassuring and persuasive manner that convinced customers to “trade up” in quality and quantity.