By Arthur Lightbourn
ContributorIf Larry Belinsky could have had his way when he was 18, he would have been a cross between F. Scott Fitzgerald, the writer, and Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire fictional character in Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel, “The Great Gatsby.”
To Belinsky, retired furniture dealer, champion competitive tennis player, and founder of the San Diego Tennis Hall of Fame, Fitzgerald and Gatsby were the epitome of cool.
Belinsky discovered the Gatsby novel while he was recuperating from a debilitating, life-threatening attack of spinal meningitis that interrupted his collegiate tennis career and his studies at San Diego State.
“I became a F. Scott Fitzgerald fanatic,” he recalls. “I fell in love with the Jazz Era. It made me turn into a romantic. I started dressing in 1920-style clothes. I wore a white hat with a thing around the brim, a pocket watch that my Grandpa Max gave me, tweed pants and two-tone shoes.
“As crazy as it is and I don’t believe in this now, but back then, I thought maybe I was the reincarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald and I was pretending I was Jay Gatsby.”
“To this day, I know it influenced my life greatly.”
“One of the main themes in the Gatsby book,” Belinsky said, “is ‘The American Dream,’ which is that freedom in this country includes the promise of the possibility of prosperity and success.”
Gatsby, who, as it turned out, made his millions illicitly as a Prohibition bootlegger, was also obsessed with creating an order in his daily routine aimed at achieving what he wanted in life through hard work, exercise, continuing education, participation in sports, developing elocution and poise, no smoking or no chewing, and no wasting time — “all things that I could relate to,” Belinsky affirmed.
“I love keeping things in order, as they happen, as they occur. If you were to open up this file cabinet, I have all of my tournaments and competitions on file and in order, so if I want to pull something or I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll know where to find it in a hurry.
“My wife is always thinking I have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) or something.”
We interviewed Belinsky, 56, in his 7,000 sq. ft. home in Fairbanks Ranch, complete with a backyard tennis court, swimming pool and home gym and that undoubtedly would have impressed Fitzgerald and even the great Mr. Gatsby himself.
Belinsky and his wife, Judy, have lived in the house for 23 of their 35 years of marriage and have raised their two children there.
These days, Belinsky, who retired in 2007, is taking time off from competitive tennis while his eyes heal following surgeries to repair a spontaneous detached retina and the removal of cataracts, but he still takes to the court at home and coaches players at Canyon Crest Academy in the fall and spring.
Looking otherwise fit and very much the tennis player, 6 foot, 162 pounds (“Never had a weight problem. I watch my diet pretty well. No red meat. A lot of chicken and fish … common sense eating.”), Belinsky guided us from his study to his tennis court where he has affixed a bronze plaque with another one of his collected literary gems, the poem “If,” by Rudyard Kipling.
His favorite stanza is: “If you can meet Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same; …. yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my Son! ”
It’s the same poem that Larry read to his son, Jordan, at his son’s Bar Mitzvah, 13 years ago, and that tennis players see before they emerge onto center court at Wimbledon.
That’s another thing about Belinsky. He loves collecting quotes.
On a wall of his home gym, he has one from the last paragraph of The Great Gatsby which reads: “Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.”
Larry is the first born and eldest son of Arnold (“Fuzz”) Belinsky who founded Arnold’s Furniture and Interiors in San Diego in 1966 and over the course of 25 years, with his family, grew the business into one of the Top 100 furniture retailers in the United States.
“We did a lot of advertising on TV and my mom would close off our commercials in her red hair and big smile with ‘From our family to yours.’
“Well, that was my mom.”
Larry was raised in San Diego but was born in Newport Beach, at Hoag Memorial Hospital, where his mother’s physician, Dr. Henry Bieler, author of the best-selling, pioneer nutrition book, “Food is Your Best Medicine,” had hospital privileges and delivered all three Belinsky children.
“We were raised on raw milk and without polio vaccinations, small pox vaccinations, nothing. My mother was … way ahead of her time and so was her doctor.”
Larry’s father, Arnold, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday surrounded by his family, was born in Detroit, Michigan. While serving in the Navy and stationed in San Diego, he met, Esther, his future wife, at a Temple Beth Israel social gathering for young singles.
Esther’s father owned the Union Furniture chain of stores in San Diego and Mexico. After they were married, Arnold worked for his father-in-law for 10 years before launching his own business in 1966.
Larry has a brother, Craig, who is 16 months younger, and sister, Sheila, who is six years younger.
“All three of us worked in the business together. My father, of course, was the CEO. I was the president of the company.” His sister, Sheila, and her husband, ran the company’s upscale line called Arnold’s Showcase and his brother, Craig, ran the home entertainment department.
“My father was very smart in that regard so each of us were not stepping on each other’s toes, because a family business is a very dangerous thing. Most of them don’t make it past the third generation.”
Larry began working in the business as a teenager. “I worked part time, on and off, starting in the warehouse and in the office as a lamp buyer and accessory buyer and, on the floor, as a salesman. And I liked the business.”
“I was a ‘comp lit’ major in college,” Larry said, “always knowing in the back of my mind that I was born and raised [to be] in the family retail furniture business.”
After marrying and leaving college without completing a degree, he joined the family business full time, eventually serving as president until it was sold in 1991 — and, in 1993, with his wife, Judy, opened their own retail furniture store, Country Furniture Faire on Miramar Road, which they ran for 14 years before closing it and officially retiring in 2007.
But, also from an early age, Belinsky developed a passion for tennis.
Introduced to the sport at age 7 by his father, he has been an avid tennis player ever since for almost 50 years with 12 United States Tennis Association medals to prove it, including two gold balls as national doubles champion in 2000 and in 2004.
He is also founder of the San Diego Tennis Hall of Fame and is currently assistant tennis coach at Canyon Crest Academy.
Throughout his business career, he played tennis two and three times a week while his competitors, who would often practice twice as much, were chagrined with how he could keep up his game.
“And, I think, to this day, the reason why was that my enthusiasm made up for my lack of court time. I stayed in good shape, so that when I was on the court, I could perform to my optimum level.”
At UC Berkeley, as a freshman, he made the men’s varsity tennis team; and after transferring to SDSU, where he was being groomed for the number one spot on the tennis team, he had dreams of possibly turning professional when he contracted spinal meningitis two weeks following his family’s first vacation to Acapulco.
“I was out for a good year and a half. I walked out of that hospital weighing 135 pounds down from 165-170 and I never regained that original weight.”
It shattered any dreams he had of turning pro. “High depression. Feeling sorry for myself. I had to wear a back brace to keep my torso up because I couldn’t support myself on my own. I couldn’t bend down to tie my shoes. I couldn’t climb steps.
“By the way, just before I got sick, I met my future wife, Judy (Olsher). I was 18 and she was 15-and-a-half and had just moved into the Del Cerro neighborhood with her family. Her folks, being part of the Jewish community, knew my folks,” he said,
“Our first date was a blind date to the movies and our second date was a tennis lesson. She had never played tennis before …So I could impress her with my tennis skills.”
Throughout his illness and rehabilitation, Judy stuck by him. “I remember her mother’s friend, who was trying to set Judy up with her own boys, criticizing me and saying ‘Why does she want to be around a sickly boy.’”
They married when Judy was 18 and Larry was 21.
When the family sold Arnold’s Furniture in 1991, Belinsky “retired” for 18 months, giving him time to train for a spot on the U.S. Masters Maccabiah tennis team for the 1993 Israel World Maccabiah Games. He brought home a silver medal from Israel.
“So,” he chuckled, “I was the #2 best Jewish ‘men’s 35 player’ in the world.” It was, he recalled, two weeks to experience and a lifetime to remember. “And I was able to share it with my family and in-laws [who attended the Games and cheered him on.]”
“I am what I am,” he said, recalling a line from a play. “I attribute that to my surroundings, to the people I grew up with and to the values that I learned mainly on the tennis court.”
He just finished his third season as assistant tennis coach at Canyon Crest Academy. “I coach the girls in the fall for three months and, in the spring, I coach the boys.”
Both the girls’ and the boys’ varsity teams this year won the Valley League championships and the Boys Singles and Doubles Individual championships.
And how does he regard his work as a tennis coach?
Well, here’s another one of his favorite quotes; this one by another of his favorite authors, John Updike, from the novel, “Rabbit, Run”:
“A boy (girl) who has his (her) heart enlarged by an inspiring coach can never become a failure in the greater game of life.”
Asked if he plans to resume playing competitive tennis again, he said, “I’d love to if this eye cooperates with me.”
: Larry Belinsky
Retired San Diego furniture retailer Larry Belinsky has been an avid tennis player for almost 50 years with 12 United States Tennis Association medals to prove it. He is the founder of the San Diego Tennis Hall of Fame and assistant tennis coach at Canyon Crest Academy.
Rancho Santa Fe
University of California Berkeley (1972-73) and San Diego State University (1973-76) where he majored in comparative literature but left before taking a degree to join his family’s retail furniture business, Arnold’s Furniture and Interiors in San Diego.
He and his wife, Judy, will celebrate 35 years of marriage on August 1. They have two children: son, Jordan, 26, and daughter, Daryn, 23.
Tennis, fitness, reading, music, theater, art and movies.
Costa Rica, Tahitian Island cruise, Adriatic cruise, Tennis tours in France, Monte Carlo, Australia, New Zealand, Shanghai, and 1993 Israel World Maccabiah Games.
“American Pastoral,” by Philip Roth
“The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
(Recent) “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “The Fighter;” and (older) “Chariots of Fire,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Kite Runner,” and “No Country For Old Men.”
Two Maltese named Samson and Delilah.
“Make something of your life; make each day count. Be happy.”