Bridgeport didn't take kindly to Maria Marszewski when she took over Kaplan's Liquors in 1987. The wives of some of her earliest customers at the then 48-year-old tavern and packaged-goods store weren't pleased to hear reports of the lovely new lady tending bar.
"It was bad," she says. "People were bad to me. Open up the door and—'Hey, Chinese, get the hell out of my neighborhood!'" But Marszewski was no poltroon. "I never said nothing. I just smiled and said thank you."
Born in Busan, the second-largest city in South Korea, she was working as a hairdresser and volunteering at the local church when an army serviceman from Chicago began attending services and helping out at the orphanage every Sunday. After James Marszewski's discharge, he put his secret plan to woo her into effect, abetted by an Irish missionary priest who played it close to the vest to gauge the ardent young man's sincerity—the clergyman felt Maria was too innocent and would be scared off by the soldier's courtship. James returned to Korea twice before the priest finally revealed James's intentions to Maria. She and James married days after he arrived on his third trip.
The couple began their life together back in Chicago struggling to make ends meet, but eventually they were able to buy a house in Mount Greenwood, and Maria, who diligently socked away money, opened a beauty shop in the basement. After James died at 39 from bone cancer in 1979, Maria got into the real estate business, eventually building houses and buying large apartment buildings—even a shopping mall. By the time her two boys, Mike and Ed, went away to college, she was ready to slow down. She sold off her properties and started looking for a small business she could run herself. Her broker put her in touch with a Japanese-Korean widow with two sons of her own who was struggling to run Kaplan's (the original Kaplan was three owners back).
Her Christlike approach won over Bridgeport gangbangers—some of them not of drinking age—who would regularly boost whole cases of beer under her nose. "Next time he come, I hugging him. I never yell," Maria says. "I say, 'Sweetheart, next time you really want something, you ask me and I will give it you. You young. You can't drink, but I will buy you anything you want. Just don't steal. Live an honest life.'"
Maria's warm demeanor eased old-timers who initially accused her and her sons of gentrifying the neighborhood, particularly after Mike and Ed (the longtime publisher of Lumpen and proprietor of the nearby Co-Prosperity Sphere) rehabbed the bar in 2010, replacing Mike's huge collection of creepy ventriloquist dummies with a extensive craft beer and cocktail selection and officially rechristening it in their mother's name as Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar.
These days everybody in the neighborhood knows the 78-year-old as "Mom," or as "the Peggy Guggenheim of Bridgeport" for her support of the arts. The new brewers collective headed by Ed, Marz Community Brewing, has given Maria yet another nickname with the limited release of a new sour red ale, the Duchess de Bridgeport, featuring the Marszewski matriarch's likeness on the label.
Maria worked full shifts five nights a week until a recent bout with shingles took her out for a few months. But she's back at the front register now four nights a week. "I have to be here at nighttime," she says. "That way nobody give the bartender a hard time."
Correction: This article was amended to correctly reflect the Marszewski brothers' involvement in Marz Community Brewing. As previously stated, Ed is owner and president of Marz, while Mike owns Maria's.