John Neil Jensen was born in Oneonta in Upstate New York in late summer, 1924, about a year after his sister Helen was born. A fire destroyed the family dairy when Johnny was still an infant, Helen a toddler. The Jensens returned to New York City where John Sr. got work driving a horse-drawn milk buggy and Jennie managed the tenement in Greenwich Village where the family resided.
John Sr. was working his way up at the dairy, and he was looking at a promotion to foreman when diabetes struck him down. It was at about that time that diphtheria struck the neighborhood and nearly killed the Jensen boy. Though Johnny—just three years of age—survived, his vision was severely damaged. He could only see blurs within about a foot of his face. Helen fared better, but without a breadwinner, the welfare agency threatened to take Johnny and Helen from their parents. Fortunately a Jewish family in the tenement covered for the Jensens until Mr. Jensen could recover and find a job. It appears that he was still recovering when the market crashed in October, 1929.
Mr. Jensen finally found work as an estate caretaker in Booten, New Jersey. Johnny lived in isolation, his sister Helen his only playmate, his mother caring for him but not sure how to integrate him into society. After about a year in New Jersey, John Sr. got a better caretaker job in Mt. Kisco, Westchester County, New York. He would manage the gardens of a Mr. George Chapman there for many years. Mr. Chapman was a landowner and landlord who created one of Manhattan’s minor landmarks, the Merchant’s House Museum. He was quite old in the years that John Jensen maintained his gardens, notably married to a woman so young and robust he may have married her to be his nurse.
The job on the Chapman Estate was a lucky break for a diabetic supporting a family in a time of economic chaos. John Sr. fared well there, leaving his mark on gardens that would draw admiration from around Mt. Kisco and even among a few enthusiasts around the country. Little Johnny, now seven, was settling into a pattern of dependency, spoiling under his mother’s loving care.