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Early Broadway's un-Jewish Jews.


... Between 1880 and 1905, about a million and a half Jews from Siberia and Eastern Europe settled in NewYork. By 1910, Jews composed a quarter of the population. The other three quarters began to look upon them as an Asiatic horde that would soon smother the entire town and wipe out its traditions. Even an expatriate like Henry James worried over "the Hebrew conquest of New York," with East Side cafes that served as "torture-rooms of the living idiom."

But the "living idiom" was changing all the time, and the Jewish torture-rooms would lead right to the language of Broadway. In fact, there might not have been a modern Broadway without the "Asiatic horde" of comedians, gossip columnists, songwriters, and singers that grew out of the ghetto, whether it was on the Lower East Side, Harlem (a Jewish ghetto before it was a black one), Newark, or Washington, DC. Sophie Tucker, Irving Berlin, Walter Winchell, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, and the Marx Brothers were educated in one "torture-room" or another, and none of them, except Fanny Brice, ever saw the inside of a high school. Jolson joined a circus at ten. Tucker was a vaudevillian by the time she was twelve. Berlin was a singing waiter in a cellar saloon (with a bordello upstairs) at fifteen. And Brice was a tall, gawky street urchin who ran with a tough gang of girls.

Each had an incredible ability to mimic and mime. They were all magpies, even if Harpo Marx was a silent one and Berlin did most of his chattering with songs. And they were bitterly poor--Winchell's family had to hop from address to address, eluding landlords. The nihilism of vaudeville would have been natural to them, part of their own interior landscape. They could have been eluding landlords all their lives, no matter how wealthy they would become. Their wealth was almost illegal--ill-gotten gains.

If Berlin was more conventional, that was only a mask. He would fee/poor until the day he died. He might donate millions from "God Bless America" to the Boy Scouts and still be afraid to spend a dime. He would become a hermit who lived and cooked in one room of his mansion on Beekman Place. He'd remained a bedouin, Izzy Baline, who started his career as a songwriter by busking for pennies on the street, the way Fanny Brice would busk ... and steal pennies from other kids, since she was so damn tall. Groucho Marx "retired" to a suite in the Sherry-Netherland, where he camped out like a bedouin, a wise and senile child-man. Jolson, the greatest bedouin of them all, would wander from hotel to hotel, unable to bear the affliction of a permanent address....

They hollered, howled, fought, and poked fun.... In truth, they all had a gangster streak, even Berlin. Their maddening drive for success must have seemed dangerous to them. Their art was a little outside the law. However hard they might scream yes, yes to American culture, there was also an undersong, an unconscious will, "expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the tenants of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself."

They'd grown up in a culture that mocked their own kind. If New York had become a nation of immigrants by 1900, then vaudeville and popular music would imitate their babel of different dialects and tongues. And Jewish comics and singers would develop into the fiercest imitators of them all, as if their mockery were hiding a certain hysteria, an obsession to succeed at any cost, an eagerness to play the clown and the fool, because it was an excellent cover for one's aggression. "They did 'Dutch' (German) dialect routines, Irish imitations, Yiddish parodies, blackface, slapstick, sentimental ballads, standard hoofing, and a little ragtime" [according to Irving Howe].

Blackface would become a Jewish "specialty," with Jolson turning it into the touchstone of his repertoire. He'd seldom appear on stage without blacking up. For years and years he did variations on a single stock character, Gus, a sly black slave, who might resurface as Bombo, Christopher Columbus's navigator, or a gondolier, and Inbad, the foil of Sinbad the Sailor--colossal hits with audiences everywhere. Once, in San Francisco, while Jolson was traveling with Bombo, the audience wouldn't let him off the stage, and he was like an enchanted prisoner who "sang and sang and sang."

Jolson loved to tell audiences at the Winter Garden how he first decided to put burnt cork on his face. "I had a Negro dresser who told me, 'You'd be much, much funnier, boss, if you blacked your face like mine. People always laugh at a black man.'"

And they did laugh at Jolson playing a black man with a lovable white soul.

It's hard to reimagine the perverse racism of the period. Blacks weren't welcome on Broadway unless they were comedians in blackface, like Bert Williams, or tan chorus girls in an all-black show who could titillate and serve as "forbidden fruit," temptresses with a tricky whiteness stolen from some black silver. Jolson's apologists will swear that he "deepened" Bombo with Jewish humor, that he transformed blackface "into something emotionally richer and more humane. Black became a mask for Jewish expressiveness, with one woe speaking through the voice of another" [Irving Howe]. But Jolson was a bigot and a son of a bitch. And Bombo humanized no one but Jolson himself, who was a miserable human being without his black mask....

What united Berlin, Jolson, Brice, and Winchell was not their humaneness, but the savagery of success. They were like stunted children who had to become adults at the age of ten. None of them had the power to reflect--"the very pace at which they lived, the compulsiveness with which they worked, made reflection unlikely," says Irving Howe. Or impossible. And robbed of reflection, they could fall into silence, like Irving Berlin, or couldn't stop howling, like Fanny Brice, as she rediscovered her own gangster girlhood on radio, where she was "Baby Snooks" from 1937 right up to her death, a brat who could eat her mother's coat and delight millions of listeners with her irrevocable lack of remorse....


He conquered songwriting like a Kublai Khan, presided over his empire for fifty years--America's foremost balladeer--until he was dethroned by Elvis Presley and the new empire of rock 'n' roll. Israel Baline, born in Siberia in 1888, was the son of an itinerant cantor. Fleeing a pogrom in 1893, the Balines arrived in NewYork harbor, passed through the "cattle station" at Ellis Island, settled on the Lower East Side, moved from Monroe to Cherry Street.... The cantor, who worked in a kosher meat factory, suffered from chronic bronchitis and died in 1901. "Izzy" ran away from home, lived from hand to mouth, singing, stealing, steering customers to the bordellos of Allen Street, and made his way uptown to Tin Pan Alley, where he plugged songs for music publishers by the time he was fourteen.

Like Broadway, Tin Pan Alley was both an idea and a physical place with its own mythology. It began in the 1880s "as a cluster of sheet music publishing houses" that sprang up on the Bowery. These publishers were like gypsies who followed the upward thrust of theaters and lobster palaces and cabarets, and by the early 1900s, many of them had relocated to West 28th Street, between Broadway and Sixth, where songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld heard the constant crash of pianos that sounded "like a cacophony of clashing tin pans," and he dubbed this gypsyland "Tin Pan Alley."

And soon Izzy Baline, the minstrel of Cherry Street, was a nascent balladeer and vassal of publishers that would "post" him, put him to work plugging songs at various vaudeville houses, planting him in the audience as a "singing stooge" who would suddenly break into song and urge everyone in the house to sing along with him.

He continued this musical feast as a walter at N.... r Mike's Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, where he sang in dialect ... and began writing songs for N.... r Mike (a swarthy Russian Jew). Izzy worked from eight at night until six in the morning, and it was here at the Pelham that he began his lifelong habit of intense activity during the night and total hibernation during the day.

Berlin was a "faker," a self-taught pianist who could only strike the black keys, but he still managed to compose on the piano with a special lever "that enabled him to learn how his tunes sounded in any other key." Thus a star was bona, Irving Berlin, who would have his own publishing house on Tin Pan Alley and his own theater, the Music Box, on Broadway.

Like everyone else, he was writing rags, "coon songs" with a slightly syncopated, ragged beat that borrowed shamelessly from the great black syncopators like Scott Joplin to manufacture "white rag," bouncy tunes that either mocked blacks or rendered them invisible. And in 1911 he was catapulted out of relative obscurity with "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which brought international acclaim to him and Tin Pan Alley. Berlin's output was so expansive, so absolute, with variation upon variation, like a diabolic player piano, that his competitors accused him of keeping little Scott Joplins in the closet. But they'd underestimated Berlin's bounty, the restlessness, the electric pull, that turned him into a nighthawk, like Winchell and Jolson, and wouldn't allow him to sit still.

Ann Douglas calls him "unstoppable," the man who could parrot whatever he heard. She compares him to Bix Beiderbecke. Bix was not doing with black jazz what Berlin was doing with ragtime. He played brilliant apprentice, not robber, to black music. He was not coopting Negro jazz by adapting it to white tastes but pushing it to new frontiers of expressiveness.

Douglas is absolutely accurate and a bit unfair to Berlin. He was a ghoul, a grave robber of black rags, like most other white musicians of his era. But he was simply a much greater robber, and in his best robberies, he did provide something new, like Bix. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a demonic song, much, much darker and complex than any other white rag. Berlin is related to Alexander--he's Alexander's white twin, a ragged gangster man who's inviting all his listeners to some strange, marvelous destruction; he's asking everybody to go to war.

Hollywood would seize "Alexander" and shoehorn it into a thirties musical, starring Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, that's both a laughable pastiche and a poignant commentary on the song and the ambiguous magic of Irving Berlin ... in the land of 20th Century-Fox, where "Alexander" is always white and gets to marry his blindingly blond girl, Alice Faye, while Don Ameche and Ethel Merman, his "black" accomplices, have to wait somewhere in the wings....


She was a tomboy with a great big nose and a very wide mouth, a little lady Robin Hood, stealing from stores so that she could buy things for neighborhood brats. She would become the biggest and most beloved star of the Follies, even though Florenz Ziegfeld could never "glorify" such a gawky girl, but she would play on her very lack of romance to distinguish herself from Ziggy's beautiful chorines, poke fun at the Ziegfeld Girl's "requisite whiteness" and Anglo-Saxon charm. She was a "great farceur," says Gilbert Seldes in The 7 Lively Arts, a book about the birth of popular culture. She was "one of the few people who 'make fun,'" who could parody Pavlova, Salome, or Ziegfeld himself, and could shed her antics and her Yiddish accent in an instant to sing "My Man," in homage to her current husband, Nicky Arnstein, who was either going into or coming out of jail. She was the most adored comedienne of the twentieth century, or at least its first half. Kings would call upon her in London; movie stars sat at her feet; she could talk like a socialite or curse like a cab driver. Fanny Brice.

She was born Fania Borach on the Lower East Side in 1891. Her mother was a saloonkeeper, and that's where Fanny discovered how to curse, in the slightly illegal atmosphere of a saloon, with its variety of local hoodlums and alcoholics. But Fanny seemed to develop amnesia about her own childhood, that is, the ten years the Borachs spent in Newark, away from the heart of Manhattan--ten years she didn't mention to a single soul. She was a bit of a juvenile delinquent, but she had the loudest voice wherever she lived, and she loved to entertain. She was onstage at fifteen, performing in vaudeville and burlesque. She could never kick her feet correctly in a chorus line, and she had to turn dancing into a comic routine.

Ziggy would discover her at eighteen and a half, after watching her as "Sadie Salome" (in a song by Irving Berlin), the Yiddish temptress who danced behind a veil. She swore that she didn't know any Yiddish but had learned it for her act. Yet she'd been around Yiddish ruffians in her mama's saloon. Its difficult to determine what to believe in a "mytholept" like Fanny Brice, who nourished her own personal legend.

In 1912, she met another mytholept, Nicky Arnstein, the love of her life. Nicky kept fabulating names and pasts for himself. He could talk like a college professor and art historian but had barely gone to school. He was notorious for conning rich women, and he conned Fanny Brice, the funny girl who'd become famous at the Follies. "One Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to a man who stood then and forever after for everything that had been left out of my life: manners, good breeding, education, and an extraordinary gift for dreaming."

Fanny was both shrewd and dumb in her assessment of Nick. His manners hid the mean streak of a gambler and a gangster who was like a relentless, preening bird of prey. "Nicky is a long man. He is long-faced, long-nosed, long-chinned, long-waisted, and long-armed. His hands are long and delicate, as are his fingers. He can palm a card--or a full deck of cards--in those beautifully kept long hands." But he did dream his way into an aristocratic world of heiresses and high rollers with a softness for some "long man" who could talk about Rembrandt and the pointillism of Pissarro, and Nick brought Fanny Borach, the saloonkeeper's daughter, along on the ride.

Fanny married Nick in 1918, after he did a stretch in Sing Sing. He'd started out as Arnold Rothstein's mentor, but as A. R. rose in the underworld with his knack for manipulating money and hiring enforcers like Monk Eastman and Legs Diamond, Nick continued to scheme and get caught: he sat in the best jails of Europe--Paris, London, Monte Carlo.

He could dream with Fanny, but he didn't have much of an imagination for crime. He ended up as Rothstein's silent partner, who steered his aristocratic friends to the Wolf's card games. He got involved in a caper where five million dollars' worth of Liberty Bonds had been robbed from bank messengers over a period of four years. The district attorney's men were looking for a "mastermind"--probably A. R.--but one of the supposed robbers fingered Nicky Arnstein, the fall guy, and Nick was grabbed up by the police. By now, Fanny Brice knew her man. "Mastermind! Nicky couldn't mastermind an electric bulb into a socket."

The mastermind acted out his own burlesque; he ran away to some mob town in Ohio and then surrendered himself, but he couldn't even do that correctly. He got caught in a parade with Fanny and had to let the cops find him. He was sent off to Leavenworth after a sensational trial, and Fanny Brice, the farceur, went around in black. She stood in front of a bare black curtain at the Palace and sang "My Man" to a mesmerized, weeping audience.

Nick was released from Leavenworth in 1927, but he never lived with Fanny and their two children again. She would get her long nose fixed and run to Hollywood, but Hollywood had no room for her brand of farce. It was only on the radio that she could score, as Baby Snooks. It was as if she'd gone full circle, from the wild child with the loudest voice in Newark to the raucous make-believe child with the loudest voice on radio....

But 20th Century-Fox didn't forget the old, reliable legend of Fanny Brice and her ne'er-do-well gambler husband, Nicky Arnstein. Alexander's Ragtime Band had been an enormous hit, and the studio was looking to reunite its star couple, Alice Faye and Tyrone Power--"Alexander" and his blindingly blond girl. Fox reached into its bag of tricks and came up with Rose of Washington Square (1939), a retelling of Fanny Brice's torch-song-romance without the ethnic trimmings. "Second Avenue Rose" moves to Washington Square. Alice Faye never rolls her eyes or screams in a Yiddish accent. She's a songbird rather than a farceur....

Meanwhile, Fanny was like a submarine submerged in Baby Snooks. She moved to Hollywood, took up interior decorating, and was about to write her autobiography when she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1951. We can only dream of the book she might have written. The Loudest Voiceby Fanny Brice. Would it have been the memoirs of a mytholept, without the "lost" girlhood in Newark and the Jewish face that haunted her in Hollywood, but with the blue-eyed mediocrity of Nick? She was only a comic Cassandra who could intuit everyone else's fate with Sadie Salome's veil, poke fun of all pretense, but couldn't really practice the art of introspection. She was much more comfortable as the ferocious brat she'd always been: Baby Snooks.

But she would have her own dark redeemer in a girl from Brooklyn with a bigger nose and a louder voice than hers. Barbra, who would finally bring the Second Hand Rose to Hollywood. Barbra, the snake charmer with feline features who was an exotic, almost beautiful Fanny Brice. Barbra Streisand was Fanny even before Funny Girl (1968). The role of Yetta Tessye Marmelstein in the Broadway musical, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962), was pure Fanny Brice. Then there was Funny Girt the musical, and Funny Girl, the film, with Walter Pidgeon as Flo and Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein without Nick's Norwegian blue eyes--it was almost as K the film had captured Brice's own mytholepsy, where the duckling becomes a magnificent swan, where the brooding Mephistophelian Omar Sharif is more like Arnold Rothstein than the bumbling Nick, and a Second Hand Rose is much, much more vibrant than any Rose of Washington Square.


He was the biggest gangster of them all, who once held more power than most presidents ... and also abused it. In his heyday, half the adult population of America either read his column or listened to him on the radio. "Good evening, Mr. And Mrs. America and all the ships at sea."

His great pal was J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, who shared his private table at the Stork Club. Both of them dressed like gangsters and demolished more people than an army ever could. Both of them hated the rich and liked to talk baseball. Both of them were snarling paranoiacs who loved Broadway. Because of his association with "Edgar," he could bully whomever he wanted and win any feud. His enemies and his friends were frightened to death of him. His column was like a sacred font. He could destroy you with a few words or build your career. "The way to become famous fast," he often said, is to throw a brick at someone who is famous."

Playwright Clifford Odets wondered "how a human being could have so little sense of other human beings." And comedian Jack Paar claimed that this king of gossip, this Broadway gangster and gallant, had "a hole in his soul."

His family name, Weinshel, meant "sour cherries" in Yiddish. And that's what he was, the sourest of sour cherries. His father had been an itinerant cantor, like Berlin's, but couldn't make a living in America. Walter Winchell was born in 1897 on the Lower East Side and grew up in East Harlem. He had "large blue eyes, a thin, almost feminine mouth." But unlike his dad, he was never "a real lady killer." He was too busy dodging landlords.

His friend Ernie Cuneo said that Waiter's childhood "had left him with four inches of scar tissue around his heart, and with a heart full of fear." Walter would explain his modus operandi: "I didn't want to be cold. I didn't want to be hungry, homeless or anonymous."

--hungry, homeless or anonymous.

Like Jolson and Berlin, he had a pathological need not to be poor, not to be unknown. Everything he did was defined by hunger and want. He couldn't bother about public school. He ran away from home at ten to join a vaudeville troupe of child performers. He was once part of a quartet with comedian George Burns, ne Nathan Birnbaum. He'd become a little song-and-dance man. The singing and dancing would hold him in good stead. "Vaudeville made Walter an entertainer for life ... he not only absorbed its diversity, its energy, its nihilism," but like a real trouper, he would juggle with the world and make journalism into a deeper, richer vaudeville.

That was his lasting contribution to the Big Street, not so much the "slanguage" he would develop with Sime Silverman about the hardened artery of Broadway, but the sheer force of his persona, his panoramic presence. He was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, like a mischievous bantamweight hoofer with two toes in every single door. He was the original "Nighthawk of the Roaring Forties" and the original newsboy, "immature in everything but nerve." Walter was a piece of" human electricity," five-foot-seven (like Jolson and Berlin). He'd developed his own Broadway strut. "He walked fast, airily, like the dancer he once was."

No one could keep up with Walter Winchell. He was gone before you could say hello. He would make his rounds--Lindy's, Reuben's, the "21" Club, and the El Fey, where he might linger a bit because of Texas Guinan. "We learned Broadway from her," he would confess. "She taught us the way of the Street."

It was at Tex's place that he would also meet [the gangster Owney] Madden. He was considered Madden's protege, and he didn't have to won-y about getting kidnapped or roughed up by racketeers. During the thirties, he would start carrying a snub-nosed .38 after two American Nazis attacked him. But it never happened again. Lucky Luciano had promised to "even things up" for Walter. Madden might have done it, but Madden was in Hot Springs....

Walter had already become the mythic man of Broadway, a gangster who didn't need a gun to kill (though he had one now). Whenever Scarface came to town, he'd beg Walter to teach him how to rumba and how to talk. He "polished" Capone the way he "polished" Costello. He was more celebrated than any of the celebrities who sought him out. He didn't pretend to be a pioneer. He wasn't the first columnist to write about Broadway. Variety, had had a Broadway beat long before Winchell. But no other "newsboy" from outside the entertainment weeklies had ever declared the Street as "his exclusive domain." Walter's column, "Your Broadway and Mine," had its debut in the Evening Graphic on September 20, 1924. And American journalism would never be quite the same. Walter uncoiled a live snake that had been largely unexplored--the slitherings of Broadway. And he himself would become a citizen of this new country-within-a-country that had emerged after the Great War: a lawless, unbridled mecca where everybody could meet--hoodlums, heiresses, jazz singers, funny girls, dentists from Des Moines (so long as they had a little money)--and eventually did meet at Texas Guinan's El Fey Club....

She built a crazy cathedral out of loneliness and isolation and a primordial [bar of the dark that "attracted a set of largely rootless, dissatisfied people, people without families or commitments," like Madden and Jolson and Rothstein and Tex herself, or Runyon and Winchell, who were more rootless with a family than without.

This imagined and very real country-within-a-country was a land of nighthawks, where people like Winchell loved to wander, where nothing could hold you for very long, not even Tex, where all you could ever discover came in short shifts, like the kinetic language of Waiter's columns, each entry an isolated island; and his own coinages--a new mistress was a "keptive," a recently divorced couple was "Reno-vated"--made you feel a little less alone by marking other people's foibles, malaprops, and essential isolation....

Walter was "a moveable feast, flitting from one nightspot to another," and then the dervish came to a full stop. It might not have happened if Tex had still been around. But Prohibition agents and the city's own cops had banished her from the Big Street, and Walter Winchell needed his own Reno-vation. He began to favor a small-time speak, the Stork Club, on West 58th, owned by Sherman Billingsley, with the backing of Frank Costello.

Billingsley was a nebbish from Enid, Oklahoma, where his dad had been the chief of police. He'd come to the Big Bad Town during Prohibition, studied Texas Guinan like a little guru, and got involved in the business of speakeasies. Unlike Tex, Sherman Billingsley was a snob. "If Miss Guinan blended the Social Register, Broadway stars and showgirls, top-drawer racketeers and a few intellectuals into a novel, heady mixture" that would become Cafe Society, there was never any sense of exclusion. But Sherman Billingsley meant to exclude. "I decided that my clientele would be strictly carriage trade or nothing."

He didn't like Jews (Walter would be the exception, since the nebbish needed him), didn't like most Catholics, didn't like dentists from Des Moines. He didn't want the unfamous and the unloved at the Stork. And by endorsing Sherm, by dubbing the Stork Club "New York's New Yorkiest place," Walter helped kill the Broadway of Texas Guinan and the profound mingling that she inspired.

The Stork's Cafe Society would harden Winchell's "hardened artery," turn Broadway into a series of boring, dead masks. Walter would become one himself as he sat every night at table 50 in the Cub Room. Even Sherm would admit that the Stork only "arrived" after Winchell arrived in 1930. Soon Walter had his own barber shop on the club's second floor. He was even more of a fixture than Rothstein had ever been at Lindy's, the little man's delicatessen.

Sherm was no longer a little man. He severed his ties with Costello, and without his mob "gonnegtions," he was promptly kidnapped by "Mad Dog" Coll, tucked away in a Bronx garage, and tortured until he could come up with twenty-five grand. It only made him more of a snob. He moved the Stork closer to Fifth Avenue, at 51 1/2 East 51st, and finally to an old furniture shop at 3 East 53rd, where his club would become the first speak to introduce champagne cocktails and to have a canopy over the door.

The thirties would bring a new hero, not the boisterous, rambunctious Babe Ruth, but the Yankees' brooding celebrity centerfielder, Joe DiMaggio, with his impeccable manners and aristocratic mien. He was a perfect candidate for the Stork Club. He loved starlets and let others pick up the tab, pay for the pleasure of his company. Walter never wrote an unkind word about this intensely private, complicated man who had such a difficult time dealing with adulation. There was a common bond between the inarticulate DiMaggio and the magpie in the Cub Room, one of them "a man without a private life at all, who was always onstage," and the other a gifted athlete who could only find his language and a little bit of grace out on the playing field....

Winchell had drifted a world away from Tex's world. Tex had been about curiosity and constant movement. She had to keep ahead of Prohibition agents who were right on her tail with their padlocks. But the hoofer no longer had to dance. He sat behind a table now, while seekers hovered around him, begging for an audience. Walter was totally absorbed in his own vendettas--fighting with Jolson this season, Franklin Roosevelt the next. He'd become a stationary target, full of bile. Sherm would suck up to Walter with a champagne cocktail. In his hands, Texas Guinan's magnificent lonelyhearts club had become a vitriolic court....

That court was revisited in Mexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957), starring Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker, the magpie's taller, handsomer double, with his own column, "The Eyes of Broadway...."

"He's told presidents where to go and what to do," [Tony Curtis's character Sydney] Falco says of J.J., his terrible tin god. And like the little pair of eyeglasses that serve as the logo for J.J.'s column, we peep at Hunsecker and his narrowly focused, frightening power. He can squash whoever he wants. But in his penthouse, above Broadway, he's a hollowed-out man, removed and Renovated from humankind, an insect, like Walter must have been, with or without his column....


Everybody called him Mr. Broadway. "Watch me--I'm a wow!" he would announce in Variety. He was a shameless self-promoter who liked to think of himself as the World's Greatest Entertainer, and he probably was, for a decade or two, but of all the denizens of Broadway, including Meyer Wolfsheim, he's the one who seems remote, as if his jangling energy were frozen into the burnt cork on his face.

His persona has faded more than Fanny's, more than Winchell's, more than Berlin's. Yet Jolson was the Jazz Age, its ultimate white jazz singer. As Zelda said to Scott's little band of expatriates in the South of France, "Don't you think that Al Jolson is just like Christ?"

She was much more clairvoyant than Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda could read Jolson and his era, his ability to cannibalize himself, to give his own guts to an audience, to become a kind of human sacrifice. Gilbert Seldes sensed this in The 7 Lively Arts when he wrote that Jolson (and Fannie Brice) were possessed of a daemon that could otherwise only be found "in religious mania, in good jazz bands, in a rare outbreak of mob violence," but not on the American stage. Jolson "never saves ulp for the next scene, or the next week, or the next show. His generosity is extravagant.... And on the great nights when everything is right, Jolson is driven by a power beyond himself."

There were other witnesses. "When Jolson enters [the Winter Garden]," wrote Robert Benchley of the Algonquin Round Table, "it is as if an electric current has been run along the wires under the seats where the hats are stuck. The house comes to tumultuous attention ... such a giving-off of vitality, personality, charm and whatever all those words are, results from a Jolson performance."

Or, as screenwriter Samson Raphaelson remarked: "Every person has an aura about him, a kind of electricity he generates. Someday, there will be a way of measuring it. No one, though, had it like Jolson. That's what made him so great--so unique."

But we only have the word of those who witnessed him, who had fallen under his sway--like Gilbert Seldes, or Raphaelson, or Robert Benchley and Zelda Fitzgerald. We ourselves cannot "visit" Jolson, and he seems truncated, almost puny, on the screen--a man robbed of his persona. His detractors and idolaters have both declared that Jolson's particular talents did not translate to any medium other than live theater. Ann Douglas belittles him by saying that even Irving Berlin "outgrew Jolson's all-powerful but limited gifts." Perhaps it is our own limitation--and the stigma we attach to blackface--that doesn't permit Jolson to reveal himself to us.

He considered himself a tough guy. He would battle with everybody--men, women, stage managers, other performers, wives. He loved to box, and he would often race down a boulevard, whether Broadway or Rodeo Drive, ducking imaginary blows. Sometimes the blows were real. Like Winchell and Berlin, he ran away from home, bummed around in circuses and carnivals, was beaten up, and was found living like a rat in a Baltimore bar when he was eleven or twelve--it's hard to fix Jolson's age, since like many Russian immigrants from the Jewish Pale, he had no birth certificate. He chose May 26, 1886, but he might have been born in 1884 or 85, in April or June, July or August....

From that bar in Baltimore he was sent to St. Mary's, Babe Ruth's alma mater. And when both of them were big stars, Al and the Babe would brag how they'd met at the bad boys' school and had run the school ragged. It's an apocryphal tale. Ruth was only a toddler when Jolson spent a couple of months at St. Mary's. But they enjoyed clinging to that lie.

Jolson entered vaudeville in 1904, joined several minstrel troupes, and reinvented himself the moment he put on his blackface mask. Jolson became "Jolie." That's what the minstrels called him, and that would be his signature and mythic, almost magical, nickname for life. None of the other minstrels could compete with him. "In those days you must remember there were no microphones," recalls his manager, Art Klein. "But this man had the most resonant voice of any human being I ever knew."

He took over the runway at the Winter Garden, turned it into his private country, from which he could practically plunge into the audience or retreat.... Jolie as a perpetual motion machine--the panorama of showgirls and prostitutes, the two wives he would slap and dump, slap and dump, then beg them to return, because he couldn't bear to be alone, dump them all over again, in the same cruel cycle. He could attach himself to nothing and no one but an audience, which was constantly fickle and changed all the time, and had to be wooed every single night.

And then there was Ruby Keeler, the little gold digger who loved to play dumb.

Al first saw her at Tex's 300 Club in 1926. She was a member of Guinan's Graduates, but she watched her toes when she danced and she sang with a lisp. Jolie didn't care....

She was in the chorus of a Broadway musical at thirteen and went to work for Tex a th El Fey Club when she was fourteen and a half. She wasn't a particular prodigy.

Most of Guinan's Graduates were between thirteen and sixteen, and chorus lines were flooded with fourteen year olds....

But wherever Ruby went on the road, Jolson was there. His relentless, manic energy overcame her. He proposed to Ruby Keeler in D.C. "Jolson is here in Washington," she told her manager.... "I've fallen in love with him...."

Al and Ruby Keeler were married in Port Chester, New York, on September 21, 1928. She was nineteen, and the jazz singer was forty-three, give or take a couple of years. They sailed for Europe aboard the Olympia, neither of their names on the passenger list, but people still mobbed them at the boat. Jolie had brought several of his pals along. He was a man "who could feel awfully lonely on a honeymoon."

His child bride was no longer a child. She'd matured under the tutelage of Tex. "She was a stubborn, somewhat sassy young woman who had been around and who knew all there was to know about speakeasies, Broadway night life, and gangsters."

But ... Tex [as Guinan] had [not] prepared her for the whirlwind that was Al Jolson. The Jazz Singer had made him the most visible entertainer on the planet, and he couldn't stop entertaining. He cannibalized Ruby's career. She was now billed as Ruby Keeler Jolson, and agreed to star in Show Girl, a Ziegfeld musical about Dixie Dugan of the "Zigfold Follies." During the out-of-town tryouts at Boston's Colonial Theatre, Ruby was about to go into her tap-dancing routine when Jolie jumped out into the aisle from his seat in the second row and sang "Liza" in the voice that never needed a microphone. Show Girl was an enormous hit while it had Al Jolson....

Ruby and Al moved out to Hollywood in 1929, and Ruby would become a sweetheart of the Depression, the backstage girl who scrambles to the top on the sheer force of her own goodwill. She was the same flat-footed dancer with a lisp, but audiences loved her for it. Jolson had become "Mr. Keeler." He was losing his popularity and his looks. He couldn't seem to face "the prospect of having a wife with a career more dazzling than his own." He would fall into jealous rages, knowing that other men had the privilege of kissing her in a film. They were fighting all the time, though he never dared hit her. She left him in 1939. "Al was a possessive man, which was difficult for me.... If I was gone for ten minutes--just shopping, mind you--I had to explain."

He "bought" a black prize fighter, Henry Armstrong, together with George Raft. He gambled, went on golfing expeditions. He even had some sort of a revival when Larry Parks played him in The Jolson Story (1946). But he still seemed like an orphan of an earlier era, when live sound at the Winter Garden had much more resonance than radio or silent film. Jolson ruled at the very beginning of the "age of mechanical reproduction" that Walter Benjamin writes about, when the artist still had his "aura." And that aura disintegrated, disappeared, with Mr. Broadway....

The movie star didn't have any less of a measure than Al Jolson, with his (or her) ghostlike transformation on the screen, but the movie star, as Benjamin imagines him, responds to the "shriveling" of his aura with the fake spell of personality that the studio builds around the star, turning him into a commodity.

Benjamin may have been a bit reductive about the movies. Jolson was also a commodity, in place to sell tickets for his producers, Lee and J.J. Schubert. But he was his own animal onstage, without a microphone, without a mechanical edge, with a daemon that could never quite fit onto a screen.

JEROME CHARYN is the author of more than 35 books, including the Isaac Sidel crime series and his three-volume memoirs The Dark Lady From Belorusse, The Black Swan, and Bronx Boy. The above are excerpts from a chapter called "She's a Chandelier" in his book, Gangsters and Gold Diggers: Old New York, the Jazz Age, and the Birth of Broadway, published in December 2003 by Four Walls Eight Windows.
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Author:Charyn, Jerome
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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