Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose, America's Great Jewish Impresario.
Today, if people remember Billy Rose at all, it is as Fanny Brice's second husband in the movie Funny Lady (1975). James Caan portrayed Rose opposite Barbara Streisand in the biopic set in the 1930s. Caan presents Rose as shrewd, deceptive, cheap, manipulative, ambitious, and charming. This characterization of Rose is accurate, though the charismatic impresario deserves to be known as more than Brice's volatile husband. Rose merits his own biography. In his new book, Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose, America's Great Jewish Impresario, Mark Cohen brings Rose out of Brice's shadow and chronicles his quirky career. Cohen explores Rose's significance as a songwriter, producer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, especially for Jewish causes. For Cohen, Rose is a "marvelously exaggerated example of the Jewish American experience" (xv). Cohen traces how Rose's Jewish expression evolved over time.
Born in 1895 on the Lower East Side to Russian immigrants, Rose used his skill at shorthand as a vehicle for upward mobility. After winning awards for his speedy stenography, he moved to Washington, DC, in 1918. The ambitious young man worked for Bernard Baruch at the War Industries Board, beginning a lifelong friendship with the prominent financier. Rose then returned to New York, where he shrewdly decided that he could make quick, easy money as a songwriter.
Rose co-wrote numerous songs during the 192.0s and 1930s, including four classics: "It's Only a Paper Moon," "More Than You Know," "Me and My Shadow," and "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five and Ten Cent Store)." Rose also co-authored one of the great Jewish novelty songs of the 1920s, "Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me." For Cohen, this parodie rebuke of Ford's 1927 apology enabled Rose to defend Baruch and other Jews whom Ford had targeted. The song also foreshadowed Rose's later interests in Jewish causes. Cohen provides a useful overview of Rose's songwriting career, including accusations that Rose took credit he did not deserve. However, I found myself looking for more analysis of the major compositions, their popular reception, and the contributions of Rose to the songwriting partnerships.
Through the 1930s, Rose's wealth grew. He mounted a series of successful Broadway productions and opened fashionable nightclubs featuring lavish revues and leggy chorus girls. Over time, Rose applied his theatrical skills, commercial touch, and financial support to political causes, especially those related to Jews. In 1937, the producer concluded popular shows with segments based on the antifascist novel and play It Can't Happen Here. Model battleships fired cannons amidst jingoistic lyrics extolling democracy. Cohen links these routines with other late 1930s theatrical productions that criticized Nazism but did not highlight specific Jewish concerns because of the risks of antisemitic backlash.
After It Can't Happen Here, Rose "would work on several more antifascist productions that avoided explicitly Jewish themes, until news of the mass murder of the Jews made such timidity absurd" (114). Cohen continues to explore the way Rose navigated the tension between Jewish activism and potential antisemitism. For example, in 1939, Rose tried to facilitate the emigration of Kurt Schwarz, an Austrian Jew, to America. Cohen creatively incorporates material from unpublished papers in multiple archives to chronicle Rose's efforts. Yet Cohen explains that Rose did not risk public association with Schwarz, who was stuck in Cuba, because the producer did not want to be identified too closely with Jewish refugees "during a period of rising antisemitism" (145).
Working with the writer Ben Hecht and others, Rose produced landmark anti-Nazi pageants and variety shows during the 1940s, including Fun to be Free (1941) and We Will Never Die (1943). Jewish historians have recognized the importance of these productions, especially We Will Never Die, in publicizing the plight of European Jews. Cohen provides a new perspective on We Will Never Die by highlighting the contributions of Rose in mounting and promoting the large-scale theatrical spectacle. Cohen argues that Hecht and the aggressive Bergson Group appealed to Rose because Rose was a born fighter who identified strongly as a Jew. Nevertheless, as a public figure, Rose sometimes exhibited "Jewish stage fright," which compelled him to distance himself from the political messages of We Will Never Die and to deny that he supported the Bergson Group (170). It was only after the war that Rose felt safe promoting Jewish statehood. He later raised funds and donated his world-class sculpture collection to the fledgling Israel Museum. When the Israeli government asked Rose what it should do with his sculptures in the event of an Arab attack, Rose replied, "Melt it down and make bullets" (226).
While many people commented on Rose's gruff, vulgar personality, they also regarded him with affection. Rose moved fluidly among different social and cultural worlds. The book is filled with appearances by everybody from the Olympic swimming champion Eleanor Holm (Rose's second wife) to the sculptor and architect Isamu Noguchi. Cohen's thoroughly researched, highly readable biography situates Rose as a central figure in American cultural history. Cohen also presents Rose as a prominent and influential figure in the fight against antisemitism. Not Bad for Delancey Street contributes to the scholarship on American Jewish responses to Nazism, displaced persons, and Israel. For Funny Lady fans, there is even a section on the Brice-Rose relationship, one of Rose's five marriages. In short, there is much to enjoy in Mark Cohen's biography of Billy Rose.