Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardomby Herbert G. Goldman
W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Bert Williams, and Fanny Brice were delighted to share the stage with him. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Al Smith, and other eminent politicians admired him and sought his support. He founded the March of Dimes, raised millions for the new state of Israel, and remains the only American entertainer ever to reign successively as the
W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Bert Williams, and Fanny Brice were delighted to share the stage with him. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Al Smith, and other eminent politicians admired him and sought his support. He founded the March of Dimes, raised millions for the new state of Israel, and remains the only American entertainer ever to reign successively as the biggest star on Broadway, in the movies, and on radio. But while his name still brings a smile to those old enough to remember his antic energy and big, rolling eyes, few appreciate the far-reaching influence of Eddie Cantor.
Banjo Eyes returns the spotlight to the small, unlikely figure who reigned as the clown prince of American musical theatre during a glorious era when New York was the center of the world, and Broadway was the center of New York. Written by acclaimed biographer Herbert G. Goldman, it vividly recreates Cantor's extraordinary journey. Here are the overcrowded tenements and sidewalk scuffles of New York's teeming Lower East Side, where Cantor was born Israel Iskowitz, the only child of penniless Jewish immigrants, in 1892. Here is the dreaded "hook," the cat calls, and the spontaneous ovations of the old burlesque houses in which the teenaged Eddie first made his mark. And here, in riveting detail, is the Broadway of Florenz Ziegfeld and the Shubert brothers, brimming with backstage romances, double dealings, fierce camaraderie and even fiercer rivalries. We follow Cantor west to Hollywood, where he became the first Broadway musical star to sustain a successful film career, then return east for the golden age of radio and, later, the early days of television.
It was in radio, Goldman argues, that Cantor achieved lasting influence. Before Eddie, a "star" was merely an actor in the top rung of what was widely regarded as a rather curious profession. Through his repeated on-air references to his wife, Ida, and their five daughters, Cantor made himself a "member of the family" to millions of Americans in a way that no performer had been or had ever sought to be. And through his deep involvement with political and social causes, especially those involving FDR and his own philanthropies, he emerged as a public figure only slightly less revered than Roosevelt himself. Goldman shows that while the notion of the entertainer as role model and the blurring of the line between an actor's public and private life may be staples of today's celebrity culture, it was Eddie Cantor who first made them so, redefining what it meant to be a star in the process.
Anyone intrigued by our current cult of celebrity or hungering for an unforgettable look behind the show business curtains of yesteryear will not want to miss this vibrant portrait of a beloved comedian determined to do more than make 'em laugh.
The saucer-eyed Eddie Cantor (18921964) is all but forgotten today except to historians of the musical stage and film, yet he was a master of every medium he attempted, from vaudeville to television, and his variegated career represents a microcosm of 20th-century American show business. Indeed, as Goldman argues, Cantor's success on radio was unprecedented and pivotal in the rise of that medium. Yet his origins were humble indeed. Born on the Manhattan's Lower East Side as Israel Iskowitz, the boy was quickly orphaned and raised by his doting grandma Esther in Dickensian poverty. The boy learned that he had a natural gift for making people laugh, and that this gift could win him approval (and deflect potential beatings in the tough streets of turn-of-the-century Jewish New York). He dropped out of school at 13 but didn't truly enter show business until he was 16, when he worked as a waiter and singer at a saloon, teamed with an equally young Jimmy Durante. Gradually, he drifted into a career in the entertainment business, slowly climbing the ladder of vaudeville success until he was starring in the Ziegfeld Follies. From there his stardom grew steadily, predicated on his boundless energy, boisterous comedy, and way with a song. At the same time, he remained committed to the people he had left behind, a tireless worker for good causes (including the March of Dimes, which he founded), and a powerful advocate for the burgeoning unions in the entertainment industry. But Goldman tells Cantor's story in overly elaborate detail. At times it seems as if he has listed every public appearance the star ever made. This volume is thus unlikely to resurrect Cantor's memory, although it captures some of his appeal.
Interesting reading, but ultimately a book for the already committed fan.
Read an Excerpt
THE BUBBA AND HER ITCHIK
"I grew up on the sidewalks of New York, with an occasional fall into the gutter."
There are myths about Eddie Cantor, the perpetually young Jew with the big, rolling eyes, joyous, clapping hands, and chatty East Side manner who became the first multimedia superstar and a "member of the family" in countless homes during the 1930s. He was born in New York City, supposedly on January 31, 1892, and was orphaned at the age of two.
These myths, like others about Cantor, are untrue. He was not born on January 31, 1892. Nor was he, apparently, an orphan.
The Cantor saga begins in Belarus, in 1834, the year a daughter was born to Javel Lazarowitz and his wife, Mindel Abramowitz. They named her Esther, and, like most girls of that time, she married early. Her husband, a cigar maker named Abraham Kantrowitz, doubtless gave her many children. Only four survived, howeverthree sons and a daughter. Life expectancy was not high in Belarus, and Abe died, a victim of the tobacco and nicotine fumes of his trade, around the age of forty, leaving his still young wife to support four children with a small cigar business.
Esther rolled cigars, ran the business, kept her house, and raised four children, saving a few rubles on the side but never purchasing a license. Dragged before a magistrate on more than one occasion, she made funny faces, danced, and made him think that she was totally insane.
She continued rolling her cigars, which grew steadily in local reputation, until nihilist revolutionaries assassinated Czar Nicholas II in March 1881. Anti-Semitic pogromsand the so-called "May laws" followed. The lot of the Jews in the czar's empire, never enviable, steadily grew worse, and Esther used part of her savings to get her two elder sons, now both in their twenties, to America.
Esther's main concern, at this point, was her daughter, Metain her early twenties and in love with Mechel Iskowitz, a young local ne'er-do-well and dreamer who spent most of his time playing the violin. Esther blessed their marriage, but she worried for their future. Mechel could not seem to make a living.
Her two sons in America were both supporting families. So were many other Jewish immigrants. Opportunities in the United States seemed limitless compared to those in Belarus, especially, she hoped, for dreamy Mechel.
Esther gave her daughter and her new son-in-law the money to emigrate, helped them through the czar's red tape in Mintz, and wished God's blessings on them as they left for what would be a two-week journey overland, by ship across the Baltic Sea to England, and from there to New York City. The year was 1890.
New York City in the early 1890sknown, somewhat ironically, as the "Gay '90s"consisted of a cauldron of immigrants crowded into its southern end, growing businesses as one went north to midtown, and fine private residential homes beginning in the Fifties (recalled by Clarence Day in Life With Father). The theatre district was "everywhere," with theatres in the Bowery, along Fourteenth Street, and the most prestigious houses along Herald Square [Thirty-fourth Street]. More than a cauldron, however, New York was then a cacophony of soundsa dozen accents ricocheting off surrounding buildings as immigrant mothers called their children home for supper, noon whistles blowing, vendors hawking their wares on the streets, children shouting, horses whinnying, and people yelling. America, the land of opportunity for many, was, for Mechel, a big noisy, senseless world he never madea nightmare he would never understand.
What, if anything, he did to gain employment is uncertain. He played the violin but probably did not read music well enough to play in corner cafes, much less symphony orchestras. At times, he found jobs, but they never lasted. To top it all off, Meta became pregnant after a year and a half. With the baby due about September, Meta and her helpless husband turned to the only stable influence their lives had ever knownto Meta's mother, Esther.
Esther sold her business for a fraction of the price she might otherwise have gotten, said good-bye to her youngest son, now also in his twenties, and left for America as quickly as she could. She arrived to find her pregnant daughter all but starved and Mechel unemployed and hopeless, the two of them living in a two-room tenement apartment above a Russian tea room on Eldridge Street in the dreariest section of the East Side ghetto.
Esther moved in quickly, doling out money to Mechel to buy food and pay the rent and preparing for the birth of her new grandson.
Israel Iskowitz was born on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September 1892. He was dark, resembling his father, with large eyes and a deceptively strong body that showed signs of the malnutrition Meta had experienced in the months prior to Esther's arrival.
In later years, the wife of this same Israel would ask his grandmother what it was like on the day he was born. "Hot" was Esther's answer. Hot and, it might well be added, hopeless.
Esther's savings dwindled as the baby grew, forcing the family to move to even cheaper rooms at 39 Jackson Street. When Israel was a year old, Meta came down with a lung disease, phthisis pulmonolis, and the rest of Esther's money went for medicines and, as things worsened, doctors.
Meta Kantrowitz Iskowitz died, age twenty-seven, on July 26, 1894. Mechel was completely numbed, but Esther, through her grief, found strength enough to arrange for a funeral and to continue caring for her grandson.
Esther had no money left to bury her young daughter. The Hebrew Free Burial Society deposited her body in an unmarked grave in Silver Lake Cemetery, Staten Island.
Eddie Cantor's various memoirs say that his father died a year after his mother, a victim of pneumonia. These same accounts say that Meta died in childbirth.
In point of fact, it was his mother, Meta, not his father, who died of a lung disease. Meta's death certificate confirms this. One might expect the doctor who attended Meta to have attended her husband a year later. Many births went unreported in New York until the City of Greater New York (comprising the five boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond) was incorporated in 1898. (There is no birth certificate for Israel Iskowitz.) Comparatively few deaths, though, went unreported.
Yet there is no death certificate for Mechel Iskowitz. Indications are he simply left his young son in his mother-in-law's care and left to start a new life with his violin. He may have changed his name, remarried, and started a new family. One thing, though, is almost certain: Israel Iskowitz, later known as Eddie Cantor, thought he was an orphan.
Or did he? About 1950, Eddie told his new son-in-law, Roberto Gari, that the worst thing a man could do was to desert his children. He said it with an angry passion, as if he either knewor sensedthe truth of his own background.
He did not learn it from Esther. The God-fearing Jewess simply looked after her grandson and, in time, told him he was an orphan. It was easier that way. As far as Esther was concerned, her ne'er-do-well son-in-law was dead indeedfree to start a new life without Itchik, as she called her grandson. An orthodox Jew, Esther may have covered up the mirrors in the tiny rooms on Jackson Street, the same way she had done when Meta died a year before.
Izzy never saw his mother's unmarked grave on Staten Islandprobably so that he would not ask why his father's grave was not there alongside it. His parents would remain a closed book to the boy. He seldom asked about them, and his grandmother volunteered very little information, discouraging his inquiries with quick and rather nebulous responses.
What became of Mechel, when and where he died, and whether he lived to see the son he had abandoned become rich and famous is unknown. All that remains is a photograph of Mechel, well dressed and looking deceptively prosperous. He is seated in a chair, his handlebar mustache and dreamy eyes the chief distinction between him and his well-known, saucer-eyed son. There is no indication when, or why, the photograph was takenonly the conspicuous absence of his young wife, Meta. Whether it was taken before or after her deathor his own presumed disappearanceis a matter of conjecture. Suffice to say that his son possessed it in the 1920s, had it published in his first, ghost-written, book, and never seemed to mention it again.
Itchik replaced Meta in his grandmother's affections. From this point on, her grandson and her grandson alone, became the recipient of her incessant, selfless devotion.
Esther, who was sixty-one, appealed to one of her sons, now living in New York with his wife and three small children, to take her and Itchik in until such time as she could figure out another course of action. It did not work out, due largely to her daughter-in-law's resentment but partly also because of the hyperactive Itchik. The boy was either beating his two female cousins, Minnie and Annie, or being beaten by his male cousin, Irwin. When his uncle's wife found Itchik dropping forks and spoons over the railing from the fifth floor to the foyer, she made him go to bed without his supper. Esther, the indulgent grandma, brought him chicken and cookies and kissed and soothed him.
Esther had gone into business, of a sort, by peddling such things as candles, threads, and other bric-a-brac from a basket, becoming known to other Jewish women in the neighborhood. Increasingly, she was expected to supply the food for Itchik. If his aunt prepared a special dish, he was summarily informed that it was for "the family"not for him. The situation worsened, until Esther thought the time had come to take the boy and raise him on her own.
Esther Lazarowitz Kantrowitz and her maternal grandson, Israel Iskowitz, moved into the basement apartment at 47 Henry Street in or around 1897. Next door, at 49, was Henry Hall, the scene of innumerable Jewish wedding receptions. The neighborhood was Jewish, with the buildings getting better as one walked a few blocks north.
They had three roomsa living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen, with a bathtub in the kitchen. "From here, there's only one place to goup," Esther told Itchik in Yiddish. She also spoke Russian and Polish but was just beginning to learn English. Speaking Polish, though, is what enabled her to live and support Itchik.
Esther now had businesses besides her basket vending. One was sewingalmost as a sideline, since most housewives still did their own mending. Another one was running an unlicensed employment agency for servant girls straight off the boat. The girls were generally Polish, and Esther soon established a small network by which they were contacted, still in Poland, via other girls for whom she'd found employment or who lived with her and Itchik in the basement flat on Henry until she could find them positions. Six or seven Polish girls might occupy the living room on any given night. Occasional inspectors were informed that they were young Itchik's cousins or sisters.
Employment for servants was then plentiful; middle-class people, as well as the rich, generally could afford two or three servants due to the low cost of living. A housewife would come to the basement apartment and tell Esther what she wanted in a servant: someone who could cook well, clean well, care for a baby like its own mother, with a good dispositionall for the lowest possible salary. The minute she would leave, Esther would take a couple of small, mincing steps and imitate her client with a Yiddish accent: "Cook vell, clean vell, care for de babee...." Esther never lost the inborn talent for theatrics that had let her run her cigar-rolling business with no license.
Esther would select one of the girls from the next room, carry her trunk (on her own sturdy, sixty-year-old back) to the address, and collect a dollar as her finder's fee. Such was the Kantrowitz unofficial, unlicensed employment agency.
Another source of Esther's income was her work as a shadchena matchmaker. Most of the young women were immigrants, and Esther's matchmaking fee was twenty-five dollarsif the couple married.
Then she would attend the wedding, go to the reception at Henry Hall, wrap all sorts of delicacies in napkins, and stuff them in the long pocket of her skirts. Arriving back in the apartment late at night, she'd waken Itchik from a sound sleep and give him chicken, meat balls, lox, and wedding cake. She was concerned about her grandson's wan appearance. "So skinny," she would say in Yiddish, "such a plucked little owl." She'd rub the back of Itchik's neck and murmur, "Itchik, Itchik, we build this up, make it strong, yes?"
She hoped the boy would live to his Bar Mitzvah.
The woman did the best she could raising the "orphaned" boy. In the fall of 1898, she dressed him up and took him to Public School 126 at 80 Catherine Street, near Henry. When the registrar asked "Name?" she mistakenly gave her own, Kantrowitz. The registrar wrote down "Kantrowitz," and the school, ever anxious to accelerate "Americanization," shortened it to "Kanter."
More confusion followed. At one point, Itchik had to know his birthday. Bubba (Yiddish for "grandmother"), as he always called Esther, told him he was born on "New Year's" and the boy, thinking she meant the "American" New Year, wrote "January 1st." This somehow became corrupted into January 31st. The latter date was celebrated as his official birthday for the remainder of his life, making Itchik think he was seven and a half months older than he really was.
As a boy without a father, Itchik had one real goal as soon as he reached seven, or "the age of reason": to see just how much he could get away with.
ItchikIzzy on the outsidewas quickly initiated into the world of the street. There were gang warsHenry Street against Division Street, Cherry against Catherine, Market against Oliver. If boys on Division found a boy from Henry on their turf, they'd back him up against a corner, threatening to kill him. Itchik suffered beatings on a number of occasions. Sometimes, he would get away by pleading, "Go ahead, hit me. I've got no one to protect me, no father, no mother...." He had found a way to turn his "orphan" status to advantage.
He stole ... because he was hungry, because it was the thing to do among the neighborhood boys, because it gave him status and made him "one of the gang"a kid no one would pick on. He stole because he wanted things he didn't have, because he had no parents and wanted to see how far he could go before the law, or Bubba, or some other, unseen force would stop him.
His first thefts were from pushcarts, groceries, and delicatessens. Esther left a nickel on the kitchen sink each morning for him to buy lunch withfour cents' worth of salami and a penny's worth of bread. But the hungry boy would augment this with fruits swiped from pushcartsplums, bananas, anything he could grab while the vendor was distracted.
Isidore (as he was called by his teachers) Kanter's enrollment at P.S. 126 did not last long, probably because the school found out that he should have gone to P.S. 2 or P.S. 1 on Henry Street. His stay at P.S. 2, his next stop, at 112 Henry, lasted scarcely longer. They expected him to do homework, pass tests, and know the answers to questions in class.
Izzy had heard of anti-Semitism, though he seldom experienced any on New York's East Side; even the various street gangs at war with one another were all largely Jewish. The concept, nonetheless, was both inviting and convenient, as much a crutch for him as Jews would be scapegoats for others. The teachers at this new school, he told Bubba, hated Jews.
They were certainly not soft on children. "My father, Sam Levy, was a friend of his at that time," Ted Levy recalls. Sam, the leader of a street gang, got "an A in work, a D in conduct" while attending P.S. 2. "One time, he misbehaved, and the teacher walked toward him to hit him with a ruler. Kanter, who was seated near him, laughed, so the teacher forgot about my father, turned around and whacked Kanter, who started to cry."
Izzy soon left P.S. 2 for P.S. 1.
Nostalgic though he was in later years, Eddie Cantor never romanticized his youth on New York's Lower East Side as an easy existence. He would, however, dramatize his childhood, making it sound as if some mysterious hand had guided him into show business while Lefty Louie went to the electric chair for the Rosenthal murderthe implication being that a handful of God-favored kids, like him, were "rescued," while the rest went on to lives as either criminals or beggars. Sidney Kingsley couldn't have written it any better.
In fact, most of Eddie's peersIra Atkins, Jonah Goldstein, Sammy Levywound up owning and/or working in small businesses. Others studied and fought their way into professions such as medicine or law. East Side residents did not see themselves as victims, and if immigrant Jews like Esther Kantrowitz were forced to spend their lives in poverty, their children couldand usually didbetter. America was the land of the possible. In the meantime, there were candles to be sold and steamer trunks to be hauled up five flights of stairs by seventy-year-old women.
The people of the East Side had little concern for fresh air. In truth, there was no fresh air on the East Side at the time. Each and every neighborhood had its distinctive odorof cheese (Orchard Street), garlic (the Italian quarter), herring (Jewish), or fish (the area under the Williamsburg Bridge). Nor did people object to these smells; each was simply part of the neighborhood. If New York seemed like a cacophony of sounds to Mechel Iskowitz, it seemed like a melange of smells to his son, Izzy.
There was no air conditioning, and most kids thought that summer was the roughest season, weatherwise, in the city. To Izzy, though, the winters were the toughest. In November, seeking to keep out the cold air, he and Esther nailed all the windows shut in their basement apartment. "We'd go to sleep literally drugged from lack of oxygen," he later recalled, "the servant girls on the floor and Bubba and me in the big feather bed, and all about us in the tenements, other people struggling similarly for survival and a breath of air."
Izzy's first attempts at comedy date from this time. Seeking to relieve the humdrum poverty of his existence and to win the approval of his schoolmates and the tougher kids who made up the street gangs, he'd imitate his bubba's imitations of the customers who called on her for servants, do other imitations of the Polish girls who slept in the apartment, pretend that he was choking, and pop his big eyes when all else failed. After a short time, he was accepted as a "neighborhood character" who made the other boys laugh. He was soon considered valuable, worthy of protection by the toughest of the street gangs.
This bent for entertaining carried over to his schooling. Turn-of-the-century school curriculums were oriented toward reading, memorization, and, to some extent, reciting; Izzy soon distinguished himself with two "classic" monologues, "The Traitor's Deathbed" and "The Soul of the Violin." The former concerned Benedict Arnold, while the latter was a rather overwrought soliloquy about a starving violinist, forced to sell his violin, remembering a long-ago performance in Vienna. "It has come at last, old comrade," he now tells his violin. "It has come at last, the time when you and I must say good-bye." Miss Walker, his first-grade teacher, was so impressed with his heartfelt rendition that she had him recite it at graduation exercises, overlooking undone homework, failed tests, and lack of concrete answers to the questions asked in classroom in the process.
Part of Izzy's inattention may have been due to hyperactivity. Also to blame were his hunger, his lack of a father figure, and the fact that, in the winter, he was cold. "Our clothes were so thin," he later recalled. "I never had an overcoat, and no matter how many old vests, ragged sweaters, or shirts I piled onBubba was always bringing home some rag for extra paddingthe wind from the East River sliced through to the bone. You'd sit in school all day in snow-damp clothes, your shoes stuffed pulpy with wet cardboard."
In December 1900 he wrote to Santa care of the Children's Column of the New York Evening Journal: "Dear Santa, I am an orphan. I have no mother or father." It was the way he started everything. He asked for a warm overcoat, a pair of boots, some mittens, and a sled.
On Christmas Day, he sat on the stoop of 47 Henry, a sodden heap of wet clothes watching other children bellyflop down the street on their sleds, cursing the New York Evening Journal and its owner, William Randolph Hearst, whose name was on its masthead. Bubba urged him to come in for tea, but he just sat there all day, sad, silent, and angry, until the end of the day when, suddenly, a New York Evening Journal truck pulled up to 47 and the driver asked the kids for "Isidore Kanter."
He ran up excitedly, received the package, and opened it out on the street, his friends clustered around. Inside were all the presents he had asked for in his letter.
He wept tears of relieved anger and depression. Bubba also wept, but for a different reason. She, like him, had never received anything before.
One year later, he received a different present. Using the cover of a boiler as a shield over his arm in a street gang battle, he squared off against another kid who came waving a rock. Izzy shielded his body, but the kid cracked him on the forehead.
Izzy went to the local drugstoreas close to an M.D. as East Side people liked to getand had the pharmacist sew up his cut. The next morning, he awoke to find his forehead looking as if a baseball were imbedded in the skin. Bubba took him to the Good Samaritan Dispensary on Essex Street, where a doctor took him to an operating room, reopened his forehead, cleaned the wound, and sewed it up again.
Predictably, he was left with a scar. In later years, the onstage Eddie Cantor always covered it with makeup. It was a souvenir of childhood, a childhood so filled with misery that he could not disguise it.
One of the earliest reform movements aimed at life on New York's storied but wretched Lower East Side was the Educational Alliance, with its Community House at 197 East Broadway. Izzy was introduced to its pleasures, which included a warm place to spend some hours on cold winter Sundays, by his best friend, Dan Lipsky. Dan was smart and serious, forever calculating, and not disposed to emotion. He didn't fight, he did his homework, and he was a "nice Jewish boy" who used his brain to aid the other boys around Henry and Orchard. As was the case with Izzy, Danny's talents won him acceptance, and he was not generally bothered by the larger, rougher kids who ran the street gangs.
The street gangs in the neighborhood were practically all Jewish. So too were the shopkeepers, pushcart vendors, and the Educational Alliance. Indeed, the only non-Jews in young Izzy Kanter's world were a few landlords and the teachersa sharp contrast to New York as it would later be. Izzy thus saw non-Jews as the "haves." They had the education, the position, and, presumably, the money and the power andin Izzy Kanter's own subconsciousthe parents. They were the people that the Jews would have to show.
Izzy, poorer than his friends and schoolmates, was also much more conscious of his Jewishness and lack of power. Not all of this was due to Bubba's tales of White Russia. Izzy actually admired the non-Jewish world and people, but the sword was double-edged. The non-Jews were a mountain to be climbed, a ruling class to be not only emulated but brought down, on occasion, to the level of "the poor," the "tenants," and, of course, "the Jews," who would, in Izzy's mind, be poor forever. It seemed that much a part of being Jewish.
In the early 1900s, three leaders of the Educational Alliance created a new program through which East Side kids were sent out to the country for fresh air, good food, exercise, and a "wholesome" environment markedly different from the crowded City of New York. So was born the Alliance Camp in Cold Spring, Putnam County, New York, forty-five miles north of New York City.
July 1903 saw Izzy Kanter and Dan Lipsky among the boys sent to Cold Spring for two weeks of canoeing, swimming, baseball, and fresh air. The nominal fee of three dollars included transportation via the New York Central Railroad to a small station called Storm King, just a little north of Cold Spring and the camp. From the station, the campers, carrying their baggage, hiked three and a half miles on the stony Breakneck Road until they reached the camp.
To Izzy, it seemed like a different worldland without end, innumerable trees, no tenements, few buildings, very little noise, aside from that made by him and the other campers, and a large (man-made) body of water, ideal for swimming and canoeing, known as Surprise Lake. The land on which the camp lay had been bought from William O. and Catherine Jaycox for $2,125 only a few weeks before the boys' arrival. The camp then had six tents, which housed twenty-five campers and five counselors.
Kanter would idealize the camp in later years, but indications are that it was far from ideal, especially for ten-and eleven-year-old kids away from home for the first time. Mr. Moses, a club leader at the Educational Alliance, ran the camp, with Leonard Bloomer as general handyman and Mrs. Bloomer as the cook. The counselors were all in their late teens and did not hesitate to use physical discipline on their young charges.
According to some people who had been there in the early days, Izzy ran away after a counselor had hit him and hid out, alone, in the woods. He came back at the end of day and was befriended by the Bloomers.
He, along with other kids, broke windows with rocks"for the hell of it"wherever they could find them. Cold at night while sleeping in a tent, Izzy stole the blankets of other boys as they lay sleeping.
He fought, he played, he slept, and, most important, he ate. He still detested getting up in the cold mornings and was often late for breakfast. Camp rules forbade the serving of latecomers after the last bell, but Mrs. Bloomer never let a kid go hungryespecially her pet, the scrawny little orphan Izzy Kanter.
He signed up to entertain at the big campfire on Saturday night, reciting both "The Traitor's Deathbed" and "The Soul of the Violin" with such vehemence that he got laughs instead of tears and the directors complimented him on his "parodies." Hailed as the camp's "comedian," he broke into his imitations of the Polish girls and, wrapping a kerchief around his head, posed as a grand and haughty servant girl interviewing and cross-examining her miserable mistress. He also sangon key, and well enough to earn the admiration of his audience of perhaps thirty people.
In the days that followed, Izzy tied a tin can on his head to imitate "Happy Hooligan" of the comic strips. He became known as "Happy Kanter" and, much to his great joy, was told that he could stay on for another two weeks to entertain new campers. Then those two weeks ended, and he was put back on the train to a hot August in New York and the meager diet he had known since birth.
The closest things approaching hearty meals for him in New York were the Shabbos dinners Esther made for Friday eveningsusually a stew prepared from the tough cuts of meat she could afford to buy from the cheap butchers. Izzy swallowed most of it unchewed and tried to sneak out of the house right after dinner. If Esther caught him, he would have to wash his face and go to shul with her. Usually, he managed to evade her and get on the streets to prowl, joke for other kids, and sometimes get himself in trouble.
At the age of eleven, Izzy got his teeth knocked out. How or why it happened is unknown. He may have been dashed to the pavement by a larger kid, been punched in the mouth by an irate shopkeeper who discovered he'd been swiping produce from his market, been smashed by a cop, or taken another rock in a street battle. At any rate, a photo taken when he was about thirteen shows him, mouth ajar and toothless, with his cousins Jack and Murray. He is wearing big and awful-looking shoes and looks, to all intents and purposes, like a gangly, adolescent bum.
Esther had been paying nine dollars a month rent for the basement apartment at 47 Henry Street. Late in 1903, the rent was raised to twelve dollars, and Esther hunted for new lodgings. She found them in the backyard of a tenement house at 11 Market Street, which contained a cheaper building that housed sixteen families. These "backyard" houses were one-building slums, even by the lowest standards of the early 1900s. There was no fire escape at 11 Market, and the only toilet was out in the yard, but the rent was only seven dollars a month. There was little room for Polish girls to stretch out on the floor, but Esther took the apartment and moved in with Izzy. She tried to make up for the blow to her employment business by selling more bric-a-brac and taking in more sewing, but it was a losing battle. These were the really bleak times, and Izzy always went to bed a little hungry. Sometimes a lot.
He got a job as a delivery boy at a delicatessen next door at 13 Market Street. The deli sold Isaac Gellis meat products, and Izzy's job consisted principally of picking up corned beef, pastrami, salami, and frankfurters from the Gellis factory at 37 Essex and carrying them to the deli in a basket. He got three cents a tripor two sandwiches, whichever he preferred. He always took the sandwiches. "Salami," he remembered. "I was all salami. When I walked down the street, I was a sausage with eyes." The arrangement lasted until the rent at Henry Street dropped back down to nine dollars. He and Bubba moved back to their old basement apartment, with its ample room for Polish girls to bed down on the floor.
He went back to the Alliance Campnow known, increasingly, as Surprise Lake Campin the summer of 1904. This time, he fit in with camp life from the start and formed a "Camp Club" with Dan Lipsky and several other kids from the East Side. He also became friendly with Jack Holman, back for his second year as one of the counselors, a friendship that would last sixty years and work to the great benefit of Surprise Lake.
In the city, he continued to run wild, all the more so since, at going on thirteen, he was old enough to run with tougher street gangs. He remained the darling of P.S. 1 and of teachers like Miss Craig, Miss Luddy, and Miss Fuller, but even his free passes in the world of academics were to end in 1905.
His teacher at this time was the redheaded and red-mustached Thomas W. Clark, a no-nonsense educator who called Izzy to his desk and told him he did not care how well he could recite; he would not get promoted until he got passing grades.
A short time later, Izzy asked permission to leave the room. He left, and never returned.
Izzy did not tell Esther he had dropped out of school. He spent his days wandering around the city, sometimes playing games with his companions, swiping fruit and vegetables from vendors. When, in due course, a truant officer called at 47 Henry while Esther was out peddling her wares from door to door, Izzy told him he had quit school because he was the "sole support" of his poor old grandmother. The official looked at the apartment, nodded, left, and never came again.
He went away to Surprise Lake for the third time that summer and managed to stay there for the entire eight-week season. Surprise Lake Camp had become one place where he belongedthe star of every campfire entertainment, the camp "ham" and comedian, and one who lent a hand to younger campers.
That fall, at thirteen, he was Bar Mitzvah, the official confirmation ceremony for Jewish boys. Esther paid a dollar and a half a week for him to take the lessons that would enable him to read from the Torah in perfect Hebrew, with a little haftorah (later books of the Old Testament) thrown in. He pretended to go for the lessons but spent his time on the street until a few days before his Bar Mitzvah. Then he spoke to the rabbi, who gave him a short bit to learn in order not to disgrace Esther Kanter.
Izzy added a few lines to his Bar Mitzvah speech. Looking at his bubba, seated in the upstairs of the Pike Street Synagogue, he said, "There sits my grandmother. She has been my father and my mother."
It was, he later claimed, the closest that she ever came to seeing him onstage.
Esther had put enough money aside to get Izzy a watch for his Bar Mitzvah. By the time the service ended, and he left the Pike Street Synagogue, the watch was missing. He was sure the shamos had stolen it.
From that point on, he went from bad to worse, joining with a gang that robbed Applebaum's Bicycle Shop in the neighborhood. Raised up on the shoulders of two older boys, Izzy crawled in through the transom and unlocked the door. The boys then rode three bikes to Harlem, where they sold them to another shopwhose owner asked no questionsfor fifteen dollars. The two big kids split most of the money, leaving Izzy little more than carfare to get home. Crime, at thirteen, did not paywell.
In June 1906 Izzy bummed around the playground of P.S. 177 and watched a vivacious girl in a basketball game. She was the star of the teamathletic, vivacious, and excitingthings he was unused to seeing in the poor girls who, half-starved, fearful, and miserable, lay down to sleep in the "living room" of Bubba's Henry Street apartment.
Seeking to impress her, he began to do his pantomimes, stomping around like the various vaudeville comedians, doing imitations and parodies of popular songs. The athletic director, Mrs. Ray Schwartz, sought to throw him out, but the athletic girl asked her to let him stay.
He implored Mrs. Schwartz to let him sing with the brass band, and she at last relented. Izzy sang "My Mariucca Take A Steamboat," a popular Italian dialect number of the day, and watched as the girl looked at him with a curious mixture of love, pity, and admiration.
The girl, Ida Tobias, was a few days short of her fourteenth birthday. Her father, David, was a businessman who made a good enough living to support his son, Milton, his six daughters, Anna, Jenny, Minnie, Ida, Clara, and Nettie, and his wife, the former Rachel Slotzki, a religious fanatic who made her apartment home to every starving rabbi in the city.
"The apartment always stank from them," Ida later recalled. Rachel's other prominent characteristics were frugalitymany considered her the stingiest woman on New York's East Sideand a steadfast refusal to learn English.
The Tobias home, located at 123 Henry Street, a couple of blocks north of Esther Kanter's place at 47, was noted for the female figures on either side of its main entrancebusts with exposed bosoms. The buildingand the bustsremain there to this day.
Izzy started, more and more, to hang around the Recreation Center at P.S. 177entertaining with his bits and trying to make Ida laugh. He invited her to the Educational Alliance where, after the meeting, the other boys would go for a soda. Izzy tried to hustle up a dime, but the only time sodas materialized was when Ida fixed it so that he would earn a dime running an errand. It was always, he later found out, her own dime.
"For Ida," he would later recall, "summer nights when the kids were sitting on the curbs, I'd hang myself from the street lamp, sing, crack jokes, stand on my head. Anything for an exhibition." One of Ida's friends was going with a boy named Eddie. Ida thought the name was "cute" and that it suited Izzy.
If Ida liked it, Izzy loved it. "Eddie" soon became his name.
He went away to Surprise Lake Camp for the fourth time in July and wrote letters to Bubba and Ida. He was going on fourteen, and deep into puberty. Ida gave him something to hang on to, a focus, a sense of self-worth at one of the most difficult periods in any boy's life.
In August, just returned from Surprise Lake, he found that Ida had been seeing another boy, a budding postal clerk named Louis Rosner. Ida's family did not approve of Eddie Kanter. He was a bum, her father said, who had dropped out of school, could never hold a job, and ran around with wild kids and stole things. Hearing this from Ida, as he did, was sobering. He wanted her and the good things she represented, and he knew he had to change. For the moment, all he felt was alienation.
He never had the money to go to the theatre, but one play related to his juvenile interest in the Wild Westyoung Joseph Santley in Billy the Kid. The play, based on the exploits of the twelve-year-old killer of the 1880s, played the Thalia Theatre late that summer. Eddie wanted desperately to see it.
A young girl, a recent immigrant still living with them in the basement flat on Henry Street, had saved twelve dollarsand had been naive enough to let young Eddie know it. He stole her purse while the girl was washing her face, used the twelve dollars to see Billy the Kid every night for a week, and, fearing Esther's wrath, stayed at a Bowery flophouse for twenty-five cents a night. For once, he dreaded going home.
Finally, his money gone, he went to face the music at the old basement apartment, proclaiming that he "didn't do it" as his bubba cried and hugged him. She had given the girl back her twelve dollars and, having learned that Itchik had dropped out of school, now insisted that he get a job.
It was September 1906, and Eddie got a job mailing out letters at an insurance company on William Street. That meant he was in charge of stamps. "I'd slip twenty twos in my pocket and sell them for a quarter. With this I'd go to Tony Pastor's. One day, these snide people tricked me; they counted the stamps." He was fired.
He did not, at this point, get another job. Having his grandmother to supply a roof over his head, as well as skimpy meals, he was free to do just what he likedwhich included hanging around pool rooms, loafing with "the gang," and going to shows.
Eddie Kanter did what many starving theatre buffs have done since the beginnings of intermissions"second act" a show. He'd wait, from a safe distance, until he saw the audience file out of the theatre at intermission; then he would mingle with them and then go in to catch the remainder of the play, undetected by the manager and ushers as anyone other than a person who had paid for a seat and seen the first act. "I never saw the first act of anything," he later said. Many times, he did not get to see the second act, either. An usher might suspect the boy in ragamuffin clothes and ask to see his ticket stub. Sometimes, Eddie was tossed out by an irate house manager. Once or twice, he barely escaped arrest.
One may wonder why, given Eddie's flair for dramatics, love of the theatre, and singing ability, he did not go into show business in his early teens. Work was surely plentiful, given the hundreds of theatres, acting companies, and vaudeville bills that dotted the country. Environment provides the answer.
There was no television to bring actors into homes on a twenty-four-hour basis. Neither was there radio or full-length motion pictures. There was only the live theatre, a huge, commercial businessnot a vehicle for educating poor youths of the ghetto. Neither were there public high schools offering programs in drama or colleges giving degrees in theatre. (In fact, few children got more than an eighth-grade education.)
The theatre, to poor boys like Eddie Kanter, was a magical, intimidating place. Actors on the stage invariably looked and dressed well and had beautiful voices that boomed out to the galleries in clear, crisp, rounded tones. Eddie had no decent clothes, presumably did not yet speak well enough, and would not have known how to present himself had he been given the proper entree. He was a scrawny, horrible-looking Jewish kid with broken teeth and a scar down his forehead that made him look much tougher than he was. In short, he lacked the looks, the background, and, as yet, the nerve.
Politics, however, was a part of his own world. Ward heelers were very active on the East Side of the day, "fixing" things for recent immigrants in exchange for votes the next election day. The plural, "votes," is purposely used. Many voted more than once, ensuring that "Big Jim" Something-or-Other would be "your next assemblyman."
Eddie saw tough men with common speech and common, often unpressed suits get up and speak on behalf of local candidates. The best-liked, most legitimate, and most concerned of all these East Side politicians was Assemblyman Al Smith.
Smith embodied all the East Side virtues, along with few, if any, of its vices. He was caring, warm, and human, "one of the boys," worldly-wise, with seemingly true wisdom. Smith was also on the side of the tenant, rather than the landlord.
Elected to the New York State Assembly for the first time in 1903, Smith would often take men and boys into saloons for drinks. The meneighteen or overwere bought beer; the kids got sarsaparillas (root beers). Eddie felt at home in this environment, and, blending his flair for dramatics with his fondness for Al Smith, he began to make street speeches for the beloved assemblyman.
Soon, he began speaking foror againstwhomever at the time happened to strike his fancy. Beginning to get cocky, he sometimes praised a candidate on one day and destroyed him on the next. One time, he attacked a candidate he had extolled the previous day, for which he was beat up by some thugs in the service of the politician. He never again attacked a Democrat.
His best friend was still Dan Lipsky, bright and studious and, for the moment, much more enterprising than the poor, pathetic-looking Kanter. It was Lipsky who suggested they team up to entertain.
For a while, they played club dates, weddings, and Bar Mitzvahs, most of them at Henry Hall next door to Bubba's. When their act was over, Eddie often tried to organize a crap game, sometimes winning more than he and Lipsky had been paid.
The act was simple. "Dan did comedy bits and I recited the tear-jerkers," Kanter would later recall. "But I couldn't resist some of the wisecracks I'd heard in vaudeville; I glued on a beard and opened with Joe Welsh's line, 'If I had my life to live over, I wouldn't be born.' Next night at the Educational Alliance, I'd play Little Lord Fauntleroy in a blond wig, no teeth, and an East Side accent, 'Does the oil want to see me?' When Dan and I stood on a real stage for the first time at the Clinton Music Hall, our beard-and-joke act fell flatwe spoke in English, not knowing we were in a Yiddish theatre."
They did their act in Yiddish for the remainder of the week and never got another booking in a theatre. The act broke up a short time later when Dan Lipsky got a job. Eddie simply went back to his aimless street existence, living with Bubba in the basement apartment, bumming money, and making kidsand sometimes copslaugh at his antics on the street.
Ida Tobias was not Izzy's only audience, or his most overtly appreciative. One of the girls who lived in Bubba's basement was named Fania, a sad-eyed nineteen-year-old Jew whose family had suffered in the Russian pogroms. "In her native town, nobody had ever laughed, except the Cossacks," recalled Eddie.
She had learned to associate laughter with bloodshed. So to her my comedy was not a joke, but, as she said, "It was a new world, a revelation." I should have become suspicious right then and there, but I didn't. I asked her to tell me more. I liked it.
She said, "I long to be always in the presence of your warm, pure humor. It's a new kind of sunlight."
She became jealous when I made the other girls laugh. She tried to save me and my jokes all for herself. It was the first time anybody had made a fuss over me and I fell headlong, like down a flight of stairs. But when she finally managed to be alone in the house with me and gave me those earnest, longing glances, I began to feel uneasy. Being a Russian, she took even comedy seriously.
When Esther caught them petting and ordered the girl from her "house," Izzy rose to her defense. "If she goes, I go." Fania packed her bags and left, practically half-dragging Eddie with her.
Fania, who was working, took Izzy to an apartment on Cherry Street, put down a week's rent, and set up what amounted to a love nest with the fifteen-year-old Kanter.
A panicked Esther spoke to Danny Lipsky, who soon tracked them down. Esther went over immediately and tried to force her grandson to come home. Eddie refused, but finally relented after tears, threats, dire predictions, and the promise of meat balls for dinner. He went home for dinner but later returned to Fania.
He had become, after a fashion, a poor "gentleman of leisure," supported by a woman of nineteen, four years his senior. He presumably had his first sexual experience at this time, Fania guiding him through the awkward moments, investing him with confidence and, finally, with polish.
Esther tried to persuade him to come home again, but this time he refused. He was almost sixteen now, and, Esther realized, fully initiated into the mysteries of sex. She wept and left him, and, devout Jew that she was, prayed that he would not end up a bumika like his father.
During the days, while Fania worked, Eddie continued to roam the streets and make his political "speeches." One gang, to which he had attached himself, encouraged his speechmaking, since the crowd that gathered was a pickpocket's paradise.
He claimed, in later years, not to have known just what his "friends" were doing. Possibly he knew, but didn't careor dareto ask or to stop his speeches. He knew what it was to take a beating.
He still tried to see Ida, but his liaison with Fania was now news on Henry Street, and Ida was reluctant to be seen with or even talk to a fifteen-year-old boy who was living with an "older woman" and who neither worked nor went to school. He needed something special to persuade Ida to see him and found the answer when Fania got a raise at her job. It was April 1908.
To celebrate, she gave Eddie four dollars and instructed him to purchase two tickets to see Victor Moore in The Talk of New York at Springer's Grand Opera House at Twenty-third Street and Eighth Avenue. The thirty-two-year-old Moore had scored a major hit in George M. Cohan's Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, and this show, a sequel to the earlier one, with Moore back in his character as "Kid Burns," had elevated him to stardom at the Knickerbocker Theatre several months earlier. It was a success, and seeing it was an event for poor young people like Eddie and Fania.
Eddie bought the ticketsand asked Ida to go with him. Then he put on his best act and told Fania that he had lost the money. "Then we can't go," the girl said philosophically. She had been through too much in her life to weep at such a loss.
Eddie and Ida enjoyed the show and exited the theatre to what they both thought would be a pleasant spring walk down to Henry Street. What they found was Fania, waiting outside the theatre with the largest hat pin Eddie had ever seen.
Ida looked on, horrified, as Fania chased him down the street and out of sight.
That night, for the first time in his life, Eddie slept on a park bench, knowing he could not return to Fania's place on Cherry Street but too proudand uncertainto go back to Bubba. After one more night, spent sleeping on a rooftop, he returned to Esther. Predictably, she took him in again.
Itchik was a bum, she now thought, like his father. There was nothing she could do but feed him. "The angels watch over the children," she once said to him, in Yiddish, "but God Himself looks after orphans."
She could only hope that it was true.
Meet the Author
About the Author:
Herbert G. Goldman is the author of Jolson: A Legend Comes to Life and Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl.
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