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Cagney came from a poor Irish-American New York family but once he found his metier as an actor, it was not long before he was recognized as a brilliantly energetic and powerful phenomenon. After the tremendous impact of Public Enemy - in which he notoriously pushed half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face - he was typecast as a gangster because of the terrifying violence that seemed to be pent up within him. Years of pitched battle with Warner Brothers finally liberated him from those roles, and he went on to ...
Cagney came from a poor Irish-American New York family but once he found his metier as an actor, it was not long before he was recognized as a brilliantly energetic and powerful phenomenon. After the tremendous impact of Public Enemy - in which he notoriously pushed half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face - he was typecast as a gangster because of the terrifying violence that seemed to be pent up within him. Years of pitched battle with Warner Brothers finally liberated him from those roles, and he went on to star in such triumphs as the musicals Yankee Doodle Dandy (winning the 1942 Oscar for best actor) and Love Me or Leave Me. Even so, one of his greatest later roles involved a return to crime - as the psychopathic killer in the terrifying White Heat. He retired from films in 1961 after making Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, only to return twenty years later for Ragtime. But however much Cagney personified violence and explosive energy on the screen, in life he was a quiet, introspective, and deeply private man, a poet, painter, and environmentalist, whose marriage to his early vaudeville partner was famously loyal and happy. His story is one of the few Hollywood biographies that reflect a fulfilled life as well as a spectacular career.
|2. THE REARGUARD TOUGH||14|
|3. HARD KNOCKS, HARD KNUCKLES||23|
|4. FARMING DEFERRED||31|
|6. VAUDEVILLE VARIETY||49|
|8. WARNER BROTHERS||72|
|9. JACK "THE SHVONTZ"||89|
|10. THE MIX AS BEFORE||102|
|11. MORE TROUBLES IN OUR NATIVE LAN'||118|
|12. EASIER TROUBLE||131|
|13. OUT OF THE FACTORY||148|
|14. THE FACTORY GENTRIFIED||159|
|15. IN FUNCTION||175|
|16. A DANDY YANKEE DOODLE||199|
|17. THE WAR||217|
|18. THE LONE CAGNEYS||227|
|19. BACK TO THE FACTORY||249|
|20. OPEN-FIELD RUNNING||268|
|21. ANNUS MIRABILIS||280|
|22. INDIAN SUMMER||295|
|23. NOT THE ENDING||309|
|25. CAGNEY BY CAGNEY||337|
|27. ON ACTING||351|
|28. NEXT TO CLOSING||359|
|29. LAST BOW||372|
|Cagney on Radio||393|
|Cagney on Television||423|
Tiny Jim Cagney sat at the family dining table, transfixed.
His father, James Francis Cagney, his tousled blue-black hair in almost comic contrast with his magenta complexion, his brain half rotted with alcohol, sat facing his son; staring at him. Jim looked at his dad with fear and compassion. The man rocked slowly from side to side.
Then the older Cagney began a low keening, that Irish form of lamentation virtually ceremonial in form, a repetitive wail that begins in the bowels and rises into a near shriek. Whenever little Jim had heard this sad, savage cry before, his mother had always attended to her husband's needs, standing behind him and massaging his neck and forehead. This almost always helped, and the sound would diminish. The family called these episodes "Dad's fits."
This time little Jim was alone in the apartment, his mother having gone shopping. Quickly the boy pulled a chair beside his father, mounted it, and massaged his father's head.
"Christ, what a sound!" Cagney said years later. "It was a cry of agony, and I can still hear it. I used it once in a while in my pictures when I had to portray someone who had fallen into mental disrepair. That was Pa. Sixty shots of rye whiskey a day for years and years had really done their work. He was the most lovable guy who ever lived, but when one of his fits was on him, we learned to stay away and let Mom take over. She usually brought him around."
Jim's father, James Francis Cagney, was born in 1875 in New York City's Lower East Side in that congested and crime-soaked area known as Five Points. He talked little about his parents and ancestry except to say that the original family name was O'Caigne and that they had come from County Leitrim, Ireland. "There was something Pop evidently wanted to hide about his immediate ancestry," said Jim. "He didn't talk about his forebears, immediate or otherwise, if he didn't have to. He was strangely reticent on that subject. I know he didn't like my aunt, his sister, and once in a while a brother of his would show up, and of him we knew even less than Auntie. We all knew the O'Caigne family crest, which contained three sheaves of wheat, maybe an augury of my principal life's interest. Anyway, as the years went by, I never much bothered to find out about my ancestors. I suppose one should be interested, but as I didn't have children of my blood, I figured what the hell. I tend to live in the present anyway."
Cagney's mother, Carolyn Elizabeth Nelson, a woman of full figure with a head of vivid red hair, in contrast with her husband had a heritage of which she was very proud, a living heritage in the person of her lovably eccentric father, Henry Nelson, a river barge captain. Captain Henry he was the only man aboard the tiny tug insisted on being called Captain and stoutly maintained the title until he died. He boasted of his Norwegian blood and spoke vaguely of being well known in Norwegian maritime circles. He was married to a bright but self-effacing Irish-American woman. Carolyn loved her parents dearly, and when they came into hard times, she insisted they live with the Cagneys, this at a time when the Cagneys were overcrowded by their own family in a small flat.
Carolyn, or, as her husband always called her, Carrie, had to leave school at twelve to help her folks. She worked six hard years at the Eagle Pencil Company, an experience causing her to say in maturity, "I've had a very real affection for pens ever since."
She was barely eighteen when she married James Francis Cagney, then in his twenty-first year. Young Cagney was at times a telegraphist and bookkeeper. He liked both jobs but preferred the latter because he had an aptitude for mathematics. The definition of geniality, James found what he considered his inevitable occupation when a friend asked him to take over for an absent bartender. Cagney had found his milieu and his downfall. "A lot of people drink to get drunk," he told a friend. "I drink to celebrate, and I like to celebrate all day and into the night. If I can make it that far."
The only things eventually that James loved outside his family were rye whiskey and baseball. When he drank, he always sauced his shots with a gill of beer, and no matter how many he had during the day, he proved to be an excellent pitcher. He had a decisive fastball that earned him his nickname, Jimmy Steam. As the years rolled by, he saw less and less of the playing field and more and more of saloons.
In his first job as substitute bartender, James came across a specific hazard of his trade, a belligerent customer. The man's name was Oppenheimer, a hulking man with massive fists. He had been annoying other patrons of the Lower East Side bar where James worked, causing some people to walk out. Determined to stop this nonsense, James came out from behind the bar, pointed to the swinging doors, and said, "Out!" to the troublemaker. Oppenheimer looked at him incredulously and swung his right fist into James's face. James staggered to the door himself, opened it, sat down on the curb, and carefully spit out twenty-one teeth, counting them one by one as he did so. From then on, when trouble impended at the saloon, James resorted to free drinks to calm dissension.
It has been reported that James Cagney, Jr., was born in an apartment over his father's saloon at the corner of East Eighth Street and Avenue D, New York. This is not so. Cagney was born--on July 17, 1899--in a small apartment on the top floor of a conventional brownstone at 391 East Eighth. His father would acquire the saloon years later, and only then for a brief time. The Cagney birth certificate gives his father's occupation as telegraphist. In this apartment the Cagneys' oldest boys were born: Harry in 1898 and Jim a year later. The bartender job took the Cagneys early in 1901 uptown to Yorkville, where they found a small flat at 429 East Seventy-ninth Street near First Avenue. Here the third Cagney boy, Edward, was born in 1902, followed in 1904 by William, and in 1905 by Gracie, who lived only ten months, dying of pneumonia.
Carrie by disposition was sunny and valiant. She adored her profligate husband, whose daily departure for work was unchanging, dramatic, and deeply relished by his kids. They would go to the front door when he was ready to leave. He would kiss Carrie resoundingly, blow a kiss to each boy, doff a green tweed cap of which he was very proud, tip the cap in comic fashion to the entire family assembled, make the sign of the cross reverently, check his fly to see if it was buttoned, and walk quickly out of the door, frequently singing a current ballad.
Even at his most prodigal moments James Senior could do no wrong in his wife's eyes. Her mother once asked her why she put up with his extended drinking and his absences from home. "I couldn't stand it for a minute, Carrie. Not for a minute."
"Oh, yes, you could, Ma. When you see how much fun he gives the kids. And how much fun he brings me."
James Senior was rarely a falling-down drunk. "Only once that I can remember," said Jim. "He came home one night with a bun on, sat down at the piano, and started to play and sing. Then he fell right over, still singing, and didn't know he was not upright. Funniest thing you ever saw. Pop never poured the liquor down. It's what you almost could call a gentle kind of drinking. He'd usually drink just enough to keep him from being sober, but rarely enough to make him truly drunk. Just like Doolittle in Pygmalion, he'd drink just enough to make him `cheerful and lovin' like.' He certainly gave all of us a lot of love--and entertainment."
Like most happy turn-of-the-century families, the Cagneys were a great source of diversion to themselves. Almost every evening they sang songs in chorus and solo, recited humorous poems, clog-danced, and told jokes heard on the street corner. Dad--they called him Pop--loved to sing, despite a tendency to off-key tonality, much like Bert Lahr's comic yammering. But Pop's greatest talent, the thing that most delighted his children, was the delivery of conundrums, atrociously contrived ones, in a high, stagy voice. A number of these were old favorites that the kids insisted on hearing night after night, during which the boys would shout out the answers in loud chorus.
Pop would advance to one end of the living room and face the family. "Say, listen: Why did the sausage roll?"
The kids would shout in unison, "We don't know."
"Because it saw the apple turnover." Jeering laughter from the kids, followed by applause.
"What's the best day for making pancakes?"
"We don't know."
"Friday!" Happy groans and applause.
The kids particularly loved the ones where they supplied the gag lines. Pop: "Did you ask Mississippi if she would let Delaware Georgia's New Jersey, which she bought in New York?"
Kids together: "No! But Alaska!"
There was a particular favorite, given every night. Pop: "Does Chicago?"
Kids: "No, but Niagara Falls!"
Carrie was pleased to see that little Jim--he was never Jimmy--was fascinated by newspaper illustrations and would duplicate them endlessly on blank paper he found in the refuse bin of a nearby printer. At the age of five he began to sketch, a habit Cagney pursued all his life:
In the Sunday Herald I was fascinated as a kid with that great sketch artist Winsor McCay. He drew a comic strip that meant a lot to me, Little Sammy Sneeze. I liked Sammy because he was a little boy just about my size, and whom, I was told, I resembled. Sammy was just like every other boy his age, with one exception. He'd be in some public place, usually at some function or other, and he'd have to sneeze. His sneezes were cataclysmic, and they would sweep everything before him, right off the street. I loved Sammy because like me, he was small, but unlike me, he could let the whole world know who he was.
But little Jim, shy and sensitive, soon found a way to leave his impress on the neighborhood:
We were poor, but didn't know it, I guess, because everybody else around us was poor. Out on the street we soon discovered there was a power hierarchy, however, and that was kind of like being rich--when and if you were handy with your dukes, and could hold your own in a fight. I saw that right away, and I used to watch the tough kids, the leaders, the ones who knew how to fight. I didn't admire them because mostly they were bullies, but I did admire the way they handled themselves, facing guys way bigger than themselves. Later I could figure out just how they did it. It was in that simple word made out of two other simple words, "foot" and "work." Footwork. Benny Leonard, Lou Buto, Packy McFarland--fighters I saw and admired, and all the epitome of grace. That is what got me into dancing. I learned how to dance from learning how to fight. It was feint, duck, quick dance around your opponent on your toes mostly, then shoot out the arm like a bullet.
One of the neighborhood tough guys, Moishe, indirectly stimulated Jim to fight--and dance. Moishe had a rhythm to his punches. He never flailed, as so many of the street scrappers did. He held up his fists in defensive arc and rushed in only when he saw an opening. He was adept at seeing the instant when his opponents dropped their guard, and when this occurred, he darted his fist in quickly to the target, then out again just as quickly, standing on tiptoe most of the time. As a seven-year-old Jim began to sense the benefits of standing on his toes either to reach up or to reach in. Darting became second nature to him, and it was to become a key characteristic of his acting. The dance steps of his maturity grow directly from these habits.
As bonus, Jim and the other Cagney boys rejoiced in the greatest fight instructor in their neighborhood: Carrie. This very wise woman, painfully aware that two of her four sons, Harry and Edward, were timid, was determined to give little Jim, the runt of the family, the advantage his small size would not allow. She taught him and the others, despite reluctance on the part of Harry and Edward, the fundamentals of boxing. As a girl she had gone to amateur prizefights with a male cousin keen on the game, and she quickly learned that sluggers always got the bad end of the stick, whereas boxers at least knew how to escape punishment. More, she saw that boxers, those skilled in use of their feet and quick arm thrust, always won.
Carrie got her boys together two afternoons a week and instructed them. She saw that Jim, who had learned the basics of fighting well from Moishe, was her prize pupil. She scheduled regular bouts between her boys in their living room. When they occasionally erupted into anger, she separated them and held the opponents firmly against her sides, a process she called "leaning on yuh." The boys learned to avoid this because the leaning was uncomfortable, Carrie being big of heft and strong of arm.
James Senior loved these sessions and acted as a one-man audience, cheering both fighters and booing whenever he saw unfair advantage taken. He roughhoused lovingly with all his boys and was fond of pretending anger by holding a lad by the neck with one hand, curling the other into a fist, snarling exaggeratedly, "If I thought you meant that--," grazing the chin with the fist. "Simple little thing," said Jim. "Yet so goddamned funny, the way he did it. You'd think--there we were, poor as church mice--you'd think there'd be gloom all over the place. We had our bad moments, sure, when Pop got his fits. But all I mainly remember about the Cagneys in those days was laughter. Songs and laughter."
Despite their mother's expert instruction, Eddie, five years younger than Jim, and Harry, the oldest boy, were gentle souls and soon grew to depend on their brother for protection from neighborhood gangs. Generally one had little to fear from tough guys if one learned to walk quickly from home to destination and back. But Jim, deeply partaking of his mother's indomitable nature, refused that kind of protection. He never sought conflict but never avoided it.
Fighting was simply the neighborhood occupation. Every kid on the block was identified by a nickname. Jim was distinguished in that he had three: Red, his hair color, and two pejoratives that always enraged him when he heard them, Runt and Short Shit. The latter particularly angered him, and the block bullies learned this soon and used it as their prime taunt.
There were two other neighborhood preoccupations, baseball and swimming. The latter was a chancy business, but it became habitual. When they lived on Seventy-ninth Street, Cagney said:
We were only a short distance from the East River--which incidentally is not a river at all but a tidal estuary--and in good weather we went there to swim. It was, quite simply, a cesspool, and I suspect it's not much better today. I say cesspool because a large sewer close to our street poured its contents right into the river. And we swam cheerfully right in the midst of all that sewage. Merry turds bobbing by. You just ignored them and kept your mouth shut. We must have been pretty tough because we survived those daily immersions. Except one kid. Phil Dooley. The foulness of the river got to him, and he died of typhoid. Where we used to dive in is now a little park with benches, close to the FDR Drive, built right over where we used to do our daily diving. That little park plus some huge apartment buildings are there today where we used to cavort about so happily.
If Harry and Eddie were Jim's gentle siblings, brother Bill, chipper, ever confident, had a far different cut to his jib. He was the businessman incarnate. Although capable of using his fists well, he tended to be too busy for fighting. Nor did he need Jim's protection from neighborhood bullies. From absolutely no one on either side of the family he inherited a fondness for and an ability to find a buck that remained his life's hallmark. How he did it, that he did it at all, was a wonder to his family. Bill very early on figured that the rags--bones--old clothes vendors who came around daily crying for people's discards were on to something. This he translated into his life motto: even the most mundane is sellable to the right person at the right time.
Once a cauliflower vendor stopped his wagon in the Cagney block and motioned Bill and a few children over to offer a proposition: take the vegetables into the various tenements, knock on every door, sell them for six cents apiece, and keep two of the pennies. Bill and two of the kids volunteered, but he was the only one to keep at the task. He went up and down six flights of stairs in as many buildings, carrying a large bag of heavy cauliflower almost his size. He weighed barely fifty pounds. Bill made forty-eight cents, which he gave to his mother, who was not too proud to take them.
Nor was Bill too proud to search through refuse cans and bins up and down the various saloons and shops on nearby First and Second avenues. He found a surprising number of items there that could be repaired or cleaned, then sold for a decent profit: bike wheels, vases, books, crockery, canes. Pawnbrokers in the neighborhood came to know him as the Clean-'Em-Up Kid, the boy who knew how to change dross into something vendible. Bill tended to skip school to ply his wares, but Carrie did not worry about him. She was obsessed with her children's getting an education, but she instinctively knew the difference between kids who needed school for education and those who did not. Bill was preeminently one of the latter.
Brother Jim was one of the former. Initially he was shy of school. He was not afraid of tough guys. School was another matter. It was the great unknown, and when Carrie brought him to the public school nearby, he cried all the way. But when he got to the classroom, his eyes widened at the sight of the teacher, a beautiful young lady who welcomed him with a hug and enchanted him with her scent. As he settled into class, he found excuses to walk up to her desk and smell that ineffable perfume. He longed to ask her what it was, but in school he was the opposite of Jim the street boy: reticent, mild, unobtrusive. Weeks later, after he and Teacher became friends, he asked her what "that pretty smell" was. "Heliotrope," she said, and to the end of his days that scent was Jim Cagney's favorite.
When Eddie's turn for schooling came, he relied on Jim to walk him there as safeguard, but Eddie found his greatest fear in the classroom itself. His teacher, a temperamental opposite of Jim's, was a ferocious disciplinarian. Eddie found this out his second day. A boy next to him leaned over to whisper, "Do you have an extra pencil?" Eddie whispered, "No, I don't," at which point the teacher turned around from writing on the board and rushed down to him. The man pulled Eddie's hair and slapped him brutally three or four times. Eddie wept all the way home, where he sobbed out all the details to Jim and Carrie.
Without a word Carrie walked to school and into the principal's office, where she asked for the teacher. Fortunately for him, he had seen her walk into the building, cue for him to walk out. At home he wrote two notes and sent them on. One was to Carrie saying he had misunderstood Eddie's actions in class; the other, to the principal, said that illness would prevent his teaching the next two days, time enough, he guessed correctly, to soften Carrie's anger. It was known in the neighborhood that Carrie not only owned a thick six-foot-long bullwhip but had actually used it on a night watchman who, after being hazed by neighborhood boys in his shack, had rushed out, collared innocent bystander Harry Cagney, and beaten him up. Carrie thrashed the man with thoroughness and ever after along that block was known as Kill-'Em Carrie.
Her blazing temper derived from her sailor father, Henry Nelson. Nelson talked little about his ancestry, except that he was a native of Drobak, Norway. Years later Jim discovered from an unimpeachable source that there were no Nelsons in Drobak, nor had any ever been born there. Jim then recalled that his grandfather's right hand bore a tattoo, "A. S." It was also learned that Drobak was very full of residents named Samuelson. Cagney family conjecture was that Grandpop Nelson, with the temper of a dozen Furies, had likely committed some malfeasance in his native town forcing him to change his name when he left.
Grandpop Nelson and his wife lived on a coal barge--a modest but well-appointed one--that traversed the Hudson River and nearby waters. Grandpop bore an amazing resemblance to Popeye in that he too had only one eye, the result of a landlubber job in a lye factory where some of the substance had squirted into his left eye. Moreover, he shared with Popeye fearsome forearms the size of hams. Jim remembered:
Strong, strong, and what a temper! Grandpop wasn't afraid to attack man nor beast nor both. I used to visit him and Grandma for weeks at times, and she was the best doughnut maker in the world, sweet, succulent things, to which I really trace my inordinate love of desserts. Grandpop was a real captain because he was extraordinarily skilled at maneuvering that unwieldy barge right up precisely to the places where they loaded or unloaded. He and Grandma said they loved having me aboard because I loved the water so, just as they did, and because I was always asking such interesting questions. I was perfectly used to Grandpop's temper--my mother had inherited it from him--and I saw plenty of evidence of that whenever some inequity descended on our family. The hen guarding her brood. But Grandpop's temper was triggered by the most unusual and sometimes the slightest things.
I remember, once when I was staying with them, Pop came over with a number of his saloon cronies who were dying to see what life aboard a barge was. They were feeling no pain as usual, and all was high hilarity as my dad showed them proudly all around the craft. He even took them, at Grandpop's invitation, into the cabin to see the wheel as well as the Nelson family album, which contained pictures of my mom as a girl and of Grandpop as a young blade wearing a fancy derby. One of the men made a friendly remark that Grandpop in the picture was "quite a swell." Maybe Grandpop misunderstood that perfectly innocuous remark and thought the man said "smell." Anyway his temper crackled and exploded.
"Get the hell out of here, you sonsabitches," he said, and he grabbed his handy shotgun, and all the men, Pop included, scattered like a cattle stampede and ran up to catch a safe streetcar.
Jim eventually found the barge a lonely place and never stayed more than two or three weeks. He missed his mother, who very much missed him. She did not like Jim staying on the barge all that time, but she saw how the boy's presence pleased her parents--her stubborn, excitable father and her placid Irish mother, who, like Carrie, had to put up with a problem spouse. In later years Carrie delighted her children with descriptions of her dad's hair-trigger temper. Jim remembered one of her descriptions:
He was such a darling, my pa, and so funny, although he never realized he was. Those powerful arms and that heavy squint--that's where the Popeye resemblance came in. And where it ended. My dad never won a fight, as far as I know, and he had plenty of them. Not that that would stop him. Once a waiter didn't thank him adequately, Pa thought, for a good tip, so Pa invited him out on the sidewalk and the waiter tried to persuade him to forget it, but Pa went ahead and fought. The waiter knocked Pa down about eight times, and the eighth time Pa was crawling along the sidewalk, barely able to lift his head, wiping off the blood, shouting, "Had enough, you bastard?" The waiter collapsed--from laughter. He shook his head and walked away. Pa shouted after him, "Well, I sure trimmed that bastard's lamp, didn't I?"
Jim had a great love of the old man and, when Grandpop was unable to do barge work, welcomed him into the body of the family. The Cagneys in 1908, already desperately poor, invited the old couple to live with them in their new, larger, and definitely barer flat at 166 East Ninety-sixth Street. Even with the added space, it was a tight squeeze. Harry and Ed slept in one bed of the master bedroom, Jim and his grandma on a floor mattress, Carrie and little Bill in the second bedroom. In the third bedroom Grandpop slept with James Senior, whose nocturnal habits were highly variable. Despite the space problem, the old couple felt royally welcomed, but Grandpop felt restless, uprooted. He hated living on land, and his loneliness was sharpened when Grandma Nelson died suddenly a few months after their move. He found some solace in his special affection for Jim but could not easily express it. His combative personality made any show of love, even among family members, almost impossible. Young Jim sensed this. He realized how much joy the old man had given him and how strong their bond was, so waking one morning, he got out of bed, walked over to the old man, and looked at him. Grandpop was standing alone, looking down, "looking so goddamned forlorn," Jim said. "So, impulsively, I ran to him, threw my arms around him and kissed him. He was stunned, and so happy, returning the kiss. I don't think anyone but my mom and his wife had kissed him in many. many years. He started to cry, but he was happy, I could tell. He was not the kind of man who cried. That taught me one thing. Never hide your emotions. Never fail to kiss someone when you know it's right."
Grandpop spent his remaining years with the Cagneys, dying at seventy-two in 1912. He manfully learned to develop a certain amount of patience with his errant son-in-law, but it was hard going. James Senior had cultivated another vice in addition to drink: gambling. He would take off for a variety of racetracks with saloon pals and remain away from home two or three days at a time. Then he would show up, haggard and hungover, early in the morning and fall into bed. On these occasions he would always choose his favorite, his dependable, son for an unvarying chore. "Jim, lad," he'd call out. "Down to Murphy's."
With that, he would hand Jim a quarter. "So, down I'd go to Murphy's saloon," said Jim. "I'd get a quart of that red-eye and bring it back to him to ease the pain. Imagine. Little me, all of nine years old, buying a quart of whiskey in a saloon. In the morning. Only the real drunks were in there then, and the sight of me used to delight them, all pals of Pop's. They'd cheer my appearance.
"Life couldn't have gotten much grimmer, we thought, my brothers and I. But it did. A lot grimmer. Yet at the same time, somehow, it seemed to improve because we got closer. Later, out of all this, we Cagney boys devised our own motto: `We love everybody but don't give a damn about anybody.' We lived those words."
Posted March 31, 2009
No text was provided for this review.