Burt Lancaster: An American Life

Burt Lancaster: An American Life

by Kate Buford


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780306810190
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication date: 05/15/2001
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 789,181
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kate Buford is a commentator for Public Radio International's "Marketplace" and has written for publications including the New York Times and Architectural Digest. She lives in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: New York City Boy

The story of Burt Lancaster begins with the idea of America, with the belief that you can journey to another place and become another person. His ancestors crossed to England from France in the Norman invasion of 1066 and took the name de Lancastre. Most likely concocted from the Roman word castra (legionary camp) and the river Lune whose name may come from the Gaelic slan (healthy, salubrious), Lancaster came to mean simply one who comes from Lancaster, the county town of Lancashire. Blond hair and blue eyes would persist over a millennium as a characteristic of Norman or Teutonic origin, showing up in odd places like Sicily. The coats of arms of several Lancaster families feature golden lions but at least one has a leopard, rampant.

His immediate ancestors left England for Ireland, easily accessible across the Irish Sea. Later, eager publicists would claim that he was a descendant of John of Gaunt and his father would tell a tale of lost House of Lancaster fortunes confiscated by Oliver Cromwell, but Lancaster dismissed such stories. Not much would survive of his Irishness except two instinctive responses: a reverence for the single human singing voice and a belief that the declamatory persuasion of live drama, theater, could change the world.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Lancasters and the Roberts family, his mother's Belfast people -- working-class Northern Irish Protestants -- were poor and trapped by the island's limitations. His paternal grandfather James emigrated to New York in the mid-1860s, more than a decade after the Great Famine, part of the human migration to America thatprovided labor for the vast technological changes that swept the country after the Civil War. James had two key advantages as an Irish Protestant: he was educated enough to read and he was a skilled worker, a cooper, having served a five-to-six-year apprenticeship before landing in America. He settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at 40 Essex Street. In the twisting streets and dark brick buildings lived harness makers, peddlers, grocers, bakers, carpenters, and barbers, Germans from Hesse-Darmstadt and Bavaria, Russians, Austrians, and thousands of Irish -- one of the most horrific concentrations of tenement-jammed humanity in the world.

By 1880 the next great wave of immigration filled New York's Tenth Ward around Essex Street with Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and starvation. James married Susannah Murray, another Irish immigrant five years his senior, and they had five children, including James Henry (Jim), Burt's father, born December 6, 1876. James Sr. moved the family uptown to 619 First Avenue between East Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Streets. Perched on the edge of the island next to the East River, just south of today's Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the Lancasters settled amid a new mix of midtown working-class neighbors -- butchers, machinists, florists, and varnishers.

Up the East Coast in the busy seaport town of Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1880, four-year-old Elizabeth "Lizzie" Roberts, Lancaster's mother, was living at 194 Main Street and developing the dominating traits of the firstborn. In addition to her father, James, 35, and her mother, Jennie Smith Roberts, 28, plus baby brother, George, the house was filled with members of the extended Roberts family. Her parents had emigrated from Belfast around 1875; Lizzie was born in Norwalk on May 13, 1876. James was a shoemaker and the family lived surrounded by neighbors -- carriage makers and hat trimmers -- whose skills catered to a refined clientele.

The family proudly claimed to be related to Frederick Sleigh Roberts, the British field marshal who was later named the 1st Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford. The last person to hold the title of commander in chief of the British Army, Earl Roberts was from 1857 until his death in 1914 an outstanding combat leader in famous imperial battles from India to Afghanistan and, at the end of the century, South Africa. The elderly mustachioed man staring out of the John Singer Sargent portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London has the look of Burt Lancaster: the strong, well-shaped head, the straight chiseled nose, and what Laurence Olivier would describe as Lancaster's "steely-steady" eyes.

The Roberts family left Norwalk for Manhattan shortly after 1880, probably sailing the usual route down through the notorious whirlpools of Hell Gate on the East River. They were part of a land rush to the southeast section of the neighborhood of Harlem, an area that would become one of the most densely populated and volatile in New York City. For the first half of the nineteenth century, the flat plain, later to be called East Harlem, was a bucolic area of farms sloping down to the Harlem River on its northeastern border and loosely bounded by Ninety-sixth and 125th Streets, with the mansions and museums facing Central Park on the west. By the 1860s, the "Harlem Flats" was the site of breweries spewing malt and brew odors into the air, slaughter houses, coal yards, junkyards, and saw mills clustered along the river frontage. Isolated clusters of small four-story brownstones, built to house the workers, popped up like mushrooms in the middle of the fields that filled in the empty grid of future cross-streets. Irish shanty towns lined the water.

The rapacious northward growth of the city that followed the construction of the Second and Third Avenue elevated railway lines in 1878 and 1880 further engulfed the area with Irish and German immigrants. Speculators threw up row upon row of unregulated tenements with as many as four hundred people crammed into structures designed to house fifty. The New York Central railroad track ran aboveground up Park Avenue from Ninety-seventh Street, the dark stone viaduct further slicing up the neighborhood.

By the turn of the century four out of five New Yorkers were immigrants or the children of immigrants, with East Harlem absorbing each wave of newcomers. Rag peddlers trolled through the neighborhood's trash-filled yards and dead animals floated in flooded cellars. By 1904 there were over one hundred saloons in a forty-block area. From this rattling rhythm of immigrant change, poverty, and backbreaking labor was bred Lancaster's energy and taste for work. The tone of the slum was set: working-class immigrant, the lowest rentals. Years later he would remember crossing the de facto border of Ninety-sixth Street, sauntering down Fifth and Park Avenues to look at the rich people.

In 1900 James Roberts -- a widower now, with two more children, Minnie and Stephen -- rented an apartment at 2068 Second Avenue, near the corner of 106th Street in the shadow of the El. Lizzie, twenty-four, took on the responsibilities of mother of the family. Four years later, James bought what his grandson would call a "very poor little house," a narrow four-story brownstone down the street at 209 East 106th Street between Second and Third Avenues, built around 1880 on the north side of the street. The house had been divided into three rental floors, with a moving business on the ground floor. As one of the periodic broad streets that broke up the narrow Manhattan grid, 106th, even with the superstructures of the two Els marking both ends of the block, was less confined and claustrophobic than other nearby streets. The light was stronger and brighter all day long. A very young Walter Winchell and his parents briefly lived up the street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

The Roberts family took over the second-floor apartment, a classic coldwater railroad flat with windows only in the front and back. Lancaster would describe it as "long, dreary, one room after the other" with a toilet out in the hall and a coal stove in the kitchen providing the only heat in winter. The big bay window protruding from the front facade was a perfect vantage point from which to view the busy street. The family derived additional income from the tenants, $16 a month per family by the 1920s. A landowner in the slums, no matter how shabby the house, was somebody.

Shortly after settling into the new house, Lizzie met a handsome, talented young man who looks in photographs like the lean and cunning James Joyce. Jim Lancaster had moved uptown and become fairly well known in the area for using his Irish tenor voice to win prizes on amateur nights at the local theaters with a song-and-dance routine called "The Broadway Swell and the Bowery Bum." According to various accounts, he played an old guitar, the ukelele, the accordion, and the harmonica. To Lizzie's take-charge assumption of authority, he was gentle. Both were remembered by their children as being in their youthful primes two of the best-looking people on the East Side, Lizzie attracting wolf whistles well into middle-age. Neither would ever have much inclination for daydreaming about life's impractical possibilities. They were married on August 8, 1908, and Jim moved in with his new wife's family. Over thirty at the time of her marriage, Lizzie lost no time in having three children over the next four years: Jennie Dorothea (Jane), James Robert (Jim) Jr., and William Henry (Willie).

In 1913 -- a year that would be remembered for several firsts, including the founding by Jesse Lasky of a motion picture company later called Paramount Pictures, and the opening of the tallest "skyscraper" of the new Manhattan skyline, the sixty-story Woolworth Building -- Jim took a job as a postal clerk at the brand-new McKim, Mead and White-designed General Post Office. Not only was he working in a salaried white-collar position in an edifice which took up two full blocks between West Thirty-first and Thirty-third Streets, he got to wear a uniform. He may as well have been working on Wall Street.

On November 2, Lizzie, age thirty-seven, gave birth at home to her third son, Burton Stephen. A crowd of friends and neighbors gathered outside in the street cheered at the news shouted down from the bay window. The baby was named for Lizzie's brother, Stephen, and the attending physician, Burton Thom. Though Thom was a well-loved doctor in the neighborhood, known for his generosity and stiff white collars, mothers did not usually name a child for the doctor unless he had done something extraordinary, such as save the life of the baby -- or the mother.

The young Burton became acquainted with death early. On April 28, 1918, Florence, Lizzie's last child, barely a year old, died at Willow Park Hospital of diphtheria, a victim of one of the epidemics that frequently ravaged the slums. Four-year-old Burton was back to being the baby of the family. Four months later, Dr. Thom was called to the house on the night of August 12 to confirm James Roberts's sudden death of apoplexy at the age of seventy-two. Lizzie buried her father, the last direct link with Ireland, next to her daughter at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Roberts's will divided an estate of about $1,800 into four equal parts among George, Stephen, Minnie, and Lizzie's four children, each of whom were to receive their share of the estate upon turning twenty-one. (The house was legally the property of the two sons; each would sell his share to Lizzie, who would own the house outright by 1927.) That $112 plus interest was waiting for him was another indication to Burton -- like his blond hair, blue eyes, Anglo name, property-owning parents, and Protestant faith -- that he was different from the poorer, foreign people he lived among. But to his uncles George, now a stockbroker living in upper Manhattan, and Stephen, a manager of Gents Furnishing living north of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, East Harlem was a place you left. This consciousness of being a holdover in the old neighborhood produced in the boy a jumpy belligerence. He was never sure just where he fit in.

As he approached the age of seven, the raggedy, dissonant city that defined him was growing up too. The U.S. census of 1920 confirmed that for the first time America was an urban nation, with New York elevated to a new status as capital not only of the postwar country but of the world. When mass immigration was stopped in 1924, only one million of New York's six million residents were white, native-born Protestants, and only a handful of these lived in East Harlem.

Arbiter of all that was new and fresh and dangerous, the city was the nexus of popular entertainment during the 1920s. Led by the vaudeville revue, a slick mannered pose was elevated to iconic status. The city sort of ran itself; Prohibition was a joke. The "City on a Still" sobriquet mocked not only the civic ideals of the previous generation but the decade's compulsion, as Frederick Lewis Allen would write, to use the Bible to "point the lessons of business and of business to point the lessons of the Bible." Sinclair Lewis's hustling evangelist Elmer Gantry personified the overlap in his 1927 novel of the same name, which earned Lewis in 1930 the first Nobel Prize for literature awarded to an American. By the end of the decade, Walter Winchell and Mark Hellinger were creating in their enormously popular newspaper columns the idea of the urban wiseguy on whom nothing -- scandal, pathos, politicians, showgirls, cops, criminals -- was lost.

Growing up in this Manhattan was like growing up in imperial Rome. You were marked for life as someone unique, elite, ready for anything the planet might dish out. East Harlem, however, existed on the fringe of the whirl and light. When Washington politicians went on about America's universal postwar prosperity, Fiorello La Guardia, the neighborhood's contrary Twentieth District congressman from 1923 to 1933, leapt to his feet and yelled, "Not in East Harlem!"

Though Eastern European Jews remained a significant presence in the neighborhood east of Third Avenue -- Burton's first childhood pals were Jewish -- immigrant Italians from Naples, Calabria, Sicily, and Salerno now dominated the quarter. Burton, who would play the Sicilian Prince of Salina in The Leopard and would truly regret that he did not get the part of Don Corleone in The Godfather, may as well have, he often recalled, grown up Italian. East Harlem's Little Italy was not only three times more populous than the downtown section, it was the largest concentration of Italians in the country. More than three-quarters of them unskilled, almost half illiterate, these Italians were refugees of la miseria, the perpetual poverty and disease that centuries of mezzogiorno peasants in the south of Italy had accepted as their destiny. Entire Italian villages occupied a given block making the East Harlem street grid a patchwork of the southern Italian boot. Slowly making his way along 106th Street, the 1920 U.S. census taker got so tired of writing "Italy" as the place of birth after each name, that the word became an illegible scrawl. The Sicilian Black Hand, a precursor to the Mafia, thrived just south of the Lancasters on Second Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets; the greatest concentration of the city's Neapolitan organ grinders lived on 106th and 108th Streets. From 107th to 116th Streets the pushcart vendors and hawkers at the First Avenue market offered oils, cheese, sea urchins, olives, bread, garlic, macaroni hung on racks to dry -- the smell of minestrone, espresso, cigar smoke like a rich ether come all the way from Palermo.

The house on 106th Street had been further subdivided during the wartime housing shortage with the result that five families, thirty-seven people, now lived in the building. All, except for the seven Lancasters, were Italians. On the top floor, the Marsalise family with eight children and a grandfather squeezed into little more than two rooms. Outside was the clatter of the Els, all night long, sirens shrieking, trucks roaring down Third Avenue, the clop of horses' hooves on cobblestones, the reek of the toilets out in the hall, the stench of the East River at low tide. No secrets, no phony attitudes, no pretensions. The density enveloped Burton with the raw sustenance of a womb.

Burton's father was what the family called a "fun father," with a family trip to the great amusement parks of Steeplechase and Luna Park at Coney Island a rare treat. The usual routine was for Jim to arrive home after a day's work at the post office, change into overalls, and patch plaster, paint, fix the plumbing, or repair the roof of the house. He was a fine mason with fingers so calloused he could pick a piece of coal from the fire with his bare hands. Burton's job was to bring tea and sandwiches to a busy father who seemed to work all the time.

Like thousands of other hardworking East Harlem dwellers, Jim's favorite relaxation was to sit on the front stoop on a summer's night and sing. The Victorola was new, most music was still self-made, and the poignant sound of the human voice, needing no money or position or influence to be beautiful, was revered by both Italians and Irish as a divine gift. Jim sang tunes like "Kathleen Mavourneen," popularized by the ardent tenor John McCormack, and sometimes little Burton, with his wavy pompadour hair and boy soprano voice, would join in with his party piece, "My Wild Irish Rose." One evening Jim stopped singing and let his son continue solo for the gathered crowd. The applause was a revelation. Later, his famous speaking voice would always have an Irish, cocky, romantic lilt -- with an Ulster edge.

Once a five-foot-nine-inch beauty, Lizzie after five children weighed 250 pounds, and she had a terrifying temper. Her bulk loomed large in the dark, narrow rooms of the flat and her extremism, like a genetic wild card, was inherited by her youngest son. "Mother beat the hell out of us," he would recall, once specifying that he "got the strap." "She'd have wild outbursts, then cuddle us and overcompensate for the lickings." He admitted that if he was a "terror," she was "more of a terror. I was always in mortal fear of her." Under threat of punishment, he developed a tactic of beaming his blue eyes up at her, throwing his arms around her neck, and saying, "Mother, dear, you don't love me anymore!" Lizzie would relent to the "utter disgust," as father Jim later described it, of his two other sons, "no charm boys" they. When she came at him with a switch, Burton broke into "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

The exchange of music for mercy created a profound emotional response in the little boy. All his life music had the power to take him back to that primary connection with his mother, back to the inchoate center where the rages began, and bring calm, even when he, who would have an exceptional memory, could no longer recall any clear image of her. Together they listened to Lily Pons and Guisseppe de Luca on the radio and to her collection of McCormack records. She took him to the Metropolitan Opera house on Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street to sing in the children's chorus or stand in the family circle for $1.10. The old building overflowed with props and costumes, with extra sets placed out on the sidewalk. The backstage bustle and onstage drama were an exaggerated version of the peaks and valleys of life he saw every day on the streets of East Harlem, an art form he would love with a religious intensity. "Burt always lived his life as if it were an opera," recalled a friend, one of many who made the same analogy. Jim, home from the post office, would often trip over Burton, sprawled out on the sitting room floor, his head stuck all the way under the Victrola, his legs twitching to the music.

With the fanatic self-consciousness of the displaced ethnic, Lizzie insisted that her childr

Table of Contents

Part 1The Set-Up 1913-1945
Chapter 1New York City Boy11
Chapter 2The Daring Young Man28
Part 2The Play 1945-1960
Chapter 3Discovery59
Chapter 4Taking Charge of the Asylum83
Chapter 5The Hero Business101
Chapter 6Zenith133
Chapter 7A Cookie Full of Arsenic169
Chapter 8The Fall185
Part 3The Payoff 1960-1990
Chapter 9Embracing the Zeitgeist199
Chapter 10Burying the Heroes262
Chapter 11Comebacks299
Part 4The End 1990-1994
Chapter 12Fade Out339
Selected Bibliography421

What People are Saying About This

Steven Bach

Steven Bach, author of Final Cut

Kate Buford's Burt Lancaster: An American Life is so beautifully written and reasoned that it transcends 'celebrity bio' on every page. It is a precisely observed and shrewdly insightful account of a life that turns out to be daunting in its achievements, haunting in its contradictions. Burt Lancaster was never more fascinating on the screen than he is in these pages. Buford's portrait of him is witty, compassionate, a helluva read, and--I suspect--definitive.

John Turturro

John Turturro

Burt Lancaster: An American Life is much more than the usual movie star biography. It illuminates the mystery behind the man who captivated so many of us with his physical grace and power. Kate Buford takes us through Lancaster's evolution as a man and artist during a turbulent era and insightfully conveys his constant struggle to improve and grow. A fascinating, honest, terrific read. A must for all Burt fans!

Susan Sarandon

Susan Sarandon

Burt Lancaster: An American Life is a wonderful look into the complicated life and influences that made this extraordinary man and the times in which we live--by understanding his beginnings and choices, we better understand ourselves. It reminded me that politics and art have always been intertwined and that celebrities who think independently and truly believe in the First Amendment can make a difference.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler, author of Life the Movie

Outstanding. Burt Lancaster: An American Life sets a standard against which other Hollywood biographies can be measured.

David Thomson

David Thomson, author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film

Kate Buford has done something remarkable with Burt Lancaster. She makes his childhood and circus days seem romantic and enviable. She shows him as a Hollywood giant, not always easy or nice to know. And then she brings him home as a great actor, sadder, wiser, but essential. The arc is all there--just like Burt flying through the air--but the book is as good as it is because she never denies the abiding mystery of the man.

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