The somewhat fictional biography that follows in a work crafted from much study and research. Some details were verified by reading Harry Jolson’s book, “Mistah Jolson,” Michael Freedland’s book “Jolson, the Story of Al Jolson,” and Doug McClelland’s rare “Blackface to Blacklist,” written about “The Jolson Story” and Larry Parks’ problems with the House Un-American Activities Committee. (HUAC) Some of what you read about Al is speculation….information that cannot readily be verified. What matters is the essence of the man; what he thought about life, show business, and human relationships. Whether he ran away to Baltimore on such and such a date is simply mundane detail; what counts is that he believed in himself and eventually got the chance to prove to the world that he was as good as he said he was.
In fairness, “The Jolson Story,” and “Jolson Sings Again,” although tremendously entertaining and well done movies, were complete works of fiction designed to make “Jolie” appear to be an easy going, twice married family man whose only love was show business. The truth was quite different.
The real Al Jolson had a huge and mostly intolerable ego, suffered badly from fear of rejection, seemed to be very insecure in both his professional and personal life, was married four times, cheated with chorus girls, used call girls to alleviate stress before his Broadway performances, gambled incessantly, spent money like a madman, never got over the death of his mother, and had a long and never resolved relationship with his Jewish Cantor father who decided early on that his sons should follow in his tradition. None of his four wives were Jewish, which made things worse with his family.
Al had few real friends….his often cruel and self centered personality was more than most people could long endure. Other than Martin Fried, Louis Epstein and Harry Akst, Harry Jolson was probably the only real exception. Then again, Al Jolson didn’t need friends as long as he had the real love of his life; the audience. Eddie Cantor would later say that Jolson never really learned how to live….that when the curtain came down, he died.
The Jolson movie revitalized Al’s career; suddenly, his recordings were all the rage. It seemed that nobody cared whether the movie was accurate or not; few viewers knew the real truth about the man behind the blackface makeup. The movie presented their much loved star in a most favorable light, which is what any audience wants. In the long run, maybe that’s all you need…after all, this was the world’s greatest entertainer; if he was here today, I’m sure he’d tell you exactly that. He’d roll his eyes, smile, do his dance, and ask you if you wanted another two hours of Jolie. Who could say no? Nobody. Not then, and not even now. In his own words, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
WARNING....SOME ADULT LANGUAGE