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About the Author
Shawn Levy has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Film Comment, Movieline, The Village Voice, and other publications. A former senior editor of American Film, he reviews movies regularly in The Oregonian. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and sons.
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King of Comedy
The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis
By Shawn Levy
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1996 Shawn Levy
All rights reserved.
Eight Hundred Mamas and Papas
Like many stories, this one begins with a mystery — a secret identity.
As every article, book, encyclopedia entry, press release, or other account of his life would have it, Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, at Clinton Private Hospital in Newark, New Jersey.
The 1982 autobiography Jerry Lewis in Person states that Danny and Rae Levitch (who used the stage name Lewis) gave their only child the name Joseph in honor of the boy's maternal grandfather, following the Ashkenazi tradition of naming a newborn child after a recently deceased relative. That boy chose the name Jerry Lewis, the book explains, when he quit school at the age of sixteen to enter show business — Lewis after his father's stage name, Jerry because he didn't want to be confused with the comic Joe E. Lewis or the heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
So for decades, the name Jerry Lewis has been presented to the public as a guise, masking the child Joseph Levitch beneath it. But the Newark, New Jersey, Bureau of Vital Statistics has no record of a Joseph Levitch, or Lewis, being born on March 16, 1926. What it does have, however, is record of one Jerome Levitch, born to Daniel Levitch and Rae Brodsky on that date. Although everyone knew him as Joseph or Joey when he was growing up, and although he would jokingly bill himself as Joe Levitch in cameo bits decades later, his name was properly Jerry from the day of his birth.
The matter of Jerry Lewis's real name is no earth-shattering revelation, but it does raise the slippery question of personal identity in this life of shifting guises. And it further suggests the difficulty in establishing a sure chronicle of the comedian's young life. Lewis has always depicted his childhood as a desperate, neurotic struggle with abandonment, friendlessness, deprivation, and Nazis, turning his early life into a kind of explanation of the strange course of his career. But the person upon whom the burden of that childhood fell — Joey Levitch — was, in more than one sense, a fictional character. In effect, Jerry's recollections of his own childhood can't always be trusted; not only is their protagonist someone who never exactly existed, but like many public figures, he has given so many contradictory accounts of it that there's little that's known for sure.
The most complete tellings of Jerry's life up until now — Richard Gehman's That Kid (1964), Arthur Marx's Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself) (1973), and Robert Benayoun's Bonjour, Monsieur Lewis (1973) — rely on a single, highly inexact source for the comic's early biography: a 1957 article in Look magazine that Jerry "wrote" with Bill Davidson entitled "I've Always Been Scared." As with the name Joseph Levitch, a little probing casts doubts on many of the details in that article.
Take one incident as an example. In Look Jerry told Davidson that the death of Sarah Rothberg, his maternal grandmother and the woman who raised him, was the most horrible episode of his young life. Sarah had been immobilized by a diabetic condition that had caused an infection in her leg. She was taken to Irvington General Hospital, just up the hill from her home, and emergency surgery was performed. From the kitchen of her empty house, a preteen Jerry could see the blue light outside the operating room — a signal used by the hospital to let people know that surgery was in progress.
Davidson records Jerry's dramatic memory of that evening: "Then, suddenly, the blue light went out. I rushed to the phone and called the hospital. I asked the operator at the hospital, 'Could you please tell me the condition of my grandmother, Mrs. Rothberg?' The operator said, 'Your grandmother just expired, sir.' I said, 'But I don't know what that means. Does it mean she's all right?' The operator asked, 'How old are you, sir?' I replied, 'I'm eleven.' She said, 'I'm sorry, son, but your grandmother just passed away.'"
Powerful stuff. But compare it with Jerry's next account of the event, the one he gave in his autobiography twenty-five years later. In that version, the blue surgery light on the third floor of the hospital has transformed into "a red light ... above the emergency entrance." When the frightened boy called the hospital, he used not the name of her then-husband, Sam Rothberg, but rather her first married name, Brodsky. And the tragedy transpired, so he said, in the weeks following his bar mitzvah, when he would've been thirteen, not eleven.
So when did Sarah Rothberg die? According to another of her grandsons, Marshall Katz, it was sometime after the autumn of 1940, when Jerry was at least fourteen. Katz was overseas in the army when his grandmother died; his family didn't even tell him about her passing until he returned home after the war, so worried were they about how he might take the blow. And when did Katz enlist? "October 20, 1940," he recalled immediately when asked more than fifty years later. "I'll never forget that date."
* * *
Of course, there are roots to Jerry's story buried so deep that only their vague outlines are clear. Among them are his family's in the steppes of the Ukraine.
Jerry's family, like those of so many of his Jewish peers in the entertainment business, was part of the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Russia's Czar Alexander III, long annoyed by the presence of unassimilated Jews in his country, loosed his troops on their villages in 1881. The Jews took to their heels, and many of those who made it found their heels led them to America. Along with Jews from Poland, Romania, and Austria-Hungary, they teemed across the ocean for decades until a beleaguered United States finally shut the door to prevent the onslaught of immigration caused by World War I.
It was no trickle. In the forty years preceding 1880, fewer than forty-two thousand Russians were admitted to the United States; in the four decades following the pogroms of 1881, more than 3.25 million Russian immigrants sought refuge on American soil, the vast majority of them Jews. As it had to the members of British sects in the seventeenth century, America promised religious freedom and a fresh economic start to persecuted Jews. Most were peasants with little formal education and a way of life that hadn't changed appreciably in centuries. They came not in search of opportunity but out of desperation. And they flew toward the light with only the vaguest conception of the world to which they were headed.
The well-worn tales of immigrant passage — the larcenous shipping agents, the miserable, typhus-ridden boats, the anti-Semitism of Ellis Island inspectors, the shock of freedom in a nation more modern than anything they'd known — were told around tables on both sides of Jerry's family. Hannah and Morris Levitch, Jerry's paternal grandparents, arrived in the United States from Russia in 1897, a letter from a Jewish immigrant aid association in hand. Jerry's maternal grandparents, Joseph and Sarah Brodsky, had been literally chased out of their Russian village during the anti-Semitic massacres of 1903, hieing to America with their young daughters, Jean and Rose, in tow.
The two couples fit perfectly the typical immigrant mold: young, married, capable of skilled labor (the Brodskys were tailors), and seeking permanent settlement in America. Additionally, they possessed a certain level of cultural refinement. Morris Levitch, a gnomish man with a devotion to scripture, was remembered by his grandson Jerry as a vintner and by Jerry's wife, Patti, as a rabbi; Joseph Brodsky had a lifelong dream of becoming a concert pianist and eventually installed an upright Steinway in his house so his children could share his passion.
Like countless new arrivals before them, the Levitches and the Brodskys settled into Jewish neighborhoods in large eastern cities. The Levitches found a home in New York City's Lower East Side, the Brodskys in Newark's Prince Street district. In these crowded environments, both couples flourished. The Levitches had two children: Daniel, born in 1902, and then a daughter, Gertrude. The Brodskys added two more girls: Rachel ("Rae") in 1904 and then Elizabeth, whom the family always knew as "Buhddie" (which rhymes with "goody"). Eventually, both families were able to leave the hard streets of the inner cities for the relative comforts of outlying boroughs. The Levitches moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1904, settling at 73 Grafton Street; the Brodskys moved to Weequeeg in Newark, a district of working-class Jewish families (it would one day produce the writer Philip Roth), and later to Irvington, another Jewish neighborhood even farther removed from the railroad flats of the city.
The Brownsville of Daniel Levitch's childhood was much like the familiar Lower East Side of Manhattan: streets filled with pushcarts, trolleys, peddlers, and urchins, ethnic Jewish shops, and storefront synagogues with signs in Yiddish and English. Danny attended P.S. 156 — a fact that casts some doubt on Patti Lewis's memory that Danny's father was a rabbi. Danny was certainly no scholar; by the time he was of high school age, he'd quit school entirely. He worked a string of jobs on Pitkin Avenue, Brownsville's main artery, and with neither business contacts nor scholastic ambitions, he ambled into a wide-open future.
At the very least, he knew he didn't want to follow his father's path. Morris Levitch spent his days toiling in a basement, crushing grapes to make sweet kosher wine, which he sold by the glass and jug to other Old World Jews who'd made the disorienting passage to America. In the remote obscurity of the Ukraine, Morris's was probably a noble profession; five miles from Times Square, it must have seemed to his Americanized son like oblivion.
Danny would have to look elsewhere for a horizon, and soon enough he found it. The story goes like this: One day he bought a ticket to a local vaudeville house and was thunderstruck. Danny Levitch saw his own future, and it was wearing blackface. What he'd seen was a performance by Al Jolson, and instantly he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
So many decades have passed, so many fashions in the entertainment business have bloomed and shriveled, that it might seem ludicrous to us that a hale and capable young man would find himself drawn to Jolson as a role model. But in the late 1910s Jolson was absolutely the most dynamic and successful act in the business. And he had enormous appeal for show-biz aspirants of backgrounds similar to his own.
Jolson was himself an immigrant, born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania in 1886. His father, Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson, left the family for America in the late 1880s; when he'd secured a position with a congregation in Washington, D.C., he sent for them all to join him. Asa was seven when he made the grueling journey.
Like Jacob Rabinowitz, the character he played in The Jazz Singer, Jolson was brought up in a household that clung to Old World traditions and looked with skepticism on entertainment as a means of livelihood. But unlike Rabinowitz (who anglicized his name to Jack Robin), Jolson never attempted to tread a fine line between his father's world of piety and his own of greasepaint, chorus girls, and footlights. He was a whole-hog performer, not just a trouper but show-biz incarnate.
Once he'd become a star, the traditional bounds of the entertainment media of the day couldn't contain him. Stout and virile, with a warbling voice and a vibrant whistle, Jolson dominated every stage he took. His Broadway shows were loosely constructed, allowing him maximum leeway for comic improvisations, interpolated songs, encores of well-received numbers, even extemporaneous forays into and conversations with the audience. He would literally exhaust the crowd: taking requests, ad-libbing lyrics to popular songs to reflect the mood of the evening, teasing people who went to the bathroom. His bottomless store of energy and unmitigated desire to please his audience angered his fellow entertainers, none of whom could face a crowd after Jolson had wrung it dry for an hour.
The management of Broadway's Winter Garden Theater, home to Jolson's greatest successes, built a runway to extend the stage out into the orchestra seats to bring Jolson even closer to his audience. Penetrating the crowd on this ramp, Jolson generated an aura of excitement unlike any the business had known before. It's easy to read into Jolson's freneticism a desperation to assimilate, to join the gentile mass of the New World. Jolson's success on stage, screen, radio, and phonograph was a triumph unimaginable for the son of an Orthodox clergyman. Asa Yoelson had won over the goyim, and so long as he could caper up and down that magical riser, he could be a celebrant at his own acceptance into American society. The applause of American audiences scoured the Old World from his skin, and he emerged as a new kind of performer, a fully assimilated Jewish American Prince of Show Biz.
Jolson dazzled audiences of all ethnic compositions, but his act was especially appealing to Jews. They knew that the immigrant story — a primal upheaval early in life followed by a long quest for acceptance by a large, suspicious public — was at the core of Jolson's hunger for applause. Jolson's career became a kind of hallmark of the American Jewish experience, especially in the eyes of those who followed him to the stage. A throng of important Jewish show people emerged soon after Jolson: Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, George Jessel, George Burns, Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle most famous among them. (Even a Lebanese Christian like Detroit's Danny Thomas, who grew up among Jews, was sucked up by Jolie's example, breaking in as a Yiddish dialect comic.) Like Jolson — and decidedly unlike their immigrant and first-generation contemporaries who forged Jewish-American intellectual or social traditions — they only wanted to make people happy.
In this light, the Eastern European Jews practically invented mainstream American entertainment. It's a remarkable accomplishment: As immigrants, as peasants, as Jews, they had a seemingly impossible triptych of hurdles to overcome in trying to win over American audiences. But they relied on resiliency, on brashness, and on traditions of music, humor, and folk culture to separate themselves from the other ethnic groups choking the grittier sections of American cities. Some of their gumption was no doubt born of the bitter difficulties of ghetto life; given the constant rebuffs show people confront early in their careers, only the thickest-skinned hopefuls are likely ever to tough it out. And as they did businessmen, boxers, and gangsters, mean tenement streets inevitably bred scrappy entertainers.
This chain of success stories has a specifically Jewish character. None of the other immigrant groups who arrived in the United States at the time — the Irish, the Italians, the Scandinavians, the Asians — produced so many entertainers. Show business was, in a way, in the blood of the Jews: The shtetl culture of Eastern European Jewry placed a high value on entertainment, and on jesters, clowns, and fools in particular. The shtetl produced a variety of archetypes that evolved into standbys of American entertainment: joking fiddlers, absent-minded wise men, stumbling schlemiels. There was even a type of fool with a ritual status — the badchen, a cultured clown who would turn up at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and brisses, pronounce a sober benediction on the proceedings, and then spend the rest of the day entertaining guests with zany antics (a prototype of the Borscht Belt night club emcee and, later, the Labor Day telethon host). A Jewish court jester, the badchen provided shtetl culture with a connection to the absurd and the irrational. And the immigrants retained this sense of irony even as they neglected to bring the badchen with them to the New World. They never forgot the healing properties of humor, which accounts, in part, for the relative legitimacy of entertainment as a career choice in the Jewish community. Indeed, aside from the black community, which birthed an equally dazzling stream of popular entertainers in the 1930s and '40s, no other minority group has ever produced so many first-rung entertainers in so short a span of time. And Al Jolson was the master of their chosen profession.
Excerpted from King of Comedy by Shawn Levy. Copyright © 1996 Shawn Levy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Eight Hundred Mamas and Papas,
2. Tummling Among the Nazis,
3. Are You for Real?,
4. The Playboy and the Putz,
5. Gunsels, Dames, and Screen Tests,
6. The Importance of Being Seymour,
8. Home Movies,
9. The Stooge Turns,
10. The Wonder Clown,
11. The Other Shoe,
12. One-Man Show,
13. Today You Are a Man,
14. The Jewish Bataan Death March,
15. Lawrence of Bel Air,
16. Frogs' Legs and Pratfalls,
17. Levitch's Complaint,
18. Shirley Temple in Auschwitz,
19. A Defeated Jew,
20. "Why Am I a Criminal?",
22. New Mirrors,
Epilogue: J & I,
A Note on Sources,
About the Author,