John Lahr’s stunning and complex biography of his father, the legendary actor and comedian Bert Lahr
Notes on a Cowardly Lion is John Lahr’s masterwork: an all-encompassing biography of his father, the comedian and performer Bert Lahr. Best known as the Cowardly Lion in MGM’s classic The Wizard of Oz, Lahr was a consummate artist whose career spanned burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood. While he could be equally raucous and polished in public, Lahr was painfully insecure and self-absorbed in private, keeping his family at arm’s length as he quietly battled his inner demons.
Told with an impressive objectivity and keen understanding of the construction—and destruction—of the performer, Notes on a Cowardly Lion is more than one man’s quest to understand his father; it is an extraordinary examination of a life in American show business.
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About the Author
John Lahr (b. 1941) is an acclaimed author. He was the senior drama critic at the New Yorker for twenty years. He has twice received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and was the first critic to win a Tony Award, for co-authoring Elaine Stritch at Liberty. The author of eighteen books, ranging from fiction to biography, Lahr is best known for Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr (1969) and Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (1978), which was made into a film. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Notes on a Cowardly Lion
The Biography of Bert Lahr
By John Lahr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 John Lahr
All rights reserved.
Interviewer: You're recognized as a pantomime artist, who without lines can reach people. What is it about you that people laugh at?
Lahr: I don't know. Maybe I'm funny looking, maybe my mannerisms are ludicrous, maybe over a period of years by practice and application I found that they'd laugh at this (rolling his eyes), and then when you do it or a movement or something. But those things haven't been planned or studied. Maybe some other fellas do, but I don't.
Actors Talk About Acting,
arranged and edited by Lewis Funke and John E. Booth
"God must have laughed when Bert Lahr was born."
BERT LAHR WAS born Irving Lahrheim on August 13, 1895—a time when America was still warring against the Indians, before the car and airplane had given the world a new momentum. His first home was on the fourth floor of a five-story walk-up on First Avenue and Eighty-fourth Street in New York City; it took him half a century to move five blocks west to Fifth Avenue.
On the day of Lahr's birth, his father—Jacob Lahrheim—took a holiday from his upholstery shop on Eighty-eighth Street and Columbus Avenue where he worked thirteen hours a day for six days and brought home twelve dollars a week. His son, Irving, was the first fruition of his life in America. He would be the heir to Jacob's hardwon business, and a test to the family's frugality. Jacob provided the most efficient and economical medical treatment—a lodge doctor who, for a yearly fee, took care of the entire family. He had summoned the doctor early in the morning; the delivery had been prompt, almost pleasant, despite the fact that afterwards the doctor misspelled their name on the birth certificate—"Laurheim." The names of many of Jacob's friends had been changed at random by the Immigration Office when they entered the country; others had taken new identities later on to fit a new world, so Jacob was not concerned. The name was not as important as the ideas he would give his son—to be frugal, to be diligent, and to survive. From the earliest years, Lahr recalls his father slapping his pants pocket and saying joylessly, "A man's money is his best friend."
While Jacob's mother watched after Augusta, his wife, and the new baby, Jacob indulged himself and bought two newspapers to read on the roof—The Staatszeitung and The New York Times. It was a sunny day. The streets smelled fresh after the rains the night before, which the Times called "the most terrific thunderstorm of the year." Jacob felt comfortable in the summer air. To the east was the river, muddy and strangely turbulent, bringing the ice boats up to the Ninetieth Street pier, where they delivered to their horse-drawn trucks. Ferryboats taxied people to Astoria, where on Sundays they held dollar beer parties in the summer. To the west, Jacob could see the treetops of Central Park and imagine the spires of the regal châteaux of Seventy-ninth Street. The city was rimmed by a confident peacefulness. Beneath him, however, Jacob saw another world.
The storefronts on First Avenue, like his own apartment, were meticulous and sparse. Hunger and failure were belligerent shadows. But there was still a dream even if there was little time for dreaming—the papers carried gossip about sixcourse meals at the fine homes; but at Max's Busy Bee three cents bought a cup of coffee and a sandwich, twenty-five cents was enough for a pound of steak or two dozen eggs.
First Avenue, with carts rattling over cobblestones, and the smell of cabbage and dust in the hallways, was a bustling image of the city's contrasts. For Jacob, the struggle there was satisfying; he had come to America not, as some of his friends, to earn a grubstake to return to Germany, but to make it his home. He had arrived at the age of sixteen with his grandfather, also an upholsterer, and had begun then to carve a life from this recalcitrant city. Nothing numbed his dream, not the hard brown benches of the Immigration Office at Ellis Island nor the mass of bodies packed neatly like firewood into the cold building. Germany was far behind him, and with it, the memory of a father dead of pneumonia before he was seven, of land too overworked to yield sufficient livelihood. In his three-room apartment, a tintype picture of the small, white house with thatched roof where he had grown up reminded him of the barely fertile fields. On the second floor of that house, where the family had moved in order to take in boarders, he had seen his mother try to raise a family and keep food on the table. Now, in New York, there was promise, but also an undeniable threat. He saw it most conspicuously in the backyard gardens, in the leaves, dingy with soot, deprived of light, languishing on the boughs. The city was cruder than the German countryside and less predictable. Jacob often talked about the fields around Meudt where the early morning light brought a warm, green luster to the earth. He would remember running with his brother, Charlie, five years his junior, to the orchard where they picked apples before the farmhands arrived. He talked about the freshness of the air in the morning, and the magical footprints that glistened in the dew.
But now Germany was only a romantic memory. He had apprenticed to his uncle, then set up his own shop, and married an American girl of good German stock who lived on the next block in Yorkville. His brother and mother had followed him to America a few years later. They had all lived together on Seventy-eighth Street in a nine-dollar-a-month apartment. The three rooms were cramped; and it was uncomfortable for the family to share the bathroom in the hall with other tenants. As his brother Charlie recalled, "When Jake got married he took mother with him. Gussie and mother were always fighting. Mother didn't want to stay with Gussie. She was very upset. First they sent for us, and then Jacob got married right away. He wasn't one hundred per cent clever; sometimes he told jokes that didn't come out right."
Jacob was interested in natural medicines, attending lectures on health foods and bringing home herbs and seeds to improve the diet of his family. When Charlie had arrived in America, Jacob made him join the local ternverein—a German health club that sponsored intercity gymnastic competitions. Charlie wrestled; Jacob excelled on the parallel bars and long-distance runs. Together, they won many ribbons in their Sunday afternoon events. Jacob was wiry and short; his face was handsome, with a mustache etched over his upper lip. Both he and his brother had themselves photographed on a pedestal flexing like Sandow the Strong Man, with only a fig leaf on. Jacob could see the effects of his labor more quickly in his body than his business.
Jacob had no religion except work. He was given to damning all churches from his evening chair. "If religion can't create good will in the world, it is useless." Nevertheless, his son, Irving, followed German-Jewish tradition. He spoke German for the first six years of his life; Jacob stopped speaking German in the house at the beginning of World War I. The Staatzeitung gave way permanently to the Times, and his son Irving would adopt a neutral name—Bert.
Bert Lahr brought out of his childhood a dissatisfaction, an inarticulate yearning. The three most vivid memories of his childhood are presents—a bag of candy, a five-dollar sailor suit with an extra pair of pants, and a trip with his father to the Schwartz Um Adler, a German theater on Third Avenue. These were the only memories of family affection, the only tangible indication of his father's love. "I can remember one Christmas I put my stocking up, and when I came out the next morning there was nothing in it. I never got anything of consequence as a child or else it would be very vivid in my memory."
Yorkville was not as squalid as New York's Lower East Side. Few tubs hung out of back windows, and the streets were wider and less cluttered. The surface of life seemed quieter, more ordered, and hopeful. But Irving Lahrheim would never experience Yorkville like his parents, as a step up the social ladder. He came from a world where humble prosperity seemed just out of reach. He knew the street smells and the backyards where laundry flapped against the sky. If his friends remember him as flamboyant and energetic, Lahr's idea of his childhood has no gaiety and less innocence. "I was a lonely kid. I lived in an ordinary house in a coldwater flat." Even before a sister, Cele, was born in 1900 there was little family community. With a second child, there were no luxuries at all, no celebration of birthdays or holidays. "We were never taken out," recalls Cele. "Once we were supposed to go to the theater. Dad took out his pencil and paper and figured the expenses. We never went." Jacob usually settled back into a pensive silence after dinner. Sometimes he would not speak to his children for days. He kept many things from them. Augusta complained to her son about Jacob's growing indifference. Lahr can recall his mother crying when Jacob treated himself to a Thanksgiving dinner. "For that money," she said, "we all could have had a nice meal." In her teary confidences or the quarrels behind closed doors, the theme remained constant—money. In later years, Lahr would come to see the craftsman in his father, a man who was sensitive to fine objects, who liked to sketch and whose work with leather upholstery was careful and expressive. But to Lahr as a child, his father was an ominous figure, even if the boy used him as protection from the "Black Mariah" and other demons that Augusta's sisters had invoked to keep him obedient. "I was afraid of the dark. I used to sleep with my father in the double bed. If he'd leave the room, I'd wake up." The terror was real; Irving forced his father to sleep with him for three years between his sixth and ninth year.
Augusta's son knew her sadness and watched her patiently at work. There was the house to clean, wood floors to polish, and, of course, the sewing. In the summer she would sometimes help Jacob at the store, working in the sweltering cellar, stuffing horsehair into chairs. It was grueling and, to Irving, sad. Cele could never understand her brother's reaction to the symbols of Augusta's bondage—scissors, hooks, and eyes. "Sometimes at dinner, I'd put mother's sewing kit with the hooks and eyes by his plate. He'd go into a tantrum. I remember him running around the table after me."
Lahr's mother perplexed him. He realized that she was a good woman. He recognized her hard work and sensed the frustrating silences that fell between her and Jacob. He knew that she had once saved a child's life in the apartment across the alley by sending money over on the clothesline to pay the doctor. He knew also that her personality could elicit a much stronger allegiance than his father showed her. When the family moved from Yorkville to the Bronx, Augusta's next-door neighbor and friend, Mrs. Harland, moved up to the area. Augusta made many sacrifices for her children, and, to her son, those moments were unforgettable. She would reach into the stein on top of the refrigerator for a few extra pennies for Lahr; she would indulge his pranks and small extravagances where Jacob would have none of it. But anxiety eroded her strength. Throughout his life, Lahr's filial impulse toward his mother was tempered with distrust. He disliked her whispered confidences about Jacob's insensitivity. Even if they were true, there was a betrayal of loyalty. He also came to suspect Augusta's spiritualism, which developed murkily as the years grew more difficult. And although she was a loving mother, Lahr could rarely be certain of her affection: He recalls playing a game with Augusta in which she would name an object in German and he would identify it in English. "She pointed to a volume on the table. I said 'book.' Then to one of the pieces of second-hand furniture. I said 'chair.' I remember pointing to her breasts, saying 'Was ist das?' And she hit me. She kept slapping me, 'Don't-you-ever-say-that-again!'" Augusta became an object of apprehension—she was assertive and complaining, religious yet capable of unexpected violence. From then on, her image always held a threat to Lahr.
Lahr understood the family's poverty early in his childhood. He delivered rolls at $1.50 a week, sold picture postcards, and once, at the age of nine, earned three dollars by renting boxes to spectators at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration Parade. He gave the money to his parents; but he yearned for a few possessions of his own. And he was often hungry. He began to steal. He remembers his thefts without emotion or guilt because there seemed to be no other choice. He was, by any standard, a fairly bad thief.
His first abortive effort to wangle money came when he was eight and Augusta denied his request for money to attend the nickelodeon. "We're poor people," she said. "We can't spend on little things like movies. Now bundle up and go outside." He tried to pay her back with the same threats that she and her sisters used to remind him to be a "good boy"—death. He went to the bathroom and dabbed iodine on the side of his mouth, letting it dribble down his chin. He lay down on the floor and waited for his mother to return. Cele was the first to discover him. She ran, hysterical, to the foot of the stairs to tell her mother. Augusta rushed to the bathroom. Her son was spread-eagled on the floor, breathing with careful heaves of his chest, his eyes shut. "You'll get no money, Irving. Go outside." That evening Lahr pelted his mother with a snowball, an act of rebellion that astounded his sister and amazed his friends.
"I remember running after my father who was boarding a trolley to work. I wanted some money. He just pushed me away." When Jacob gave his son a dollar to have a tooth extracted, Lahr saved fifty cents by having it done without an anesthetic. If his mother gave him a nickel for lunch, he would save three cents by purchasing a seeded roll and a banana for a penny apiece to make banana sandwiches. The petty thefts began out of desperation. He pilfered change from his father's pocket, school supplies from the neighborhood store, and then, finally, made a large vegetable cadge. Lahr and his friends on Eighty-eighth street (his family had moved there after Cele's birth) stole from local stores on the weekdays in order to resell the produce on Saturday mornings at the open markets cluttering First Avenue. Once Lahr stole a pumpkin from a policeman's garden, only to have the officer knock on his door minutes after the theft demanding the return of the vegetable, which was sitting on the fire escape.
He rarely recalls what gaiety there was in childhood: setting up high hurdles in the alley by his apartment and running them until the women complained in fear that their laundry would topple; swimming off the mossy pilings in the East River, where once he had to come home in a crate when someone stole his clothes. And there were Magic Lantern shows (a dime admission) where Tommy Lark would project slides on a sheet set up in the basement of his apartment, with Solly Abrahams beating a drum for musical accompaniment and Lahr taking the tickets. "He was a jokester, always kidding around," says Abrahams. "He was well liked. Even then he was doing that shuffle he still does today. He had motions—like he has today. He probably doesn't remember it. I recall it vividly."
Augusta worried about her son—often to his face. As Cele remembers, "Mother felt he couldn't elevate himself. She thought his friends were ordinary, far beneath him." Augusta was also confounded by her son's actions. He showed little interest in school, and acted impulsively, with a curious disregard for the family. Once, after Jacob had refused him money to have a tonsil operation, Lahr walked to Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital on East Sixty-fourth Street and had himself admitted for a free operation. His parents knew nothing about it until he walked home twenty-four hours later. (The operation had not been completely successful—a hemorrhaged tonsil kept him in the hospital overnight.) They were assuaged by the story of the experience, which Lahr could only vaguely articulate. "While I was in the hospital, it was crowded; they put me next to a man who was dying. He was going through the death rattle. I was right there. I watched him die. I was eleven."
Lahr remembers only his confusion. He had seen death; and he was surrounded by images of failure. He saw it in his father's hands, already cracked and dry, in his mother's taut face, in his own frayed clothes. "I used to ask myself—'What's going to become of you?'" There was never a satisfactory answer. In the summer, he sat with friends and watched criminals and drunkards, prostitutes and vagrants being arraigned at the Fifth Precinct Station across the street. He understood the warning in his father's eyes when he returned from work to find his son ogling at the offenders. To Lahr, the dank smells and spiritless labor of the upholstery business seemed only another repugnant but sadly plausible destiny.
Excerpted from Notes on a Cowardly Lion by John Lahr. Copyright © 1969 John Lahr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA Dramatic Chronology,
Preface: The Lion and Me,
From the Wings: An Introduction,
3. Vaudeville: Lahr and Mercedes,
4. Broadway Beginnings,
5. Scandals and Follies,
7. Other Edens,
8. "... But What Do I Do Next Year?",
9. Back to Broadway,
10. Waiting for Godot,
11. A Decade of Moments,
13. A Beginning and an End,
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