Jerry Lewis 1926-2017

One of the most popular American comedians of the last century, Jerry Lewis has died of heart disease aged 91.

He was born Joseph (or Jerome) Levitch to Russian Jewish parents in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. His father was a vaudeville performer, and his mother played piano. He joined them onstage at an early age, and dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. A heart murmur rendered him ineligible for military service in World War II. Already a prankster at 15, he developed a ‘Record Act’, exaggeratedly miming the lyrics to popular songs. He married singer Patti Palmer in 1944, and they would raise six sons together.

In 1946, he formed a comedy partnership with crooner Dean Martin. Over the next ten years, they graduated from nightclub act to the internationally celebrated stars of radio, television and movies.

On February 9, 1953, Marilyn Monroe met Lewis and Martin for the first time, at the annual Photoplay Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was wearing the revealing gold lame dress fleetingly glimpsed in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Actress Joan Crawford would later speak witheringly of Marilyn’s ‘vulgar display’ as she collected the award for Fastest Rising Star. “The audience yelled and shouted, and Jerry Lewis shouted,” Crawford told reporter Bob Thomas. “But those of us in the industry just shuddered. It reminded me of a burlesque show.” At twenty-six, Marilyn was the same age as Jerry Lewis, and part of Hollywood’s new vanguard. Crawford, a star from a prior generation, later apologised for her remarks amid widespread criticism.

On February 24, Marilyn appeared on the Martin and Lewis Radio Show, accepting an award from Redbook magazine, and sparring with the comedy duo in an eight-minute sketch, ‘So Who Needs Friends.’ Columnist Sidney Skolsky, who accompanied her that day, wrote about it in his 1954 book, Marilyn.

“Jerry Lewis visited her dressing room and said, ‘I know you’re scared. Don’t be. I was awfully nervous when I went on the radio for the first time, with Bob Hope.’ He pressed her hand. ‘You’ll be great,’ he said, and left the room. This brief talk and vote of confidence from Lewis helped Marilyn considerably. Marilyn was great on the program. After it, Jerry said to me, ‘She’s got nothing to worry about. She knows more about sex than I do about comedy.’ Which is the highest compliment a comedian could bestow on an actress who is selling glamour.”

Marilyn became good friends with both Jerry and Dean Martin. Sensing her loneliness, they often invited her to dinner alongside fellow pal Sammy Davis Jr. A lifelong insomniac, Marilyn would sometimes call them in the small hours and ask to meet up at all-night diners.

On October 18th, columnist Sheilah Graham published an interview with Marilyn in which she named the ten most fascinating men in the world, including future husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her River of No Return co-star Robert Mitchum, Asphalt Jungle director John Huston, close friends Marlon Brando and Sidney Skolsky, acting coach Michael Chekhov, photographer Milton Greene, and India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (the only one she hadn’t met.) And the last man on her list was Jerry Lewis…

“I think that Jerry has a lot of sex appeal. It might have something to do with his vitality. I can’t figure out what it is. He makes funny faces because he thinks people want him to make funny faces. But behind it all there’s something serious and very sexy. I just think he’s sexy.”

On December 6, Hedda Hopper reported that Jerry and Dean had called upon friends to donate items for a charity auction for muscular dystrophy. “They asked Marilyn Monroe for something personal – anything close to her. What they got was a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace autographed by Marilyn.”

After Marilyn moved to New York in early 1955, the men-only Friars’ Club broke code and invited her to their annual roast, compered by Milton Berle in Martin and Lewis’s honour. When Berle called her to the podium, Marilyn blew a kiss and whispered, “I love you, Jerry.”

Lewis remembered Marilyn with great affection in his 2005 memoir, Dean & Me: A Love Story…

“To my vast regret, the one actress we never performed with was Marilyn Monroe – and how great she would have been in a Martin and Lewis picture. She had a delicious sense of humour, an ability not only to appreciate what was funny but to see the absurdity of things in general. God, she was magnificent – perfect physically and in every other way. She was someone anyone would just love to be with, not only for the obvious reasons but for her energy and perseverance and yes, focus. She had the capacity to make you feel that she was totally engaged with whatever you were talking about. She was kind, she was good, she was beautiful, and the press took shots at her that she didn’t deserve. They got on her case from day one – a textbook example of celebrity-bashing.”

In 1956, the Martin and Lewis collaboration ended as Dean, tired of being the ‘straight man’, decided to pursue a solo career. Jerry was heartbroken but his partner was adamant, and despite occasional public appearances together, the pair were estranged for thirty years.

In 1958, Jerry was offered the chance to star opposite Marilyn as jazz musician and ‘bosom pal’ Jerry/Daphne in Billy Wilder’s classic drag farce, Some Like It Hot. Unsure of his ability to convincingly impersonate a woman, he declined and the part went to Jack Lemmon. In 1959, Lewis signed a groundbreaking deal with Paramount Pictures, earning $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over the next 7 years. In partnership with director Frank Tashlin, Jerry also produced and co-wrote his movies, including his greatest success, The Nutty Professor (1962.)

Shortly before her death in 1962, Marilyn had been filming Something’s Got to Give with Dean Martin, who refused to work with another actress after Monroe was fired. Many of the rumours surrounding her demise have focused on her alleged affair with John F. Kennedy, but in a 2002 interview with GQ magazine, Lewis – himself a friend of the president – quipped that it wasn’t true, because Marilyn was having an affair with him. This bizarre remark – possibly a joke – nonetheless made headlines, but a sexual liaison at this time seems unlikely.

By the mid-1960s, Jerry’s popularity was fading, though he became a cult figure in France, where he was hailed as a comedic auteur. In 1966, he hosted the first of 44 annual US telethons for muscular dystrophy on Labour Day weekend. His long marriage to Patti Palmer ended in 1982, and a year later he married 30 year-Old stewardess San-Dee Pitnick. They later adopted a daughter.

His performance in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1983), as a television host stalked by obsessive fans, hinted at a darker side to the Lewis persona and established him as a serious actor. He played further acclaimed roles in Arizona Dream (1994), Funny Bones (1995.)

In recent years he suffered from increasingly poor health. Tragedy struck in 2009 when his 45 year-old son Joseph died of a drug overdose, and in 2010, Lewis began raising funds to build a facility for vulnerable and traumatised children in Melbourne, Australia. In a recent television interview, he spoke candidly about his fear of dying. He continued working until the end, playing the titular role in Max Rose (2016.) Jerry Lewis died at home in Las Vegas on August 20, 2017.

Further Reading

Holding a Good Thought for Marilyn: 1926-1954 – The Hollywood Years by Stacy Eubank (2015)

‘Jerry Lewis: the knockabout clown with a dark and melancholy inner life’ by Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, August 20, 2017

‘Marilyn, Jerry Lewis and Some Like It Hot’ by Tara Hanks, ES Updates, October 8, 2015

‘Jerry Lewis and Marilyn Monroe: Inside the Comedy King’s Story of His Secret Affair With the Sexy Screen Siren’ by Victoria Miller, The Inquisitr, August 21, 2017

‘My Two Days With Jerry Lewis’ by Amy Wallace, GQ, August 21, 2017

Marilyn Goes ‘Retro’ in UK Mag

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Retro is a brand new UK nostalgia magazine from the Yours team. Grace Kelly adorns its first cover,  while Marilyn is pictured in several articles inside, including ‘The Birth of the Bikini’, ‘Ghost Singers of Hollywood’ (featuring Marni Nixon, who voiced the soprano segment at the beginning of ‘Diamonds Are a Girls’ Best Friend’), and a profile of the British-born gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham. Out now for £3.99.

Thanks to Fraser Penney

Robert Wagner Remembers Marilyn

Marilyn Monroe During Interview
Marilyn with Robert Wagner, 1954

Actor Robert Wagner is now 84, and still busy – both onscreen, and in print. He began his career at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1950.

On June 14, 1951, Wagner made a screen test alongside one of the studio’s most promising starlets. “I was the guy they always used when the studio was making screen tests of new actresses,” he told author Warren G. Harris in 1988. “And believe me, no job is more dead-end than that. The only interesting thing that came out of it was when they were testing a new kid and asked me to do a couple of scenes with her. Her name was Marilyn Monroe.”

Screen test for 'Let's Make It Legal', 1951
Screen test for ‘Let’s Make It Legal’, 1951

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On the strength of this test – a love scene – Wagner was cast alongside Marilyn in a romantic comedy, Let’s Make It Legal, starring Claudette Colbert. The pair never acted together, but became friends and were often pictured together at Hollywood parties. Wagner, who had affairs with many beautiful actresses, was never romantically involved with MM.

“Nothing happened easily for Marilyn,” he said later. “It took a lot of time and effort to create the image that became so famous.”

In recent years, Wagner has published two books: Pieces of My Heart (2008), an autobiography; and the just-published You Must Remember This, a memoir of Hollywood’s golden age, in which he recalls Marilyn’s tragic death.

“It’s odd how your mind associates certain people with certain events. In August 1962 I was in Montecatini, Italy, the same time as Sheilah Graham [the Hollywood gossip columnist.] I was on the terrace of my hotel when she leaned out a window and yelled, ‘Marilyn Monroe died! Marilyn Monroe died!,’ to the world at large, in exactly the same way she would have announced that her building was on fire. That was how I found out that the girl I had worked with twelve years earlier, and who had since become a legend in a way nobody could have foretold, was gone.”

Marilyn with Sheilah Graham, 1953
Marilyn with Sheilah Graham, 1953

Wagner is no stranger to tragedy. His wife, Natalie Wood, drowned in 1981 during a yachting trip. Her death, like Marilyn’s, is the subject of endless speculation.

Natalie was the child star of Marilyn’s first film, Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay! She admired Marilyn, and spoke with her at a party weeks before her death.

With Natalie Wood
With Natalie Wood

Natalie married Robert in 1957 and they divorced five years later, but were remarried in 1972. There are shades here of Marilyn’s relationship with Joe DiMaggio, who had grown close to her again in the years before her death.

Dr Thomas Noguchi, so-called ‘Coroner to the Stars’, performed autopsies on both women. He was demoted in 1982, after speaking too freely in the media about the case, and in that year’s reopened investigation of Monroe’s death. His career has since recovered, however.

Wagner featured on Photoplay cover with MM, 1954
Wagner featured on Photoplay cover with MM, 1954

In Pieces of My Heart, Wagner criticised Noguchi:

“Noguchi was a camera-hog who felt he had to stoke the publicity fire in order to maintain the level of attention he’d gotten used to. Noguchi particularly enraged Frank Sinatra, who knew the truth and, in any case, would never have allowed anyone who harmed Natalie to survive.”

Natalie’s case would also be reopened in 2011, when the captain of the boat claimed that a fight with Wagner had led to her drowning. The official cause of death was later amended from accidental drowning to ‘drowning and other undetermined factors.’ Wagner was ruled out as a suspect.

In You Must Remember This, he speculates on the proliferation of conspiracy theories in the internet age:

“Intellectually, I understand the perception that the rich and privileged are invincible. That’s why some people need to believe, for example, that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the Kennedys…The randomness of life and death can be terrifying, so a certain kind of person seizes on minor discrepancies of memory or the garbled recollections of marginal personalities to cast doubt on a reality they don’t want to acknowledge.”

Spotlight on Schenck’s Carolwood Home

Today’s Hollywood Reporter documents the history of 141 South Carolwood Drive, the Holmby Hills estate owned by Joe Schenck, co-founder of Twentieth Century-Fox, in the late 1940s. The mansion features in a new book by Michael Gross, Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles.

As a starlet, Marilyn Monroe visited Schenck’s home frequently, and according to columnist Sheilah Graham, she became known as one of his ‘gin rummy girls’. Schenck even allowed her the use of his guest cottage.

Gross asserts that Marilyn and Schenck had a mutually beneficial affair, as other biographers have done previously. However, Marilyn and Schenck both denied it, as did friends of MM. One thing is for certain – Schenck liked Marilyn and was an early champion in her career. She last visited him in hospital in 1960, a year before he died.

Schenck sold his Carolwood home to Tony Curtis in the late 1950s. Curtis, who starred alongside Marilyn in Some Like it Hot, has claimed an affair with her dating back to the 1940s. His stories have been widely disputed, and this later residence may explain some of the details he gave about the guest cottage.

Subsequent occupants of the Carolwood estate have included Sonny and Cher. Though Marilyn frequented many such grand properties in her lifetime, her own addresses were comparatively modest.