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

Writing Marilyn: Carl Rollyson

Rollyson 2nd ed

Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Revised and Updated, the upcoming new edition of Carl Rollyson‘s 1986 biography, now has a book trailer. You can see it here.

Rollyson has also spoken about the process of writing about Marilyn in an interview with the How Did You Write That? blog.

“HDYWT:  How did you come up with the idea for Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress?

Carl: While Norman Mailer’s biography of Monroe has been much maligned, it is, in fact, an important work not only about Monroe but about the genre of biography …Mailer used one word to describe Monroe that no other biographer had used. He called her ambition ‘Napoleonic.’  That was very astute.  The more I read about her, the more I could see his point.  She really did want to conquer the world and, in many ways, she has succeeded…I spent the summer of 1980 reading the literature about Monroe. I realized that even the most important books about her, including Mailer’s, missed the most important part of her biography. She had this terrific desire to be an actress.  Did she, in fact, become an actress, or just a star?

HDYWT:  How did you get started on the project?

Carl: I was fortunate that I knew Bruce Minnix, director of the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. Bruce had told me long before I ever dreamed of writing about Monroe that he knew two of her friends. So I called on Bruce, who put me in touch with Ralph Roberts, Marilyn’s masseur and confidant, and Steffi Sidney, the daughter of Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who helped Monroe invent some of the more dramatic stories about her life. They, in turned, connected me with others, like Rupert Allan, Marilyn’s most important publicist. Just as important were my contacts with Maurice Zolotow and Fred Lawrence Guiles, two of Marilyn’s early and most important biographers. They were wonderful to me, sharing their insights, and providing me with still others to interview. Guiles let me visit him in the hospital while he was recovering from a heart attack, and later he sent me a recording of his interview with Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s most important acting teacher.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Carl: The breakthrough moment came when Susan Strasberg read part of an early draft. I had interviewed her about her memories of Monroe and Actors Studio, and we got along very well — in part, I think, because she could see I was going to write about Marilyn as an actress in a way no one else had done before. I sent her an early draft of the book, and she said: ‘When you tell the story of her life and her acting you establish your voice. But then there is also this other stuff that sounds like a treatise. Who are you trying to impress — your colleagues?’ That’s when I threw out about two thirds of the book and rewrote it as a narrative. As soon as I had my story, the organization of research fell into place.”

A.C. Lyles 1918 -2013

ac-lyles1

A.C. Lyles, a veteran producer of Westerns for Paramount Studios, died last Friday, September 27th. His long, illustrious career has been marked by the Los Angeles Times, the Hollywood ReporterVariety, and Forbes.

Lyles also befriended a young Marilyn Monroe. In 2001 he shared his memories with members of Marilyn Remembered:

“A. C. spoke of Marilyn in the most delightful of ways, remembering her as a young sweet girl who had a ‘Gracie Allen‘ quality to her. He said she was always interested in the goings on in the studio, but never in a gossipy way. A.C. shared with us that when he first met Marilyn he wanted her to be his little sister, someone to hug and protect. He said that she would immediately evoke from you a feeling of protectiveness over her, like she was vulnerable and needed looking after.

Story #1: A.C. used to accompany Marilyn to the studio commissary where she would confide in him her dreams to become a big star. He said she would look around the studio commissary all wide eyed and said, ‘One day people will turn their heads to look at me.’ Later on in Marilyn’s career A.C. would accompany her to the studio commissary where she was now a big star, and indeed peoples heads would turn to stare. Always conscious of her appearance, A.C. said Marilyn only ordered soup when she went out to lunch with him because as she put it, ‘If someone comes up to me I don’t want to be caught with a big mouth full of food!’

Story #2: He said that Marilyn would often want to know details about stars that A.C. knew. But they were usually obscure stars like Lili St. Cyr or Mae West. She was even interested in the intimate life of Christine Jorgesen, famous for being the first person to have a man to woman sex operation!

Story #3: Mr. Lyles was a good friend to agent Johnny Hyde who was instrumental in Marilyn’s career. A.C. said he often would get calls from Johnny asking for him to look after ‘Baby,’ (Johnny’s nickname for Marilyn) because he had to work late. A.C. said he would often take Marilyn out to nightclubs for the evening at the request of Johnny Hyde and would have many conversations with her about her career. One such conversation he remembered was her concern about becoming a star. She thought she had the talent for it but that her butt was too big and therefore she might not make it! Of course as history would later prove it was one of her most important assets!

Story #4: A.C. Lyles also shared another delightful story about Marilyn and journalist Sidney Skolsky. Sidney was a close friend to Marilyn Monroe, as well as to other young starlets. He often would rely on them for transportation from one studio to the next as he did not drive. In exchange for these actresses help, Sidney often would write favorable items for them in his column. It was said that Sidney was never at a loss for a ride in Hollywood! Well, one Saturday morning Marilyn was having lunch with A.C. and she turned flush. In a panic she asked A.C. what time it was, to which he replied 12:15. She utter ‘Oh No! I was supposed to pick up Sidney at 11:30!’ A.C. said, ‘Well Marilyn you are only 45 minutes late.’ To which she replied, ‘You don’t understand. I was supposed to pick him up on Monday!’

Story #5:Interesting to note, A.C. Lyles was asked about Robert Slatzer. (For those who are unfamiliar who Robert Slatzer is, he is the gentlemen who claims among many other things to have once been married to Marilyn Monroe.) A.C. actually had some rather nice things to say about Mr. Slatzer. He said that although he won’t comment on the ‘supposed marriage to Marilyn,’ he can say he remembers attending many parties where BOTH Marilyn and Bob were seen together. He said Mr. Slatzer used to work at the Paramount Studio and that he is really a delightful man whom he has the highest regard for. Coming from Mr. Lyles this was quite something and makes one stop to think.

A.C.’s insight to Marilyn gave us all such a fresh perspective of this sensitive and talented star. He didn’t recall a woman who was all breathy and put on, but instead a sweet, insecure, young woman who was tremendously sensitive. A girl who broke out in tears when told of a story about Clark Gable having to pass by a studio stage showing a plane crash shortly after his wife Carole Lombard had died in a similar way.”

Hollywood Locations: Chasen’s

Marilyn dined at Chasen’s Restaurant, Hollywood, on June 26, 1953, after her foot and handprints were immortalised in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Her companions were Joe DiMaggio, Sidney Skolsky, Jane Russell, and Jane’s husband, soccer star Bob Waterfield.

Marilyn’s booth at Chasen’s

Marilyn had first visited Chasen’s with agent Johnny Hyde. The restaurant closed in 1995, and was the subject of a documentary, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s.

Chasen’s is featured as a classic Hollywood location in today’s Los Angeles Times.