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 Double Bill at the Albert Hall

Marilyn will be the star attraction at a very special event in one of London’s most famous concert venues, the Royal Albert Hall, on Sunday, October 8. Aptly titled ‘The Many Sides of Marilyn,’ the movie double bill begins in the Elgar Room at 5pm, with a rare screening of Fritz Lang’s 1952 melodrama, Clash by Night, where a young Marilyn plays a feisty factory girl. There will be a post-film discussion with film producer Mia Bays, and Jacqueline Rose, who wrote about Marilyn in her 2015 book, Women in Dark Times. Then at 8:15 pm, the comedy classic Some Like It Hot follows. You can see both films for £25, or book separately if you wish. Seating is unreserved, at cabaret tables, and you can order dinner with a 20% discount.

Sugar Returns to the USA

Some Like It Hot will be showing at cinemas across the US tomorrow (June 11) and on Wednesday (14th), as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series. Find a theatre near you and book your tickets now with Fathom Events.

Reprieve for Hollywood’s Formosa

The historic Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard – where the cast and crew of Some Like It Hot regularly dined – closed its doors in January. But as Chris Nichols reports for L.A. Magazine, it is now under new management.

“Six months after the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard unexpectedly shuttered, the West Hollywood landmark is coming back to life. The ancient Chinese restaurant, known for its famous clientele and appearances in films including L.A. Confidential, will be restored by the 1933 Group and will reopen next summer. Owners Bobby Green, Dimitri Komarov, and Dima Liberman have signed a long-term lease with the owners of the West Hollywood Gateway shopping center, which owns the restaurant property.

The group plans to keep the neon façade, the bar, and the 1902 train car dining room, and it will use vintage photos to guide the restoration of the original red vinyl booths and Chinese lanterns that longtime patrons remember. ‘I want it to have the feel of the 1930s to 1960s,’ said Green. ‘They kept adding and adding to it. I probably don’t need a photo of Johnny Depp on the wall.’ A rooftop deck and other additions made in 2001 will be Benjamin Buttoned to look like they’ve always been there.”

Remembering Marilyn’s Movie Triumphs

Marilyn in ‘Some Like It Hot ‘ (1959)

Over at The Wrap, Rosemary Rossi picks ten movie clips showcasing  Marilyn in her prime, with praise from leading critics.

“It has been observed that no matter how a scene was lighted, Monroe had the quality of drawing all the light to herself. In her brief scenes here, surrounded by actors much more experienced, she is all we can look at.” – Roger Ebert on ‘All About Eve’

“The reality was that she was a great, natural comedienne. She took superficial, cut-out roles and elevated them to whole new levels.” – Peter Bogdanovich on ‘Monkey Business’

“Monroe’s inflections and expressions have a deliciously clever and sharply experienced irony” – Richard Brody on ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’

“So arresting is Monroe’s presence that when she’s not on-screen, we wait impatiently, wondering, Where have you gone, Mrs. DiMaggio?” – Melissa Anderson on ‘The Seven Year Itch’

“Monroe steals it, as she walked away with every movie she was in. It is an act of the will to watch anyone else while she is on the screen.” – Roger Ebert on ‘Some Like It Hot’

Marilyn Brings ‘Glamour’ to Paris

All About Eve and Some Like It Hot are among the 53 films selected   for this month’s ‘Glamour’ season at the Forum Des Images in Paris. (Although the striking poster art features Marilyn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1953 musical comedy is not included – which is a pity, as it is partly set in a Hollywoodised version of Paris.)

Thanks to Eric

Marilyn’s Sugar Is ‘Sweeter Than Ever’

The original Guardian review of Some Like It Hot – first published when it was released in the UK exactly fifty- eight years ago, on May 16, 1959 – is reposted today. The unnamed critic describes it as “a funny film with an odd flavour of humour,” reflecting director Billy Wilder’s acerbic style, and how provocative this comedy classic was for its time.

“Mr Wilder, whose films are successful and frequent, may have found that the flouting of our nicer susceptibilities is just what most of us want. Be that as it may, Some Like it Hot is a bit uncomfortable. Not that there is anything downright offensive … it is only that the vulgarity is a bit insistent – and persistent.

The women’s band includes Marilyn Monroe, even sweeter, more pathetic and, possibly, more Monroe-like than ever in her attire … Miss Monroe, as always, is irresistible, even when, as in this instance, she is being ruthlessly presented as a caricature of herself – another example of the Wilder touch.”

Hollywood Reporter’s Rave for Sugar

This week marks the 58th anniversary of Some Like It Hot‘s release. The Hollywood Reporter has reprinted their original review, first published on March 29, 1929. Here’s what they had to say about Marilyn’s memorable performance as Sugar Kane.

“The vocalist and ukelele player with this outfit is a lush (in every sense of the word), Marilyn Monroe, who has been betrayed by many saxophone players and is going to Florida in the hope of landing a millionaire. Curtis, while posing as her girl confidante, falls in love with her. Meanwhile, an uproarious dormitory party, with a hot-water bottle full of bourbon, has the rest of the band personnel jammed and giggling, into the upper berth of the squealing spurious blonde, Lemmon.

In a Florida resort (represented with fine period accuracy by the Coronado Beach Hotel) Curtis keeps switching from female guise to that of a millionaire yachtsman in order to woo Marilyn, who appears in a wardrobe designed by Orry Kelly that displays an embarrassment of riches. Whatever the part requires — and that includes talent — Marilyn has in abundance.”

Marilyn Double Bill at the Carolina

Marilyn on the set of ‘The Seven Year Itch’, 1954

If you’re in Durham, North Carolina tomorrow night, don’t miss out on a comedy bonanza at the Carolina Theatre, featuring Marilyn’s two films with director Billy Wilder: Some Like It Hot, and The Seven Year Itch.