S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
December 10, 1932: 23-27

For the week ending on Thursday, June 16, 1932, the Fox Theatre in San Francisco achieved a new low in gross receipts of $16,300. For the week ending on the following Thursday, June 23, the gross jumped to $37,000, very nearly a new high. This saltatory miracle the management achieved by the simple, if not inexpensive, device of adding to the program the name of Eddie Cantor, "in person." On the Saturday after the opening day, the "diminutive comedian" played five shows to twenty thousand people and to a gross, at forty cents an average seat, of $8,000. Down the street at the Curran on that same Saturday, Miss Katharine Cornell, giving her final performances in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," was describing the devastating effect on her, at the matinee, of having transposed, though without at all altering the meaning, two words of a sentence. The most austere of artists, this faint rift of fatigue justified her, she felt, in terminating a fabulously successful tour. A description of Eddie's casualness with his audience that afternoon at the Fox Theatre aroused Miss Cornell's admiration. He had some guests whom he personally conducted to a wall niche directly off the sixth row in the orchestra, there being no seats left; he stayed with them till the final moment before his own entrance cue, and then made a dash behind the boxes directly onto the stage. There he remained for over forty minutes, for the third time that day, improvising, cajoling, kidding. Eddie visited Miss Cornell at eleven-thirty that night after her performance; he had already done four shows and had one still to do, the midnight and the toughest. Miss Cornell's appreciation of his resilience touched him; she contrasted her own dismay over the transposed words of that afternoon with his imperturbability. To this gracious comparison in his own favor, Eddie replied rather wistfully: "After all, Miss Cornell, it's not the same thing. You're creating a character. You've got to get into it every time. What do I have to get into? The trombone-player's lap!"

That midnight show turned out to be an agonizing contest between Eddie and a truculently ribald section of his audience. It was astonishing that three thousand people should be so militantly awake at midnight, but they were, and murmurous with the sanguinary ripple audible at a bullfight. Eddie had been warned that the audience at these midnight shows comes to imbibe and to guy, and the prediction was more than justified. With his first appearance, the more alcoholic of the spectators greeted him with that entirely non-pastoral sound known as "the bird." It was a barrage so hostile that it would have sent the stoutest veteran back to his dressing-room. Eddie persisted through it to the footlights. He began his routine. It was inaudible. He began to chat lightly with the orchestra-leader, asked him how his wife was and did he remember the old days at the Orpheum. Annoyed by Eddie's calm chatting, the most vociferous of the hecklers bawled across the auditorium: "Stop chinnin'! Do somethin'!" Eddie was charming to him. "I will if you give me a chance," he offered. "Oh, yah!" shouted the skeptic. "You might be surprised!" shouted Eddie. "I can be funny, too!" A section of the audience began to applaud; once Eddie got started on a song, the opposition found the going harder. But the attack, though sporadic, gained in violence. Eddie took advantage of every silence, replied good-naturedly to every gibe. The contest had a certain taut beauty. A few months before, one of the most famous entertainers in America, in this same place, had made the error of losing his temper, and he had been forced to vanish. Eddie did not vanish. He managed, finally, to keep the crowd quiet long enough for him to sing a song which got a tremendous hand. That was the turning point. After that he had them, and he was forced, at the end, to do an extra ten minutes.

This same quality of a heady and unquenchable resourcefulness came to Eddie's aid in an earlier and perhaps more vital crisis in his career, when he made his first appearance on any stage, at Miner's Bowery Theatre on Amateur Night. This was in 1908 and Eddie was sixteen years old. The great fear then was of "getting the hook," and the mob he faced on that occasion was an even greater bully than the midnight alcoholic audience of San Francisco. Eddie still remembers the terrified moment, standing in the wings of the old Bowery before the First Appearance, when he heard himself announced as "Mr. Edward Cantor, Impersonator." The word "Edward" nearly did for him. John, Jim, or Harry were democratic and informal, but Edward was affected, pretentious, effeminate. Consequently there was a derisive howl at his appearance. The skinny boy stood his ground and started in as a mimic, giving imitations of the favorite vaudevillians of the time. The first articulate encouragement he ever received in the theatre was a shout from the gallery that night: "Stick to it, kid, you're rotten!" Eddie did stick it through, as he did twenty-four years later at the midnight show in San Francisco, and at the end of the show, when the amateurs were ranged before the curtain for the applause test, he won the five dollars. Eddie left Miner's that night feeling like a professional, and a few weeks later he became one when he accepted an engagement in a downtown burlesque house with "The Indian Maidens," at fifteen dollars a week. Out of this salary, he had to pay for a costume equipment of four changes, as he appeared in the show successively as a tramp, a Jewish comedian, a waiter, and a bootblack. The show left for the road and for a few weeks Eddie enjoyed the life of a travelling actor, until "The Indian Maidens" stranded in Shenandoah, Pa., on Christmas Eve.

In his biography of Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of the German labor party and the most romantic firebrand, save Byron, of the nineteenth century, George Brandes describes a quality to which he attributes Lassalle's invincibility in the face of vindictive antagonism. Brandes writes: "At this point we encounter the racial characteristic of Lassalle’s disposition which was fundamentally distinctive in his temperament: it is apparent in the quality best expressed by the Jewish word 'Chutspo,' which connotes presence of mind, impudence, temerity, resolution, and effrontery. . . ." Eddie's energy, on the stage and off, is demoniac, thyroidal, incessant. You might reasonably expect, when a man is doing five shows of forty minutes each from two-thirty till midnight, that he will employ the intervals for relaxation, but Eddie's dressing-room between shows, or between his entrances in a musical show like "Whoopee" or "Kid Boots," is the best show of all. While his valet, Frenchie, is rubbing him with alcohol for the next round, Eddie goes on with his endless stories, imitations, "routines." He will do entire plays for you, imitations of heavy East Side dramas and little sketches of his own that he improvises. One of the more famous ones is a Civil War sketch in Yiddish, with a Chinese sentinel standing guard at a war conference between Lincoln and Grant. This Chinese sentinel, Mr. Lincoln keeps whispering from time to time to General Grant, is, in his opinion, a spy.

In a very readable autobiography, "My Life Is in Your Hands," ghost-written by David Freedman, may be found the facts of Cantor's career. The proceeds of this book Eddie donated to his pet charity, his summer camp for poor boys. The dedication is characteristic: "To My Father and Mother Whom I Never Saw and to Esther Who Was Both to Me." You hardly ever see Eddie without getting some new story about Esther, the grandmother who brought him up. She must have been one of those immutable characters, like Gorki's grandmother, whose capacities for endurance and sacrifice are epical in retrospect, but who, while they are still alive, are taken quite for granted, like sun or rain or any of nature's bounties. Perhaps it is this sense of a debt eternally unliquidated which haunts Eddie and makes him talk about his grandmother all the time; he has made her a vivid character to his friends.

Eddie was born on the East Side of New York on January 31, 1892. His father was a dreaming violinist who couldn't make a living, and his grandmother supported the family by peddling among the housewives, canvassing the tenements with a huge basket of candles, matches, safety pins, and knickknacks. Eddie remembers the permanent, knotted Lumps on his grandmother's forearms, where the basket handle rested. When he was one, his mother died, and when he was two, his father. Grandma Esther started an employment agency of her own; from carrying baskets full of notions, the sixty-two-year-old woman took to lifting steamer trunks on her back and lugging them up two or three flights of stairs as part of her duties in furnishing servant girls to private families. Esther and Eddie lived in two rooms in a basement that served as combination office and home, as well as temporary lodging house for Esther's clients while she was waiting to place them in jobs. Because she couldn't afford the price of a licence, Esther was forced to explain to the inspector that the eight or nine Polish girls who usually slept there were her blood relations, to whom she was offering a temporary home. "Overnight," says Eddie, "I used to get as many as seven sisters and eight first cousins."

Till he was twelve, Eddie lived the picaresque life of the East Side street boy, stealing fruit from vendors and robbing bicycle stores, running away from home and sleeping on roofs, getting hurt in street fights; as a memoir of one of these battles, he carries a scar across his forehead to this day. At the age of six, he began keeping late hours, stealing out after midnight, when Esther had fallen asleep, to join a crowd of boys two or three times his age and spend the night in a song-fest. This group was Eddie's conservatory. The Educational Alliance, the community welfare centre on East Broadway, used to send the tenement children to a summer camp at Surprise Lake, Cold Springs, N. Y., and there Eddie had his first taste of country life. The experience inspired his major philanthropy when he grew up, the boys' camp he helps maintain in the same place now. Though he lost his fortune in the market crash, he has not diminished his annual contribution to this camp by a dollar. Once he made a trip from the Coast and back for a single appearance at a benefit for this charity.

After the debacle of "The Indian Maidens" at Shenandoah, Eddie went to work as a singing entertainer at Carey Walsh's saloon in Coney Island. On a Saturday night, Eddie would sing about a hundred songs. The waiters, he noticed presently, made more money than an artist like himself; they were given a five-dollar stack of chips for four dollars and fifty cents, so that they cleared fifty cents for themselves on every five dollars in drinks sold. In addition to this, they received tips, and on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday made more than Eddie could earn all week. He compromised and became a singing waiter. The pianist who accompanied Eddie at Carey Walsh's was Jimmy Durante.

Two former furriers, Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew, and two ex-drug clerks, Joseph and Nicholas Schenck, organized an amusement business called the People's Vaudeville Company. They had at their disposal a chain of four third-rate houses: the Lyric in Hoboken, the New Lyceum in Elizabeth, the Royal and the Lyric in Brooklyn. The company also ran a Sunday-concert show each week at the West End Theatre in New York. Eddie was engaged to play the circuit and was offered a return engagement if he would change his act. At his wits' end for new material, he got the bright idea of doing the same act in black-face. That was the genesis of the familiar figure, the scholarly darky with great eyes staring from behind horn-rimmed spectacles, and the oblong of white skin around the lips to exaggerate their thickness. From this time, too, dates the characteristic epileptic style, the frenetic hand-clapping, the revivalist ecstasy in rendering a song. Jolson's filial fervor, the enchantment of Ed Wynn's arrested infantilism, are replaced in Cantor by an almost hysterical sophistication; he is the High Yogi of Whoopee, though at the end of his latest tour he had toned down his method considerably and, in my opinion at least, with great effectiveness.

Eddie worked the Zukor-Loew circuit straight for sixteen weeks at twenty dollars a week. Then he joined Bedini and Arthur, a standard vaudeville act of that time, at Hammerstein's Victoria, and toured with Gus Edwards' Kid Kabaret, a training school that included George Jessel, George Price, Lila Lee, and Gregory Kelly. He appeared for Chariot in London in a revue called "Love the Ladies," toured the Keith circuit for two years (Cantor and Lee: "Master and Man"), and made his first appearance in a full-fledged musical show on the Coast, Oliver Morosco's "Canary Cottage." This was his first big hit; as a result of it, Ziegfeld offered him twenty weeks on the New Amsterdam Roof in the "Midnight Frolic." Eddie's first bit of business with this show was to appear with a deck of cards like a sleight-of-hand artist and gravely ask some of the audience to assist him in his act. On the opening night, he gave a few cards to William Randolph Hearst, a few to Diamond Jim Brady, and a few to Charlie Dillingham, and instructed them to hold the cards up high so that the rest of the audience could see them clearly. Then he began to sing "Oh, How She Could Yield Yacki Wicki Wacki Woo," leaving his impromptu assistants rather irrelevantly holding cards up in the air. In this show, too, Eddie improvised a gag which became famous all over the country. It was during Wilson's administration, and after his second trip to Paris, when Eddie observed: "Presidents may come and Presidents may go, but Wilson does both!" Will Hays, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, had this made into a cartoon showing Uncle Sam shaking hands with Eddie in front of a calendar with innumerable days crossed off for Mr. Wilson's absence from these shores.

Eddie married Ida Tobias, his boyhood love, in 1914, and went busily on from one success to another, mainly under the aegis of Florenz Ziegfeld, whose biographer he was to become. Eddie tells that his father-in-law, introducing a friend to Eddie after a matinee of the "Follies," said informally: "Meet-my-son-in-law-makes-four-hundred-dollars-a-week!" By the time of "Kid Boots" and "Whoopee," Eddie was the highest-paid comedian in the non-moving-picture theatre, at a regular salary of five thousand dollars a week. Both these shows were enormous successes, ran for years, and grossed millions. Eddie found himself a national figure, with Al Smith, whom he knew as a boy on the East Side, calling on him in his dressing-room.

It was the culmination of the Complacent Era: there was an orgy of gratulatory banquets; in an ecstasy of self-admiration, gentlemen and organizations threw testimonial dinners; in the intervals of money-making and big achievement, the Titans toasted each other. Eddie was in great demand as an after-dinner speaker; he ran from banquet to banquet, royalty's jester. One day, he says, he actually got mixed up, went to the Commodore instead of the Biltmore, was received and delivered a speech at the wrong banquet and to the wrong guest of honor, and nobody knew the difference, except the aggrieved toastmaster of the banquet at which he didn't show up. But in spite of minor mishaps like this, it was the best of all possible worlds, a febrile paradise. The climax of Eddie's book, published in 1928, is the moment when Nathan S. Jonas, his financial mentor and neighbor in Great Neck, and then president of the Manufacturers Trust, put an accountant's statement on the table between them with the breathtaking words; "Eddie, you are a millionaire!" "In 1924," he recounts pridefully, "I won the first prize in a letter contest conducted by a business magazine for the best answer to the question: 'What is your bank doing for you and your community?'" There is an ineffable quality to the description in the book of the Jonas country place and of his own, which he will gladly sell you now at a bargain price. Eddie saved two million dollars in twenty years and lost it in twenty days.

Eddie started again. He closed the estate in Great Neck, put it up for sale, and took whatever he could lay his hands on in the way of work. He finished a road tour in "Whoopee," wrote magazine articles and a syndicated column for the Hearst papers (the story is that Sol Wurtzel, the Fox executive, came up to Will Rogers in the studio restaurant and said: "Will, I congratulate you! Cantor's first piece came out this morning !"), made personal appearances in picture theatres, went on the radio, wrote funny booklets on the stock-market crash, collaborated on musical comedies. In his present arrangement with Samuel Goldwyn he is paid ten percent of the gross receipts of his films, less the cost of distribution. On the film of "Whoopee" he will clear $200,000 or more. The first year after he lost his money Eddie made $450,000. He is a little chastened but not in the least cynical. On half a million a year, he hasn't had to let down his wife, his five daughters, his indigent relatives, or his philanthropies. Chiefly, his losses have not affected him because to be incessant is his métier. On the set at Samuel Goldwyn's studio, shooting "The Kid from Spain," he kept the prop-men and the electricians convulsed. They swear by him. Without mawkishness, it may be said that Eddie is lovable.

Now Eddie is certain that he will never do a big musical show again. He feels he can put as much of himself into a picture, and the strain is less and the responsibilities less continuous. "The Kid from Spain," for instance, he thinks represents him as well as any show he has ever done. Geographically, at least, he has "gone Hollywood": Beverly Hills is now his home. In that architectural hodgepodge, his commodious house is Southern Colonial. Eddie plays host, a Southern ante-bellum planter summoning in an amazing patois—partly Milt Gross, partly Marse Henry — imaginary darkies to bring mint juleps. He will do anything for a laugh; shout an invitation to a startled pedestrian from a hotel window, play dead before the revolving door of the Ritz Hotel in Atlantic City. What is his career, after all, but a prolongation of his childhood days, when he escaped from his sleeping and revered grandmother to sing and dance the night away with the kids on the sidewalks of Eldridge Street?

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