“Do you like Jerry Lewis?” I ask the stranger next to me in a movie theater. We’ve been making small talk, waiting for the movie to begin, about films and directors, young and old. The conversation has just turned to comedians, and I thought, there’s my cue.
She tilts her blonde head. “He’s not my favorite.”
I’ve heard worse. The last baby boomer I asked answered, “No. And he’s a son of a bitch.”
“But I went to high school with his kids,” she continues. “They were into music. And I knew his wife. She was a very nice woman; and she was very pretty, even though she let her hair go grey.”
She knew Jerry’s family? My heart beats fast. I want to tell her that I saw his oldest son, Gary, sing “Sonny Boy” with his dad on Jerry’s TV show and “This Diamond Ring” with his band, Gary and the Playboys a few years later; that Jerry’s wife Patty, a former singer, managed Gary’s band; that Patty’s hair went grey because Jerry wouldn’t allow her to dye it; that Jerry divorced Patty in 1980 and married SanDee Pitnick, a Las Vegas dancer, three years later; that the only way I could know more about Jerry Lewis is if I broke into his house.
But I’m afraid if I tell her all that, she’ll shrink in discomfort to the other side of her seat. There’s no more time to talk anyway. The lights dim, the theater goes dark, and we face forward to watch the coming attractions, my mind still racing with thoughts of Jerry.
* * *
It’s a Sunday night during the Golden Age of Television. We’re watching The Colgate Comedy Hour. Its hosts rotate every six weeks; but for me, Ed Wynn, Abbot and Costello, Donald O’Connor, Eddie Cantor and even Jimmy Durante—whose “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…” gets me every time—were just warm up acts for Dean Martin, the smooth crooner, and his sidekick Jerry Lewis, the skinny, hyperactive klutz with the loud nasal voice and the big mouth and the long legs whose nonstop crazy shticklach (as Jerry called it) light up the cramped den where I sit with my family in front of our small black and white TV.
Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry. Now he’s catching Dean off guard, kissing him full on the lips. Then he’s jumping into the arms of the bandleader, curled up like an impish toddler who needs protection from his angry, older brother. Then he’s arching his back, spreading his arms, throwing his head back and lengthening his legs like a ballerina ready to be hoisted high up in the air. (Does that sound gay? He wasn’t, even though he sometimes dressed up like Carmen Miranda with a turban of fruit on his head and pantomimed her singing, and even though, by his own admission, he was plain crazy about Dean Martin.)
He isn’t just funny. He’s cute in his nebbishy way, and he’s sweet. And when he isn’t pulling sad or confused faces, or pantomiming or falling down, he sings and dances with musicality, style, and ease. I sing and dance along with him in the doorway even though it annoys my father and brothers.
His ad libs thrill me—they give me a glimpse into the man behind the clown. When a gushing water pipe soaks Dean’s watch, Jerry stifles a laugh, puts his face an inch from Dean’s, drops his high whine an octave and says, “You forgot to take your watch off, huh?” Or when he opens a suitcase and the clothes that are supposed to explode all over the stage lay quietly folded, he approaches the audience to explain how well the gag worked in dress rehearsal and to rebuke whoever was responsible for the malfunctioning spring: “Where will you be working tomorrow?”
At the end of the show, Jerry stands in front of the curtain in his black tux, his bow tie loose, and wipes the sweat from his face with his white handkerchief. “Ladies and gentleman,” he says, “Dean and I want to thank you very, very much.” Then he plugs their latest movie. The pathetic nerd is nowhere to be seen. Here’s a man in total command of his life.
I’m nine years old, and I’m in love.
A year after The Colgate Comedy Hour goes off the air, Martin and Lewis split up. Jerry begins making his own movies. For the next nine years, throughout junior high and high school, whenever one of Jerry’s movies are playing, I beg any and all of my girlfriends who are willing to sit beside me in a dark movie theater on a Saturday afternoon while I silently swoon. They don’t conceal their boredom and disdain. They can’t understand what I see in him. I can hardly understand it myself—I don’t think he’s all that funny anymore, but I’m sure there’s a sensitive, brooding guy in there somewhere who reminds me of a boy I also have a mad crush on, who is also lanky, moody, and impulsive, and whom I also worship from afar, as if he too were a celebrity.
I asked my cousin recently if she remembered my crush on Jerry Lewis. “Of course,” she said, “but if you ask me, you conflated him with Lenny.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But I fell in love with Jerry first.”
Dateless on a Saturday night in my senior year of high school, I watch Jerry’s new show. After an hour or so of his usual antics—sticking a cigarette up his nose, running around the stage so that the cameraman can’t follow him, then doubling back and kissing him on top of his bald head—Jerry gets serious, and sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” from his album, Jerry Just Sings. His voice isn’t great, but his timing is; and he sings with passion and a shameless sentimentality reminiscent of Al Jolson.
Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry.
This is what I’ve been waiting for. I own the album. I’ve looked long and hard at Jerry’s melancholy face on the cover, his mouth open in song. I know every song, every word, every big band chord. I’ve stood in front of our foyer mirror not far from the hifi in our living room and mouthed the lyrics, as if by doing so, I can feel his heartbreak in “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or his exuberance in “I’m Sitting on top of the World.” My favorite is “By Myself,” (“I’ll go my way by myself. I’m by myself, alone.”) since that is how I feel now that Lenny, who can also sing, and who became my high school steady for a couple of years, has gone off to college where he’s falling in love with one pretty co-ed after the next. Jerry sounds lonely too when he sings, even though he’s married, has five sons and one more on the way.
The ratings are so bad for Jerry’s show that despite their five-year contract, NBC cancels it after 13 weeks. I can’t understand why so few people see how brilliant and lovable he is. (I don’t yet know that the French already think he’s a genius.) I don’t agonize about this for very long, though. I go to college the next fall where my tastes and worldview evolve as Jerry’s popularity declines. He becomes old-fashioned, even to me. I don’t think much about him for years except for an occasional glimpse at him while he hosts his schmaltzy Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethons, his dark hair slicked back with too much Brylcreem. But then I read an interview in Esquire Magazine in which herefers to starlets as “fucklets” and praises John F. Kennedy, who he claims had been his good friend, as one of the “great cunt men of all time.” Women’s liberation is in full bloom. Shocked and dismayed that this man whom I so adored is a Neanderthal, I’m done.
* * *
My husband walks into the kitchen. “I found something on Gold Star you’re going to want to do.”
I look up from unloading the dishwasher. A transplanted New Yorker, he’s always hungry for theater deals. “Now what?”
“Jerry Lewis is speaking in Beverly Hills tonight. For free.”
Miles has never found Jerry funny, but he knows I was obsessed with him when I was young.
“Oh, God. I don’t know. It’s been such a long time, I’m not sure I care anymore.”
He shrugs. “Up to you.”
He leaves the kitchen, and I rethink: Jerry is 86. This is probably my only chance ever to see him in person.
“Okay,” I call into the next room. “Let’s go.”
We join the crawl from the beach to Beverly Hills, arrive late, step gingerly by the people in the last row who, along with the rest of the audience, are standing, clapping and yelling as Jerry makes his entrance. I can barely see his grey head above his short neck and stooped body. He takes a few awkward steps and then collapses deeply into an arm chair opposite his interviewer.
The event is in honor of Jerry’s technical accomplishments as a director. To make it easier to act in and direct his own movies, for instance, Jerry met with Sony in Japan 25 times before they invented the “video assist” for him, used by movie directors today. I don’t care that much about the technical side of movie making, but I am impressed by Jerry’s drive, inventiveness and smarts. And I love the clips of him high up in a crane or zooming around Paramount in his golf cart, looking youthful and vibrant in his red crew neck sweater, white sox, and loafers. And I love the scenes from his old movies, in which he invariably plays the schmendrick who gets the simplest tasks wrong, making life impossible for everyone around him.
And yet, when no one’s watching in Who’s Minding the Store?, he sits at a typewriter and, accompanied by music, transforms the keys and return-carriage into a percussive instrument, his face so alive with focus, surprise and private joy, his timing so perfect, his neck so long and lifted, he is elegance itself.
Or when The Errand Boy finds himself alone in a large office, sitting at the head of an oval conference table, he lights up a cigar and, in time to a Count Basie number, imagines he is a “Chairman of the Board,” pointing to the imaginary businessmen under his charge sitting around the table. As the music builds in intensity, so does his imperiousness. At one moment, he turns his chair around, his back to the camera, only to swivel suddenly back around in response to a loud, climactic chord, crossing his eyes and throwing his arms and mouth open wide as though the sound of all those horns was coming in all its wildness straight out of his kishkes.
Miles laughs and elbows me, “He’s funny. We should go back and watch his movies.”
I feel vindicated.
Jerry asks to be excused. Does he have to use the john? He’s an old man after all. No. He wants to see his daughter, who has recently gone off to college, has just landed in L.A. and is backstage. He waddles off the stage and leaves the interviewer at sea: “Gee, I’ve never been left in the middle of an interview before.”
He leaves an audience of over 1000 to go kiss his daughter hello? What kind of princess must she feel like? I can’t imagine my father leaving any conversation in the middle to talk to me. But Jerry does what he wants. Isn’t his lack of restraint one reason why he was so appealing to me, a dutiful daughter?
When he returns, he takes questions from the audience.
A few hands go up.
“That’s all??” he yells. “Come on!!!”
One woman tells him that she did a small scene with him in a movie a long time ago; that it was so wonderful to work with him, it was her most memorable experience as an actress.
“Lady, sit down. You’re annoying everyone.”
Everyone laughs. I wince.
A young boy raises his hand. Jerry nods. The boy stands. “I’m a great admirer of your work.”
People laugh again, tickled by the boy’s precocious phrasing.
Jerry asks him his age.
“Young man, would you like to live to see eleven?”
The audience roars. I don’t. Caustic comebacks may be part of his shtick; but in dismissing the gushing actress and the reverent boy, he’s dismissing me.
At the end of the evening, the audience gives him another standing ovation.
“Thank you very much,” Jerry says. “You’ve made this old Jew very happy.”
Even though Jerry poked fun at his fans, I’m hooked again, like I’ve seen Lenny at a high school reunion; and despite his receding hairline, the old fantasy that we were made for each other pulls on me. Like a lover who can’t get enough of her beloved, or a mother who finds her newborn endlessly adorable in his most mundane gestures—a yawn, a grimace from gas, a toothless smile—I watch endless videos of Jerry on YouTube.
In one of my favorites, Jerry enters the stage in a long, formal coat, strides pompously towards a five member glee club, pinches one girl’s cheek, lifts another girl’s chin, punches one guy’s arm, shakes another’s shoulders, and then tweaks the last guy’s nose. Then he leads them in “Oh Danny Boy.” While they sing “…from glen to glen..,” Jerry extends his right arm emphatically on the second “glen” to elongate the note, leaning further and further to the side until he falls into the curtain. A moment later, preparing for the big finish, he turns, marches about 10 feet away from the chorus in three big steps, pivots, then trots back, every trot a leap, in time to “oh, oh, oh.” Reaching them on the final “oh,” he spreads him arms wide and high and leans back and away from them with so much passion for the note that there’s nowhere else for him to go but on his ass.
I always loved falls, or as we called them when I was a modern dancer, “going to the floor.” Mostly, I favored controlled, soft descents, except for the time I was performing a solo in New York at the Merce Cunningham Studio. I was jogging backwards in a large circle, increasing my speed as I went, planning to stop deliberately at the height of the acceleration by abruptly changing my direction and stamping my foot. Excited, perhaps, by the dance celebrities or critics who might be in the audience, my speed got the best of me. I lost control, fell backwards onto the floor, slid about ten feet, and lay there, spread eagle, catching my breath for a few seconds before I got up and continued. Miles remembers it as his favorite moment of the dance: “You went with it, and you made it look natural.”
Watching Jerry as the pseudo-dignified glee club director who abandons himself to the music so thoroughly that he falls on his ass isn’t just natural, and it isn’t just funny. It’s satisfying, like seeing a thing pay off, come to its fullest and right end, like watching the inevitable, like watching the truth. That is what thrilled me at nine. Like the boy in Beverly Hills, I knew genius when I saw it.
I read every article and book by and about Jerry I can find. He was born in Newark, New Jersey and had a terribly lonely childhood. (I knew it!) His vaudevillian parents were always on the road. He idolized his father, Danny, for his looks and his talent. And since the ladies liked Danny, Jerry’s mother, Rae, his pianist and musical arranger, stayed near her husband to keep an eye on him.
Left with various relatives, Jerry moved around so much that he didn’t do well in school even though he was a smart kid. At the end of the 4th grade, when all the kids in his class moved into the 5th grade classroom, Jerry was told to stay in his seat. The new 4th graders piled in, stood at the blackboard and stared at Jerry. “At nine,” he says in an interview later, “I knew trauma.”
After that, his grandma Sarah insisted that they leave him with her in Irvington, a suburb of Newark. In a documentary about his life, Jerry, looking tired to the bone at 70, his bronze facial makeup contrasting with his pale neck, describes Sarah as an “apostle.” (Unusual description of a Jewish grandmother—maybe he learned the term from his wife Patty, a devout Catholic.) “When I needed wisdom, information, and…” Jerry sucks on a candy and furrows his brow, searching for the right word “…articulation, and profundity, I’d go to Grandma.”
I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is.
There’s a picture of Jerry as a teenager with wavy hair and a winning smile, standing outside his grandmother’s modest clapboard house that is not so different from the houses in my old neighborhood, only a few states away in Massachusetts. What if we had grown up together? Jerry had desperate crushes on any girl who smiled at him then. Would he have had a crush on me? Would he have tolerated endless, tortuous make out sessions in the red velvet arm chair in my living room; or would he have pushed for more? Would I have given into his squirms, sighs, and insistent hands and suffered relentless guilt, or broken up with him and made myself sick with longing?
I imagine us sitting on my front porch steps on a summer night (like Lenny and I used to do), our legs touching, my head resting on his bony shoulder. Jerry holds a cigarette in one hand, my knee in the other. My stomach aches, knowing he can’t stay much longer. My father drives up in his dark blue Dodge, spots us, and shines his bright lights as a warning. Jerry doesn’t freeze (like Lenny did). His mobile face makes one crazy expression after the other, as if the headlights were spotlights. Then he gets up, prances down the porch steps, waits for my father to get out of his car, and throws his arms around him like a long, lost relative.
He’s so brave, so funny, I think. How can my father not like him at least a little bit? But my father frees himself from the arms of this weird, wild kid, walks into the house and slams the door. Jerry hangs his head in defeat, then grabs me and won’t let go. It’s the happiest despair I’ll ever know.
Grandma Sarah died when Jerry was fifteen. At sixteen, he punched the principal of his high school for making an anti-Semitic remark. Not long after, he dropped out of high school altogether. All he wanted to do was perform. At his theatrical debut at 5 (as part of his parents act) he accidentally kicked in a foot light, heard the audience’s laughter, and that was it.
Having been a dancer, I understand the intoxication of performing—the heat of the lights, the vague faces in the dark looking at me while I handed them whatever part of myself I cared to dress up and share.
I gobble up the stories: about his love at first sight romance with the singer Patty Palermo, nee Ester Calicano, six years his senior (I’m jealous.); his ceaseless adoration of Dean Martin (despite the bitter break up and the 20 years of silence between them); their gargantuan fame with “the money and the women flowing in;” his rampant infidelities (I’m not jealous of that.); his split from Dean 10 years to the day after their debut smash performance at the Copacabana; his solo film career, obsessive work ethic as director, writer, and actor; how the American critics disdained him; how extravagant, compulsively generous, tyrannical, and impossible he was to live and work with; and his life-changing fall in 1965.
It’s not clear how it happened—either during his entrance on the Andy Williams Show when he slipped on some water or doing a cartwheel off a piano in his solo act in Las Vegas. However it occurred, he chipped a piece of his spine in his neck; and no doctor in the world could do a thing. To bear the pain, he took over a dozen Percodan a day for 13 years, slept on his couch for hours at a time and disappeared as a father from his sons. Even before the accident, he was such a workaholic that he wasn’t present in their daily lives except for kissing them on the lips hello and good-bye, and disciplining them, often harshly, if they committed the slightest offense at the table, even though he allowed himself to mash chocolate brownies all over his teeth and stick carrots in his ears and nose during dinner.
It’s one thing to learn about Jerry’s lonely childhood; it’s another to discover how that neglect affected him, how insecure and easily enraged he could be; how prone he was to excessive behavior, including extravagant spending—his 400 suits, how he never wore a pair of socks more than once, the 20 pieces of luggage he took whenever he traveled; how his addiction to Percodan made him, as Jerry confesses, “as mean as a snake;” how he took his torment out on those closest to him—his “long-suffering” wife, Patty, and his sons; how the agony of his spinal injury, the narrowing horizons of his career and his “sputtering” marriage drove him one night into his private bathroom in his Bel Air mansion (built originally by Louis B. Mayer) where he took out a pistol and put it in his mouth until he heard his sons playing in another part of the house and put it away.
As sad and sick as the stories sometimes make me, my attachment to Jerry remains. Why am I so loyal? In a New Yorker Profile, Jerry says that his fans were heartbroken when he and Dean split up because they had become like family to them. And I think, yes, maybe that’s it: you are like family to me—Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch, whose ancestors were Russian Jews, whose grandfather was a Rabbi, whose inflections, sighs, and sarcasm remind me of my Uncle Charlie, who delivered his dark humor in such a deadpan that it was impossible to distinguish the affection buried in the insult.
“Hello Ganiff,” Uncle Charlie would greet my 9 year old brother Billy. And to me he’d say, “Hello Meeskite.”
When I asked my mother what the words meant, she said, “Uncle Charlie’s just kidding.”
I insisted that she tell me what he was saying until she gave in: Ganiff means crook, and meeskite, homely one.
Maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t laugh when Jerry asked the 10 year old boy if he would like to see 11. Maybe I remember my Uncle Charlie, whose jokes were too mean to be funny.
At least I am not Jerry’s craziest fan. In an interview with Peter Bogdonavich, Jerry tells the story of a woman who approached him on the street and told him that she loved him so much that she was writing her dissertation about him. She got up close, put her hands around his neck and said, “I love you so much. I love you so much. I love you so much.” Realizing that she was choking him, and that he had to stop her, Jerry socked her in the jaw, broke it, and wound up paying her $475,000 in damages.
But perhaps his most insane fan is fictional: Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, is so sexually obsessed with the talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry) that she helps Rupert Pupkin (Robert Deniro) kidnap him. Alone with him at last, she straps him to one of her French Provincial chairs with adhesive tape from his neck to his shoes. In a sheer black lounging outfit, she sits across from him at a table set with a lavish dinner, tells him how much she loves him and sings Come Rain or Come Shine. (I know that song!) Then she disrobes to her underwear, sits her skinny body on his lap and leans in to kiss him.
Before her lips reach his, Jerry, his eyes both dead and enraged, tells her to take all the tape off. She does. He then picks up the gun which she had aimed at him earlier, fires a couple of phony bullets, walks slowly towards her, slaps her hard across the face and runs out of her apartment into the streets of Manhattan where he keeps running (and he was around 58 when he made this movie) for the rest of the scene. Masha runs after him, still in her white bra and panties and spiked heels, screaming, “Jerry, wait! Jerry! Come back here!”
I would never choke Jerry, kidnap him, or strap him to a chair. But having been attuned so early to his vulnerability, I do count myself among the women, who, as Shawn Levy put it, would like to “burp him.” And I agree with Carol Burnett when she says, “When Jerry wasn’t being funny, he was sexy.” Shall I tell you what in his face or physique or tone of voice moves and captivates me? Shall I mention his green eyes, his nice nose, sensual mouth, and his long, limber body?
The lanky adolescent is not the only Jerry I love. By the time he’s in his forties, no longer as lean or as agile, his comedic shticks less compelling, I still like to watch him sing and dance, and I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is. In interviews, Jerry can be introspective, polished, pompous, vulnerable, defensive, sweet, generous, philosophical, religious, nasty, as business-minded as the provincial Jewish merchants in my home town, or as sophisticated as a cinema auteur. He’s unfathomable. All I can do is guess when he’s being honest, and when he’s telling a version of the story he wants the world to believe.
When he explains why he won’t allow other men to dance with his wife, for instance, that he assumes they would behave like he would (“get cute and hold her very close”), I recall what Patty wrote about Jerry’s terrible jealousy, how he berated her (“brought me to my knees”) with false accusations of her infidelity. When he talks about how much he adores his sons, I remember reading about how neglected they felt and how jealous they were of the love he showed his muscular dystrophy kids, whom he called “Jerry’s kids.” When he claims that he respects Pauline Kael because she’s such a knowledgeable film critic, that he can’t “rap her” even though “the old broad” has no use for him or his movies, I wonder why he’s wearing that phony looking ascot and doubt that he’s ever that sanguine about any critic, having just admitted that he’s emotional about everything (“Patty says I can get upset about a bad sunset.”).
But when he talks about his open set policy, how much he enjoyed “showing off” to an audience when he was directing his movies; and when, many years later, his face bloated from steroids, his voice unnaturally high, he says how fast and hard he and his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, a dancer with great “pins,” fell for each other; (I’m jealous again) that he hasn’t laid an eye on another woman since, over 36 years ago, I believe him.
And I believe him when, in his 80’s, wearing yet another red shirt—red must be his favorite color—his voice gravelly, his eyes as sharp as my grandmother’s were at his age, he extols Carol Burnett for her artistry and heart. “Be careful,” he thinks, watching her fall, knowing what his falls cost him. “She was a clown,” he says softly near the end of the interview, like she was his soul sister. “Anyone who is a clown comes from a very, very unique place.”
I still yearn to understand Jerry’s unique place, what particular permutation of sorrow, rage, hurt, love, passion, and genius gave him his “funny bones,” as he puts it, and made it possible for him to sing, dance, act, direct, write and produce, and to draw me and millions of others to him.
Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people in the world—those who love Jerry Lewis, and those who don’t. Although Miles now appreciates his “flashes of brilliance,” most of my family and friends, old and new, don’t. Just yesterday, finishing up a lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, I mentioned that I needed to get back home to finish something I was writing.
“What are you writing about?” she asked, her eyes wide with interest.
“Jerry Lewis?” Her face, tone and inflection all cried, “Who? What? Are you kidding? Why in the world would you write about him?”
“Yes. Jerry Lewis.” Neither of us had time for a longer answer. Either you get him, or you don’t, I thought. And even if I wanted to persuade her that he was worthy of my fascination, where would I begin?
Lisbeth Davidow’s work has appeared in print and online in Alligator Juniper, All that Glitters, Helix Literary Magazine, Mandala Journal, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Pilgrimage, Prime Mincer, Revolution House, Sliver of Stone, and Spittoon.
Lunch Ticket’s reading period for Issue #5 overlapped with The Southeast Review’s annual Narrative Nonfiction Contest. At the same time that “Me and Jerry” was accepted for publication at Lunch Ticket, it was also selected as a finalist by the nonfiction judges at The Southeast Review. Both publications extend their congratulations to Lisbeth!