All My Best Friends. – book reviews

Maynard Good Stoddard

All My Best Friends by George Burns, with David Fisher

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York,

320 pages, $17.95

Like Ol’ Man River, 94-year-old George Burns keeps rollin’ along. in All My Best Friends, he rolls merrily on a joyous journey through his careers in vaudeville, burlesque, minstrel shows, the theater, silent movies, talkies, television, and records. On the way, his anecdotes and witticisms recapture his working buddies, living and dead, with the same warmth and humor that kept Gracie: A Love Story on the bestseller list for six months. Best Friends, his eighth book (number nine has been promised for this year), should be a surefire candidate to take over where Gracie left off.

Let us then join the ageless author and entertainer backstage through his

83 years in show business (“I may make it my career,” he says) and meet his friends against a backdrop of poverty and riches, marriage and divorce, charity and hijinks, high finance, and often, poverty again. It’s the story of Bums’ loving relationships with Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Georgie Jessel, Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn, Fanny Brice (remember Baby Snooks?), Bob Hope, Walter Matthau, Milton Berle, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, and many, many more. Gracie Allen, of course. And Jack Benny-perhaps his best friend of all.

“Most of what I say is true,” Burns explains at the outset of the book. “The rest is show business.” Certainly true are Burns’ memoirs of early days in the risky business of entertainment. “I’ve already told you I lie a lot,” he confesses. “But believe me, I was awful. If I was going to make something up, I would tell you I was good. But even I’m not that big a liar.”

Bums writes about how his friends struggled to make their living, never dreaming they were creating modem show business. He tells of Archie Leach, earning five dollars a week as a stilt walker at Coney Island before changing his name to Cary Grant. He recalls a kid who had lost half his index finger when a sewer grate fell on it. The kid would stand on a street corner and hold that stub against his forehead. It really looked as if the rest of his finger were sticking in his head, Bums remembers. Amazed onlookers would usually give him a few pennies. If they didn’t, he would get even by holding his stub under one nostril.

Reviewing All My Best Friends is like awarding a boy five minutes of free shopping in a candy store: where to begin? * Jimmy Durante? His nose was so big he was afraid people would laugh at him. And they did. It made him rich. Or how about mistaking the imprint of Jimmy’s nose in the Sidewalk of the Stars for a pothole? * Sophie Tucker? Her voice was so strong she could audition for a part in New Jersey without leaving New York. * Lou Holtz? He is the kind of man valued in a card game-a rotten player with money. * Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen’s famous dummy? When Marilyn Monroe told Charlie, “I’m just a woman,” the dummy replied, “But you’re so good at it.” * Groucho Marx? One of Groucho’s wives was non-Jewish. They had a lovely daughter named Melinda, who one day went with her friends to a club that didn’t allow Jews. She wasn’t allowed to go in the pool. When Groucho found out, he wrote a letter to the president of the club asking, “Since my daughter is only half Jewish, would it be all right if she went into the pool only up to her waist?”

When Bums’ friends finally made it, they worked almost as hard to give some of it back. “If there was an audience,” Burns reflects, Milton Berle would host a fund-raiser to prevent chapped lips. Georgie Jessel would appear at the opening of a TV dinner carton. Jack Benny was always doing something for charity. He would appear at lottery drawings-in New Jersey he once gave away a million dollars, then fainted.”

Jack Benny. It would be easier to count the pages of All My Best Friends on which his name doesn’t appear. On Benny’s violin playing, Bums quotes Isaac Stern: “When Jack Benny walks onto the stage in tails, in front of 90 great musicians, he looks like the world’s greatest violinist. It’s a shame he has to play.”

Benny himself, according to Bums, confessed that the most expensive seats for his concerts were farthest from the stage. “In fact,” Benny stated, “for $250, you don’t have to show up at all.” In 15 years Jack raised almost $6 million for the benefit of classical music. Of course, Burns comments, many people felt that that was his way of paying for the damage he had done it. There’s also an account of Benny’s buying a thoroughbred race horse. He named it Buck, on the strength of its good bloodlines. His father was Upset, the only horse to beat Man o’ War, and his mother was a good stakes horse named Helen T. But Buck never won a race. He was terrible, to quote Burns. And Jack just couldn’t understand it.

“How can he not win with those parents?” he groused.

Well,” Burns says he suggested, maybe he was adopted.”

Raised in poverty, most of Burns’ friends didn’t know what to do with their money after becoming wealthy. But the stock market crash of 29 took care of that problem rather nicely. As Burns records it, Groucho lost $240,000, his life’s savings; Jessel, $400,000; Jolson, not one to let Jessel beat him in anything, $460,000; Ed Wynn, listed as one of the five richest people in show business, more than $2 million in three days.

Afterward, Burns adds, Jessel checked into a hotel and asked the clerk for a room on a high floor. The clerk asked, Will that be for sleeping or jumping, sir?” You’ll read about Jessel’s annual marriage. And about how, after a third divorce from the same woman, he tried to claim the divorce attorney as a dependent. About Frank Fay’s testifying in court that he was the world’s greatest comedian: later, criticized for boasting, he shrugged and said, “What could I do? I was under oath.” And of course there’s Bob Hope, “who has a new book coming out soon. I’ll tell you the part I like best,” Burns tells us, -the part where he quotes this book. It’s hysterical. Buy it, you’ll see for yourself.”

Trying to cover this scrapbook of Bums’ best friends is like trying to scrub an elephant with a toothbrush. Yet we can’t leave it without adding at least a few of Bums’ running comments on Milton Berle.

Although the author writes early on that he loves Milton, later on you begin to wonder whether that’s true. He says that Berle, nicknamed “The Thief of Badgags” for stealing other comedians’ best material, once was introduced as the man who steals the show-one joke at a time. When Bob Hope claimed that Milton had stolen some material from him, Sarah Berle became very upset. “My son would never stoop so low,” Burns quotes her as saying. “My son stoops high.” People said Berle was responsible for selling more TV sets than anyone else in history. “I know that’s true,” Joe E. Lewis said. “I sold mine. My brother sold his.” Many performers wouldn’t do the show, Burns recalls, because Milton did everything to remain the center of attention except shoot the guest star. “Someone once wrote that the man who said nothing was impossible had never tried to get between Milton and a camera,” Burns writes. “Mahalia Jackson was a wonderful gospel singer; she sang about trouble and hardship and having faith in the Lord. But until she worked with Milton, she didn’t know what trouble was,” Burns writes. She later agreed that Milton was a genius, but if she were ever in his show again, she said, “he had better not genius all over me.” All My Best Friends is not without its poignant moments. In a rare interlude, Bums describes Jack Benny’s final laying out: “I went upstairs to Jack’s room and he was lying there, his hands clasped in front of him, just like he used to hold them onstage. He looked like he had just told a joke and was waiting for his laugh. Some joke.” Bums closes one chapter by recalling a New Year’s Eve party at Harpo Marx’s house. Many of his best friends were leaving at about three o’clock in the morning: “We were all standing outside, waiting for our cars, the sky was filled with stars and the air was crisp and we were all together and everybody felt wonderful. Then suddenly, from the sky we heard a clarinet playing a slow, beautiful version of “Auld Lang Syne.’ It was Harpo, standing at an open upstairs window, playing good-night to his friends. Nobody said a word. This was a group that couldn’t say good morning without doing five minutes, but nobody said a word. And I’ll never forget it.” They’re gone now, most of these legendary stars of show business, the best friends of George Bums. Sadly he lists them: “Jolson, Jessel, Cantor, Wynn, Groucho and Harpo, Danny Kaye, Jack Pearl, Haley, Fields, Blossom and Benny, Fanny, Jesse Block … Jack. All the others. I miss them all. And most of all, Gracie.” Gone, yes, but through the pages of All My Best Friends they live again, as George Burns recounts his 83-year love affair with show business.

COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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