Excerpt for A Gift Of Laughter, The Autobiography Of Allan Sherman by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


The autobiography of


Copyright © 2018 by Curtain Call Books, Los Angeles, All rights reserved

Published at Smashwords

Original Edition Copyright © 1965 by Allan Sherman, Los Angeles

Original Library of Congress catalog card number 65-15918

The things that happen in this book are true, as I remember them. However, I have changed a few names where I felt I might hurt people’s feelings or they might sue me.


1. A Yo-Yo on a Roller Coaster

2. The Drapes of Roth, and Other Things My Grandfather Pressed

3. Puberty Revisited, or Sex and the Single Me

4. Chug-a-Lugging, and Other Things I Learned in College

5. In Which I Go to New York to Seek Fame and Fortune and I Marry the Girl I Love and I Declare War on the Lincoln Hotel and If I Tell You Any More You Won’t Need to Read This Chapter Altogether

6. Seven Years with the Wrong Income

7. Not So Nicely-Nicely

8. The Disorganization Man, or Up Madison Avenue with Goodson and Todman

9. The Four Faces of Freud

10. Funny Songs, Cocktail Parties, Suburbia, and Other Noisy Symptoms of Desperation

11. And Now, As I Sink Slowly in the West...

12. One Fire and One Flood, and Go Easy on the Pestilence

13. You Can’t Be Sure If It’s Westinghouse

14. Pluck and Luck, or Welcome Home, Horatio Alger

15. Allan in Wonderland

16. Now He Belongs to the Agents

17. I'll Never Forget What’s-His-Name, or How It Feels to Be a Thrilling Celebrity

18. A Gift of Laughter




My life has been a wild ride, up-and-down, up-and-down. I have always been a yo-yo on a roller coaster, and if I never quite fell off—if I’ve been able to hang on and enjoy the ride this far—it is because God gave me one shining thing, a gift of laughter. A sense of humor with which to laugh at myself and at trouble and at miscellaneous foolishness, and now and then to laugh at God himself, just to see if I still believe in him. It always turns out that I do.

So this is a funny book.

It is funny because life is funny, the human predicament is preposterous, and ridiculous things keep happening, and people act pompous and crazy sometimes, and Big Organizations are insane, and Great Institutions are nutty, and I learned to laugh very young because I had to. And in this book I have put down the things that made me laugh.

I say this is a funny book, and it is, and yet when I add up the things that happen in it—all of which are true—there are two divorces, four natural deaths, one accidental death, one suicide and a World War. In this true, funny book, I get expelled from college, arrested, fired from four jobs; I am raised during a world depression and later have seven years of total personal poverty during a world prosperity; I get rejected by both my parents and lie down beside four psychoanalysts; I live through a fire and a flood, and I get humiliated by girls and relatives and friends and executives more times than I can count.

A yo-yo on a roller coaster.

Up-and-down, up-and-down.

I guess the day I reached both the lowest low and the highest high was Monday, August 6, 1962.

That morning I picked up my weekly $55 unemployment check.

That night I recorded an album of crazy songs called My Son, the Folk Singer, and it became the fastest-selling record album of all time, and all of a sudden I was a Celebrity.

That’s what this book is about: How I Became an Overnight Success in Only 38 Years.

Monday, August 6, 1962. I got up around ten o’clock that morning and stumbled sleepily into the lanai and plugged in the automatic coffee-maker and drank six or seven cups of automatic coffee. When I finally felt alive, I said goodbye to my wife and children and dog and I took the silver-gray Thunderbird and I drove out of Bel Air, down the beautiful curving mountain roads until I came to Sunset Boulevard, and through the UCLA campus in Westwood, and from Wilshire Boulevard to Santa Monica Boulevard, and there I parked the car in the parking space of the California Unemployment Bureau. In the parking lot there were Lincoln Continentals, Ferraris, Jaguars and Mercedes Benzes. I walked into the building and went into the main room and there was a long line of people and I got on the end of the line. You would be surprised at some of the famous people who were standing in line.

In Hollywood, we have some of the richest unemployed people in the world. They have suntans. Some of them have chauffeurs in Rolls-Royces waiting outside. They have their golf clubs ready in the car. There is no law that says you can’t play golf while being unemployed. Unfortunately, there is a law that says you can’t send your chauffeur in to pick up the unemployment check. So you have to stand in line yourself and sign the receipt while your chauffeur is waiting in the car.

Let me tell you a lovely true story about my friend Harpo Marx. (Excuse me for name-dropping, but I am very impressed with the fact that Harpo Marx was my friend.)

At the time this happened, a few years ago, Harpo was semi-retired, working only four or five weeks a year, playing a few concerts and television guest appearances. He was living in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, right on the Tamarisk Golf Course. In the summer when it got too hot in Palm Springs, Harpo would rent a house in Los Angeles. Mostly he would go to the Hillcrest Country Club and play golf, and then have lunch at the famous Round Table, where every day there gathered Jack Benny, George Burns, George Jessel, Eddie Cantor—the elder statesmen of comedy.

One day they were talking about unemployment payments, and it turned out that Harpo had never taken unemployment benefits, and they all jumped on him and said he was crazy.

Harpo said, “But I’m rich. I don’t need the lousy money.”

And they said, “Listen, idiot, you paid in a lot of money for so many years—there’s no reason you shouldn’t get that little check every week. You’re entitled. Besides, it’s tax-free money.” This argument impressed Harpo, because in his bracket $55 tax-free was like $500, but he still wasn’t convinced. The members of the Round Table worked on him for weeks, and finally they persuaded him to be smart and take his unemployment payments, because, strictly speaking, he was out of work eleven months of the year. So he said, “All right. When I get back home to Cathedral City, I’ll see about it.”

So one morning Harpo got dressed up and got in his Thunderbird and drove to his nearest State Employment Office, which was in Indio, California.

Indio is a date-picking town. I mean the basic employment there is going around and picking dates off palm trees. The Indio Unemployment Office is not fancy, like the Hollywood Unemployment Office.

Harpo parked his Thunderbird among broken-down 1948 Chevrolets and Plymouth jalopies and Henry J’s, and he walked into the room and it was full of grimy men in torn T-shirts and dungarees; Harpo was wearing a white suit made of Italian raw silk. He felt terrible. (You must realize that when you saw him without the Harpo costume and the Harpo makeup, what you saw was a sweet little bald-headed man; a very dignified gentleman with young, pixie eyes.)

So there he was, standing in line, and everybody was staring at him in his Italian suit and custom-made shoes and his beautiful tie and shirt. He was embarrassed, but he was determined to go through with it. When he got to the counter, he filled out the card and put down his real name, Adolph H. Marx. He gave them all the facts and said he was currently unemployed and showed that he was qualified for payments. They told him to come back in three weeks and his check would be ready. (During this period they process your data and also make sure you have looked for work.)

Three weeks passed, and Harpo drove to Indio again. But this time, to make sure he would not look out of place, he put on an old pair of blue jeans and a sport shirt, and he drove not his car, but his wife Susan’s old Ford station wagon. He took his place in line, and he looked as much like a date-picker as everybody else. Finally he got to the counter and the lady took out his card and checked it as he gave his name, Adolph H. Marx, address: 7117 La Paz Avenue, Cathedral City, California.

The lady asked, “Have you had any work during the last three weeks?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“How long did you work?”

“One day, ma’am.”

“Just one day . . . tsk, tsk, tsk . . . and how much did you earn?”

Harpo said, “Eleven thousand, five hundred dollars.”

The woman looked at him and said, “Hmmm?”

“I said, eleven thousand, five hundred dollars, ma’am.”

She gave him a suspicious look and called out, “Gertrude, GERTRUDE . . . come here!”

And another lady came over and the first lady, Ethel, whispered something to Gertrude. Now Gertrude came to the window and said “Adolph H. Marx?”

“That’s me,” said Adolph H. Marx.

And Gertrude said, “Now. For your day’s work, you received eleven dollars and fifty cents, isn’t that right?”

And he said, “No, ma’am.”

“How much, then?”

“Eleven thousand, five hundred dollars,” he said.

“Just wait right here,” she said. And she went away and came back with a third lady, Mildred. Mildred, who was the Head Lady, came cautiously to the window and started the whole interview over from the beginning; name, address, the whole thing, except she decided to humor him. Mildred said, “You say you worked one day in the last three weeks and you made eleven thousand, five hundred dollars?” She smiled in a friendly way.

“That’s right, ma’am,” Harpo said, smiling back at her.

“I see. And where did you work that you made eleven thousand, five hundred dollars in one day?”

“Canada,” Harpo said.

You’ve got to realize that saying “Canada” to a woman in that Godforsaken town of Indio, where the date-pickers never even get to Palm Springs, was like telling her he’d been to the moon.

She repeated it word for word, looking at him suspiciously. “You say . . . you went to Canada . . . and you earned . . . eleven thousand, five hundred dollars in one day?”

“That’s right,” Harpo said.

“And what did you do in Canada to earn eleven thousand dollars in one day?”

At this Harpo could not resist showing her:

He flubbed his lips. He rolled his eyes. He whistled through his fingers. He made the Harpo face.

“That’s what I did in Canada,” Harpo said. “Then I shook some knives and forks out of my sleeve, and I cut off a girl’s dress, and I held up a brassiere with three pockets.”

Simultaneously, like three puppets yanked by one cord, Mildred, Gertrude, and Ethel leaped back in horror.

Now they knew they had a madman on their hands.

Just then a date-picker strolled over, looked at Harpo, and said, “Hey, mister. I know you.”

“Thank goodness,” Harpo said, “somebody around here recognizes me.”

The man said, “Sure—you’re one of the Three Stooges!”

Harpo groaned.

Mildred asked him, “Are you in show business?”

Harpo said, “Yes, ma’am.”

Mildred said, “I never heard of any Adolph H. Marx. Should I know you?”

Harpo said, “Well, the H stands for Harpo.”

Oooh!” shrieked Mildred. “Now I know you’re a liar! Harpo Marx can't talk!”

Harpo jumped into his car and raced back home. He put on his Harpo costume—the trench coat, the blond, curly wig, the broken opera hat, the baggy pants, and he picked up his klaxon horn, and he raced back to Indio and dashed into the Employment Office.

As he stormed in, Harpo shot Gertrude a lascivious glance; then he honked madly three times on the klaxon horn; then he took Gertrude’s arm and bent it and rested his right leg on it. Then he looked at her lasciviously again and whistled and stuck out his tongue, and by God, Gertrude was convinced, and she handed him his $55 check.

I had no such trouble getting my check. I cashed it. Fifty-five dollars was exactly what we were paying our maid per week, and I went right home and handed the money over to Maxine. You may ask how an unemployed man could have a full-time maid. The answer is I have always lived beyond my means. It is only in the last two years that my means have begun to catch up with me.

I don’t want to give the impression that we were really paupers, Dee and I and the kids, on that miraculous Monday. But I was out of work, and I was on relief for the first and only time in my life. (I had always been ashamed to apply before.) And we did have an immense mortgage, and there was almost nothing left of what money I had been able to save in eighteen years in this crazy business.

In Hollywood, if you are not working, you are a leper. True, you are probably living in the most expensive leper colony in the world, inhabiting your own private unlisted leprosarium in Bel Air or Beverly Hills or Holmby Hills. But that makes no difference, because when you become an unemployed leper in Hollywood, nobody calls you up or comes to your house, and that includes the same people who were your good friends last week, or last year in New York. All of a sudden they don’t invite you to their barbecues and pool parties, and if they see you walking up Wilshire Boulevard, they look over their shoulders into the nearest store window, so as not to notice you and be compelled to say hello.

Around five o’clock I drove over onto the freeway and got off at the Highland Avenue exit, which is in Hollywood proper, and then I drove to 1441 North McCadden, where there is a recording studio by the name of Radio Recorders. There were six musicians and six singers rehearsing, and the whole thing was being conducted by a lovely man named Lou Busch, and for three hours we rehearsed the nutty songs I was going to record that night.

At eight o’clock we opened the doors and started to let in the people. I wanted it to be like a party because all my life I had been singing my crazy songs at parties, so we had a bar set up in the back of the studio and we served hors d’oeuvres and J&B and I suppose other drinks, and there were about a hundred people there. Some of them were my friends, but most of them were total strangers invited by Warner Brothers. My favorite people in the world are songwriters, and some of the best were there: Leo Robin, who wrote “My Ideal” and “Prisoner of Love” and “Beyond the Blue Horizon”; and Harry Ruby, who wrote “Three Little Words” and all the crazy Marx Brothers songs; and Johnny Mercer, who wrote “Moon River” and “Laura” and “Accentuate the Positive”; and Harry Warren, who wrote “Lullaby of Broadway” and has three Academy Awards and is classified by ASCAP higher than any songwriter except Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin. Harpo was there with his family, and Theodore Bikel, the folk singer. Pat Carroll, the comedienne, was there, and I knew I was going over very big with her because she laughed very hard, but, more important, during the time I was making the album she had to go to the ladies’ room four times.

Louis Quinn, an old friend of mine who played Roscoe on 77 Sunset Strip, introduced me to the audience, and the first number I did was my version of “The Streets of Laredo,” which I called “The Streets of Miami,” and when the audience heard the chorus repeating the last line of each stanza, they began screaming with laughter because this was an outrageous idea—to have a beautiful chorus singing the background material straight; we had done it in very good musical taste, with fine arrangements by Lou Busch.

The reason we did it this way is that I am indeed the worst singer in the world. (Dick Gehman, a writer and critic who loves me, searched his soul for the nicest thing he could say about my voice, and the highest compliment he could find was: “Allan Sherman has a voice like a strangling mynah bird.”) But there seems to be some quality, or lack of quality, in my voice with which the average person can identify. I sing like anyone singing in a bathtub—not good, but with genuine enthusiasm, and that’s why it is so important that the musical background and the chorus behind me should sound beautiful and legitimate and lush. The music is never funny. So the effect is something like this: You’re looking into Tiffany’s most elegant show window, and in the window is a black velvet pillow, and right in the middle of the pillow is an onion. That’s me.

Well, it was one of those nights. I sang twelve songs including “Oh, Boy!” and “Seltzer Boy” and “Jump Down, Spin Around, Pick a Dress o’ Cotton” and “Glory, Glory Harry Lewis.” And I sang a duet with Mrs. Louis Quinn, whose stage name is Christine Nelson; the song we sang together was my version of “Frere Jacques”—“Sarah Jackman.”

The excitement in the audience began with the first number, and it kept building all night. I wasn’t aware of it, but the audience was. When it was over, people came up to me and said they had the feeling of being present at an event, that something electric had happened; that they had witnessed something completely new and fresh and different. They said this was a night they would remember.

I thanked them for their nice remarks. I knew I had done a good job and that the recording had come off well, and I also knew that these were nice, polite people giving me extravagant compliments, but I didn’t really share their excitement about The Album.

I remember thinking, Well, that came out nice, tomorrow I’d better start looking for work again.

In my wildest imagining, I had no way of knowing or dreaming or predicting that that Monday night was going to turn my life upside down and hurl me into a whole new career and convert me into a Great American Success Story and make me a real-life Walter Mitty.

Two months later My Son, the Folk Singer was released.

Two months and one week later everybody in the United States was singing “Sarah Jackman.” Rock-’n’-roll stations all over the country changed their broadcast policies so they could play the record, and teenagers were singing “Sarah Jackman” to each other in hot rods parked on Mulholland Drive. Milton Berle wrote a British version and sang it on the Andy Williams Show; Ed Sullivan hired two comics to lip-sync “Sarah Jackman” along with the record. (He called me first at home and asked me to come on his show and sing it, but I told him I was not a performer and was scared out of my wits and didn’t want to make an ass of myself in front of 30 million people, which was the God’s truth.) Lou Levy, head of Leeds Music, came back from Europe, where he had seen a little twelve-year-old French girl, and when her parents wanted to show her off, they had her sing the only words of English she knew: the lyrics of “Sarah Jackman.” President John F. Kennedy walked through the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel in New York and out into his limousine, all the while softly singing “Sarah Jackman, how’s by you?” and he was heard by everyone in the lobby.

My Son, the Folk Singer sold 65,000 copies in the first week, and a half million in the first month, and it became the fastest-selling record album in history.

I felt like an Alice in Wonderland character who has gone through a looking glass and finds himself in a strange new country where money is growing on trees, where, as they told my grandfather to convince him to go to America, the streets are paved with gold; only mine was a weird, wild country where you suddenly have seventeen different agents and three sets of publicity people and business managers and personal managers, and you’re being interviewed by the newspapers and the disc jockeys, and all of a sudden if you get a sore throat it’s treated like a national catastrophe, and everybody wants to give you unlimited credit, and you’re singing in Carnegie Hall and then you’re starring at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and they’re giving you $15,000 a week to sing the same songs you used to sing in people’s living rooms all your life for free.

I had finally got hold of the Success I dreamed about all my life. I had it by the tail, and it all happened so fast that I only got a blurred look at it and at where it was taking me. I wasn’t even sure I liked it; I only knew I mustn’t let go. I might never get another chance. I had to hold on for dear life.

The record company flew me to Chicago and to San Francisco to make what they call personal appearances.

I went from seven A.M. every morning till three the next morning, talking with disc jockeys, autographing The Album at record stores, having cocktails with columnists, posing for pictures.

Every experience of my life up to then had led me to prepare for the exact opposite of what was happening to me. Rejection I had learned to take; for eighteen years I had accustomed myself to not being sure where next month’s mortgage payment was coming from. Now I knew the mortgage would be paid—not just next month’s installment, but for the next ten or fifteen years.

Then why was I running? Why was I flying to Chicago? Why was I belting the double J&B’s? If this was what I’d wanted all the time, why didn’t I just lie back and enjoy it?

I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t relax, and the double Scotches didn’t help, and when I got back home from Chicago I collapsed. My doctor said the closest thing he had seen to my symptoms was during World War II when he treated combat fatigue. He gave me an electrocardiogram, and he said I had developed right bundle branch block of the heart. It’s not a heart attack. He said there’s nothing really bad about it. But what’s good about it? Who needs it?

He put me to bed and I wasn’t allowed to answer the telephone, and he gave me a red medicine, Elixir of Alurate, six times the normal dosage, which kept me alive, but barely.

After lying there for two weeks contemplating my thrilling success, I got an idea. I said to myself, I have to get in practice for being rich; I have to buy something tangible to prove to myself that I’m really wealthy and famous and successful. Deep down inside, I didn’t believe the whole thing was happening to me. Success is like winning the sweepstakes or getting killed in an automobile crash. It always happens to somebody else.

So I said, What the hell, I’ll buy myself a tangible Lincoln Continental. I called up Beverly Hills Lincoln-Mercury and I said, “Please send me a Lincoln Continental with air conditioning and AM-FM radio and Dual-90 tires and power ashtrays and . . .”

“Yes, sir. We’ll be delighted to give you a demonstration, and—”

“I don’t need a demonstration. I’ll take it. Send it over.”

“But, sir, this is quite extraordinary. It is our custom to demonstrate the many splendid features—”

“Send a gold one if you have it. If not, pick out a nice cheerful color. I’m not feeling well.”

“Very well, sir, if you say so, sir.”

It pained this man to have to do business with a person of my obvious low breeding; it hurt his feelings that I had deprived him of the chance to make the little speech where he shows you where the keyhole is and which pedal is the accelerator. In fact, he didn’t like my whole big rush. But I had to touch that Lincoln and feel it and sit in it right away.

So now there it stood, gleaming in my driveway. I touched it. It was still unreal. I thought about my beautiful wife, my two lovely, bright children, my pure-blooded beagle whose paternal grandfather has his picture in the Encyclopædia Britannica. From one corner of my eye I saw my gardener snipping away at the tree in our backyard which spews forth inedible bananas, and from the other I saw my full-time maid roasting a haunch of something or other. I could hear the soft swishings of my swimming-pool man purifying the water lest I contaminate my toesies, and again I surveyed my $85,000 Bel Air estate, which is worth $45,000 including the palm trees, and the gorgeous sliding glass in my lanai, and the swimming pool shaped like a human kidney. And after I looked at all this magnificent splendor, I went back inside and went to bed because I was still feeling rotten.

Lying in bed, I asked myself a profound question:

Allan Sherman, you stupid son-of-a-bitch, how the hell did you ever get yourself into such a jam?

Chapter 2


and Other Things My Grandfather Pressed

Everybody in my family was crazy. Not crazy-crazy. Nice-crazy. Sweet-crazy.

All they ever had was trouble, trouble. When the great history of trouble is written, my family will stand extremely high in the table of contents. But the sound I remember best from my relatives is the sound of laughter. They were noisy people: they screamed and yelled at each other; they slammed doors and threw things. But afterward they all knew you were supposed to “make nice.” That’s how my grandmother put it. You can make nice on a doggie, on your wife or your brother or your father or your child, but the main thing is, after the hollering you dasn’t leave the bad things hanging around—you’ve got to make nice. See? Sweet-crazy.

If God gave my family plenty of trouble he gave them also the ability to laugh at it and to laugh at themselves. Not long ago I was playing at the Palmer House in Chicago, and my Aunt Kate, my mother’s sister, called up and said she wanted to come and see me. She had just been through a serious operation, and I told her I wouldn’t allow her to come without her doctor’s permission.

She got his permission, and as soon as she arrived at the Palmer Mouse, she went right out on the dance floor and started doing her 1928 version of the Watusi with her husband, Dave, really shaking it up.

I got scared as hell. I walked out to Katie on the dance floor. “Katie,” I said, “in your condition, you shouldn’t dance fast like that.”

“Allan,” she said, “in my condition, I have to dance fast.”

That’s what I mean. God gave my family a gift of laughter.

Later that night Katie was remembering her school days at Tuley High School in Chicago. She said, “When I was in high school I had a very cute behind.”

Her husband, Dave, said, “It’s still cute. It’s big, but it’s cute.”

“Shuddup,” she said, “I’m talking to Allan. So I had this cute behind, and all the boys used to follow me home so they could watch my behind. There was this one boy, his name was Avrom Goldbogen, and he was really crazy about my behind. He always wanted to carry my books and take me for a chocolate phosphate, whatever, but I wouldn’t give him a tumble. He was fresh—you know, a wise guy—”

Her son Kenneth interrupted, “So you know what happened? Forty years later there was an airplane crash and Michael Todd got killed. And they had the funeral in Chicago, and it turned out that Michael Todd’s real name was Avrom Goldbogen.”

Katie said, “See? If I had let him get near my behind, I could have married Michael Todd.”

And Kenneth said, “How do you think I feel? I could have been Elizabeth Taylor’s son!”

See? Sweet-crazy.

I come from a typical Jewish background.

My father was a typical Jew. His name was Percy Copelon. He came from Birmingham, Alabama. He was a stock-car racer and an expert automobile mechanic. He had the Chicago agency for Auburn, Essex, Hudson, Nash and Cord. At one time he owned the largest garage in the Windy City. I remember him as a big fat man with a cigar in his mouth always. He had a rasping voice with a thick Southern accent. He was a generous man: I had a cellar full of toys when I was a kid. He was a reckless, free-spending, high-living, dangerous-living man. He flew airplanes at a time when only lion-hearted lunatics flew planes. He flew a pursuit plane in World War I. He loved machinery. He loved machinery that made you move fast. After the Armistice he flew in air circuses for a few years, doing Immelmann turns and flying upside down at carnivals and county fairs. Around 1922 he became a small-time Alabama bootlegger, and later he smuggled cargoes of booze into Illinois from Canada. But his real love was machines. He once invented a coal mining machine that was widely used in southern Illinois and Kentucky. He adapted automobile gears to a machine that could chew into rock and bite out coal, saving labor.

My daddy had a brother-in-law, a dentist, who was a convert to nudism. He had a whole philosophy he had invented himself. It was about the benefits of eating uncooked vegetables and living on fruits and nuts, and what he called “naturism,” which meant you had to go around naked all the time. His wife would answer the doorbell without a stitch of clothing on her. The doorbell was ringing at her house all day long.

My daddy had a most interesting family of eccentrics, but I do not know them as intimately as I know my mother’s family, because when my father abandoned her he also abandoned me. When I became a celebrity, his family discovered me again.

My daddy did not like the garage business. He loved flying airplanes. And inventing. In 1928 he invented a new type of amphibian plane. He built it right in this immense garage he operated. It was so big, the plane, that when it was finished he couldn’t remove it from the garage. He would have to wreck the garage if he wanted to get his plane out. He couldn’t afford to build a new garage, so the plane remained there, unflown, until my father went busted. For all I know, it’s still sitting there.

Daddy was a tough, hard-driving, hard-living, hard-drinking man. He drank bourbon whiskey by the glass like some Jews drink seltzer. Only he didn’t drink seltzer. He was about as different from what we think of as a Jewish type as an American Jew could be back in 1924 when I was born on November 30th in the Lutheran Deaconess Hospital—and there’s a typical Jewish hospital for you, huh?

Now my typical Jewish mother. Her maiden name was Rose Sherman. She was what they called a “flapper” and what we would now call a “swinger.” She was a great Charleston dancer and she competed in Charleston dancing contests around Chicago, and she once won a loving cup at the Marbro Theatre on the West Side, and this loving cup was always displayed in a prominent place in our house. She was the first on her block to bob her hair. She wore short skirts. She began dating boys when she was twelve, and she was married at fifteen and divorced at sixteen, and then she married my father, and later she had two more husbands and I don’t know how many boyfriends. There was always a man in her life. She loved music and dancing and singing and having a good time. She was a beautiful-looking little thing with brunette hair and mischief in the eyes, and she believed life to be a bowl of cherries. Neither of my parents, spoke Yiddish around the house, and I doubt if my father knew ten words of it.

What is a Jew anyway?

I don’t go to a synagogue. I don’t wear a hat when I eat. I eat meat and drink milk at the same meal. I don’t say prayers in the morning and evening. And yet, I am a Jew. I know I am a Jew. Everybody else knows I am a Jew. But why am I a Jew?

The first time I realized I was Jewish—the only incident of out-and-out anti-Semitism I have ever run into—happened one day when I was seven years old in Los Angeles. I was walking home from Cahuenga Grammar School. There was a Japanese gardener watering one of the lawns on my way home. In those days the Japanese in California were either gardeners or they worked in the open-air markets we now call supermarkets. As I walked past his lawn, this Japanese gardener turned the hose on me, full force, and no matter where I ran, he followed me, drenching my clothes, my books, my body, my face, and yelling insanely: “Joosh boy, go home! You bad, you Joosh! Go way, bad Joosh kid!”

I ran home and asked my mother was I really Jewish? And if so, what kind of an awful thing was this to be, that a perfect stranger should turn on me like that?

It turned out I was Jewish, and my mother couldn’t explain why that should get people mad.

In 1964 I was playing the Cork Club in Houston, Texas. I was having a drink at the bar between shows when a tall, tough Texan came over and insisted on buying me a drink and then telling me about his success in the oil (he pronounced it “awl”) business and how he had enjoyed my Jewish-type parodies of famous songs and the whole act. And then he said something that I believe he meant as a compliment, and that is how I accepted it.

“Mr. Sherman,” he said, “I have been to Israel, I have seen real Jews, Mr. Sherman. I have seen Jews sweatin’ and workin’ and pumpin’ awl out of the desert where you wouldn’t think anybody could find awl, Mr. Sherman, let alone a bunch of Jews. But Ah saw those people with mah eyes, Mr. Sherman, and Ah want to tell you something: you ain’t a pimple on a real Jew’s ass!”

I seem to have my prejudices, too. I remember taking a plane from San Francisco to Chicago, and when I was deplaning I happened to walk by the pilot’s cabin and I saw his name on the little plaque:


I felt terrible. If I had known my pilot was Captain Shapiro when I got aboard, I would have been worried all through the flight. I can’t help it. I have this feeling that flying planes is not a job for a nice Jewish boy. I would have felt safer in the hands of a good white Anglo-Saxon, Protestant pilot—a John Wayne type, for instance. It’s irrational, I admit, but I have this feeling.

My whole childhood is a blur. It was whirling from Chicago to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Miami, from Miami to New York, from New York back to Chicago.

Altogether, I attended twenty-one different grammar and high schools in New York, Illinois, California and Florida. Sometimes I was living with my mother and one of her husbands. When she was between husbands, she would park me with a relative or with her parents until she made a new connection. She was frequently between husbands. Somehow, though, I was always going back to Chicago. My grandmother and grandfather lived there, and when things got desperate for my mother, for one reason or another, I’d be shipped to my grandparents. They lived in an apartment on Kedzie Avenue across from Humboldt Park in northwest Chicago.

Grandma’s name was Esther. Grandpa’s was Leon. Grandma had two sisters, Annie and Fannie. Annie was married to Shaya. Shaya ran a hole-in-the-wall jewelry store on Division Street. Fannie was married many times, but she was unlucky in love.

Grandma had two brothers. One was named Leon, like Grandpa. Great-uncle Leon was a junkman. He drove a horse and wagon through the back alleys of Chicago, which was then a city of back alleys. Great-uncle Leon was the only member of the family who owned something. What he owned was the sway-back horse and the dilapidated wooden wagon in which he transported his junk. On special occasions, when I deserved a treat, Great-uncle Leon would take me riding with him through the alleys along his route. I loved it. I loved the other kids running along behind us, jealous of me because I was sitting on the wagon next to the junkman. I was fascinated by Great-uncle Leon’s cry of “Recksolayee! Recksolayee!” Sometimes he let me yell it in my five-year-old voice—“Recksolayee!” It was almost something to sing; it was the traditional cry of the junkman, and it meant “Rags, old iron! Rags, old iron!’’ But somehow through the years the Jewish and Polish and Slovak junkmen in the alleys of American cities had turned it into “Recksolayee.” Just a few months ago I heard Oscar Brown, Jr., the great Negro folk singer and songwriter; he sang a song about his uncle who was a junkman in Chicago. The title of the song was “Recksolay'ee.”

Grandma used to take me on picnics to a place called the Milwaukee Woods, which she referred to as Milvawkee-by-duh-Voodsuh. She was crazy for Clark Gable. She called him “Clock.” She’d look upward dreamily and murmur, “Oy, dot Clock. Oy, dot’s a Clock!” She went three, four times a week to the big Balaban and Katz theatres downtown in the Loop—the State-Lake is one of them, or the Chicago, fancy theatres with vaudeville shows. Or she would go to the neighborhood movie houses; one was the Vision on Division Street. She usually went with her sister Fannie.

It was a principle of Grandma’s life to avoid paying money to large corporations like streetcar companies, the telephone company, department stores, movie-theatre chains. Nine times out of ten she would not pay for the movies. She would make up some excuse, like her grandson was in the theatre and she had to go in and get him, or she had a message for a doctor who was in the theatre, or she had been inside an hour earlier and had gone out for an errand and lost her ticket stub. And Grandma looked so sweet and kindly—she had a face exactly like Albert Einstein’s—that the ticket-takers always believed her. She had a heart full of love and kindness and humor—and a wide streak of petty larceny.

I loved her very much and I would have done anything for her.

I remember once she kept saying, “Oh, how I need it a football. If only I had a nice football.” I had overheard her telling Mother she was having a big party for all the relatives that night, and she had to have this football for after supper. I was then about eight years old.

I don’t know why it didn’t strike me as peculiar that this little old silver-haired lady wanted a football. I loved Grandma. If Grandma wanted a football, I would get her a football. I counted up all my available cash, my nickels and pennies and one dime. It came to 73 cents. I asked about a football at the Army-Navy store. The cheapest was $2.98. On my block I knew of three footballs. First I went to Homer Dumbrowski’s house. He wasn’t home. Then I found Eddie Polonsky in the park placing touch football with his friends. I offered him 73 cents cash on the barrelhead for the ball. He laughed in my face. He said it was a $5 Spalding football and I should go to hell with my 73 cents together. Gudgie, my last Polack, gave me a punch in the nose when I offered to buy his football. Then he reconsidered and said he’d trade me his football for all the marbles I had plus an almost new Flexible Flyer sled which I had received for Chanukah last year. I made the deal.

I went to the gas station and filled the football up, nice and hard. Then I sneaked it into the house. I shined it up with brown shoe polish. Now it was a football worthy of Grandma’s party. How proud my aunts and uncles would be when they saw it tonight! I put it on the dining room table.

When Mother saw it, she hollered, “Allan, can’t you put your things where they belong?”

I explained it was for Grandma—she’d said she needed a football for the party.

Mother burst into laughter. “A football for the party? Don’t you understand Grandma’s talking? Not football. She’s trying to say fruit bowl. She needs a fruit bowl for the party.”

So I went down in the basement feeling like an idiot, and I didn’t want to come upstairs even when the relatives began arriving. I could hear the clink-clink of Grandma’s best china and crystal, and every once in a while an explosion of laughter. I didn’t even want to come up for supper, and nobody could drag me up. After supper Mother came down and said I should come upstairs and there’d be a surprise for me. So I followed her into the living room. Grandma was walking around like a queen, holding out to each of the aunts and uncles the biggest, the most magnificent cut-glass fruit bowl I had ever seen. It was filled with grapes, apples and oranges, and in the center of it was Gudgie’s football.

“Esther,” her brother Max complimented, “that’s a beautiful football. Real cott-gless.”

Grandma looked at Max the Genius haughtily. “Max, listen careful and you’ll learn something. This cott-gless is called a frutt boll, not a football. The brown thing in the middle, this is a football.”

“So tell me something—what for you got a football in your frutt boll?”

“Because today mine Eln (that’s how she pronounced Allan) brought me a nice present, this football. It’s beautiful, no?” Before Max could answer, she continued, “It’s beautiful, yes. Because from a little child is beautiful anything.”

Grandpa was a quiet, melancholy drunk who did not speak much and did not eat much. He had been a presser “by ladies’ coats.” I don’t mean a presser in a cleaning-and-pressing retail establishment; I mean a presser in a garment manufacturing shop—a “cloakmaker,” he called it. Before they send out the finished garment, it has to be pressed, and it takes a special talent to do this, and Grandpa was a presser “by ladies’ coats.” He made a nice living for those times—$100 a week—but only during the season. There is a season when ladies’ coats, wholesale ones, have to be pressed, and there is a season when they don’t need you altogether. During the season Grandpa worked hard, overtime every night, twelve-fourteen hours a day—but he had only two three-month-long seasons, and the rest of the year he was out of work.

I guess my love for the Theatre comes from Grandpa, because during the nonworking season he used to take me to the Yiddish theatre, which is just like the American theatre, only more so; when they emote, they really emote. And the Yiddish theatre doesn’t bother with subtleties or psychological nuances. It concerns itself with the big things of life: birth and death and marriage and incurable illness and infidelity and illegitimate babies. And the point is that every Yiddish play includes all of these things—otherwise the audience would walk out in the middle, because they didn’t come there to see a lot of trivialities.

One of the most marvelous sights to behold in all the world is a death scene in the Yiddish theatre. There is Maurice Schwartz, or some other great Yiddish actor, and he has just discovered his wife in bed with another man, and he has a heart attack, and it is the end of him. But he doesn’t die just like that. First he screams, “I am having a heart attack! I am dying!” Then he falls, and the fall itself takes a full minute onto the sofa, then he moans and groans; then he rises and stumbles across the room, knocking over furniture and all the while yelling, “I am dying! I am dying! Oh, God, I am dying!” Then he stumbles offstage, wailing and moaning; then he stumbles back on stage and clutches at the draperies and sinks to the floor. And by now the whole family is standing there watching all this, crying and shrieking, “My God, he is dying!” And when he finally lands on the floor, he writhes painfully and he makes a speech, gasping out each word. And this speech includes all of the philosophical Talmudic learnings of his life, and it is chock full of advice to his sons and farewells to his daughters and his wife, and this speech alone lasts six minutes. And then at long last he gives one great effort to stand up again, and he almost makes it, but just when you think he’s going to be all right, he lets out this horrible, croaking groan and stumbles over the entire stage again, knocking over what’s left of the furniture and the family, and finally he dies. This death scene always takes about fifteen minutes. If the play is a musical, it is exactly the same, except with singing and dancing and very melancholy music underscoring the whole thing. And the audience, which is composed of Jewish people who have troubles of their own, feel this man’s great pain, and they moan and groan and weep, and when he is finally dead, they sigh with relief and they feel this wonderful sense of total satisfaction.

Grandpa also used to take me to the bathhouse on Division Street, where there was a steam room where I sat naked and listened to the wise words of the naked old scholars with their long beards and sideburns; and after sweating in the steam Grandpa would force me into the little eight-foot-square pool, which was filled, I think, with ice water. And we would lie on tables while the attendants bathed us with soapsuds and brushes that looked like feather dusters and were made of some exotic Turkish leaves.

Not long before he died I asked Grandpa if he had always been a coat presser, and he said no, when he first came to this country he had been a bricklayer, but in the old country, in Lodz-Gubernia, he had been what they called a “grom.” A grom was a man who went around to weddings and parties and did gromming. What is gromming? you may well ask. I’ll tell you. It’s something like a minstrel.

My grandpa would go around to these weddings and parties and they would give him a list of the names of the guests, real names, and he would sing happy songs about these people, weaving the names into the songs and making up rhymes for the names and lines to fit the situation.

Honest to God: My Grandfather, the Folk Singer.

After the Great Depression, Grandpa became a heavy drinker—in fact, a drunk. He was shikker all the time. His eyes had a glaze on them of alcohol and tears, always. Grandpa didn’t drink rye or bourbon or Scotch. Oh, no—he drank what he called “schnapps.” Actually, it was some kind of cheap bootleg prohibition booze, but among Jews if you called it “schnapps” it was all right to drink it; but if you drank whiskey or gin, then you were a drunken bum. He spent his whole life drinking, and smoking Lucky Strikes in the green package.

Grandpa often warned me about the evils of alcohol. And My Grandma, the Poker Player—she warned me against gambling. Today I do both, though I’m not a compulsive gambler or drinker. How is it possible to listen to people who do what they tell you not to do? Besides, I didn’t see that drinking hurt Grandpa very much.

His doctor once told him that if he didn’t stop drinking immediately, he would die. And he did die—twenty-six years later he died, having outlived everybody who was sober, including his doctor.

Grandpa rarely ate anything. He just drank and smoked. He got all the nourishment he needed from alcohol, tars and nicotine—at least enough to live to be seventy-seven years old.

Grandpa’s dislike for food made him unusual in our family. We were a fat, happy, laughing, high-cholesterol family. We ate with gusto. Especially Grandma—even when she got diabetes, she ate with gusto. They didn’t use the word diabetes among the Jews. They called it “shugeh.” They would say, “Esther has shugeh. Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

When insulin became popular, Grandma’s doctor gave her a hypodermic needle, a syringe and the new drug, and told her to use them every day. He also gave her a strict diet. She didn’t follow the diet and she seldom gave herself an insulin shot. The doctors told her with all her “shugeh” and how she’s eating, she’s going to be carried off in a wooden box any day. But she laughed in their faces and ate whatever she felt like eating, and the only time she’d take a shot of insulin was when she’d eaten a whole box of candy at one time. Grandma lived to be seventy-nine with her candy and her “shugeh.”

My grandma’s love for her family was expressed in the magnificent foods she cooked for us. When I was a boy, she cooked the most delicious food in the world. As I grew older, her cooking became less and less delicious. Did my tastes change? Or did she lose her touch as the years passed? Or was Grandma’s cooking lousy in the first place?

I remember her standing in the kitchen with a big pot of soup steaming on the stove. I remember her standing there, tasting the soup from a long, wooden soup ladle, and then adding things and tasting again, and adding again and tasting again until it was exactly right.

Years later it made me think up a story. It was about this food chemist who works for a big food-manufacturing company, and one night he has dinner at the home of a Jewish grandmother like mine, and she serves a soup—the most delicious soup he has ever tasted—and he smacks his lips and it occurs to him that his company could make a fortune if they could put out this particular soup.

So he gets the old lady aside, and he tells her that if she’ll give him the recipe, he’ll give her a royalty and she’ll be on Easy Street for life.

“Why not?’’ she says. And she takes him into the kitchen and starts to make the soup, and he takes out a notebook to write down the recipe.

“First,” she says, “you put in pieces chicken.”

“How much?” he asks.

Plenty,” she says. “If it’s gung be chicken soup, let be plenty chicken, not stingy. Then soupengreens.”

“What are soupengreens?” he asks.

“Soupengreens is soupengreens,” she replies, and she mutters under her breath, “Some dummy.”

“What next?”


“How many?”

“Not too much, but chopped, nice. And carrots.”

“Not too many?”

“Just enough. And noodles. Plenty.”

“Then what?”

“Then you’ll boil. What else?”

“What temperature?”

“Not too hot. Too hot is no good. But hot enough—too cold is no good altogether.”

By now the food chemist has given up taking notes. He asks: “How long do you cook it?”

And the old lady can contain herself no longer: “Dummy! Till is findished!”

Finally, the food chemist gives up. He gives up because he has never been able to discover what the missing ingredient is, what it was the old lady was putting in the soup that all the food chemists in the world can’t put into a can of soup.

If they had asked me, I could have told them what it was. It was the same ingredient my grandma put into her soup—love.

She would stand there in the kitchen and taste the soup with her wooden spoon, and then she would look out at all of us sitting in the front room, and the love in her heart would say to her, They will want more salt. And she would put in more salt, and taste it again and look at us again until the soup was just exactly perfect, just exactly the way we would want it. Nice.

At Grandma’s big Friday-night family dinners she would prepare a roast duck or a roast chicken, and there was chopped liver and soup with kasha or kreplach, and vegetables and honey cake and tea. It’s unbelievable how my family could eat. Right up to dinnertime, we’d be in the parlor, hollering and arguing and insulting each other, my mother, her sister Kate, her brother Maury, various aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles; but as soon as Grandma said, “Come, eat!” the arguments ceased. Everybody gathered worshipfully around the long table with the lace tablecloth and the silver, the heavy silver. Everybody picked up his knife and fork so when the food was actually placed on the table he or she could be the first to get the most. And we leaped upon the food with a zest and an enlightened self-interest that can hardly be described. You had to be there.

I saw nothing comparable to it until recently when I appeared at the Diplomat Hotel in Miami Beach.

At the cocktail hour in Miami Beach, all the hotels bring out a beautiful spread of food, absolutely free, a magnificent buffet with designs of culinary architecture: an Empire State Building made of chopped liver, heaps of pastrami sculptured in the shape of the Matterhorn, an American flag made out of alternating stripes of lox and cream cheese with radishes for stars, and there’s turkey and sturgeon and corned beef shaped like the Mount Rushmore faces, and schmaltz herring and pickles and scallions and rye bread and all kinds of crackers. And the waiters wheel all this onto the terrace on rolling tables, but before the waiters can reach their destination the hordes come out from every room in the hotel and attack. It’s unbelievable. You’ve got to see it. From the twelve floors of the hotel, out of every room, they come; and from strange hotels, even from nearby cities. Like Pavlov’s dogs. No whistle blows. Yet somehow, instinctively, everybody knows it’s five o’clock and there’s free food.

In a matter of minutes the Empire State Building is reduced to rubble, and there’s no more Mount Rushmore, and of Old Glory nothing is left but a lonesome, half-eaten radish.

This was how my family would eat, and everybody in the family was short and fat and jolly—everybody, that is, except my Great-uncle Max (Grandma’s brother), who was the Genius of the family. He was skinny; he had always been skinny—no matter how much he ate. He was a fiddler, a violin player, and he looked like a violin player.

There are certain people who look like what they are in life—and there are others who don’t. Max looked like a violinist. He looked more like a violinist than anybody else in the world. Jascha Heifetz—you pass him in the street, you could mistake him for a certified public accountant or the vice-president of Hart, Schaffner & Marx. But the first time you see my Uncle Max you think, There goes a violinist.

He isn’t very tall—but he looks tall, if you know what I mean, and in his face are many deep lines, wrinkles that show he’s a man who worries about Life, like a real violinist. He has high cheekbones, like an Indian’s—two little hills standing out on each side of his big, sad eyes—and long black hair and long black sideburns and heavy eyebrows, always wrinkled, like he’s in Deep Thought. And his head is tilted over to the left side, as a violinist’s head should be. The rest of the family, Grandma and the other sisters and brothers—five of them—were short and round and jolly, but from the time he was four years old Max was given a violin to study and he was the Genius and Hope of the family. The others were told to go out and play and get fat and jolly, but all the hope and attention went to the little Genius.

In those days it was the dream of every Russian-Jewish family to have a son a violinist, another Elman, another Kreisler. At age nine my Uncle Max played fiddle for the Czarina, and she gave him a little gold medal, and this medal my great-grandfather, the bass-player, wore every day as long as he lived. At sixteen my Uncle Max was Assistant Concertmaster of the Imperial Russian Symphony. At twenty my uncle, by then married to a plump, jolly lady named Dora, came to America where the streets were Paved with Gold.

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