SUNDAY NIGHTS AT SEVENThe Jack Benny Storyby Jack Benny with Joan BennyWarner, $19.95, 302 pages————————————The late Jack Benny wrote an autobiography that was knownto almost no one. So few, in fact, that his only daughter Joanwas surprised to find the finished manuscript among her mother’sfiles after her death in 1983.
Joan Benny has augmented herfather’s words with her own memories and some interviewsaccomplished expressly for the book. It is very good.As one might expect from the most popular comedian of theage of radio, Jack Benny’s memoirs are fast-paced, lively, andentertaining. His recollections are positive, and he says almostnothing negative about anyone.
He traces back to his humblebeginnings as Benjamin Kubelsky in Waukegan, Ill., and revealsmany intriguing facts about his early life and entry into showbusiness. He was a high school dropout (although, as he noteswith irony, Waukegan eventually built a junior high school in hishonor) and took to serious study of the violin only afterflunking out of the family haberdashery business.
(Do we haveto know their names? he asked his father after an unknowncustomer left an account payment with him.) Over his mother’sobjections, he eventually found employment as a violinist with alocal touring singer. After a while, he began to talk, whichgrew into a comedy monologue. Jan Kubelik, a concert violinist,forced Benny Kubelsky to change his name in 1912. He next becameBen Benny, and became fairly well known as a violin-and-comedyperformer. After serving in the Navy in World War I, a similarentertainer named Ben Bernie forced him to change his name again,and he chose the name Jack, by which all sailors in the war wereinformally known to each other.Some of the stories have been told before, but get a much-deserved retelling from the horse’s mouth here.
Jack met hiswife, Sadie Marks (she later changed her name to MaryLivingstone, the name of the character she played on the radioshow) when he was 27 and she 14 at her family’s Passovercelebration in Vancouver. She was related to the Marx brothers,and Zeppo Marx (then Marks) had brought his colleague to the homefor the occasion. Mary insisted that Jack listen to her violinplaying. He found it horrible and he and Zeppo made a quickexit. Several years later, they met again and married in 1927after a brief courtship. It was only after they were marriedthat Mary reminded Jack of their first meeting.Jack continued his successful career in vaudeville, and whenhis partner took ill, he persuaded Mary to fill in. She was ahit.
Eventually he found himself on Broadway and then in themovies. He vacillated for a time before deciding that going intoradio would be worthwhile.While they were living in New York, they adopted Joan. Shelearned in writing the book that Mary Benny had planned to takeher only to nurse her to health while they awaited an arrangedbaby. (Jack opposed this idea.) Naturally, they found theycouldn’t part with Joan.Much of the book consists of Joan’s writing.
She seems tobe in a different book from her father. It would be a major helpif she used a writing style that conformed more closely to thatset by her father in the early chapters. Her short, simplesentences slow the pace in a sudden manner. She providesextreme levels of detail about her early life, homes, and thetrappings of being a celebrity daughter. While this matter isinteresting to a Benny buff, one hopes that none of the venerablecomedian’s material was subjugated to make room for it. Itwould be far more relevant if Joan Benny were a celebrity in herown right. But this is the fall of 1990 and such things are tobe expected of celebrity offspring.
George Bush is our presidentand no doubt he approves.Some of Joan Benny’s passages are curious. Obviously, hadher father wanted details of his premarital womanizing in hisbook, he would have put them there himself. Her life is verywell detailed up to about 1965, but she says almost nothing ofher activities for the past quarter century.Joan Benny pulls no punches in discussing her mother. Thetwo had what would mildly be described as an adversarialrelationship.
Mary Livingstone Benny (who always introducedherself as Mrs. Jack Benny) is portrayed as a vain, insecurespendthrift. She allegedly was most interested in being with andaccepted by the Hollywood elite. Studio moguls, that is, not theentertainers that her husband called friends. Jack Bennyattended Friar’s dinners and the like alone.
Mary LivingstoneBenny may have played the role of Mrs. Jack Benny to the hilt togain social standing, but Joan Benny’s words must be taken with ateaspoon of salt (or a more healthful sodium-free substitute) inlight of the obvious delight she displays on every page at beingJack Benny’s daughter.Jack Benny tells a good many anecdotes that have not beenprinted before. Obviously, none of the three Benny intimates whowrote biographies had access to this material. He tells how helearned from others’ mistakes in developing his radio style.(Other comics used visual material for their studio audience,which left home listeners in the dark about what was so funny.)There is a certain paradox in the greatest radio comedian alsobeing the greatest user of facial expressions and body language.
Perhaps, as Jack suggests, his secret wasn’t those mannerisms buthis timing. Jack acknowledges that he was but a mediocreviolinist. Nevertheless, he won the respect of some of theworld’s greatest violinists. These stories are a treasure.Isaac Stern called him the most fortunate concert artist becausehe didn’t have to live with the pressure of having to be perfect.The book is must reading, but the reader can’t help butagonize over how much better it would be had Joan Benny publishedthe autobiography verbatim (Jack wanted to title it I Always HadShoes, a reaction to comedians who claimed to have risen fromabject poverty) or more successfully integrated her words intoit.
With any luck, the book will spark a renewed interest in thelegendary comedian. His television show could stand to berevived by one of the cable networks, and a TV movie about him isa possibility. Joan Benny selected dozens of family photos forthe book; they are a contribution. The most striking thing aboutthe book is how fresh Jack Benny’s words sound, even though theywere written almost twenty years ago.
It’s almost like havinghim back.