------------------------------------ (1039 words) Essay

The Jack Benny Story
by Jack Benny with Joan Benny
Warner, $19.95, 302 pages
The late Jack Benny wrote an autobiography that was known
to almost no one. So few, in fact, that his only daughter Joan
was surprised to find the finished manuscript among her mother’s
files after her death in 1983. Joan Benny has augmented her
father’s words with her own memories and some interviews
accomplished expressly for the book. It is very good.

As one might expect from the most popular comedian of the
age of radio, Jack Benny’s memoirs are fast-paced, lively, and
entertaining. His recollections are positive, and he says almost
nothing negative about anyone. He traces back to his humble
beginnings as Benjamin Kubelsky in Waukegan, Ill., and reveals
many intriguing facts about his early life and entry into show
business. He was a high school dropout (although, as he notes
with irony, Waukegan eventually built a junior high school in his
honor) and took to serious study of the violin only after
flunking out of the family haberdashery business. (Do we have
to know their names? he asked his father after an unknown
customer left an account payment with him.) Over his mother’s
objections, he eventually found employment as a violinist with a
local touring singer. After a while, he began to talk, which
grew into a comedy monologue. Jan Kubelik, a concert violinist,
forced Benny Kubelsky to change his name in 1912. He next became
Ben Benny, and became fairly well known as a violin-and-comedy
performer. After serving in the Navy in World War I, a similar
entertainer named Ben Bernie forced him to change his name again,
and he chose the name Jack, by which all sailors in the war were
informally known to each other.

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Some of the stories have been told before, but get a much-
deserved retelling from the horse’s mouth here. Jack met his
wife, Sadie Marks (she later changed her name to Mary
Livingstone, the name of the character she played on the radio
show) when he was 27 and she 14 at her family’s Passover
celebration in Vancouver. She was related to the Marx brothers,
and Zeppo Marx (then Marks) had brought his colleague to the home
for the occasion. Mary insisted that Jack listen to her violin
playing. He found it horrible and he and Zeppo made a quick
exit. Several years later, they met again and married in 1927
after a brief courtship. It was only after they were married
that Mary reminded Jack of their first meeting.

Jack continued his successful career in vaudeville, and when
his partner took ill, he persuaded Mary to fill in. She was a
hit. Eventually he found himself on Broadway and then in the
movies. He vacillated for a time before deciding that going into
radio would be worthwhile.

While they were living in New York, they adopted Joan. She
learned in writing the book that Mary Benny had planned to take
her only to nurse her to health while they awaited an arranged
baby. (Jack opposed this idea.) Naturally, they found they
couldn’t part with Joan.

Much of the book consists of Joan’s writing. She seems to
be in a different book from her father. It would be a major help
if she used a writing style that conformed more closely to that
set by her father in the early chapters. Her short, simple
sentences slow the pace in a sudden manner. She provides
extreme levels of detail about her early life, homes, and the
trappings of being a celebrity daughter. While this matter is
interesting to a Benny buff, one hopes that none of the venerable
comedian’s material was subjugated to make room for it. It
would be far more relevant if Joan Benny were a celebrity in her
own right. But this is the fall of 1990 and such things are to
be expected of celebrity offspring. George Bush is our president
and no doubt he approves.

Some of Joan Benny’s passages are curious. Obviously, had
her father wanted details of his premarital womanizing in his
book, he would have put them there himself. Her life is very
well detailed up to about 1965, but she says almost nothing of
her activities for the past quarter century.

Joan Benny pulls no punches in discussing her mother. The
two had what would mildly be described as an adversarial
relationship. Mary Livingstone Benny (who always introduced
herself as Mrs. Jack Benny) is portrayed as a vain, insecure
spendthrift. She allegedly was most interested in being with and
accepted by the Hollywood elite. Studio moguls, that is, not the
entertainers that her husband called friends. Jack Benny
attended Friar’s dinners and the like alone. Mary Livingstone
Benny may have played the role of Mrs. Jack Benny to the hilt to
gain social standing, but Joan Benny’s words must be taken with a
teaspoon of salt (or a more healthful sodium-free substitute) in
light of the obvious delight she displays on every page at being
Jack Benny’s daughter.

Jack Benny tells a good many anecdotes that have not been
printed before. Obviously, none of the three Benny intimates who
wrote biographies had access to this material. He tells how he
learned 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 also
being the greatest user of facial expressions and body language.

Perhaps, as Jack suggests, his secret wasn’t those mannerisms but
his timing. Jack acknowledges that he was but a mediocre
violinist. Nevertheless, he won the respect of some of the
world’s greatest violinists. These stories are a treasure.

Isaac Stern called him the most fortunate concert artist because
he didn’t have to live with the pressure of having to be perfect.

The book is must reading, but the reader can’t help but
agonize over how much better it would be had Joan Benny published
the autobiography verbatim (Jack wanted to title it I Always Had
Shoes, a reaction to comedians who claimed to have risen from
abject poverty) or more successfully integrated her words into
it. With any luck, the book will spark a renewed interest in the
legendary comedian. His television show could stand to be
revived by one of the cable networks, and a TV movie about him is
a possibility. Joan Benny selected dozens of family photos for
the book; they are a contribution. The most striking thing about
the book is how fresh Jack Benny’s words sound, even though they
were written almost twenty years ago. It’s almost like having
him back.


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