Twins - A SHOWMAN’S EDUCATION - Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire

Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire (2006)


I have no spur to prick the sides
of my intent, but only Vaulting
ambition, which o’erleaps itself.”


from Macbeth

Chapter 1. Twins

East Harlem in 1901 was a volatile mix of Irish, Jews, Italians, and blacks, many of them living with multiple generations squeezed into cold-water tenements. The Irish weren’t fond of the Italians, neither group liked the Jews, and all three looked down on the blacks. Yet for most of them it was a step up from where they had come from, and they managed to coexist, if not always peacefully. The streets of Harlem had begun to see their first few motor cars, like the puttering steam-powered Locomobile, but much of the traffic still cantered forth on horse-drawn wagons and carriages. Throngs of bicycles competed with pushcarts selling hot potatoes or sweet cakes for 2 cents, weaving among pedestrians who spoke a polyglot of tongues. Despite the neighborhood’s collection of sweatshops and sulfurous iron factories, it was not a ghetto. It took pride in being solidly working class, however slight the distinction.

For Peter Sullivan, guiding his horse-drawn milk wagon through the Harlem streets in the predawn darkness, the great city of New York had become a dream deferred. A proud man who felt cheated by the roll of life’s dice, he spent most of his days in a moody funk. Peter broke his taciturn reserve usually only for a fit of temper or a snort of disappointment. He had come to the city hoping for a better life for himself and his family, but he had fallen short.

The plan had been a simple one. In the late 1890s, he and his wife Elizabeth left their hardscrabble farm life in upstate New York when Peter landed a patronage job as a city clerk. New York’s Tammany Hall political machine ran the city with a wink and a nod, a few bucks here and a little grease there, and the city’s Irish ward heelers consolidated their political influence by doling out patronage jobs to members of their own tribe. For Peter, taking a low-level clerkship was an opportunity to vault into the middle class. Farming in the small upstate town of Amsterdam had been hand to mouth, a season-by-season gamble at avoiding the creditor’s knock. Working in the U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan provided a steady salary.

Had Peter been another sort of man, the job might have been his first step up the bureaucratic ladder. But he lost his reappointment to the Customs House. The patronage system required him to write a thank-you note to the ward heeler who secured him the job, a kind of loyalty oath. Peter refused. He was smarter than the party hack and he knew it. Guided by his inflexible moral absolutes, he felt it was wrong to write the petty bit of fawning. That proud decision would be the beginning of downward mobility for him. Out of work, he managed to find one of the better jobs open to an unskilled Irishman, saloon manager. But that, too, proved short-lived. Being a saloon keeper required a rough-and-ready bonhomerie, a good cheer, and an easy word that Peter lacked. Casting around for a post that would suit him, he became a milkman. Guiding a slow-moving delivery wagon through the streets of Harlem required him to get along with no one, save his horses.

Central to his resentment was that, unlike his brothers, he hadn’t been able to complete his education. Peter’s parents, Florence and Margaret O’Sullivan, had emigrated from County Cork, Ireland, fleeing the ravaging famine of the mid 1800s in which more than a million souls starved. Florence and his brother John and their families made the journey together. Stopping in London on their way to the New World, the O’Sullivan brothers decided to Americanize their surname; they would now sign their name as Sullivan. Despite this effort at assimilation, Florence and Margaret’s circumstances were only marginally better in their new home. They settled in the fertile valley around Amsterdam, New York, but the family farm took years to rise above subsistence level. Peter, as the oldest son in a family of eight, was forced to leave school and go to work to help support his family.

As the family’s fortunes improved, Florence was able to send his younger sons to college. Two of Peter’s younger brothers, Charles and Daniel, were honor students in college, and another, Florence Jr., became a noted attorney in New York City. Peter possessed the intelligence to have joined them had he been allowed to finish school. He was a gifted mathematician and—when he deigned to speak—a passionate debater about the issues of the day; he ardently supported workers’ rights and railed against industrialists like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. More than anything, though, as his son Ed recalled, Peter felt frustrated by not having achieved more. He was a failure in his own eyes.

If Peter was darkness and clouds, then his wife Elizabeth, called Lizzy, was sunshine and warmth. While Peter, ten years her senior, was an iron-willed believer in corporal punishment, viewing compromise as weakness, Lizzy was gentle and encouraging, and usually handled her children with a soft touch. Years later Ed wrote, “My father was, in every sense, the head of the family, but my mother was its heart.” The difference was clear simply by looking at them: Peter had a solid frame and a square, firm jaw; Lizzy was slender, with flowing brunette tresses surrounding her comely face. With Lizzy, Peter had married above his station. Although her mother had been a poor Irish squatter’s daughter, her father, Edward Smith, was a man of means, a landholder in upstate New York. Lizzy’s family imbued her with a genteel Victorian sensibility, and she was educated in the arts. She loved music, especially the light operas of the late 1890s, and was an amateur painter.

In the early fall of 1901, Peter and Lizzy were expecting a new arrival in their Harlem flat on East 127th Street. The baby would join Helen, born in 1897, and Charles, born in 1899. When Lizzy gave birth on September 28, she and Peter were met with a surprise: twin boys. Edward, husky and healthy, and Daniel, small and sickly. The lucky one, christened Edward Vincent, was a robust, squalling infant, crying at the top of his lungs to be fed. Young Danny, however, was a worry; he seemed hardly to have made it into this world.

As the months wore on, nothing that Lizzy did succeeded in helping the child gain weight. She tried feeding him a mixture of light barley, water, and milk, yet he only grew sicklier. The family’s tenement apartment wasn’t the best place to nurse a sick infant, and though his weight kept falling, he apparently was never admitted to a hospital. In the middle of the night on July 19, Danny died at home. The cause was listed as infant marasmus, emaciation due to malnutrition, possibly caused by problems in the child’s digestive tract. Two days later the family made a mournful trip up to the town of Amsterdam to bury their ten-month-old son in the family plot.

The death of his twin brother would haunt Ed throughout his childhood. Later, he recounted that when he was “whaled” by his father—a common occurrence—or given the switch by nuns at parochial school, he would imagine that his life would have been different “if only Danny were here.” Much later in life, Sullivan attributed his high energy level to Danny’s premature death, as if the surviving brother had been supernaturally granted the energy of his deceased twin. One Sunday evening, while hosting his show in front of a television audience of some thirty-five million people, Ed noted a location in New York from which one of his guests hailed. For a moment, he seemed to lose himself in thought, then confided, “That’s where my brother Danny is buried.” (And if Danny’s problem had been a gastrointestinal defect, it was surely shared by his brother, who was plagued by such problems throughout his adult life.)

The Sullivans soon had another child. Lizzy greeted the girl with a renewed maternal instinct, naming her new daughter after herself. But young Elizabeth, like Danny, was also colicky and cranky. Again, Lizzy was up nights trying to comfort her, but, like Danny, nothing seemed to help. On the morning of August 1, 1905, the twenty-month-old girl died in the Sullivans’ apartment. The cause, similar to Danny’s, was listed as gastroenteritis. The family was forced to make another gray journey to upstate New York to bury Elizabeth. Lizzy, having lost two children in three years, was in a panic of grief. Normally good-natured, she now made a non-negotiable demand.

She blamed the conditions in Harlem for the deaths of her children. Indeed, in the first few years of the 1900s the area was changing rapidly. Throughout the 1890s, real estate developers had quickly bought and sold property in well-to-do West Harlem, making a fast profit with each sale and pushing prices ever higher. In 1904 the bubble burst and speculators were left with too many properties and too few occupants who could afford them. By 1905 banks stopped making loans to these developers. When the market went bust, landlords were forced to slash rents severely to lure tenants. An enterprising black real estate entrepreneur named Philip Pay ton devised a plan to fill these empty buildings. He guaranteed their owners the rent, then subcontracted the dwellings to black tenants, charging them a small premium above the depressed rent levels. Large numbers of poor blacks moved into Harlem and the area’s neighborhoods became ever more crowded.

Lizzie, already disenchanted with the neighborhood, demanded that her family move from the area. Because Peter’s income didn’t allow a move to one of the city’s better neighborhoods, she told him to find a job outside the city. They had come to New York to build a better life, but that hadn’t worked. She now wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Peter, apparently without much argument, agreed. In 1906 the Sullivan family bundled up their few belongings and boarded the New Haven line of the New York Central Railroad. They moved to the working class burg of Port Chester, New York, where Peter found employment in a hardware factory. Although only twenty-six miles north of the city, Port Chester lived in a world of a few decades earlier. Its quiet streets were lined with watering troughs for horses, and its town doctor still made house calls in his buckboard wagon. As they had since the 1800s, traveling medicine shows stopped and sold quack elixirs and mystery tonics like “Dr. Pink’s Pale Pills” and “Thayer’s Slippery Elm Lozenges.” But the town’s proximity to New York City meant this otherwise drowsy outpost of Americana was a confluence of unadulterated Old World influences. There had been a time in the 1800s when local Protestants had pulled down their curtains to avoid watching a Catholic church being built. But with the waves of immigrants flowing into and out of New York City, the town became an ethnically mixed alembic of Italians, Irish, Germans, Poles, Jews, and other recent arrivals.

Most importantly for Lizzy, she found what she wanted: a quiet, clean place to raise her family. And a place, of course, to have more children, which the Sullivans soon did.

Decades later, social commentators would point to Ed Sullivan as the apotheosis of square, a prude, a man who ran his great national showcase by tight moralistic strictures. Certainly Sullivan himself, the showman behind the curtain, was in reality far from this. But to the extent that the man projected this quality, the boy learned this prim and pious worldview on the leafy streets of Port Chester.

The Sullivans found modest lodging in the top floor of a two-family house. Though the family never seemed to have enough money, Lizzy decorated the parlor in typical Victorian style, with velveteen upholstered furniture and gilt frame engravings. Her and Peter’s brass double bed was topped with crocheted lace pillow covers over a blue sateen lining. An avid and talented gardener, Lizzy grew vegetables and flowers in the house’s garden; she constantly clipped the roses and gladiolas and arrayed them in vases around the living room. Within a few years Ed, Helen, and Charles were joined by two sisters, Mercedes and Frances, who were born healthy.

Radio had yet to arrive, but music was plentiful in the Sullivan house. Lizzy scrimped to ensure that all her children took music lessons, and an old upright piano dominated the parlor. Someone was always plinking out a waltz or warbling a sentimental ballad. Ed’s older sister Helen was an accomplished pianist, and his older brother Charles, a violinist who sang in the choir, joined her in duets. Lizzy often led the family in group sing-alongs of hit musicals like “O, Promise Me,” or gay ’90s stalwarts like “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” She particularly enjoyed the syrupy operettas of Victor Herbert.

From left: Ed’s older brother Charles, his older sister Helen, and Ed, circa 1905. (Globe Photos)

Knowing their mother’s passion for music, the children broke open their piggy banks and (with help from an uncle) bought her an Aeolian music box for Christmas one year. When she saw it, Lizzy gasped and gave out an “Oh, children!”—her response whenever she was deeply touched. Even Peter, never one for expressing his feelings, managed a wide smile. Later the family purchased a gramophone and gathered around to relish the recordings of opera singers like Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba. (And five decades later, The Ed Sullivan Show presented more opera bookings than its Nielsen ratings indicated was a good idea.)

For all her love of music, Lizzy’s hopes of turning Ed into a musician came to naught. The coins she gave him for piano lessons were diverted to the local movie house, where he spent many afternoons immersed in the chiaroscuro fantasy of that week’s silent two-reeler. He worshipped William S. Hart, who played a rugged stand-alone cowboy hero, mowing down rows of Indians in melodramas like Hell’s Hinges and The Return of Draw Egan.Or, Ed bought a nickel ticket to the traveling vaudeville shows that visited Port Chester, spending Saturday afternoons “marveling at the people who had the nerve to stand in a little white spotlight and dance, or sing, or make jokes.” If no nickel was available, Ed and his cohorts perched on a hill outside town and gawked at the lines of Packards and Pierce-Arrows roaring past en route to collegiate football games.

Although Ed’s mother was gentle, she wasn’t permissive. Right and wrong were clearly defined in the Sullivan home. In one formative episode—which, like most of Ed’s own stories of his boyhood, comes straight from a Norman Rockwell painting—he and some neighborhood boys pilfered a handful of candy from Mr. Genovese’s grocery store. When Ed offered some to his mother and she realized it came from petty theft, she dragged her son back to the store and made him confess to the grocer, after which she paid for the candy.

While the story may be true, its most revealing point is that it was his mother that he offered the candy to. He certainly would not have made the same mistake with his father, whose moral sense had a darker quality. The Sullivans raised chickens to stretch their overstretched budget, and one day a neighbor stole a rooster from their yard. When Ed and his older brother Charles told their father, he glowered at them for not handling the offense themselves—then he jumped the fence into the neighbor’s yard, stormed into their kitchen, took back the rooster, and threatened the family with a thrashing if they laid hand on his property again.

One activity interested Ed above all else: sports. The school day was merely tedium to be endured until he was released to the nirvana of Port Chester’s open fields. Day after day he played anything with a ball—basketball, football, and especially baseball—throwing himself into athletic combat. A naturally strong boy, with tough, sinewy muscles, he was a hard-nosed player. He gave no quarter in the heat of battle. Adding fuel to his competitive spirit, like his father he was prone to storms of temper. “He could be very kind and gentle but he was quick to anger sometimes,” his sister Helen recalled. The ball field warrior often came back from skirmishes with a split chin or a bloodied nose, and at one point, a four-stitch gash over his left eye. Yet he was right back out the next day.

“As an athlete Ed always came back the hero. A bit battered but always the fighter,” Helen said. It was indicative of things to come. He ran, jumped, and rushed on sports teams year round, playing catcher for the baseball squad, running sprints on the track team, elbowing through the opposition on the basketball court. On the football field his rough tackling earned him a broken nose, which he later claimed diminished his sense of smell.

The young athlete contributed to the meager family budget by caddying at the local golf course. At age ten he and his brother Charles walked three miles from working-class Port Chester to affluent Rye, New York, to make 35 cents a round at the Apawanis Club. Ed once caddied for Columbia University president Nicholas Butler, whom he found to be a “real stinker.” Ed told his father, who explained the situation with his usual dour outlook. “You’ll find that all through your life,” Peter said.

Jumping at any chance to play baseball, Ed played in games against teams throughout Westchester County and beyond. Though this was decades before blacks broke the color line in professional baseball, he played against integrated amateur teams. Sharing the field with integrated squads taught him a lesson, he recalled: “When we went up into Connecticut we ran into teams that had Negro players. In those days this was accepted as commonplace, and so my instinctive antagonism years later to any theory that a Negro wasn’t a worthy opponent or was an inferior person.”

His passion for sports didn’t carry over into the classroom. An indifferent student, he suffered by comparison to his straight-A older sister Helen. Ed’s teachers at St. Mary’s Parochial School and later at Port Chester High constantly asked him why he didn’t earn grades like hers. He resorted to some well-timed cheating to pass his Latin class, as one of his teachers recalled: “Luckily, he sat near Bill Cigliano, who apparently took Caesar and Sullivan through Gaul.”

The sole academic subject that captured his attention was English. He read hungrily, submerging himself in tales of knights and jousting, fanciful stories of medieval chivalry and heroic battles between good and evil. He was especially fond of the Scottish historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, who in the early 1800s churned out torrid tales of conquest like The Pirate, Ivanhoe, and Rob Roy. His mother and Helen encouraged his love of reading, and innumerable hours were spent sprawled in the backyard devouring adventure tales.

Early in Ed’s teenage years, Europe was heading inexorably toward war. In the summer of 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, sparking the bloodbath of World War I. Port Chester, with its many European immigrants, was full of talk about the growing conflagration. When President Woodrow Wilson declared war in April 1917, emotions ran high as the draft called Port Chester’s young men to serve. The Port Chester Daily Item ran ads for French and British flags, which townspeople flew to show their heartfelt support for U.S. allies. Ed, caught up in the spirit of the conflict, began to dream of going off to fight in the Great War. Although he was too young, he had friends who were ambulance drivers and he hungered to be part of the action. Ed decided to join the Marines—a decision he didn’t share with his parents.

In the fall of 1917, the sixteen-year-old high school junior dropped out of school to work in a defense factory. Ed’s plan was to save the money for a trip to Chicago, where he would enlist. He could have tried to enlist in New York, but chose Chicago because “the farther I got from home, the safer I was from my father’s anger.” In the late fall, after he earned train fare, he left home without telling his family where he was going.

Once in Chicago, he found a Navy recruiting office, making it through part of the enlistment process using a false name and fictitious Chicago address. He seemed close to attaining his dream of joining the Great War until a military doctor requested his birth certificate. He had no such document with him, and if he had, it would have proven he was too young. Ed left the recruiting center and never went back.

His dream dashed, he found himself at loose ends in Chicago. Developing a backup plan hadn’t crossed his mind, so caught up had he been in hopes for military adventure. Chicago’s winter winds blew fierce and biting, and all Ed had was a light jacket. Completely on his own and almost totally broke—the train fare took most of his money—the sixteen-year-old wandered the frigid big city streets, not sure what to do and feeling like a failure. Briefly, he considered wiring his family for a return ticket, but fear of his father’s wrath kept him from making the request.

He found a room at the YMCA for 25 cents a night. As he walked the streets he enviously viewed the sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in their heavy Navy coats and thick knitted caps. At the Y he heard of a job at the Illinois Central freight yards, so a few days before Christmas he traveled out to the yards, but could find no one to take his application. Out of money and now homeless, he searched for a place to sleep, finding a small area behind some crates of geese next to a radiator. In the middle of the night a workman loading freight onto the train discovered the runaway. The yard bull kicked him awake, but to Ed’s relief—and amazement—instead of forcing him to leave gave him a job.

With classmates at St Mary’s junior high school, 1914. Sullivan is the fourth from the left. (Globe Photos)

Ed pushed hand trucks full of train cargo through the frozen freight yard, working the night shift and sleeping days at the Y. He took the Christmas day shift, relieved to have somewhere to be but feeling deeply sorry for himself. On Christmas morning his mood sunk still further. He walked into the refrigerator compartment and discovered, to his horror, that someone had inadvertently placed in there a crate with two puppies, and they had frozen to death. At the sight of them Ed broke down and bawled in torrents.

Yet he still didn’t want to go home. He left his freight yard job and found employment as a busboy at Thompson’s Cafeteria, still sleeping on a cot at the Y. Finally, wearied and exhausted by his hand-to-mouth existence, he wrote to his brother Charles and told him where he was—the first the family had heard from Ed—and asked for the money to travel home. As he arrived back at the Sullivan house, Ed expected his father to “beat the hell out of me.” But Peter was overcome with joy and relief at seeing his son again, sobbing and throwing his arms around him. “It was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry,” Ed said.

Whether Ed understood it or not, it’s likely that his time in Chicago was largely about running away from his father. Despite the warm welcome home, father and son remained deeply estranged throughout their lives. Years later, Ed’s daughter Betty remembered, “My father was not close to his father—there was some bad blood between them.” At the time of Peter’s death in 1949, Ed had never once brought his only child, then nineteen, home to meet her grandfather.

It’s speculation, of course, but it’s probable that his father’s domineering anger led to the development of Ed’s stiff, overly guarded persona, as if the constant threat from this font of rage necessitated donning a permanent protective armor. His wooden quality, in the view of many who knew him, was much less so offstage; he was much warmer in person. But in the tension of the possibly critical eye of an audience he never escaped it. “Old Stoneface,” as he became known as a show host, may have been a response to or a reflection of Peter’s malcontent. One thing does seem clear: from his father he inherited the burden of a raging temper, which might explode at any time, for slights real or imagined. At times his erupting Vesuvius actually aided Ed, helping him in the heat of competition. But in most instances it weighed him down, especially when it took charge, as was often the case.

Ed seemed to feel completely different about his mother, who acted as his cheerleader and his guiding light. Years later he mentioned Lizzy as he described his philosophy for producing each week’s show. He assembled each program with an eye to how it would play for the four women he most admired: his mother, his wife, his daughter, and his sister. His mother would be foremost in his mind at the arrival of Ed’s only child, whom he named after her. And when he returned to school after running away to Chicago, Lizzy’s guidance played a particularly important role.

Considering his absence, Ed resumed his junior year of high school with little problem, though his grades and his interest in his studies remained marginal. Despite Ed’s academic diffidence, his mother and Helen continued encouraging his interest in reading, and often urged him to work on his writing, which they recognized was one of his natural talents.

In his senior year, Ed combined his writing skills with his love of sports. He approached Tom Blain, the irascible, highly opinionated publisher of the Port Chester Daily Item, and asked to cover high school sports for the newspaper. The publisher agreed, paying Sullivan $1 per article. Ed began writing regularly for the paper. Blain liked the high school student, appreciating that sports seemed to be his greatest inspiration, and began teaching him the newspaper trade. The Sullivan boy began spending many of his afternoons around the offices of the Item.

In Ed’s senior year he glimpsed something else that inspired him: New York City. That fall he went on a date with a Port Chester girl named Alma Burnes, with whom he would be on-again, off-again for a couple of years. They took the train to Manhattan to see a Broadway show, the hit comedy Lightnin’, which ran for over twelve hundred performances. Ed wanted to impress Alma into thinking he knew his way around the city, so he asked Helen to draw him a map. He used it to navigate from Grand Central Station to the show at the Gaiety Theater on 46th Street and Broadway, surreptitiously glancing at the map then proceeding as if he were a native. Though his relationship with Alma came to a natural end, Ed found something permanently enchanting about the city. He began to dream of moving there.

“He didn’t think of Port Chester fondly,” his daughter recalled. “It was a small town and my Dad had visions of a big bustling city.” Ed, in one of his Item articles, wrote, “It is not yet decided if the Saxers’ annual dinner will be in Port Chester or New York City.” It’s unlikely that the baseball team traveled en masse to the city for their annual dinner, but it was apparently Ed’s wish. If the team wouldn’t go there he himself certainly wanted to. He wasn’t ready to make the leap, yet the city’s magnetic pull would soon have an effect on him.

The young athlete: with the Port Chester basketball team, circa 1916. Sullivan is the second from the right. (Globe Photos)

By the spring of 1919, Ed wore two hats—athlete and reporter—and the two roles became one and the same. With his hard-charging competitive spirit he was voted captain of the baseball team, one of his proudest achievements; as a freelance reporter for the Item, he reported on the very games in which he himself played. It was a conflict of interest, to be sure, but one the paper freely admitted on May 20:

“To maintain a position of strict neutrality in the Port Chester-Greenwich athletic engagements is a tough proposition, for it is only human and natural that the contentions of the Port Chester teams should be upheld by our correspondent. The following article is from the pen of our High School writer, who is a member of the team, and therefore hardly in a position to give an unbiased view on the merits of Port Chester’s grievances. It is published as Port Chester’s side of the story.”

The young reporter’s coverage of his own teams was as spirited as it was partisan. “Port Chester High sure came back with a vengeance yesterday afternoon, when they defeated the crack Mount Vernon team to the tune of an 8-2 score,” Ed wrote. Furthermore, he enthused, “Port Chester displayed the same punch and aggressiveness that they showed in the recent Mount Vernon game and outclassed the New Rochelle High School team at every stage of play.” Typical of the sports headlines that spring was “High School Plays Excellent Ball.”

Ed’s own role in these contests was always fully reported. “Sullivan drove in both runners ahead of him with a circuit-clout [home run] into deep center field,” he wrote that summer. “The slugging of Walker of the visitors and Sullivan of the Saxers were added features of the game.”

Covering local baseball for the Item was a taste of celebrity, and Ed loved it. He attracted far more attention as a reporter than he had as an athlete. He clearly relished his reporting, writing lengthy blow-by-blows of the day’s athletic skirmishes, spotlighting his opinions even more prominently than his bat and glove work. In an age before television, before radio became commonplace, the newspaper was the only way for townsfolk to get the full story. And in Port Chester the only source of a complete postgame report was Ed’s animated coverage. The Item, with a daily circulation of thirty-six hundred, spread the name Ed Sullivan to barbershops and taverns and informal bull sessions all over the area.

The young sports reporter became a minor hero in town, finding himself center stage for the first time in his life. It was a feeling he enjoyed, perhaps even craved, immensely.