Broadway - 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)


Chapter 4. Broadway

ED’S COLUMN, ED SULLIVAN SEES BROADWAY, debuted on Monday, July 1, 1931. For someone who professed to not want the job, he jumped in headfirst. He began by taking a broad swipe at his colleagues in the gossip trade, a strategy guaranteed to maximize his profile—they were duty bound to swipe back.

“So many have asked me my sensations in turning from sports to Broadway that I will answer them in this introductory column. I feel, frankly, that I have entered a field of writing which offers scant competition, a field of writing which ranks so low that it is difficult to distinguish any one columnist from his road companies.… I charge the Broadway columnists with defaming the street.”

He proclaimed that his column would not indulge Broadway’s undesirable elements, as his competitors’ did.

“The uppermost stratum of Broadway, as revealed in the writings of its contemporary historians, the columnists, is peopled with mobsters, cheap little racketeers and a vast army of phonies.… As I sat at the gala opening of Hollywood Gardens on Friday night, I marveled to myself.… I marveled at the phonies who were there for no better reason than they had a mad desire to be seen.… They will betray themselves by rushing up to Mayor Jimmy Walker and shaking his hand as an endless stream of pests did on Friday night … they will gape at racketeers and mobsters who are tough killers and can prove it by the list of victims they have shot—always through the back.… I pledge you this huge army of phonies will receive no comfort in this space. To get into this particular column will be a badge of merit and a citation.”

Breaking from the practice of other Main Stem reporters, he announced, his column would not promote the prurient.

“Divorces will not be propagated in this column.… I will always experience greater pleasure in seeing Gus Edwards roadhousing with his wife than in seeing a celebrity flaunting his mistress.… So with high resolve and no fears, I enter upon my career as a Broadway columnist.… I confess that the prospect of competing against the present field leaves me quite cold.… It looks like a breeze and, as Mike Casale would say, ‘Weather clear, fast track.’

P.S. No apprentice allowance claimed.”

When the paper hit the stands the Broadway community was agog. Ed’s debut was the talk of the town. Graphic publisher Bernarr Macfadden wondered if Sullivan could be serious: a clean Broadway column? The publisher of Variety, Sime Silverman, reprinted the column in full, with commentary: “Sullivan is well known, if not famous, as a sports reporter. He will become equally so as a Broadway writer if continuing the way he started. The tabloids have been called the trade papers of the racketeers. Sullivan is on a tab [an apparent reference to the Daily Mirror claim that he was on the mob’s payroll]. His initial outburst sounds as if he intends to disprove the allegation. It’s a great opening.” Many thought the column’s claim of propriety merely funny, like a Burlesque dancer lecturing on grammar. Some speculated it was the columnist’s standard ploy: to gain readers by starting a feud. Winchell and Sobol, understanding that the jabs were aimed directly at them, were incensed.

The evening after his column’s debut, Sullivan ran into Winchell at the Reuben Delicatessen. According to Sullivan, he himself was talkative and Winchell was quiet, until Winchell asked, “Did you mean what you wrote today?” The freshman columnist soft-pedaled his attack, explaining that he had merely wanted to make a dramatic entrance. Winchell said he accepted this as an apology, at which point it was Ed who took offense. The Sullivan hair-trigger temper leaped out of the bag. “I got so mad I grabbed him by the knot in his necktie and pulled him over the table, right on top of the cheesecake. ‘Apologize to you?’ I said, ‘You son of a bitch, I did mean you and if you say one more word about it I’ll take you downstairs and stick your head in the toilet bowl.’ ” In Sullivan’s telling of the story, Winchell then fled the Reuben.

Sobol, in the Journal-American, parried Sullivan’s opening salvo by writing a column entitled “The Ennui of His Contempt-oraries.” Referring to Ed, he archly noted, “Empty vessels make the most sound.”

Sobol’s riposte was standard stuff by the rules of the Broadway gossips; throwing barbs back and forth was part of their stock-in-trade. They were as much performers as the nightclub acts they covered. But for Ed, hypersensitive and in a new situation, it was too much. Sobol’s column enraged him. One evening shortly after it ran, Sullivan ran into Sobol outside a Broadway performance. Ed grabbed his rival columnist and, according to Sobol, bellowed, “I’ll rip your cock off, you little bastard.” Sobol, all of one hundred twenty-five pounds, ducked out of Sullivan’s reach while bystanders held him back.

As if Ed hadn’t vented enough, he also took Sobol to task in his column, writing:

“To my former associates in the field of sports writing, I must report that THIS is a soft touch in an unusually responsive arena.… While all my columning contemporaries are fuming and fretting at my invasion, one of them has even carried his personal alarm into the two-column measure of his daily piece. This particular fellow has never had much competition. He’s got it now. I have not decided whether to chase him over the right field fence or the left field fence. This, however, is purely a matter of route, and immaterial.”

That would be easier said than done. In claiming he would write a Broadway column free of gossip, Ed faced a gaping void. He had to churn out six columns a week, Monday through Saturday, each about fifteen hundred words—an enormous amount of space to fill without the usual patter of petty scandal.

His claim of journalistic piety lasted as long as two bits in a Broadway speakeasy. On Tuesday, one day after his opening roundhouse punch, he wrote a padded piece of treacle mourning vaudevillian Joe Schenck, who had died prematurely. On Wednesday he went back on the attack, decrying the “velvet hammer” of the Broadway drama critics, how they “hem and haw, they beat about the reviewing bush and extract from it critical thorns with which to puncture the hide of agonized producers. Primarily, they seek arty phrases in which to couch their barbs. These, they hope, are destined for mouthing in salon and drawing room.” In contrast, Ed promised, “If I like a show, I will say so without any ambiguity of phrasing which might protect my Variety box score.”

In that same Wednesday column—just forty-eight hours after proclaiming, “divorces would not be propagated in this column”—he included an item about Jack Dempsey’s divorce. Its expense was placing the boxer in “desperate need for ready cash,” Ed wrote. “The ex-champion is seriously considering a fight at Reno against a guaranteed tanker. Dempsey would promote it, and would not have to cut Estelle in on the net.” In one fell swoop he had abandoned his promise and publicized the personal troubles of a friend. It was as if he hadn’t realized how deep the waters would be, and now, not sure if he could swim, was grasping at anything to keep himself afloat. He would print another item about Dempsey in a few months, claiming that the boxer had ducked in and out of New York quickly because of rumored kidnap threats. That column item prompted an angry telegram from Dempsey, which Ed printed: ALWAYS CONSIDERED YOU A FRIEND STOP DIDN’T EXPECT YOU TO WRITE AND PRINT A STORY YOU KNOW IS RIDICULOUS AND WITHOUT FOUNDATION STOP ONE NEVER KNOWS WHAT TO EXPECT THESE DAYS, HOWEVER. JACK DEMPSEY.

By Friday of his first week, it seemed, he was out of material, reduced to a windy paean lauding the glories of opening night. In lieu of actual news, he provided a dollop of pandering to the hometown crowd (and a florid description of the world the twenty-nine-year-old columnist was entering):

“A First-night supplies all these things to all men of Broadway. Gorgeous women flicking red-tipped cigarettes, suave gentlemen suavely tailored, and the whole against a background of curious crowds at the theater entrances, their gaping delight occasionally blotted out by the brawny shoulders of the cops holding them in restraint.… It has a glittering spread to it that reduces the rivalry of other cities to inconsequence. Depreciatingly, these other cities sneer, ‘New York is a sucker town.’ And then these other cities bend frantically to their work in order to get carfare to reach it. For they all want to gaze at the steel-ribbed frame of the ‘sucker city.’ ”

By the end of the month, gossip flowed from the column in a steady trickle. He began regularly including items like “Grover Cleveland Alexander is back with his wife and off the booze.” In mid July he informed readers, “Everyone who played a lead in The Marriage Circle, including Lubitsch, the director, has been divorced.” In August he reported, “Abe Lyman’s sister is returning from the coast … without her hubby.” And shortly thereafter, “Jean Malin belted a heckler last night in one of the clubs.… All that twitters isn’t pansy …”

Walter Winchell described a scene at LaHiff’s Tavern shortly after Sullivan started including gossip. Ed stopped by the bar and joined Winchell and an assortment of Broadway types who were drinking and talking shop. Walter couldn’t resist needling Ed about his journalistic change of heart:

“Eddie,” I cooed, “what happened? Did your editor tell you to get interesting or get out?”

“No,” he sighed. “My wife did.”

Initially, Ed’s job as a Broadway columnist included drama criticism. If dealing with gossip meant swimming in uncharted waters, writing serious theater criticism put him in over his head. Just weeks earlier he had been reporting blow-by-blows from the bouts at Madison Square Garden. Now, having never read a single play, he found himself at the opening night of a production of August Strindberg’s The Father, an intense psychological drama. Sullivan didn’t like the play and made that clear in his review. In his best imitation of a drama critic, he recommended that the playwright rewrite the entire second act. Not until the following day did Ed realize that Strindberg was long dead.

But Graphic readers didn’t pay 2 cents to read in-depth reviews of Strindberg productions, and Ed quickly navigated away from serious theater criticism. Henceforth he would go no closer to legitimate theater than comments like, “those cocktails at Alice Brady’s party would have jolted Eugene O’Neil [sic] into writing a musical comedy.” Instead, Sullivan’s column provided readers with his tell-it-like-it-is descriptions of lighthearted Broadway fare, the broad comedies and showy musicals that lit up the Main Stem.

More than covering light theater, though, Ed’s column created a kind of parallel universe. As the Depression cast deep shadows, even the Graphic’s headlines turned serious: “6,000 Hunger Marchers Set Out for Washington” and “Mid-West Farmer Pays Taxes with Nuts in Lieu of Money.” Ed’s column was a respite from the grimness. He mentioned the Depression, to be sure—it was unavoidable at this point. But more often he wove a pixie-dust fairy tale of Broadway glamour, peopled with big spenders, shapely chorines, and talented showbizzers. This beautiful set had the luxury of falling in and out of love with dizzying frequency, usually at high-class speakeasies where the headwaiter understood the importance of seating stars around the room at a discreet distance.

He didn’t have to invent this world; some vestige of it still existed from before the Crash, and he was quickly invited in. For a columnist who could provide publicity, the invitations were numerous. Ed visited Fred Astaire’s dressing room at the New Amsterdam Theater. The thirty-one-year-old dancer was then appearing in the original Broadway production of The Band Wagon, having yet to make his first trip to Hollywood:

“If you find [vaudeville star] Joe Schenck at Richman’s dressing room, you are more apt to find a Vanderbilt or a Whitney in Astaire’s place. The youthful dancing star claims most of the social set as his bosom pals, or, perhaps I should twist that around and point out that they claim him.

“Fred’s droll colored dresser provides a lighter note for the guests here, providing he knows them. If he likes them, he will even go out of the theater and get them a glass of Fred’s favorite after-performance beverage, milk. Bob Benchley is a member in good standing of the Astaire Dressing Room and Milk-Drinking Benevolent Association.”

Musical theater producers buttonholed the new columnist to hobnob with their stars. “Before Larry Hart and Dick Rodgers left for the Pacific Coast to write songs for Maurice Chevalier’s next picture, I had lunch with them and George Gershwin on Broadway,” Ed reported, as if he dined with Main Stem superstars on a regular basis. It was impossible to say which of that day’s lunch companions was more famous; Gershwin had debuted the groundbreaking Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, and Rodgers and Hart’s bubbly musicals continuously delighted Broadway. “The conversation switched to aviation. We all agreed that we were safer on the ground. Rodgers, who doesn’t like flying, suddenly remembered something. ‘I shouldn’t be opposed to flying,’ he said, ‘for an airplane trip gave me an idea for one of our best songs.’ ” Rodgers, Sullivan wrote, explained that he composed “With a Song in My Heart” after listening to the roar of an airplane engine.

Ed seemed to become fast friends with Florenz Ziegfeld, whose leggy Ziegfeld Follies comedy-dance revue was one of the signature acts of the 1920s. “In a speakeasy the other night, before the ‘Follies’ left for Philadelphia, Flo Ziegfeld chided me for writing that he was sixty-seven years old,” Ed wrote. “ ‘It’s sixty-three,’ protested Ziggie, forgetting that two weeks previous, at the Peacock Ball, he had given me sixty-seven as his correct age.” (Ziegfeld in fact was sixty-three in 1931.)

Sullivan sat in the lobby of the Hotel Warwick with Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor and debated the effect of various theaters on the success of a show. “Jack Benny felt that the Manhattan Theater, the former Hammerstein Theater, contributed to the poor reception of Free for All. Cantor disagreed volubly,” Ed noted. (The Manhattan Theater would later be renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater.)

The columnist sometimes journeyed uptown, to Harlem, to investigate the newest jazz orchestras. He preferred bandleader Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington, a position he conceded was controversial: “I said he would overhaul Ellington … the town giggled at the thought.… But I ask you now … who’s bigger, Ellington or Calloway?”

By the early 1930s, Broadway faced an upstart rival in the business of fame, Hollywood, and this new world was often feted in Ed’s column.

“Every time one of the West Coast picture stars arrives in New York the playboys go into action on all fronts, for it is a particular badge of merit to have wooed and won, even for a fortnight, a movie star…

“You can imagine the commotion that was raised by the Men About Town when the petite Raquel Torres, one of the smarter-looking coasters, detrained in the local trainshed. I don’t blame the local Men About Town for the haste in placing orders at the greenhouses; Raquel is an unusually pretty girl and, in addition, seems to know what time it is without looking at the Paramount Building clock.”

Ed was thoroughly thrilled by his new status as a Broadway chronicler. He had, he admitted, no desire to go back to sports, the field in which he had labored so long to establish himself. “So many have asked my reaction to the new field of work that I will tell them now that Broadway columning is more varied and more interesting than sports columning,” he wrote in September 1931, having launched his column two months prior. “I believe that the people you meet in theater and its wings are, in the aggregate, smarter and more interesting.” If he had been coerced into this job, as he later claimed, he took to it like an actor to the stage.

New York had been a good place to cover sports, but it was the place to report on the breathless business of glamour. “They say that Broadway and 42nd Street is the junction of the universe and it’s about right, at that,” he rhapsodized. “Not many nights ago, I sat in one of the more elaborate speakeasies in the Fifties and marveled at the diversity of life gathered together in one spot.

“There, by the wall, with a blue sailor hat pulled down over her eyes, sat Greta Garbo with Berthold Viertel … on the left side of the room was Harry Richman, matinee idol, and with him was Bert Lahr, comedian of screen and stage [later to play the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz]…two tables to the right … was Jim Turner, vice-president of huge R.K.O.

“Where else but on Broadway would you find all these various types all in the same room, and nobody paying any attention to them.”

For all of Ed’s outwardly jaunty tone, all was not well. He had always been moody, prone to fits of melancholia and sudden anger. But now an event plunged him into a dismal funk. On September 28, 1931, his thirtieth birthday arrived. As he saw it, the day dawned like a late edition headline proclaiming his personal failure. He fell into a gray mood, a cloudy depression as dark as that on the streets of New York. In essence, he felt deeply frustrated at not having achieved more. By external measure he was in splendid shape; not only was he employed, no small achievement in 1931, but at $375 a week he could easily afford to travel in the circles of those he covered. He had just landed a high-profile job that opened doors all over the city. Yet by his self-evaluation he was nowhere.

Years later his daughter recalled, “I remember my mother saying my father was lying on the bed, and it was his thirtieth birthday, and he felt he should have accomplished more than he had.… He was a moody person, he might have even been depressed. In those days we didn’t pay attention to that.”

His wife described that blue mood as “one of the unhappiest days of Ed’s life. I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. There he was looking as if the end of the world had come. Ed felt he was getting old and not getting where he wanted to be.”

As fortunate as his life had been, he hadn’t gained the one thing he so hungered for. “He didn’t have national prominence—and that’s what he wanted,” Sylvia said. “I was perfectly happy with him the way he was but he was born with a desire to be a big success.” This frustrated desire for greater recognition made him “terribly tense,” she said.

What Ed wanted, in short, was to be a star like those he wrote about. He had always idolized athletic heroes—Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Babe Ruth, even perhaps his former fiancée, Olympic gold medalist Sybil Bauer. Now he lived in an even brighter solar system, meeting the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Fred Astaire, Eddie Cantor, and George Gershwin. These were the mythic figures whose names were known coast to coast, who traveled on the gossamer wings of fame and renown. This is what he wanted, but the calendar said he was thirty and it still hadn’t happened. He wasn’t going to give up, of course—the desire, the hunger, burned too fiercely. He wanted to be famous. He was going to have to work on that.

Having violated his vow against gossip early on, after a few months Ed let it fall away altogether, reporting a constant stream of divorces and romantic intrigues. As he wrote about Broadway closets he used a new journalistic convention created by Walter Winchell: a series of phrases connected by ellipses. The effect was freeing, as if journalism, having loosened the moorings of propriety, would now dispense with the tired sentence-period-sentence format. “I linked Thelma Todd to Ronald Colman … That’s wrong … the real romance is with a married man, and it looks like a house wrecking,” he reported. “Claire Windsor, on tour with Jolson’s ‘Wunderbar’…is taking iron injections … She’s still bothered by injuries suffered in the Phil Plant yacht crash … Reid, her coast honey, will join her as soon as he recovers from scars inflicted in an airplane wreck … But I’ll tell you confidentially that there will be no marriage.” In Ed’s column the giddy merry-go-round of love never paused: “The Ginger Rogers—Mervyn Le Roy romance is still blazing, and Ralph Ince is going places with Mervyn’s wife while she awaits the divorce decree.”

The blind items, with no specific names attached, could go that extra step: “conspicuous on the [dance] floor was that well-known widow … with her gigolo.” But even with the names attached the gossip sometimes took a darker turn. “Mrs. Violet Swanstrom plans a doctor’s examination to disprove those drug charges.” The gambling losses of the elite were steady diet. “Al Jolson has sworn off the gee-gees [horse races] for the balance of the season,” Ed reported. And the uncle of CBS radio network head Bill Paley “wound up by blowing $27,000” in an Atlantic City casino, he wrote.

The freshman columnist freely admitted that he was a scandalmonger. In early January Ed described the ethic of the Broadway columnist—now that he was very much one of them:

“The idea is that we go along, in our own humble way, trying to spread seeds of dissatisfaction where orchids grew before … Harmony is our ruin and our downfall … We seek discord, divorce, lawsuits, and you will pardon the smug chuckle as I say: We got them!… We are the vultures winging above the Empire State Building … Eyeing you hungrily … You think at night you are hearing airplanes … not so … that’s us.

“Scandal, gossip, rumor … Founded or unfounded … to us, they’re a wagonload of hors d’oeuvre … Life to us is a bowl of cherries … with the razzes for you … You only offend me when you say, for instance, that I’m constructive … Constructive?… You wound me to the soul … You mean that I don’t hurt your feelings … My gracious, I’m a floperoo … What? Oh, I do belt now and then … Well now, that’s better … I wouldn’t want to think I was smothering to death in a pot of honey … Eh, what?… You have an exclusive story for me … Don’t be crazy … I printed that two weeks ago.”

Paradoxically, as much gossip as Ed shoveled, he presumed to maintain his own sense of the puritanical. He did not, for example, approve of women who told dirty stories: “It puts them in the same catalogue with birds who carry filthy pictures in their pockets … It is an unhealthy lewdness that adds nothing to a girl’s charm … Just as it is an ugly practice for such a talented lyricist as Harold Arlen to write double-entendre lyrics for Leitha Hill.”

Although he was now a Broadway fellow, Ed made it clear he was no dandy. He was, as rival columnist Louis Sobol had described him, “a he-man type fellow.” Perhaps to keep the score clear, Ed wrote regularly of the “pansies.” “Bert Savoy … Effeminate in the days when pansies wore skirts … Today they wear swallow-tails … Fashions change, and the pansies with them.” Yet Ed readily acknowledged that not everyone shared his standoffish attitude. If big money stopped investing in speakeasies, “the late spots will be patterned after the crude loft building which houses the pansy cabaret in the 1200s on 6th Avenue,” he opined. “The pansies, under the leadership of one of their veterans, have rigged out a spot that represents an investment of perhaps $50. Instead of a cash register, they use a butter tub to hold the receipts. Daubs of paint furnish the coloring. Yet Greta Garbo and other celebs storm the place to watch the effeminate men serve hard liquor.”

As Ed mined the gold of celebrity news through the fall and winter of 1931-32, he also reported what he saw as the hidden truth behind its luster: the talented and the famous were not really happy. Underlying the façade of celebrity was a foundation of worry and concern. “Not long ago we had dinner with the Babe Ruths … here must be a happy soul … an orphan boy … greatest idol of the country … at a fabulous salary … playing better than he had ever played, in his thirty seventh year … he had every reason to be happy and content.” But he wasn’t happy, Ed wrote. “He was fretting over his income tax … over the choice of a school for his daughter, Julia.”

No matter who you are, his column explained, happiness is a mere chimera. “I watched Maurice Chevalier … and Walter Donaldson … at Abe Lyman’s opening at Hollywood Gardens … One is the matinee idol of the continent … and the other is one of the great songwriters of all time … These two have the world by the throat … And Lyman is leader of one of the great bands of the country…

“Yet Chevalier was moody … Donaldson was inattentive … Lyman was nervous and upset … What is this thing called happiness?” he asked, rephrasing the lyric to the recent Cole Porter hit, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Part of the problem was Broadway itself. As he saw it, the street was chock full of phonies. It was a theme he returned to again and again. The phonies. He hated them.

“In case you don’t know … a phoney is a pretender … a sham and a larcenous fraud … and what a magnificent collection of phonies on your dear old Broadway … They could call this stretch of pavement Phoney Boulevard … Kept women and kept men … Roues and men-about-town … half-pint racketeers … all in the parade of Boulevard de Phoney … Insincerity marks all of them … the moral paupers of this fastest of all centuries … their ambitions condensed into a single line … ‘Mention me in your column’ … What a magnificent ambition … To crash a Broadway column … They can’t conceive of any decoration to match this one … The poor phonies!”

In January 1932, Ed’s newfound celebrity status afforded him a sought-after opportunity: radio. The medium had arrived by the early 1930s. Although newspaper advertising was eviscerated by the Depression, radio advertising jumped ninety percent in the years following the Crash. Many Americans didn’t have enough money to cover basic necessities, yet radios kept flying off storeroom shelves. Between 1928 and 1932 the number of receivers catapulted from eight million to eighteen million. Part of radio’s attraction was its intimacy. Fans idolized film stars, but radio personalities visited their living rooms. The warmth and immediacy of the medium created a sea change in news and entertainment, and electronic broadcast created a new class of stars. Performers previously limited to a single theater now sang, joked, and told stories to a national audience with the flick of a switch. Many of vaudeville and legitimate theater’s biggest names now angled for a chance in a medium they had at first ignored.

Walter Winchell’s success in radio, through a series of twists and turns, led to the beginning of Sullivan’s broadcast career. Winchell began his radio career in 1929, hired by CBS for a weekly gossip show sponsored by La Gerardine, a woman’s hair tonic. As popular as Winchell was in newspapers, he was born for radio, with an intense, confidential tone that invited listeners into his fantastic milieu of celebrity. The gossip’s stream of wry chatter about the personal and romantic fortunes of Hollywood and Broadway stars entranced the public.

Winchell’s show caught the attention of George Washington Hill, the head of American Tobacco Company. Hill called his ad agency and told them to hire the fast-pattering gossip maven for a show sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes broadcast on NBC. The Lucky Strike program offered Winchell a major step up. The CBS program had paid $1,000 a week; the NBC program offered $3,500 a week and was accompanied by top-flight dance orchestras.

But the sponsor of the CBS program, La Gerardine, wouldn’t let Winchell out of his contract unless he found a replacement. The new hire would need a proper radio voice and good delivery, and was required to bring celebrity guests. Winchell first asked Mark Hellinger, another Broadway reporter. Hellinger turned him down, telling Walter, “I wouldn’t be known as a Winchell imitator for ten thousand a week.” Walter then recommended Sidney Skolsky, a gossip columnist for the Daily-News. Skolsky’s audition served up plenty of show business tidbits but the ad agency found his voice thin and squeaky.

Walter then phoned Ed and recommended he go after the job. Ed’s audition lacked Winchell’s fluid patter, but he had done some emceeing and his column enabled him to deliver well-known guests. La Gerardine gave him the job. His fifteen-minute show on CBS, Broadway’s Greatest Thrills, debuted on January 12, 1932, broadcasting Tuesday nights at 8:45. This was the opportunity he had so greatly desired—radio was an open doorway to fame—and he threw himself into it. To promote the program he took the unusual step of buying his own ad in Variety every week to tout that week’s star.

Using an interview format, he conversed with celebrities about their lives and careers. For his debut show he pulled out all the stops, landing legendary tunesmith George M. Cohan, who, remarkably, had opened a new show on Broadway every year since 1903. The composer-producer told the story of the first performance of his patriotic crowd-rouser “Over There,” during a World War I rally in which Woodrow Wilson was scheduled to attend. Adding a touch of drama, Cohan recalled that when the stage lights went out unexpectedly the audience feared it was sabotage by German spies, until a performer spontaneously broke into “Over There” to inspire the anxious crowd.

Ed only briefly mentioned his radio debut in his column, in a bit of underplayed promotion not characteristic of him. Three weeks later, in an item buried deep in his column, he wrote: “The greatest thrill I got from that first radio broadcast was the very sweet wire from the charming Delores Hutchins, at Loomis Sanitorium.” With time he played up Broadway’s Greatest Thrills much more in his column. After hosting Broadway star Jack Haley (who later played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz), he wrote, “The mail from St. Louis was unusually heavy,” and reprinted part of a Haley fan letter. He worked in a mention of his radio interview of Broadway promoter Earl Carroll, whose greatest thrill was owning his own theater, by reporting that Carroll was now losing it due to the Depression’s downturn.

Ed’s guests that winter included his friend from the Silver Slipper, Jimmy Durante; Broadway actress Helen Morgan, whose career was launched by her version of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” in the 1927 debut of Show Boat; the songwriting team of Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, who wrote the music for the current Broadway hit, George White’s Scandals; Buddy Rogers, a screen idol known as “America’s Boyfriend”; and Ruth Etting, a wildly popular vocalist who would have more than sixty hit records by the end of the 1930s.

On March 29, Sullivan hosted Jack Benny, in the laconic comic’s radio debut. Benny would soon become one of radio’s leading voices, remaining so until the mid 1950s, yet that evening he was only modestly well known, having appeared on Broadway and been a top vaudeville emcee. He began his routine on Sullivan’s show by saying “Good evening, folks. This is Jack Benny. There will be a slight pause for everyone to say ‘Who cares?’ ” That night’s program was a huge hit and Ed recapped their exchange in his column. (Benny reprised the evening on his own show ten years later.)

But Broadway’s Greatest Thrills suffered from a glaring flaw. Ed himself was not making the translation from the printed page to the radio wave. The jocular humor of his column, the sense of a flesh-and-blood Broadway wise guy who provides a peephole to the fantastic, was lost. Radio was an intimate medium, its personalities just a few feet from living room listeners, and Ed was too stiff to create this connection. In its review, Variety made reference to this: “In announcing Sullivan doesn’t go in for gossip such as he partially columnizes each day. Rather, it is straightforward announcing, and in that style. Perhaps this is through the limited time or that Sullivan believes it is sufficient.”

La Gerardine had wanted a replacement for Winchell’s staccato gossip, but Ed was being straight. Too straight, based on the ratings. The broadcast industry’s first rating service, Cooperative Analysis of Broadcasting, or C.A.B. (started in 1929), revealed that not many listeners tuned in to Broadway’s Greatest Thrills. Radio’s most popular show, Pepsodent’s Amos ’n’ Andy, earned a 38.1 C.A.B. rating; plenty of programs earned respectable second-tier ratings, like the Eddie Cantor Show (28.9), Eno Crime Club (22.8), and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra (19.1). Walter Winchell’s Lucky Strike Orchestra earned a 19.6. Sullivan’s show received an abysmal 1.5. There were dozens of programs that earned no rating at all, but among those that were assigned ratings, Ed’s was in absolute last place. The management at La Gerardine wasn’t happy.

In the spring of 1932, Ed juggled his radio program and daily Graphic column. To keep his column current he relied on what he called his “new friends,” a network of Broadway denizens who fed him tips. These sources—bartenders, doormen, and theater staff who were close to the social pipeline—required cash, a generous tip, or a well-greased palm, and Ed kept the dollars flowing. “My operatives never sleep,” he noted.

In one column he wrote a humorous bit about a young source who failed to get him a story.

“At the premiere of Jewelry Robbery he crept up on me and pulled at my coat to attract my attention. ‘Boy, oh boy,’ he gasped. “I had a wonderful story for your column, Mr. Sullivan. I always try to get stories for you Mr. Sullivan!’

“ ‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but when I didn’t see you I gave it to Skolsky.’ With a great show of indignation, your reporter snapped: ‘Well you’re certainly a fine pal. Why didn’t you call Winchell or Hoffman and give it to them, too?’ The youngster smiled with relief: ‘I’ve been waiting for you so I could borrow two nickels to call them.’ ”

But even his myriad operatives couldn’t always keep up with the insatiable appetite of his column, which devoured gossip and celebrity news six days a week. When the pace became too much, Ed was adept at riffing, filling column space with nothing but his impressionistic visions of the Broadway scene, as when he spent a half column describing a gypsy girl waiting for a traffic light to change. Or he provided a touch of sardonic human interest, as when he wrote about a homeless man who was helping fight a fire, only to get roughed up by police when they arrived.

If nothing else turned up he could ruminate on the city’s news. In 1932 gangster Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll was the victim of a mob hit, which put Ed in a philosophical mood:

“The rubbing out of Vincent Coll … as he stood in a telephone booth … Putting the finger on a dial phone … While others were putting the finger on him … Makes you wonder to yourself what were his last thoughts … Only an insane man could be brave when Death cuts in on a busy wire … So if Coll choked up … if his heart struggled to pound out of his casing … And if sickening terror gripped him … He was entitled to that recession in courage … Your last bow belongs to you alone.

“What a dreadful feeling must come over a Coll … As the evil snout of an sub-machine gun adjusts its evil leer … No time to cry out ‘Wait just a minute please’ … No time for explanations … Death has arrived … And the shortest path between two points … Is the path traveled by a leaden bullet.”

Although these unstructured tone poems might have disappointed readers looking for show business news, some of Ed’s riffs provided the clearest glimpse of Broadway—and his life—as he saw it. His days and nights had changed radically since launching his new persona as a gossip maven. As Louis Sobol had predicted, satisfying the demands of his column was all consuming. In February, seven months after it debuted, he acknowledged, “Like Broadway, those of us who traverse it night after night … Are haggard and worn … We, too, slumber with one eye open … Keyed to an unnatural pace.… Restless because of the city’s restlessness … And if our skin is pasty … it is because … Columnists like me … are awake at hours like this … to write columns like this … for you.”

By June, a year after beginning the Broadway beat, the pace of the column had begun to not just exhaust him but to consume him.

“Success on Broadway … that is, considerable success … Is attained at a terrific physical and mental expenditure … Family, friends, particularly the family … Must be subordinated to intense concentration on the angles of a many-angled street … Probably that’s why so many romances crack up here…

“I don’t believe it’s a street for happiness … it’s a street of opportunity … Opportunity for work that yields cash dividends … So, if the people of Broadway expect to be happy they must first slave along the Stem for the dough that will later take them out of the grind … so long as they remain on Broadway, they must expect the nervous tension of ambition.”

The nervous tension of ambition. The pressure of it all was very much on Ed’s mind as the summer of 1932 arrived. He had made it on Broadway, but now events were taking it all away from him. The hook was pulling him offstage.

The Graphic was sinking. The tabloid had long been hemorrhaging money; it was as much as $7.5 million in debt by publisher Bernarr Macfadden’s estimate, though tallies of the paper’s debt varied widely. In a desperate effort to save it Macfadden had tried making the Graphic resemble a legitimate newspaper, publishing only stories that were, roughly speaking, factually corroborated. But it was too little too late. The tabloid that provided Ed his Broadway column—from which all other things flowed—wouldn’t survive the summer. It was common knowledge among employees that they would soon be out of a job.

Making matters worse, he was being replaced on his radio show. As Variety reported on July 5, the La Gerardine company had hired Daily News columnist Sidney Skolsky to host the show. Apparently the sponsor had gotten tired of Ed’s stiff announcing and poor ratings. The show had been his opening, his chance to rise above, to gain recognition and renown. Now his broadcast career was being cut short.

Which meant that Ed was on the verge of unemployment. He had faced joblessness before, on several occasions, but now he had a wife and child at home. And now it was 1932, commonly known as the Depression’s nadir. There were no more jobs to be had, just long lines of hollow-eyed men and women waiting for their daily soup kitchen dole. The nervous tension of ambition, indeed.