The War Years - 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 7. The War Years

New York was miserable in July of 1940. As Ed returned to the Broadway beat late that month, a four-day heat wave hit the city, engulfing the canyons of Manhattan in an oppressive blanket of humidity. So many overheated people thronged to Jones Beach that authorities had to close roads leading to the shoreline. Although America was not yet at war, the headlines made it feel that way. In June the Nazis had overrun France, and each day’s newspaper blared the grim developments in bold, oversized type. Dark times lay ahead. Furthermore, the economic hardship of the Depression, though only a wan shadow of its former self, meant New Yorkers were still far from flush.

Ed’s mood mirrored the city’s funk. In the debut of his relaunched Broadway column, now dubbed Little Old New York, he portrayed his move back to the city as his fondest wish. “When I asked the boss to transfer me to New York, he wanted to know the reason and I told him that after all, this was my city, where I’d been born and lived … No city ever has been so kind to me,” he claimed, disingenuously. Having no news, he riffed through his twelve-hundred-word column, explaining that this time around his beat would be bigger than Broadway, it would encompass the city in its entirety. “No one will be too big or too small to get entree to this column … through these portals will pass the most beautiful and the least lovely characters of Baghdad-on-the-Subway: the only ticket of admission they’ll need to this daily vaudeville show, two columns wide, will be a common denominator of interest to all of us.”

But his frustration that summer spoke large between the lines. Because he wrote five pieces a week his column had always been a diary of sorts, no matter how happy a face he attempted. In early August, Ed’s replacement on the Hollywood beat, John Chapman, was writing about the joys of Beverly Hills and the hot news from Hal Roach Studios (where Ed, had his collaboration with Roach not been a failure, might now be a hitmaker). Seemingly in response, Ed devoted a column to fallen stars of all kinds, individuals who had risen high only to see their dreams dashed. Joe Helbock, onetime owner of the Onyx Club, was now a bartender at Ben Marden’s Riviera. Rube Marquard, once a pitcher for the Giants, was now a pari-mutuel ticket seller. However, Ed reported, these frustrated dreamers were gamely coping. “Instead of sitting in the corner and moping about the injustice of the current setup, they’ve adapted themselves to the changed conditions and altered circumstances and are working it out the hard way.”

Indeed he would not sit in the corner. If he could not be a film star, then he would throw himself into emceeing and stage producing with more passion than ever before. He moved his family into the Hotel Astor in midtown Manhattan so he could be across the street from Loew’s State Theatre, on Broadway and 45th Street. He seemed unaware that the unsavory center of New York’s theater district was no place to raise a child. The Depression had stripped the luster from the city’s once-glorious core, and a cadre of sleazy burlesque houses was taking over the neighborhood. The Times Square area was on a downward slide that, by the 1950s, would make it a haven for drug dealing and prostitution. The neighborhood was full of seedy types, and ten-year-old Betty sometimes had to step around drunks to get to school. “It was a terrible place for a young kid to be,” she recalled.

But Ed felt compelled to be close to the theater. His Daily News salary was more than sufficient to live in a nicer neighborhood, but Loew’s State drew him like a moth to a flame. It was where he wanted to spend most of his days and nights. Not that this seemed to afford him any great joy. His ulcer was giving him hell; the family’s small suite had no refrigerator so he kept a carton of milk on the windowsill for his frequent nocturnal battles with stomach pain.

By the end of August, Ed mounted a new variety revue at Loew’s State. As before, his stage show was updated vaudeville. Providing a contemporary feel were the recent Harvest Moon Ball winners, swing dancers who juked and jived to Big Band music; harking back to vaudeville’s roots was Dave Vine, a Jewish dialect comic. Also on the bill were vocalist Luba Malina, singing Spanish tunes (the fashion that year favored all things South American), and the Paul Remos acrobats, tumbling and twirling. As always, Ed was both emcee and producer. He “headlined” the show as its emcee, with his name in block letters on the marquee, yet his more important role was shaping the program. He chose the acts and determined their order, creating the pace and feel of the show, standing just offstage to gauge audience response, making adjustments based on his instinct. Judging from ticket sales, he had a knack for this; his first show was held over into September and Loew’s State management gave him an open invitation to produce more.

But he didn’t want to be there. He couldn’t get over his desire to live on the West Coast, and Hollywood kept calling to him like a song he couldn’t get out of his mind. In mid November, Ed made a surprise announcement: He was leaving the Daily News to take a job as the editor for the Hollywood Reporter, a film industry trade paper. In addition to being its editor he would write some of its movie reviews, making him a Hollywood tastemaker. He had also arranged with his current syndicator, the Chicago Tribune—New York News Syndicate, to write a feature every Sunday about screen stars. He gave his two-week notice to the News; his last day at the paper would be December 2, after which he would move back to Hollywood.

News publisher Joseph Medill Patterson was on a Florida fishing trip with his wife that week. But on November 16 he interrupted his vacation to telegram a paternal appeal to his star columnist: “If you can better yourself permanently, I would not wish to stand in your way. Mary [Patterson] suggests your health might be involved and that, of course, is a matter you know best. But I want to make it clear I consider you one of our best men and that, rebus sic stantibus [as matters stand], you can stay with us as long as you want.”

That was a seductive offer. Ed had navigated the choppy seas of newspaper job-hopping in his twenties; reporter-editor posts tended to come and go, but his Daily News column had the feeling of permanency. Patterson made it clear: if you stay with us you have job security. So he made his decision: he would forego his dreams of Hollywood for the stability of the News. Ed explained his change of heart to reporters by saying that he was staying at the News“because of his high regard for Captain Patterson.” The telegram from Patterson, in fact, became a prize possession he dug out when the slings and arrows of his columnist’s life became too much.

Like it or not, he was now a New Yorker again. He was home for good.

Crazy with the Heat appeared to be a doomed Broadway show when it opened in January 1941. The two-act revue rambled through an ill-fitting medley of comedy and dance routines, guided by a mere wisp of a story line. In theory, the show had been improved by revisions in smaller cities before opening in New York, but its Broadway premiere still presented a work in progress. Produced and directed by Kurt Kasznar, a twenty-seven-year-old Viennese actor, the production survived a scant seven performances before closing. A phalanx of uniformly negative reviews turned it into an instant money pit for its investors.

For Ed, the failed show offered an opportunity to become a Broadway producer. He decided to take over the show, revamp it, and then relaunch it. Entering into negotiations with the show’s various parties, he convinced the theater owner to host it with no additional rent payments, and won concessions from the Actors Equity Association and Musicians Local 802. After raising $20,000, he reshaped the production, pruning and adding based on critics’ reviews and his own stage sense. He added a pair of ballroom dancers, Mary Raye and Naldi, who were considered the city’s finest; vocalist Carlos Ramirez parodied an excerpt from the opera Figaro; comedian-pianist Victor Borge goofed through a comic turn; a black tap-dance team, Tip, Tap & Toe, soft-shoed in both acts; Betty Kean tap-danced and told jokes; original stars Willie Howard and Louella Gear provided the show’s thin continuity in a series of comic sketches; and songwriter Lew Brown helped with the music direction. As Ed described it, “We are taking the constructive criticism offered by the critics … and are going ahead with a $3.30 top.” Although the show had just closed on January 18, he had it ready for its second debut on January 30.

The critical response, though still not enthusiastic, was markedly better. “Being a person of unusual compassion, Ed Sullivan, the celebrated columnist, hated to see all the good things go to waste in Crazy with the Heat, which succumbed to prostration nearly a fortnight ago,” wrote The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson. “With the assistance of Lew Brown, songwriter and beer jongleur, he revived it last evening at the Forty-forth Street Theatre in an improved condition.” Atkinson noted, however, that the show still lacked the material for a first-rate revue, and audiences agreed. Crazy with the Heat ran just ninety-two performances. Still, after it closed on Broadway, Ed revised it again, booking a pared-down version into Loew’s State, where he gave it a lengthy run. With its odd melange of fast-moving acts the show was better fit for vaudeville than Broadway.

As the show was running, so was the rumor mill. Ed, or so some said, was having an affair with one of its actresses. Who the actress was remains unclear because Ed maintained discretion, whatever the extent of the dalliance. Yet knowledge of the affair seemed widespread. In 1941, Walter Winchell began a very public romance with Mary Lou Bentley, a leggy twenty-year-old showgirl. All Broadway columnists followed an unwritten rule that prohibited the reporting of affairs involving anyone who was married, as was Winchell, unless they were clearly separated from their spouse. A blind item was permissible but naming the participants was forbidden (and the Daily News’ editorial policy also forbade it). But Ed, always envious of Walter, tried to include an item about Winchell and Bentley. After News editor Dick Clark deleted it, Ed ran into his office screaming, wanting it put back in before publication. Clark calmly explained to the columnist that if the item ran, Winchell would take revenge by printing bits about Sullivan’s own affairs. Ed decided it was best to let the matter drop.

Whatever romance Ed may have been having during Crazy with the Heat’s run on Broadway, it must have been on-again, off-again; he flew down to Miami Beach that winter for his first of many annual two-week press junkets. Perks for columnists were numerous but this all-expense-paid trip was one of the dearest. Ed stayed in a lavish penthouse suite and the staff feted him like royalty. “By day a columnist surveys the trimly proportioned misses lounging around the beach or around the pools; by night he sits at ringside tables of Florida clubs and is entertained by the cream of the performers,” he reported. In exchange he wrote glowing reports about the joys of Miami tourism, though he noted that the city suffered a severe crime problem. He could be influenced, but, his caveat seemed to say, he could not be bought.

Soon after the Eastern Airlines Douglas airliner returned him to New York, he began laying the groundwork for another radio program. Producing stage shows was lucrative, but true fame required getting inside the living room radio; the most successful stage performers resembled mere understudies next to broadcast stars. Debuting on April 27 on WABC, the new program was a weekly talk show, every Sunday night at 6 P.M. As the headliner, Ed alternated between interviewing guests and sprinkling celebrity pixie dust, offering an insider’s glimpse into Broadway and Hollywood by reprising his column.

Accompanying him were drummer-comedian Ray McKinley and vocalist Terry Allen, with Will Bradley’s orchestra vamping swing music. Sponsored by the International Silver Company, the show was titled Summer Silver Theater. The network clearly viewed the thirty-minute program as a seasonal replacement for its serial radio drama, but with luck—in the form of high ratings—the show would earn its own time slot when fall arrived. To boost ratings, Ed used his column’s influence to cajole appearances by some big names, like Eddie Cantor and bandleader Tommy Dorsey, though most of the guests were only modestly known.

Throughout the summer, Ed’s radio program, vaudeville shows at Loew’s State, and daily column became a circular path for performers. Once the showman-columnist invited them in he could circulate them between the three. That a singer had performed at Loew’s State gave him reason to tout him or her in his column; once the singer appeared on his radio show, he or she could be introduced at Loew’s State as having just been on the air. In the early summer, Gertrude Niesen, a popular big band chanteuse, performed in his Loew’s State show, sang on his radio program, and enjoyed plugs in his column. It was his own one-man show business circuit, a revolving platform for singers and comics, a cross-venue promotional device placing the name Ed Sullivan front and center in print, on marquees, and over the airwaves.

For a short time, that is. On September 28 the radio show saw its last broadcast. True to the original schedule, Sullivan’s program proved to be simply a summer replacement. Huge listener interest, of course, would have won it another spot, but that hadn’t materialized. Ed’s latest attempt to launch a broadcast career lasted slightly longer than five months.

Toward the end of the year it finally happened. After long and rancorous national debate about whether to intervene, and years of anxious anticipation, events forced a decision. On December 8, 1941, the Daily News reported the previous day’s carnage in type so large that only three words fit on the front page: JAPS BOMB HAWAII.

Although Ed, a forty-year-old family man, wasn’t going to don a uniform, he threw himself into the war effort as if he had. As his age had kept him from the first war it also kept him from this one, yet he was as eager to take part now as when he ran away to join the Marines at age sixteen. The News had been isolationist, and Ed had nominally echoed this. As late as February 1941 he dashed off column asides like, “At any continental dinner party Uncle Sam always gets stuck with the check.” But with the attack he was ready. That June, six months before Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to be an air-raid warden, part of the city’s new civil defense plan; in the event of German attack each district’s air-raid warden would coordinate its response. Ed signed up the first day the program was announced. (And he wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm. “Chinese, Italians, Germans, Jews, and Irish all appeared to respond,” reported The New York Times.) And in May he had joined Irving Berlin, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, and others at the Greek Festival for Freedom, a fund-raiser for the Greek war-relief effort.

Suddenly, life moved faster. Slapped awake by Pearl Harbor, New York no longer slogged along in its late Depression funk. One month after the attack, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared a six-day work week for city employees, and the city’s nightlife, as if responding in kind, also sprang to life. “Nightclubs did a terrific business starting Friday night … All joints jammed,” Ed reported in January. The Copacabana started including table maps showing all fire exits, and the Stork’s receipts soon leaped by more than thirty percent. But as fast as the city would spin, Ed would spin still faster.

His primary battle had always been his career, his indefatigable effort to push his star higher. The war, and indeed nothing, would ever interrupt this. But the war required him to redouble himself, because he would also be needed—and would answer the call eagerly—for war benefit drives, hospital shows, and a plethora of fund-raising personal appearances.

In the few short months before war rallies became a steady drumbeat, Ed launched his second Broadway show, this one an all-black production in partnership with Noble Sissle. A fifty-one-year-old composer and bandleader, Sissle cowrote the hit “It’s Your Fault” with pianist Eubie Blake, and would win a posthumous Tony Award for Best Original Score in 1979 for the Broadway musical Eubie. When Ed began their collaboration, Sissle’s orchestra was the house band for Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe club, a fashionable Manhattan nightspot.

Sullivan, as producer and codirector, and Sissle, as codirector and performer, conceived of a rollicking, high-energy revue. They recruited the stars of black vaudeville: Moke and Poke, the 5 Crackerjacks, the Harlemaniacs, Pops and Louie, and several others, with Sissle himself performing two numbers. In a nod to the headlines, some of the vocalists dressed as air-raid wardens, and a sketch portrayed a young man grappling with a draft questionnaire. Opening at Broadway’s Ritz Theater in May 1942, Harlem Cavalcade offered a fresh twist on Ed’s variety shows. The production presented vaudeville as practiced above 125th Street, in the neighborhood to which the show paid homage.

As The New York Times described it, “Harlem Cavalcade goes in for dancing, swing, stomp, for the blare of the trumpet and the shuffle of feet, for the golden tooth widely shown, for eagerness and cheer.… On the stage of the Ritz they are hopping and bouncing, they are dancing tap and tumble, they are singing swing spirituals and popular songs.… No doubt about vaudeville’s coming back.”

For all its kinetic high spirit, an all-black vaudeville show was not well-suited for Broadway. The only black-themed Broadway production to have done passably well had been George Gershwin’s classic Porgy and Bess in 1935, and even that was a financial loss in its first run, playing only one hundred thirty-five shows. Harlem Cavalcade saw just forty-nine performances. However, like Ed’s first Broadway show, Harlem Cavalcade enjoyed its greatest success in its post-Broadway run. Sullivan and Sissle booked it into Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where it played a long run of four shows daily at prices ranging from 20 to 55 cents. Despite the show’s short Broadway run, it displayed a key aspect of Ed’s success as a producer: the ability to work with and appreciate black performers, which benefited him greatly in the years ahead.

While Harlem Cavalcade was showing uptown, Ed helped organize war benefits in midtown and downtown. The first, in June, by The Yiddish Theatre Division for Army and Navy Relief at the National Downtown Theater, featured skits by Menasche Skilnick and Aaron Lebedeff and a chorus of a hundred. The second, in July on the steps of the huge public library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, was a massive war bond rally. A crowd of twenty thousand gathered to see Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and a cast of Broadway stars, along with a swing orchestra, with Ed as emcee. The makeshift stage was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, a coast guard lifeboat, and a seventeen-hundred-horsepower airplane engine. Rain interrupted the event; the audience screamed and laughed as thunderclaps competed with the swing band. As the storm cleared, the crowd, drenched but undeterred, kept raising its bids and buying more stamps and bonds from the volunteers walking among the throng. “Triumphantly at the end, the master of ceremonies, Ed Sullivan, newspaper writer and columnist, announced the total of $1,405,000 in bonds and $30,000 in stamps as ‘an American record,’ ” a reporter wrote.

As soon as the war bond rally ended, Ed began organizing an even bigger extravaganza, a benefit for Army Emergency Relief at Madison Square Garden on September 30. As chairman of the entertainment committee, he worked the phones to enlist a glittering crowd of his Hollywood and Broadway contacts: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Barbara Stanwyck, and many others. Working double-time, he simultaneously produced and emceed a Loew’s State vaudeville show, hosting his usual hodgepodge of singers, jugglers, and comics. After opening in August, the Loew’s State show’s brisk ticket sales kept it running into September, ending just in time for Sullivan to emcee the war benefit at Madison Square Garden, which raised $203,000.

In November, he helped with a United Jewish Appeal benefit attended by twenty thousand people, sharing master of ceremonies duties with Milton Berle and Henny Youngman. In December, he headed the entertainment committee for a Police Athletic League event seen by eighteen thousand, featuring Hollywood and Broadway actors. In January, he took part in a United Service Organizations (USO) show at the Waldorf Astoria, and in February, he led the entertainment committee for the annual Israel Orphan Asylum benefit. While working on these events—and continuing to write his daily column—he launched a winter version of his Loew’s State revue, starring the Louis Jordan swing orchestra, impressionist Neal Stanley, and harmonica player John Sebastian. As this closed he began putting together the largest single war benefit to date, for the American Red Cross at Madison Square Garden. It featured a mock striptease by a group of male movie stars; appearances by Helen Hayes, Ray Milland, and Ozzie Nelson; and a three-hundred-seventy-five-member chorus singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” To increase contributions, Sullivan named the box seats after recent war heroes and charged $5,000 apiece; front row seats were $100. The April benefit raised $249,000.

In addition to his whirlwind of war benefits, Ed organized a constant stream of celebrity-filled shows at New York—area hospitals filled with wounded soldiers. He often recounted moments from these shows in his column, always in highly emotional terms. Typical of his anecdotes was one from a variety revue he put together at Staten Island’s Halloran Hospital, starring comedienne Beatrice Lilly, Jimmy Durante, and Peg Leg Bates. In the show, Durante reprised his wildly physical 1920s act from Club Durant in which he tore apart a piano, hurling the pieces pell-mell through the hall. After his act, standing offstage with Ed as Peg Leg Bates performed, Durante pointed out two soldiers. “Then I noticed the tears on his face,” Ed wrote. “ ‘Ed,’ he said, in that hoarse whisper, ‘take a look at those two kids out there.’ He indicated two youngsters, one a lieutenant and the other a G.I., each of whom had lost an arm … They were applauding Peg Leg Bates. With great spirit and not the slightest self-consciousness, they were clapping their hands—the lieutenant’s left against the G.I.’s right.”

Ed’s story of the one-armed soldiers clapping was, to some, quite maudlin, though few would have carped about such a thing at the time. But his constant reports of his own exploits in aiding the war effort—myriad items like “Editorialists throughout the land are praising this column for suggesting the idea of the Carole Lombard Bond Memorial”—did earn him critical flak. Harriet Van Home, a World Telegram & Sun reporter whose trenchant wit resembled Dorothy Parker’s, wrote a parody of a Sullivan column and tacked it up on the newsroom bulletin board. Her editor liked it so much he printed it in the paper. Sullivan, livid, dashed her off a furious letter.

The trivia of Broadway romance still played a major role in his column, but this ephemera was now heavily overweighted by war chronicles. Almost every column reported tales of soldiers on the front, war rally schedules, Ed’s comments on a battle’s progress, or the effect of government rationing: “Erasers on pencils out for the duration!” he reported, and, “The wolves no longer offer etchings … The switch: ‘Come up and see my nylon stockings.’ ” Even upcoming birth announcements, formerly reported as “a visit from Sir Stork” were now written as “The Lieut. Douglas Fairbanks Jrs. expecting a little ensign.”

He frequently printed letters from soldiers that pointed to his own connection with the troops: “Dear Ed: From us fellows in the 340th Bombardment Group, whom you mentioned in a column in mid June … Most of the gang who read your article got so swell-headed that we’ve been going around hatless.”

And: “Dear Ed: Over here in England, some of us got to thinking about songs that were popular when we were back home. The one we all remembered was Joe E. Lewis’ ‘Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long.’ Can you get the words of it from Joe for us, and in return we’ll send you lyrics of our marching song, ‘Dirty Gertie from Bizerte.’ If you run this letter with our names, please send us a copy so we can be G.I. hotshots.”

The most notable of his war-related columns told the story of Arthur Ford, a critically wounded soldier from Midgeville, Georgia, in a ward at New York’s Halloran Hospital. In his telling, Ed had sort of adopted the soldier, working to cheer him as he struggled to live: “ ‘Would you like to meet Jack Benny?’ I asked him, and then he grinned and whispered: ‘Stop your kidding.’ … so I got Jack from another ward, and so strong is training that the badly wounded boy asked me if his hair was combed right … ‘Want to look my best when Mister Benny comes in,’ he explained weakly.”

The Benny visit buoyed the soldier and Ed told him that he would soon return with more celebrity visitors. “ ‘Maybe I won’t be here,’ he whispered. ‘I don’t feel too hot, Mister. They got me right through the stomach’ … So I pretended to bawl him out, and told him he’d BETTER be there when we came back to the ward in two weeks, figuring that if he had some definite date to look forward to, it would keep him holding onto life … we shook hands on it.” Ed kept calling the hospital and “Each succeeding telephone call confirmed the optimistic news … Ford was holding his own.” The soldier’s condition, in fact, seemed to be improving while waiting for Ed’s visit with a celebrity. However, “After keeping that date, the worn boy died that night, very peacefully.”

Ed’s column about Arthur Ford concluded with a statement addressed to his family:

“In his last struggle, they should know that their son, or brother, was not a small-town Georgia boy alone in a big city of Yankees … He was with people who considered him one of their own, and when he died, in the North, of wounds received while landing on a faraway shore, we regretted it bitterly, while acknowledging that the wearied and wounded boy finally had found the one opiate to ease his pain.”

The column displayed the two sides of Ed simultaneously. Certainly it showed him to be the egoist whom Harriet Van Home had skewered, the reporter who relentlessly detailed his own good work, with a dollop of saccharine rivaling that in any of the war movies now flooding theaters. Yet coming when it did, during some of the war’s darkest days, his homespun elegy resonated deeply with his readers. The piece was Ed at his most empathetic, a touch of the blue-collar poet, and it was read on the radio and reprinted by organizations promoting war bond drives.

But it wasn’t enough for him. All of it—the personal appearances, the syndicated column, the long-running vaudeville shows, being a well-known New Yorker—only left him wanting more. The things he had achieved only served to point out the one thing he hadn’t achieved: fame. And nothing made that disparity more galling than comparing himself with Walter Winchell.

Winchell had been on the radio nonstop since he and Ed were at the Graphic, and now Winchell’s show, a half hour of incantatory gossip delivered in a transcendental manic staccato, was followed ritually by nearly a quarter of all Americans. In contrast, Sullivan had never succeeded in getting a show past the six-month point. Winchell was wealthy; Sullivan lived in the Hotel Astor, a residential hotel in a seedy neighborhood. Winchell was courted by Hollywood; Sullivan had been a flop in Hollywood. Winchell was nationally known; Sullivan was a New York celebrity. They both stood on the same pedestal—newspaper columns—but Walter had reached so much higher. In short, Walter was famous, and Ed, clearly, was not.

In Ed’s moodier moments—and he had many of them—he felt this difference acutely. At some point, there’s no record of exactly when, he began to shave a year off his age, as if he was born in 1902 rather than 1901. (He stuck to this so consistently that even the Webster’s Dictionary entry about him lists his birth date as 1902.) He felt he had not accomplished enough for his age. As his father had before him, Ed felt frustrated by his status in life. Something essential was lacking.

Radio was the vehicle that propelled Winchell from mere notoriety to true stardom. Outside of film it was the only medium that pushed a performer, not his words on paper, into the lives of his fans. No amount of vaudeville appearances could compete with the fame-creating magic of the airwaves. Ed, in 1943, saw that now was his time to make a major effort in radio. Regardless of how busy he was, how breakneck his schedule, the time was now. With his war-related columns and his constant high-profile event hosting, his star shone its brightest, his name on more lips and marquees than ever before. It was the time to parley his notoriety into a successful radio show, and finally achieve the fame he had so long desired.

He told his readers the big news on September 11, 1943, in a column entitled “My Secretary, Africa, Speaks.” (The “secretary” format was an imitation of a Winchell trope in which he wrote his column as if it was a note from his personal secretary.) His “secretary” that day wrote her boss an excited note: “Your CBS radio program tees off Monday night at 7:15 o’clock! Nervous?”

Unlike Ed’s earlier radio shows, mostly straightforward productions, his new program was high concept. Entitled Ed Sullivan Entertains, it broadcast from the swank Club 21 nightclub, with the background chatter of the Manhattan nightspot lending urban cachet; as Winchell seemed to allow listeners into the mystique of celebrity lives, so Sullivan would present the ambiance of the smart set. The show more overtly copied Winchell in its signature sound: Walter opened with an urgent telegraph effect; Ed opened with the clickety-clack of a Remington typewriter.

Winchell, of course, never had guests; they would have broken the runic trance of his manic delivery. Ed, with a budget provided by sponsor Mennen Shave Cream, booked the biggest stars available, including Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, and Ethel Merman. Along with stage and screen stars he invited little-known personalities from various walks of life, much as he mixed the famous and the hoi polloi in his column.

The show played as if it were capturing Ed in his nightly club hopping, with many of the guests just “dropping in” to say hello to the well-known columnist. (In reality, the show originated from a roped-off area upstairs, so no one just happened by.) A fifteen-minute program, with a commercial break and a newsflash from the Daily News “newsroom,” Ed Sullivan Entertains moved at an urban pace; no one took the microphone for very long.

In the show’s debut evening, Ed chatted with Irving Berlin about composing “White Christmas,” which won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Song and topped the charts for eleven weeks, no doubt partially spurred by wartime family separation. For all the tune’s popularity, Berlin that night said his favorite of his own songs was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the theme to the movie Ed had touted during his Hollywood stint. Also chitchatting with Ed were Marine private Dana Babcock, and the wife of actor Gilbert Roland, then in the military. The guest who “happened by” was actor Melville Cooper, who recently played a supporting role in the Henry Fonda-Maureen O’Hara tearjerker Immortal Sergeant.

Reviews were generally positive, about the show itself if not its host. One critic apparently struggled to find something positive to say about its headliner: “Although Sullivan’s voice did not have the weight and authority for this kind of work, it’s no drawback. Different type pipes are welcome.” Variety observed that the Marine seemed more comfortable at the microphone than anyone, but that the show was “a bright quarter hour, having more substance than the usual celebrity interview session in that a name emcee, Sullivan, himself no slouch as a conferencier, is at the helm.”

Because he was so determined to succeed, Ed took the unorthodox step of scripting the entire show—including many of the guests’ responses. The resulting exchanges were highly unnatural, as when Sullivan invited new crooning sensation Frank Sinatra on a show with aging vaudevillian Bert Wheeler. Ed suggested that the veteran Wheeler give young Sinatra some singing advice. Wheeler hesitated, after which Sinatra—in surely the most unlikely request the singer ever made—eagerly implored him to provide vocal coaching. Finally, Wheeler relented:

Wheeler: Well, Frank, it seems to me that you stand too close to the mike.

Sinatra: Well, that’s easily corrected. How far away from the mike should I stand?

Wheeler: If the mike’s here, I’d say you ought to stand around Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Sinatra: Uh-huh. Any other suggestions?

Wheeler: Get a collar that fits you. Your collar always looks as though it’s crawling up to whisper in your ear.

Sinatra: Check—anything else?

Wheeler: Yes, comb your hair. Just once, comb your hair, and get out of mine.

Not surprisingly, listeners found the canned exchanges far from enchanting; three months into its run the show earned a mediocre 6.4 Hooper rating. That wasn’t all the way at the back of the pack, but it was far from the Bob Hope Program at 31.6, Walter Winchell at 22.4, or Fred Allen’s Texaco Star Theater at 19.8. The sponsor, Mennen, didn’t see enough interest to justify the expense, and Ed Sullivan Entertains was canceled in June 1944. The only consolation for its host, if any, was that its nine-month run was almost twice as long as any other Sullivan show.

Despite the doldrums of his broadcast career, Ed’s lifestyle improved markedly in 1944. A friend of his, Jerry Brady, sat down with him and Sylvia for an earnest conversation. Brady, as Betty recalled, “didn’t think it was appropriate for us to be living at the Astor Hotel with a young girl.” The couple agreed—the threadbare Astor was no place to raise a child—and the family moved into a suite at the Delmonico, at Park Avenue and 59th Street. Their apartment in this deluxe residential hotel bore little resemblance to their home at the Astor. Located in one of Manhattan’s most desirable neighborhoods, the luxurious three-bedroom suite on the eleventh floor came complete with maids and room service. Its kitchen facilities were almost nonexistent, but Ed and Sylvia had no desire to eat at home; as always they dined out nearly every evening.

Moving to the Delmonico was a happy day for Betty. Even getting to class at Mary-mount, an all-girls Catholic school on the Upper East Side, was easier. “I couldn’t believe I was going to live on Park Avenue and didn’t have to walk blocks across Broadway to get the bus to go to school.” At the Astor, Betty had eaten many of her dinners with a paid companion, a woman named Paula, often going to a restaurant across the street from the hotel called Child’s. After moving to the Delmonico she still ate most of her meals with Paula, but on certain evenings the young teenager accompanied her parents to dinner. They made the rounds of tony restaurants like the Colony or Pavillion. On Wednesdays, the family typically went to Toots Shor’s, one of the city’s best-known celebrity haunts. Their dinners were lengthy, with Ed and Sylvia talking about events of the day and Ed chatting with passersby.

As a father, Ed’s expressions of affection came in small, restrained doses. An occasional brief hug was “overdoing it,” as Betty remembered. This same sense of being removed, of distance, defined his relationship with most of the people around him. “He was sort of a loner,” his daughter said. Betty saw her father as single-mindedly determined to succeed, and in this drive leaving behind some of life’s small rituals of friendship and family recreation. Her view was echoed by Ed’s grandson, Rob Precht, who spent considerable time with his grandfather, and who described Ed as “an intimate stranger.”

Certainly he inspired great affection on a personal level. Bill Gallo was a young cartoonist with the Daily News in the 1940s who knew Sullivan well, and sometimes went to lunch with him. “He was one of my heroes,” recalled Gallo. “He was the newspaperman that all the kids wanted to be.” Being out every night, socializing with the famous, having a huge readership—it all looked good to Gallo. “He was the personification of a star. He carried that aura about him like it was built in,” he remembered. “He was a regular guy, there was nothing uppity about him, no pomposity. And he didn’t just try to be a nice guy—he was a nice guy.” Gallo’s comments concurred with those of many who knew Sullivan personally. Despite the stiff personality he projected on television years later, on a one-on-one basis he had great social ease, even charm, and spoke to anyone as an equal, whether the person was a cab driver or a major film producer.

Yet the social ease extended only so far. The wall remained. Ed’s inner reserve, the sense of apartness right underneath his man-about-town affability, stayed firmly in place. For all his limitless list of friends and contacts, his life was essentially a solo voyage.

Although the war’s end brought a halt to the steady stream of bond rallies Ed organized, his career as an emcee and event producer stayed just as busy. He had become the first person almost any organization called, producing and hosting events for an unlikely quilt of entities, from B’nai B’rith to the League of Catholic Charities. Down in Miami for his yearly press junket, he hosted a hospital dedication show with comedian Jack Carter, the Ames Brothers, and singer Theresa Brewer. He traveled to Philadelphia and put together an event for the Poor Richard Society with vocalist Patti Page, comic Victor Borge, and ventriloquist Senor Wences. He took singer Vic Damone and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker up to the Catskills to emcee a birthday bash for Jenny Grossinger, owner of the famed Borsht Belt resort. He traveled to Boston to put on a show for the Maris Nuns, and drove to his hometown of Port Chester to emcee for the Marching and Chowder Society.

In March 1946, the White House Correspondents Association invited Ed to be master of ceremonies at an event honoring President Harry Truman. After the eight hundred guests tried the new wheat-saving dark bread, professional and amateur entertainers performed comedy skits and sang a humorously rewritten version of the 1920s Eubie Blake tune “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The song, featured in Sullivan’s Harlem Cavalcade a few years earlier, now sported new lyrics: “I go swimming with Harry / That’s one thing Harry enjoys / ’Cause there’s no women / To spoil the swimmin’ / He just invites the boys.”

The war and its immediate aftermath created a minor conundrum for the Broadway columnists. For them, controversy was like oxygen; they could live on less, but without an occasional inhale they withered and died. With a world war raging, however, the petty internecine squabbles they had indulged in throughout the 1930s were kept to a minimum. Skirmishing with each other would have been unseemly with real battles being fought overseas. Nonetheless, Ed had permitted himself a small jab at Walter Winchell in 1942—though only a token dig given the enmity between the two. Winchell had begged the military to allow him to enlist, so the government, wanting to placate him but concerned for his safety, sent him to Brazil for a month on a fact-finding mission. The columnist, bubbling with excitement at the chance to wear a uniform—and, of course, to trumpet his wartime achievement when he returned—tried to keep it quiet as he left. But Ed popped his bubble, writing, “The town is chuckling at Winchell’s ‘secret mission …’ ”

Ed had ferreted out only a few minor targets to attack in the war years. Notably included were those “phonies” who pretended to have war medals they didn’t earn, and those elected officials in the same league: “Tip to Washington, D.C.: Nothing has hurt New Deal prestige in N.Y. so much as the sight of capital czars, married, flaunting their girlfriends in Broadway nightclubs and supper clubs one weekend after another … can’t that be rationed?”

But these subjects didn’t create the splash a Broadway columnist craved. In June 1946, Ed found a fresh source of controversy, one that had headlines blaring. The New York City police, he wrote, were involved in “the most cynical grafting spree in New York history.” Reporting what he called the widespread practice of “Broadway grabbing,” he claimed that “detectives’ rake-offs range from $1,700-per-book-maker-phone per month in a Manhattan division to $3,000 per month in the Bronx,” and that the city was suffering from a “complete breakdown in police control.”

Certainly Ed knew the world of the Broadway bookie. On occasion in his column he guffawed about the widespread practice of illegal gambling, including tidbits like, “When 666 came up on Friday, policy bankers went to the cleaners for fresh dough.” And his friend Joe Moore, an Olympic speed skater when they met in the 1920s, turned to bookmaking after his athletic career ended. (Moore, because of his friendship with Sullivan, was then hired by a press agent named Ed Weiner, who had close ties to Walter Winchell. Between the two of them, Weiner and Moore had access to the city’s leading gossip columnists.)

As soon as Ed’s column hit newsstands, city government experienced convulsions. That same day, Mayor William O’Dwyer ordered an investigation, prompting a fierce round of bureaucratic infighting. The mayor wanted the investigation headed by the Commissioner of Investigation; the police commissioner, however, “pleaded with the Mayor” to allow the police department to investigate itself first. After hurried discussion the mayor announced he had reversed himself: the police department would investigate itself without the Commissioner. Reporters asked O’Dwyer if Sullivan would be summoned, and the mayor said no. “I always respect the confidential sources of newspapermen,” he said.

After the initial splash, Ed’s allegations slid quietly off the front page. In July, the police staged a crackdown on bookies, arresting five hundred sixty-two in one month. Following this purported clean up, Mayor O’Dwyer announced in late August that the police department’s investigation of itself had produced no evidence of graft. With the hundreds of bookies arrested and the police department apparently clean, the matter was closed. But while Ed’s muckraking had only token effect on the city’s police, it did point to a new direction in his column. The war had taught him that Little Old New York could address weightier issues than Broadway romances and celebrity effluvia. In the late 1940s, his daily column grazed across most any topic that suited him. Although at its heart it remained a show business gossip column, it now traveled far afield, touching upon—always briefly—foreign affairs, domestic politics, sports, books, odd news items, or whatever interested Ed that day.

After he penned an extended homage to the loving nature of dogs—“Dogs have the capacity for grief, and they have the capacity for love, with no string attached”—he received an appreciative letter from Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover. “I couldn’t refrain from writing this personal note to tell you how much pleasure I gained from reading your column,” Hoover confided. “Your understanding affection for what some ill-informed individuals call ‘dumb’ animals touched my heart.” The two men communicated regularly through the years. Sullivan used his column to toss kudos to the FBI director, which Hoover relished. After Ed included a column tidbit about his fifty-third birthday, Hoover sent him an affectionate thank-you: “It does warm one’s heart to be remembered by friends on his birthday.… Sincerely, Edgar.”

Yet the column, as far and wide as Ed stretched it, was always just the foundation from which he tried to reach higher, to grab some greater notoriety. In the spring of 1946, he once again heard the siren song he couldn’t resist. That his first four attempts to launch a radio show, spread over the last fourteen years, had been short-lived failures—the longest lasting just nine months—did not tempt him to concede defeat. So, as if bound by some kind of seasonal migration, he was back knocking at radio’s door.

On April 2, he debuted Ed Sullivan’s Pipeline on New York’s WJZ. Broadcasting every Tuesday at 9 P.M., the show offered a quarter hour of Ed solo, intoning the daily scuttlebutt from New York, Washington, and Hollywood. Lending an urban dash to his delivery was the sound effect of rapid-tempo typing, punctuated by a typewriter bell—this gossip was hot off a newsman’s Underwood, the percolating sound effects suggested.

The pages of the show’s scripts reveal that Ed was attempting to add extra urgency to his performance. For those who had panned his radio persona as too straight and stiff, he had an answer. To jazz up his vocal rhythm he included plenty of dashes in his script, and he handwrote in extra exclamation points:

“New York—Vindication has finally come to the bobby socks!! Sinatra is more than just The Voice!! Distinguished American sculptor Jo Davidson tells me that the bone structure and shape of Sinatra’s long, lean face is amazingly similar to—hold your breath—Abraham Lincoln.”

The show was a broadcast version of his column, but what worked in print didn’t work over the air. Ed’s attempt to match the hyped-up hypnosis of Walter Winchell proved ill-fated. On September 30, six months after its debut, Ed Sullivan’s Pipeline saw its last broadcast. Inarguably, his talents were not suited to the airwaves.

In his Loew’s State variety show in September 1946, Sullivan booked an exceptionally pretty twenty-two-year-old singer-comedienne named Jane Kean. For Ed, the irrepressible young performer—blonde, funny, and lively—was irresistible. Over the weeks they worked together he formed a romantic attraction for her, though it appears to have been largely unrequited.

Jane and her older sister Betty performed as a duo in New York’s nightclubs, singing and telling jokes; the bubbly good humor of their sister act made them highly successful. Betty had performed a comic tap-dance routine in Ed’s 1941 Broadway production, Crazy with the Heat. In later years, Jane appeared on Broadway and landed a raft of TV roles, most notably on the 1960s version of The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason. She played Art Carney’s wife Trixie, replacing original actress Joyce Randolph.

Kean remembered Sullivan as having real allure. “He was very attractive to women—and he was interested in them,” she recalled. But Kean’s initial attraction to Ed soon faded. “I did not have a big love affair with him—that was a man in pursuit.” By her account, Ed sent her love letters, off and on, over the next year or so, including some he mailed from his yearly mid-winter stint in Florida. He penned her endearments like “I miss you,” among others. “Yes, he was very fond of me,” she remembered, with a chuckle.

Kean soon began a long-standing romance with Walter Winchell, whom she grew to love. Walter took a much different approach to her in his column. “Winchell, if he liked you, he would just promote you and praise you every time you opened someplace,” she said. “Ed wasn’t that much of a fan or press agent for people.”

Ed booked Jane and her sister Betty on his television show in 1949, though Kean said by this point any romantic overtures were forgotten. Due to the exposure from their Sullivan show booking, the duo received a series of lucrative engagements in Chicago, Las Vegas, and New York.

In Kean’s remembrance, it was not uncommon for Ed to have affairs. “He was not Simon Pure, let’s put it that way,” she said. Her recollection is backed up by Jack Carter, a comedian whom Ed booked in his postwar vaudeville shows, as well as some forty times on his television show. Over the years the two men frequently had drinks together at Danny’s Hideaway, a popular New York bar-restaurant. Carter recalled that during one of his Loew’s State shows with Sullivan, Ed had an affair with one of the performers, whose name Carter didn’t remember. She was “an acrobatic dancer with a great body—he was jazzing her,” he said. But Ed was careful to maintain discretion about his liaison. “It was his own private little trick—we knew about it,” Carter said. “It was a quiet thing … if that would have ever gotten out, Winchell would have eaten him alive.”

In the fall of 1947 Ed became chairman of the entertainment committee for the Heart Fund Drive, which presented him with a daunting task. He needed to organize an extensive radio ad campaign, which required writing scripts, lining up voice talent and musicians, and contacting a slew of radio stations—and convincing everyone to work gratis. Mentioning the mountainous workload to performers backstage at his Loew’s State show, one of them, a young singer named Monica Lewis, suggested Ed call her brother, Marlo Lewis.

Lewis, an advertising executive at the Blaine Thompson agency, produced a daily radio show called Luncheon at Sardi’s. The thirty-two-year-old adman possessed matinee idol good looks and a correspondingly outsized ego. He tended his appearance fastidiously, always sporting an impeccable coif and visiting the gym constantly; in later years he insisted all his employees visit the gym to stay fit. Lewis projected a natural charisma that some found overbearing; he was described as “egocentric—very much so” by one colleague. Yet he was grateful to Sullivan for booking his younger sister, and after a little cajoling by Ed agreed to help.

Working for free, Lewis and Sullivan put together a thirty-spot radio campaign. Ed corralled the talent: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, and others voiced the spots; Marlo Lewis convinced the head of the musicians union, James Petrillo, to allow the striking musicians to record the music, and coordinated logistics such as contacting radio stations. After the spots ran in March 1948, Ed produced a standing room—only variety show with the celebrities at the Capitol Theatre, emceed by Milton Berle.

The partnership of Marlo Lewis and Ed Sullivan was highly successful—the Heart Fund Drive broke the charity’s fund-raising record. To Ed, this suggested a greater possibility, one that stemmed from his perennial desire to break into broadcasting. Lewis, as an ad executive and radio producer, had contacts with CBS management. Sullivan, a veteran show producer and emcee as well as an influential columnist, had the phone number of every star in show business. Could they pool their talents for this new medium of television?