Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Somebody's Fool: Setting the Record Straight

Much of what is considered common knowledge today about Danny Kaye and his career is based on the book Nobody’s Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye (1994, by Martin Gottfried). Which is a shame.

To be honest, there are several things I admire about the book:  mechanically, it is expertly written. The author interviewed several old-timers I never had the chance to meet (Danny’s childhood chum Louis Eisen, Catskills writer Dick Diamond, comedienne Imogene Coca, singer Georgia Gibbs). And, consequently, the book contains a number of revealing stories you won’t find elsewhere.

Yet there’s even more that’s maddening about the book:  the author dwells on Kaye’s faults, perpetually making snide asides and including anecdotes of questionable accuracy (such as page after page on a supposed affair with Laurence Olivier that even the author admits is unlikely). Speculation on Danny’s sexuality and psychological makeup is frequent, even when it has little relation to the topic at hand. And, Kaye is made out to be so evil, that you get the impression that the author despises him. Why anyone would want to spend years researching the life of someone you detest bewilders me. Interestingly, during my research of Kaye’s 1970s musical Two by Two, I came across dozens of disparate reviews. Some critics loved the show, others not so much, but most everyone agreed on one point: Danny was sensational. Well, most everyone but one: Women’s Wear Daily reviewer Martin Gottried, who confessed his distaste for all things Danny.

Unfortunately, many of the mistakes in an earlier Kaye biography have become accepted as fact.

In Nobody’s Fool, Gottfried also build minor players whom he interviewed (childhood friend Rosie Kaye, comedian Alan King) into major figures in Kaye’s life.

But, worst of all, the book is riddled with errors. I suspect there may be factual mistakes on every single page (as a test, perhaps someone could throw out a random page number from 13 to 337, and I’ll respond with a corresponding error). Alas, because—until the recent publication of my book Danny Kaye: King of JestersNobody’s Fool was the only new book on Kaye since 1985, many of Gottfried’s errors have become accepted as fact (thank you, Wikipedia).

So I did a quick browse of Nobody’s Fool and jotted down some of the errors that I’ve seen repeated beyond the book’s pages.

Again, this is—unfortunately—a far from exhaustive list, but does point out some of the errors I’ve seen repeated in other places:

Page 16. Danny was born in 1911, not 1913. His family did not immigrate together in 1910; his father arrived in America in 1906, with his wife and two sons arriving three years later.

Page 22. Danny’s hitchhiking trip to Florida wasn’t in 1929 with his Red & Blackie partner, Louis Eisen. It was five years earlier, with another pal, Max Tirsch.

Page 38. The Marcus tour lasted eight months, not a year and a half.

Page 40. Danny didn’t resume a romance with Rosie Kaye in 1935, he was still going steady with Holly Fine, a dancer from the Marcus tour. And it was 1937, not 1936, that he joined the Presidents Hotel.

Page 43. Danny didn’t make three short films for Educational; he made four. He wasn’t an extra in any of them. He had a supporting role in the first (Dime a Dance), a co-starring role in two others (Getting an Eyeful and Money on—not orYour Life, filmed in 1938, not 1937), and the lead in the fourth (Cupid Takes a Holiday).

Page 45. Max Liebman didn’t direct Sunday Night Varieties, the revue on which Danny met Sylvia Fine. Liebman didn’t have anything to do with the show (except going to watch it once). It was directed by Danny’s Catskills mentor, Nat Lichtman. And Danny didn’t audition for the show (he was one of Nat’s first signings); Sylvia did.

Page 46. Sunday Night Varieties didn’t close after one show; it played for multiple performances in two different venues. And Liebman didn’t hire Sylvia because of her work on the show (she’d already worked for him the previous summer at Camp Tamiment); it was Danny he hired because of the show. And Sylvia didn’t write the Yiddish Mikado; it was written by Liebman and Herman Shapiro.

Page 47. Famed actor Alfred Drake didn’t appear at Camp Tamiment; he was hired after the summer for Broadway’s Straw Hat Revue.

Page 48. Sylvia didn’t write “The Wolf of Wall Street” at Tamiment. Sam Locke wrote the sketch for Sunday Night Varieties. And Sylvia didn’t write “Pavlowa” in 1939; it’s “Pavlova,” and she wrote it with Liebman in mid-1940, six months after he was said to be singing it on page 53.

Page 49. As well, Sylvia didn’t write “Stanislavsky” at Tamiment in 1939. She wrote it for Danny’s nightclub act in January 1940.

Page 50. Liebman did not demand 10% of their future earnings in exchange for allowing Danny and his co-stars to appear in the Straw Hat Revue. This story is complete hogwash (as can be confirmed by a review of Danny and Sylvia's separate financial ledgers, held at the Library of Congress), and is later alluded to on pages 53 and 86.

Page 58. Kitty Carlisle’s story about Danny’s reluctance to perform “Anatole of Paris” (repeated on p. 252) is really about “Pavlova.” “Anatole” had been written more than a year earlier and had already been performed about 75 times on Broadway.

Page 91. Up in Arms’ screenplay was not—and never was intended to be—based on the play The Nervous Wreck; it only reuses the idea of a hypochondriac from Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee!, which was based on The Nervous Wreck.

Page 101. Goodman Ace wasn’t the first producer of Kaye’s radio show. He replaced Dick Mack for the second season. None of the three writers named—Shelly Keller, Tony Stemple, and Mel Tolkin—ever worked on the show. The first episode didn’t begin with a monologue and it didn’t contain an “Oh, really?”/“O’Reilly” joke.

Page 116. “Pavlova” (again, not “Pavlowa”) was written less than five years before it was filmed not “almost a decade.”

Page 122. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s planned Courtroom Dream was never filmed.

Page 132. Charges that Danny “was never a romantic” and that he “was not the type to fall rapturously in love with anyone” would come as news to his girlfriend from the 1930s, Holly Fine; his affair partner from the 1940s, Eve Arden, and other lovelies, as I hope to illustrate in a special Valentines Day story next week.

Page 170. Danny’s $200,000 contract for Hans Christian Andersen wasn’t his “biggest yet,” but rather the standard deal he’d received for On the Riviera and the never-produced Huckleberry Finn.

Page 212. Knock on Wood wasn’t filmed in London (except for some second-unit work), but rather in Southern California.

Page 241. “I Am an Is” from Kaye’s second TV special wasn’t a “baby routine.”

Page 252. Harvey Korman wasn’t hired before the premiere as a regular on Kaye’s weekly TV series, but rather discovered several shows into the season.

Page 254. The dress rehearsal was taped Saturday afternoons, not Fridays. And the baseball number was on the series’ first show, not second. Lovelady Powell’s second episode didn’t come until the fifth episode (and all her scenes were cut).

Page 263. Bob Scheerer did produce all of season three, but he directed only one episode. Before that season, all the writers were not let go, just the ones who had worked for Sid Caesar. And Paul Mazursky wasn’t a new hire; he’d been there since early in season one.


  1. It's really odd that an author who didn't like Danny would have written the bio in the first place. Gottfried was a vetted drama critic and wrote a slew of other biographies, but to come in with a bias like that is unfair. I haven't read the book in a while, and after reading yours with its deep scholarship, the facts will no doubt replace the fuzzy data. Thanks for pointing out these examples!

  2. I have read Mr Gottfied's book and I had the same impression as Mr Koenig. Danny Kaye has had a tremendous influence in my life and I want to know as much as possible about the true him, without embellishments. But I did find that "Nobody's Fool" was full of comments that were obviously the author's personal opinions and yet were presented as factual statements. There is not one positive thing in that book that is not immediately followed by something negative. Danny Kaye has been a victim of his exremely good reputation. As soon as people found out he had faults (like everyone else), they found it difficult to forgive him for them and, of course, demolishing such a reputation can be very tempting/profitable.

  3. God, thank you. I actually had a conversation via website with this author and he certainly has an agenda. He is hell bent on showing Danny's (his words) "real self", true or untrue.

    I didn't even know about your book until I heard you on Stu's show, and I will be reading it. I would love to interview you for my blog after I do read it. Danny Kaye was the only celebrity that I cried for when they passed. It was involuntary - my youth was officially gone.

  4. Barbara, thank you for sharing.
    I appreciate your picking up a copy of the book, and just let me know when you'd like that interview!

    1. I didn't know about your book until today, but I will definitely buy it asap! I loathe someone taking an opinion and presenting it as fact! I grew up watching his movies, and want facts about his life, not a biased opinion! Thank you for setting the record straight!

  5. I just ordered it from Amazon, so I'll contact you after I finish. Thank you for bringing the Danny Kaye we loved back to us!

  6. Mr. Koenig:

    As a side issue, have you any biographic information regarding Lovelady Powell?

    It seems that she is a true mystery person, yet 50 to 40 years ago she was quite active in theater, TV, and film.

    She is apparently still alive but I wouldn't want to intrude on her privacy by saying where she might be living.

  7. Thomas,
    Thanks for writing!

    Lovelady Powell was indeed very well known in New York on the off-Broadway and nightclub stage in the early 1960s, by the time she was noticed by Danny Kaye Show producer Perry Lafferty. And by the early '70s she was doing a fair bit of high-profile TV and film work, but then vanished.

    It's too bad; she was actually a lot of fun to watch on the Kaye Show premiere. (But the producer were right not to extend her contract; not versatile enough to play a weekly variety show supporting player).