Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Danny Kaye Biographies His Wife Almost Wrote

Danny Kaye and his private life were almost the topic of at least three biographies by his wife, Sylvia Fine.
The other existing biographies of Danny Kaye (unlike the incomparable Danny Kaye: King of Jesters) will tell you that two separate times—once in the 1940s and again in the late 1980s—his wife, Sylvia Fine, attempted to write her own biography of her famous husband. The Kayes’ personal papers at the Library of Congress tell a slightly different story.

Sylvia’s first attempt at a Danny Kaye book started in March 1946. She thought it would be great for prestige and publicity, but her schedule was packed writing songs for Danny’s weekly radio show and for his upcoming movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. More pressing, she had just discovered she was with child and would experience a difficult pregnancy.

So, Sylvia hired a ghost writer, the well known New York literary agent Ethel Paige. Paige had edited and authored several books. Her most recent was Private Lives of Movie Stars: Hedy Lamarr, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball—a book that may have sounded juicy, but was really just press agent puffery. Just what Sylvia was looking for.

By October 1946, Sylvia was less than two months away from her due date and news was beginning to leak of her rocky relationship with Danny. Fan magazines had begun hinting at his carrying on with Eve Arden. This was not the time for a writer to be digging into their personal life. Sylvia demanded the project be scrapped and that Paige “cease her activites on behalf of Danny in the writing of a book.”

By March 1947, Sylvia was ready to take another crack at it, this time by her own hand. She would have to be in complete control of the story. Doubleday & Co., at the time the world’s largest book publisher, paid her a hefty advance, hoping for a whimsical look at the entertainer’s life. Instead, Sylvia spent the next two years writing a more critical look she called Seven Years in a Pressure Cooker. The writing period coincided with the bumpiest time Danny and Sylvia’s marriage would endure, including their seven-month separation. As their relationship finally matured into a “new normal,” she opted to return the advance and scrap the whole project.

Sylvia again started writing a book—but not a biography—in 1976. After teaching a class on the history of musical comedy, first at USC in 1972 and then at Yale for the fall semester of 1975, she thought each lecture would make a great chapter in a book. She paid to have each lesson transcribed, and then began tweaking them into book form. (Interestingly, her chapter on lousy Broadway shows, titled “Turkeys—And Why,” singled out Danny’s only Broadway show she wasn’t involved with, Two by Two.)

But early on in the project she realized the lessons would be better seen and heard rather than read about. So she turned her efforts to pitching them as a TV series for PBS. They eventually were produced as three specials, starting with Musical Comedy Tonight (1979).

Sylvia took one last stab at a memoir in 1987, when she signed a contract with Alfred A. Knopf about seven months after Danny’s death. She called it Fine and Danny, a title she’d first thought up for a video compilation of her husband performing her best bits, which she’d put together a few years earlier for a special event in their honor. But Sylvia, at heart an intensely private person, could never bring herself to finish the book and, four years later, died.

But what about Danny and Sylvia’s daughter, Dena? She is an accomplished writer and author in her own right. Might one day she write a book about her parents? Martin Gottried’s near-fictional Nobody’s Fool claims that the Kayes forced Dena to sign a contract stipulating that she would never write a book about her parents, lest she be cut out of the will. I can only assume this story is apocryphal, since a few years ago Dena was working on a book that she had hoped to have published in connection with the Danny Kaye Centennial Celebration in 2013.

Alas, the economics of today’s publishing industry prevented its publication as the lavish, photo-filled, coffee-table hardcover she envisioned. Instead, a number of those rare photos are now available for viewing on the Library of Congress’ website. And we are left to hope that one day Dena will sit down and share the fascinating story her mother tried to, but couldn’t.


  1. Fascinating!! Is "Nobody's Fool" worth the read?

    1. I found "Nobody's Fool" spiteful, to say the least. I understand that, although Danny Kaye is my hero and he can do no wrong in my eyes, he was only human and other people do not necessarily share my feelings. Nonetheless, in "Nobody's Fool" I had the impression the author went out of his way to give a negative tinge even to Danny Kaye's more praiseworthy actions, while he wouldn't hesitate repeating statements that he could not possibly have verified. On the other hand, previous biographies erred on the side of praise and justification. Danny Kaye was a great, extremely complicated, amazing man and he deserves a biography that brings into light his personality, with honesty and compassion.

  2. BTND: Theresa is right. My similar gripes are here:

  3. Thank you for your input. I was wondering because, that is the only book on Danny at the library. I believe I will skip it, I definitely look forward to reading yours someday, Mr. Koenig.

  4. BTND, Nobody's Fool is better than a kick in the head. There is some interesting info there, but there's also a lot of made-up nonsense, mistakes, and cockeyed psychoanalyzing. So if you read it, be discerning. The author's agenda is easy to pick out from the start.

  5. More info about Danny Kaye books:
    1. I would definitely read "The Secret Life of Danny Kaye" by Michael Freedland, published in 1985 while Danny was still alive. It's a much more even-handed treatment of Danny's life and personality with lots of interesting stories. The other book, Nobody's Fool, has more info in it about Danny's life after 1985, (published in 1994), but just like you, I found the author's mean-spirited description of everything Danny did to be too slanted to be believed. It seems like the author was offended by Danny in some way at one point and so he was trying to get back at Danny in the book.. silly and childish.
    2. The earlier British books written about Danny ("The Danny Kaye Saga" (1949) by Kurt D. Singer and "The Life Story of Danny Kaye" (1957?) by Dick Richards) are worth reading, too. They are very interesting because they were written at the time of Danny's height of fame and have information the later books lack. (Amazingly, some of these are still available on Amazon.)
    3. Yes, Dena should write a book already so the world knows exactly what Danny and Sylvia's life was like, even with their turbulent marriage. I'm sure there were good times between them also which is seldom discussed. What was he really like at home ? He seemed to have loved his daughter very much, by all accounts.
    4. There's a biographical sketch in our film festival program guide, still available:

  6. In one of Dena Kaye's radio interviews during the Danny Kaye Centennial, she mentioned that she had the photo book ready to go, but lamented that she could not find a publisher. That was the first I heard of it, and was very disappointed that it probably would not see the light of day. In a similar vein, I have often thought that an illustrated children's book about Danny would be a wonderful way to introduce new young fans to him, and the illustrations themselves could be almost Walter Mitty-like in showing Danny in his many guises: entertainer, pilot, symphony conductor, chef. UNICEF ambassador. I have come across many books for children about any number of celebrities (Louis Armstrong comes to mind, as does Audrey Hepburn), so I think it's time one was written about Danny Kaye.

  7. I loved Danny Kaye, I found him sexy, and whenever young children were on his show he seemed genuinely affectionate towards them, he did so much for unicef, it's so easy to talk shit about someone, who isn't alive to defend theirselves,, great actor, dancer,, and singer