It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, /Just as phony as it can be, / But it wouldn’t be make believe/ If you believed in me… “It’s Only a Paper Moon” Harold Arlen/ Billy Rose
“Before 1939, Billy Rose (1899-1966), impresario/showman/lyricist, felt he could avail himself of everything America had to offer without having to worry about being Jewish…” begins author Mark Cohen (no relation) at his 92Y talk. Rose was then 40, enormously rich, famous, and married to second wife, Olympic Medal swimming champion Eleanor Holm, 25.
Cohen has written a volume almost divided in half by Rose’s life in entertainment and his greatly unknown Jewish activism. Structure allows us to see talent and imagination employed as an impresario applied to altruistic concerns. That he simultaneously dealt with a country then unwilling to be drawn into events abroad and the disconcerting surprise of Holm’s Anti-Semitism (she called him names when drunk) speaks to commitment.
William Samuel Rosenberg (Billy Rose) was born into a poor immigrant family whose matriarch he later declared to be “…one of the greatest desperados in my life – and I have known many.” Flair for the dramatic had deep roots. Also ingrained was prizing financial security and learning to cut corners.
The young man was a national shorthand champion whose prestigious skill was nationally touted by The Gregg Company, inventors and teachers of the skill. Cohen suggests that it was this publicity that taught Rose his name could become a brand.
While still on clerical staff, Rose started writing lyrics for Tin Pan Alley. His first success was “You’ve Got to See Mama Every Night or You Can’t See Mama at All” made famous by Sophie Tucker. Cohen notes his subject had flair for and love of everyday language. Whether he actually wrote lyrics is often questioned, but the author found both Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin testified to the fact. Iconic contributions include “I Found a Million Dollar Baby,” “Me and My Shadow,” and “I Want to Be Loved.”
From 1924-29, New York apparently hosted 26 theaters and 1,000 night clubs. Rose saw opportunity, becoming a Broadway producer and nightclub/ theater owner. He was responsible for Billy Rose’s Jumbo at The Hippodrome and, when no other theater would touch it, Carmen Jones, with an all African American cast; opened The Billy Rose Music Hall at 52nd and Broadway, and the extravagant Diamond Horseshoe in the basement of The Paramount Hotel, Times Square, which garnered $50,000 a week! (Its first choreographer was the young Gene Kelly.) And that was just in New York.
Ziegfeld star, Fanny Brice, Rose’s first wife, was eight years older and may have reminded the young man of his beloved mother. “He wrote an act for her at The Palace, helped her in business, and even proposed,” Cohen writes. She found him “A source of material and good company,” while for Rose, she was “like a medal I could wear.” “He learned everything from Fanny, then secretary Helen Schrank wrote, “how to dress, how to eat, about art…” Brice and Rose purportedly never shared a bed. They divorced nine years later.
The showman went on to marry Holm who he cast in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at The Great Lakes Exposition, later moving to the 1939 World’s Fair, unbalanced showgirl Joyce Matthews, twice (she had also married and divorced Milton Berle, twice), and Doris Vidor. He was childless and single when he passed.
In 1927, Henry Ford was sued for Anti-Semitic articles in his Deerborn, Michigan newspaper. The courts allowed him to publicly apologize instead of facing fines. Rose’s response was to write, “Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me,” about how happy and relieved Jewish people were at his remorse. Needless to say, the song – an excerpt of which Cohen plays for us as sung by The Happiness Boys – is extremely sarcastic. When asked by a reporter the name of his favorite historical character, Rose replied, Benjamin Disraeli.
In February 1939, 20,000 American Nazi supporters held a rally in Madison Square Garden billed a “Pro American.” (The documentary, A Night at The Garden, is terrifying.) It wasn’t until November, 1942, that newspapers in the United States reported that Nazi Germany and its collaborators had already killed two million European Jews.
Rose joined screenwriter Ben Hecht to create the We Will Never Die pageant (a fundraiser) which twice sold out the garden and was shared by untold numbers watching screens outside the venue. The show, which traveled across the U.S., was staged by Moss Hart and scored by Kurt Weill.
In part, the activist visited and brought attention to displaced person camps in Europe, traveled to Israel, helped get refugees into Palestine, and, eventually donated his outstanding sculpture collection to The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, also endowing its sculpture garden. When asked: “If the Arabs attack, what will we do with your sculpture? I told them to melt it down for bullets,” Rose replied.
Seeds for Not Bad for Delancy Street were planted by Saul Bellow’s novel, The Bellarosa Connection. Bellow learned of and fictionalized Rose’s secret extraction of Kurt Schwartz, an Austrian Jew, who had taken refuge in Italy. According to Cohen’s research, the most plausible explanation for the connection is that Schwartz “wrote letters seeking help to several prominent Jewish Americas, and Rose was the one who responded.”
Success with the gesture lit kindling in Rose. Fascinated, Cohen tracked down Schwartz’s daughter. She had kept her deceased father’s papers, including the telegrams from his savior and letters received from his mother in Vienna. Cohen was hooked.
Research for his book is terrific. Mark Cohen has a discerning ear for illuminating anecdotes and lively quotes. (There are also excellent photo plates.) His theories as to motivation seem logical and likely. Though sympathy and admiration for his subject are clear, history is not viewed through – excuse me – rose-colored glasses.
The volume is cohesive, variously entertaining, and informative. It’s easy to find sections on particular interests, should that be your preference. The saga of activism from spark to fruition is revelatory. While Billy Rose’s entertainment legacy is secure, this book will contribute in no small part to that of his contribution as a Jewish man.
The Rise of Billy Rose: America’s Greatest Jewish Impresario by Mark Cohen
Published by Brandeis University Press
Book and Lecture at the 92nd Street Y
May 16, 2019