I really loved this memoir and it made me cry on the train, which is quite an achievement given how much I hate crying in public transit. I had never heard of Eddie Cantor before I picked this up randomly in a used bookstore due to the cover, but his dedication to charity fundraising and his kind nature come through very strongly in this book. He had raised over $280 million for charity at the time he wrote this (1957), which given inflation is just a mind boggling amount. He would go speak and perform at endless fundraisers and did a ton during WWII to raise war bonds. He also is responsible for the phrase “March of Dimes,” as he and President Roosevelt came up with the overall idea and Eddie said it would be a “march of dimes” during their conversation. Every time I see people being against vaccines it just breaks my heart because we have so little comprehension today of how much suffering and death were commonplace before vaccines were developed. Infantile paralysis (Polio) was so terrifying and now it’s not even something we worry about, let alone all the other childhood disease that used to routinely kill and disable people. If all Cantor had done was to help fund the Polio vaccine, that would have been a great accomplishment, but he did so much for so many other causes, and he seems to have been a great husband and father too. He was with his wife Ida since they were 13, and his deep affection and partnership with her is on display throughout the book.
This book is a straight forward autobiography following Eddie Cantor from his poverty stricken beginnings on the Lower East side as an orphan being raised by his grandmother to his success as a comedian. He started in vaudeville as a blackface comedian, which is something that you do have to be aware of going in, because there are a bunch of photos of him in blackface in the photo section. I watched the documentary Ethnic Notions at the same time to further my historical understanding of blackface and Black stereotypes in the media, which I found to be helpful context for this. For me personally, while I am completely against blackface and think it was incredibly destructive in terms of dehumanizing people, given the historical context it makes sense that he initially did this to break into show business and become popular. He was not a blackface comedian for his whole career. He talks movingly about the racial prejudice that Bert Williams (a Black man who did blackface comedy) faced and his attitude overall is not one of racism. I also think that it is important to understand where this comes from in our society, and historical background like this gives us the context to comprehend cultural patterns.
The insight into the vaudeville circuit and his work in radio, film, and television were all very interesting to me. I like this period and I learned a lot about the different comedians and impresarios involved. The writing here is very strong and Jane Kesner Ardmore must have done a great job in working with him to write this. One part that made me cry is below, which I think sums up his humanitarian impulse. Like his wife says, if all he did in his life was that, it would be worthwhile, but he did so much else. I can only aspire to have this sort of attitude in my life, of striving to be a good citizen who tries to help others and who is grateful for the blessings in my own life.
I was asked to greet the first boatload of prisoners back from Bataan…a doctor asks if I’ll go downstairs, twenty boys are down there, the mental cases. They lay sprawled on the floor on newspapers.
“O.K., boys, get up. Here’s Eddie Cantor, he’s going to sing for you.” A few get up and shuffle forward. Some listen, some don’t. One boy stands in the corner with his face to the wall. He’s going to turn around if I have to sing two hundred songs to do it! He stands without moving. I sing and sing. Finally “Potatoes are Cheaper,” and he whirls around, the song has hit some spark, he stumbles forward, his face a normal face, the tears starting, Ida’s crying, too. The doctor says the boy will return to sanity, they’ve been waiting for something to penetrate. . .
That night when she told me good night my wife said, “Eddie, if you’d never done anything but this, I’d be proud all my life.”
A year ago she repeated herself. We were watching the Ed Murrow program with Dr. Salk and Dr. Francis reporting on the polio vaccine. We were both deeply moved, and to think that in some infinitesimal way I was part of this . . . the money came from the March of Dimes and the March of Dimes . . .