Humans are complex and contradictory people. That’s the reason you read news stories where people are shocked to find they have a relative who’s committed some kind of major crime.
So is it really possible to know someone? Even if you haven’t met them?
One of Jack Benny’s biographers thought so.
Marcia Borie got together with Hickey Marks, Jack’s brother-in-law and producer, to write a book. Borie felt she found the key to Jack whereas Benny’s own family had not. Cynics might suggest the claim was a good hook to publicise one’s book.
Borie’s book found Jack Benny was the nice man everyone said he was. But why was he that way? Borie thought she found out.
This is from the Orange County Register, April 16, 1978.
Jack Benny: Heart, Soul Found In Book
By GARY LYCAN
Marcia Borie would have you believe she did little more than assist Mary Livingstone and her brother Hilliard Marks in writing Jack Benny (Doubleday, $10.) After all, she reasons, her name won’t sell books so her involvement is unimportant.
The truth is, however, Ms. Borie is a gutsy, seasoned journalist who became convinced midway into her research that neither Jack Benny’s wife nor his brother-in-law “knew him as well as I intended knowing him. I lost my parents when I was a teenager, and every so often I would wonder when my mother was 17, would she do this or that. I realized when you’re alive you don’t just sit with people and ask what were you like at age three or did you like peas and carrots, you just take it for granted they’ll always be around. So it was not out of arrogance, but ignorance, I decided to go to Waukegan, Ill. That’s where I found the key to this man.”
This is the best of the books on Jack Benny. Anecdotes are sprinkled throughout a detailed narrative of Benny from birth to death. Marks’ expertise was comedy, not biography, so he hired Ms. Borie. Mary Livingstone participated in the book after Marks and Ms. Borie signed with Doubleday.
“(Irving) Fein’s book was out, and she didn’t particularly care for it," said Ms. Borie in a luncheon interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge. “And (Milt) Josefsberg’s book was out, but she had no feeling one way or the other about it. It was more like a textbook for how to be a gag writer. She knew ours would be the family biography, the heart and soul of her husband, and she damn well wanted to see it be the best book it could be.”
The mention of Fein disturbed Ms. Borie. He was Benny’s long-time manager, but when it was pointed out he appears nowhere in the Marks book, she indicated neither Benny’s widow nor brother-in-law are on friendly terms with Fein. “I didn’t even know that Irving Fein was coming out with a book until three months after I had signed a contract. I felt betrayed. I went to Mr. Marks and he said Fein’s a this and a that. Now, Irving Fein may be the nicest man in the world, I don’t know him personally, I only know what my experience has been relative to the book. I think I mentioned he was a pallbearer. If not, we’ll throw it in the 15th printing.”
So much for what is not in the book. Ms. Borie is eager to stress what is in the Benny book and to re-emphasize the collaboration by her and Marks, based on sales, worked. “He (Marks) did not physically write most of this book. I mean we would get together daily and discuss things. He’s a comedy writer. He did not know how you start a chapter one, how you end it and start chapter two.
“But we discussed every word of that book together. Sometimes we had knockdown, drag-out fights, because I think any collaboration is like a marriage. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. But Mr. Marks would always listen. Mary had no decision at all in the writing. All she wanted was an accurate picture of her husband.
“It was my idea to go to Waukegan. Marks wondered ‘why?’ But people closest to a person don’t know that person. For instance, why was Jack Benny the only non-ethnic comic? He never traded on his Jewishness. He was non-ethnic because he came from a non-ethnic community in the Midwest. He was more Waukegan than Hollywood.
“We (her and Marks) saw Jack’s sister in Chicago. Then we rented a car and drove to Waukegan. I left Mr. Marks off at the home of a southern cousin and said I wanted to go around town for four or five hours. And I walked and I walked. I touched every flower, every blade of grass that was different than I had seen before, and I went to the first place where he lived. I looked out over Lake Michigan. I went back to the little synagogue where his parents had worshipped and I went to the Waukegan Sun-News, where they were re ally excited a writer had come from Hollywood to look through their morgue. I found myself giving a lecture on writing a biography about someone you don't even know.
“And when I came back I said to Mr. Marks I have the key that unlocks the door to Jack Benny. He didn’t know what I was talking about. I wasn’t spinning my wheels. I was pinning down who Jack Benny was.”
Proof that she was on the right track came after she wrote the first chapter on Benny returning home to a parade in his honor. “I came across a letter from Jack saying ‘that was the happiest day in my life when they shoveled that spade of ground. Imagine, me, who dropped out of school. What would my mother and father think.’ Without knowing that letter existed, I assumed that had to be a culmination, at least to that point, of his life, to have left that town a third-rate vaudevillian, with his mother dead, his father disappointed in him and to come back a legend, honored in a parade. That had to be a high point in a man's life.”
There are scores of Benny stones in the book — his friendship with Clark Gable, his marriage at 33 after having a girl in every port the time he first held his hand up to his face after Mary scratched the side of his cheek with her fingernails, the fond memories of their daughter Joan who was anxious to talk of the joy of having Jack for a father but was ignored by the media after the comedian’s death on Dec. 26, 1974.
“When we started writing, she (Mary) was still in very deep mourning. Sometimes she would be talking in the present tense then she would get that look in her eyes and say, ‘Gee, I thought I just heard Jack coming in,’ and then she would stop herself. And it was very painful at first. We would start the sessions by saying ‘Mary, how nice you look today,’ and then ease gently into conversation about Jack. After the mourning was further behind her, she became keenly interested,” said Ms. Borie. To date, she and Marks have been assigned the bulk of publicity interviews. A rare exception was Mary Livingstone’s conversation with Johnny Carson on the NBC-TV Tonight Show.
Jack and Mary Benny had planned to adopt more children after Joan. Marcia Borie: “Strangely enough, no one had told me that Mary had lost a child. In a remote clipping in the Academy library, I found a short item which was headlined. ‘Mary Benny Miscarriage.’ I went to Mr. Marks and asked if he knew about it. He said yes, but didn't think to tell me. No, this is not stupidity on his part. He is a comedy writer. He doesn’t think in narrative, which is my job. I know the woman reader wants to know about episodes like this. I asked Mary and she said they were considering adopting a little boy when she found out she was pregnant. But she had always had a low blood sugar condition and she lost the baby. It took up only a few paragraphs, but it was a very human moment.”
Most people agree Jack Benny was not in awe of anything. There was never any pretense. He was happy eating in an expensive restaurant or a McDonalds. About the only thing he didn't like was standing in line at airport terminals. Which is to say when you’re profiling an entertainer of his star status, his very normalcy made him abnormal. Far from dull, the Mary Livingstone-Hilliard Marks-Borie book accents Jack Benny’s zest for life. It may be the best Hollywood biography to come along for years to come.
“I am happy they're having the joy of this,” said Ms. Borie. “I, God-willing, will go on to other books, but Mary had only one husband and one book. Hilliard Marks had only one famous brother-in-law and probably one book. I am surprised it’s doing as well as it is. It’s not salacious. There is nothing filthy about it. I was resigned to the fact this would be accepted as a warm book. I mean there was nothing here to manufacture, to titillate. If they want breakdowns, let them go to ‘Vivien Leigh.’ Jack Benny was a damn decent person and that’s all there was to it.”
One of Ms. Borie’s statements struck me as odd.
…why was Jack Benny the only non-ethnic comic? He never traded on his Jewishness. He was non-ethnic because he came from a non-ethnic community in the Midwest.
Setting aside the generality of “only,” the answer doesn’t strike me as true. He was non-ethnic because his act never was a broad dialect act, just as Fred Allen’s act or W.C. Fields’ act had nothing to do with their ethnic origin. Jack became a stand-up comedian while in the Navy and did jokes about general things the audience could understand. He was no different on the vaudeville stage of the ‘20s. Must someone automatically do stereotyped Jewish routines because of their personal religious beliefs?
But, then again, I don’t know Jack Benny. Frankly, I don’t think any of us ever will. But having been entertained for years by recordings of his radio shows, I’m sure willing to agree with Ms. Borie’s conclusion that he was a decent person. I’d be disappointed if it were otherwise.