Sunday 14 December 2014

A Strange Mixture of a Man

A feature article in 1958 about Jack Benny by his wife almost says as much about her as it does about him.

Mary Livingstone seems utterly baffled that “material goods don’t mean a thing to him,” that he wasn’t a clothes-horse or liked gossip. For material goods most decidedly did mean something to her, including clothes—preferably better and more expensive than what was owned by her friend Gracie Allen. She may not have loved show business but she certainly enjoyed the comforts its top echelon could buy. And the fact Benny needed the hired help to turn on a heat switch for him gives you an idea of the insane amount of wealth he had.

It’s a little odd to read how Mary believed she was a better wife by not being on the show. In the ‘50s, being a wife usually meant doing the cooking and cleaning and raising the kids. Mary didn’t do either of the first two and her daughter was married and out of the house by the time she quit television. By all accounts, she spent the bulk of her time playing cards or shopping.

Don’t expect Mary to gossip here. She outlines her husband’s harmless quirks. Perhaps some of them were revealed for the first time in this story. One thing you may take away from it is that while Mary was a great admirer of style, style without substance is nothing. It’s clear from Mary’s tale that Jack Benny had substance, and that’s why he was loved around the world. And, by all accounts, they had a loving relationship. Good for Mary and Jack!

This article appeared in The American Weekly, one of many weekend newspaper magazine supplements. It was published October 19, 1958.

My life with JACK BENNY
Here’s the hilarious lowdown on the private life of TV’s “fiddling tightwad”


THIS is MY LAST magazine article as Mary Livingstone. From now on I’ll just be Mary Benny, because after a quarter of a century in radio and television, I’ve had it.
This June I made two TV films with Jack for showing this fall. As usual, before I faced the camera I was a nervous wreck, and a holy terror to live with. Suddenly I said, “This is it. I’m retiring.”
Jack gave me an argument, of course. Jack wants his Mary Benny and his Mary Livingstone, too. In our 31 years of marriage it’s the only thing we have actually fought about. But my mind’s made up. I make a better wife and a more relaxed one when I’m not on the show.
I never intended getting into the act in the first place. It was back in 1932, some months after Jack made his now famous first appearance on the air and said, “Hello, folks, this is Jack Benny. There will be a slight pause while everyone says, ‘Who cares.’” One day they needed a girl to do a bit on the show and Jack asked me to try it. I was scared, blew my first line and giggled. That giggle did it. I was trapped. The mail started pouring in requesting “more of that girl who giggled” and the writers gave birth to Mary Livingstone as sort of a running gag.
I’d been madly in love with Jack since I was 12 years old and living with my family in Vancouver. My older sister invited Zeppo Marx to dinner one night and Jack came along to get a good home-cooked dinner. He was playing a local vaudeville house, and he was my first contact with show-business. Jack was suave and polite, but definitely not interested in children who carried on like a road company Gloria Swanson. He broke my heart when I heard him whisper to Zeppo, “Get me out of here.”
The next time I met Jack was several years later when my family had moved to Los Angeles and I was working at the May Company. Jack was appearing at the Orpheum and I went backstage with my sister. Even to Jack, who is not the most discerning person in the world, it was quite evident that I was no longer a child.
It was an exciting courtship, with me playing hard to get, but not too hard, and when he proposed I said “yes” real fast before he could change his mind. We were married in Waukegan, January 14, 1927. Two seconds after the ceremony I fainted dead away.
Ours has been a full, rich, good marriage and life with Jack has never been dull for one moment. He has the enthusiasms of a wide-eyed kid at Disneyland. If he has a chocolate ice-cream soda, it is the greatest chocolate ice-cream soda in the world. And off I have to go with him to get one, though I want a chocolate ice-cream soda like a hole in the head.
George Burns likes to tell about the afternoon he and Jack were sitting around our pool. Suddenly Jack jumped out of his chair and whispered excitedly, “George, come up to my room. I have something sensational to show you.” George thought it would be nothing less than the latest nuclear test. Jack threw open the door of his dressing room closet and pointed to a pair of shoes. “Isn’t that the greatest shine you ever saw?” he said.
George, and all Jack’s pals, just had to go to the shoeshine boy at CBS to get their shines. George Jessel has a whole slew of stories on Jack, but one of his favorites concerns the time he ran into Jack lunching at Romanoff’s. “George,” exclaimed Jack, “have you been to Hillcrest lately?” Jessel admitted that he hadn’t. “Well, you must go,” insisted Jack, “—and take a shower. Those towels Georgie, they’re the greatest towels ever.”
Jack's enthusiasms are not passing fancies. During Truman's administration Jack went to Washington to M.C. an important dinner. Mr. Truman told him he was dynamite, and Jack was as pleased as a teen-ager with a souped-up car. “Let’s celebrate with some ham and eggs,” he said to his publicity man. They finally found an open-all-night diner, and Jack proclaimed the ham and eggs the greatest.
Now really, what can be so different about ham and eggs whether you get them at the Waldorf or at Sloppy Joes? A few years later, he was in Washington again at the request of President Eisenhower. He was hardly off the plane before he said, “Let's find that diner for some more of those sensational ham and eggs.” Jack has great enthusiasm for talent.
If there’s an act playing the Mocambo, or one of the Hollywood night clubs, he can’t wait to see it. And if it’s a good act, he sees it again and again and phones all his friends to tell them about it. Jack has “made” almost as many acts as Winchell, and that's a good many.
He is a very strange mixture of a man. Material things don’t mean a thing to him. He is just as happy in the broom closet of a hotel as he is in the royal suite. He has never made a fuss about a table in a restaurant or night club, even when they seat him with the trombones or the potted plants. If he had his way, which he hasn’t, he’d drive a car until it fell apart. During a heat wave last summer, I heard strains of his violin coming from one of those cardboard, sun-baked dressing rooms on the studio lot. “Jack,” I said, “it’s 110 in here. Why aren’t you in one of the air-conditioned dressing rooms?” Well, it seems other members of the company had the air-conditioned dressing rooms, which was certainly all right with Jack. He may be the star of his show, but he never throws his weight around. I am sure he must have 20 pairs of gray flannel slacks, and heaven only knows how many cashmere sweaters, but at home he wears the same ones over and over. He gets attached to his clothes, and once wore the same robe until his elbows popped out. Gracie Allen literally tore it off him, and presented him with a new one.
I buy his ties for him dozens at a time, and all alike. Jack is a soup and coffee spiller. Sometimes he has to change his tie three times in the course of an evening.
But when Jack steps before a camera, or an audience, he is so handsomely groomed and expensively tailored that I fairly burst with wifely pride. Last year he was named one of the best-dressed men of the year. And when he played the Palladium in London his clothes were reviewed right along with his act.
Around the house Jack has all brashness of a mouse with an inferiority complex. He never makes any demands of the servants, and naturally they overwhelm him with service. They adore him. He is not a finicky eater. Everything is the greatest. Most of our servants have been with us 18 years.
Jack lives in a dream world of his own, and has never been able to cope with the mechanical age. He doesn’t even know how to turn on the heat. One day he was working with his writers in the den. They commented it was cold, and asked Jack to turn on the heat.
“Sorry, I can’t, fellows,” said Jack. “The butler is off today.”
One of the writers gave him an incredulous look, went out in the hall and pushed a button.
“Oh, oh,” said Jack. “Is that all you do?” He’d had visions of having to go down to the basement, shovel coal, and stoke the furnace.
At night, before we go to bed, I go around the house turning out the lights. One night I went to bed early with a headache. Around midnight I heard Jack tiptoeing in my room “Doll,” he whispered, “I turned out the lights in the playroom, but how do you get them out in the rest of the house?”
Jack isn’t the most observant person. He'd never make a detective. Light years ago I had workmen take down the chandelier in the dining room. For eight years he has been eating his dinner by candlelight. But just the other night he looked at the ceiling and said, “Why, Doll, you removed the chandelier!”
Jack is the happiest man in the world when he gets up in the morning. He is so happy I could kill him. For me, mornings are for the birds. The few times I have tangled with Jack before noon I have considered a divorce. He simply exudes happiness. He is an early riser, usually up by six o’clock.
If he is going on an automobile trip he makes it five.
Recently I heard him say to his writers, “Well, boys, let’s knock it off until six-thirty tomorrow.” “Jack,” said one of them, “you are the only one in Hollywood I would have to say this to do you mean a. m. or p. m ?”
His breakfast consists of fruit juice, toast and coffee, year in and year out. After breakfast he goes to his office and works on his shows. He usually lunches at Romanoff’s or Hillcrest, his golf club, they are mostly business. After lunch—and by that time I have come to life again—I meet him for several hours of golf. Jack gets in at least nine holes every day. He likes to have me play with him, in fact he insists upon it. This is unlike most Hollywood husbands who say there are three things they must do without their wives—testify, die and putt.
After that we go home and Jack practices on his violin—he is very serious about his violin as I am sure everyone knows by now—or we stop by our daughter Joanie’s house to play with our grandchildren, Michael, three, and Maria, one. Jack is a doting, indulgent grandfather, and buys them such impractical gifts as boxing gloves and gold-plated junior golf clubs.
On nights that we do not go out to dinner with our friends we have a tray in Jack’s bedroom. We look at television, or we read or talk. Mostly we talk. Jack likes to discuss his shows with me, and ask my advice about the minutest details. And this I like, just as long as I don’t have to be in them.
Now don't let me give you the idea that Jack is namby-pamby. He has his definite dislikes, even though he doesn’t shout them from the roof tops, or the newspaper columns. Among his dislikes are people who are not punctual, and “method” actors who mutter. Jack thinks that all performers should speak up clearly and enunciate every syllable. He also dislikes gossip, in any shape or form, I regret to say, though I admire him for it.
When we were first married and Jack was appearing in big lavish musical shows on Broadway, I used all my womanly wiles to extract tasty tidbits from him about the glamourous beauties he appeared with nightly. I might as well have tried to get money out of Fort Knox. They were all “nice girls,” according to Jack, “and good to their mothers.” He’s about as dishy as the Sphinx!
Jack is very loyal to his friends, never sacrifices them for the sake of a wisecrack, and they evidently are very loyal to him.
A well-known magazine writer, who has written about all the greats, spent six weeks in Hollywood trying to get a controversial story on Jack. Finally he gave up, and announced, “I couldn’t find a person who had a bad word to say about the guy.”
Jack may be casual around his home, but on his show he is a driving perfectionist. He knows what he wants and he isn’t stopping until he gets it. Although he has been on radio since 1932, and on TV since 1950, he is still trying to improve his shows. But in his own home he’s the best audience in the world. He loves to sit and watch the other comedians perform.
He loves to plan trips, too. I know of only two actors, Bob Hope and Bill Holden, who like to travel more than does. He wants to travel to the faraway backwoods places (me — I like London, Paris and Rome) and see everything and buy everything (mostly junk, in my opinion). Every time he has lunch with Bill, I know I am going to have another two-hour whirl around the world, via the batch of maps Jack always keeps at his bedside.
Near the night table, too, is the inevitable tray of pills. Jack collects pills. Every time any one tells him about a new one he rushes out and buys it. The assorted colors in little bottles fascinate him, I guess. He’s so fascinated that he forgets to take them.
Jack also collects TV sets and scales. We have them all over the house. Golf tees are his pet extravagance. He never uses the same one twice, and keeps hundreds of them in his dressing room back by the two Emmys he won at the Emmy Awards last spring.
I am very proud of my husband.
Others come and go in this business, but he stays right there on top, year in and year out. Jack explains it, when he is asked, “I guess it’s because I don’t try to be sensational. I just try not to be lousy.”
But I like better William Saroyan’s explanation: “Jack Benny had style from the beginning. He stood straight and walked kind of sideways as if he were being shoved by a touch of genius—and knew it, and knew you’d know it, too, in a moment. Style. If you’ve got it, you don’t need much else. If you haven’t got it well, I hate to do it, but I’ve got to borrow from Barrie—if you haven’t got style, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got.”
Style. That’s my Jack.


  1. Seems like a loving tribute to her partner. Think you're projecting your dislike of ML onto the text again.

  2. Mary was not particularly liked by most of Jack's friends, including George Burns. But they tolerated her because Jack loved her and they loved Jack.