Sunday 14 January 2018

He Comes Once in a Lifetime

The story of how Jack Benny married Mary Livingstone comes in several different varieties, but there can be no doubt that Jack deeply loved his wife and, whatever her faults, they remained married until he died in 1974.

Silver Screen magazine of October 1939 devoted a feature article on how the two got together. Fan magazines (and Hollywood publicists) aren’t altogether known for their veracity but this version contains many of the things talked about for many years afterward, such as the fact that Mary was engaged to someone else when she agreed to Jack’s proposal. This variation mentions nothing about a seder, the May Company, or the Marx Brothers being distant relatives of Miss Livingstone (née Sadye Marks).

It also devotes some space to Jack and Mary’s child Joannie, who mother praised in public but could be very unpleasant with her daughter in private. But, mainly, it is a love tale. The pictures accompanied the article.

Jack was, of course, loved by the public as well. Mary was right—someone like Jack Benny comes once in a lifetime.

Romance in Reverse
The wife of Jack Benny personally gives you the untold story of how they first met fought, fell in love, were married and expect to remain so

By Mary Livingstone Benny
 IT'S funny the way Jack and I always do things exactly the opposite of what might reasonably be expected of us. Even when we got married we did it in reverse. As a matter of fact, to be at all consistent we should be getting married right now and working back to the way we felt thirteen years ago.
For on the day we ran off to Waukegan to be married Jack and I felt about each other the way people usually do who've been married for years. Nice and friendly and comfortable with each other. We were friends. Neither of us had reached that high plane of excitement that's reserved for lovers. We weren't sitting away up over the world some place with our feet dangling over the moon and our minds touching the stars. It took us thirteen years to get that way.
If I were marrying Jack today I'd be so jittery about it I wouldn't know what I was doing. I'd be any goofy girl so mad with love that I'd probably be setting out for the license with a shoe on one foot and a bedroom slipper on the other, and doing all the other cockeyed things girls do when they're in a delirium of romance. Funny, isn't it, that today when I suddenly see Jack, when I'm not expecting to see him, my heart goes scooting right up to the place where my head would be if I had one? But I haven’t. I’ve lost it completely over Jack.
Now I can’t understand why I wasn’t playing leap frog over the stars the day Jack proposed to me. The only explanation I can offer is that mice men like Jack don’t usually do the things that get girls jittery over them. What I mean is, when men do all the little things girls are supposed to fall in love with, when they’re sweet and attentive and their one desire is to make them happy, girls, darn fools that they are, just can’t get excited about them.
It’s the ones who keep them on the anxious seat who get them mooning over the stars. The ones they’re never sure of. The darn little fools don’t realize who soon you can get over a man like that. He can come in and out of your life leaving nothing but a few wakeful nights, a few tears on a pillow and afterwards only a blessed sense of relief that he’s gone at last. But the other kind, the grand kind, can leave the emptiness of the whole lonely world. A man like that comes only once in a lifetime, but a lot of girls don't realize this before it's too late.
Let the poets sing of love at first sight. But count yourself as lucky as I do if you get love at last sight.
It certainly wasn't a case of love at first sight with Jack and me. Annoyance at first sight would have been more like it.

My family was living up in Vancouver, B. C. then and my father, who was getting up benefits for this cause and that, grabbed off every show person who came near the place for his performances.
We weren't a stage family but just the same we often had about the best talent in the world sitting at our dinner table. If the Trocadero could assemble such casts no one in the world would be able to buy a dinner there. They'd be so expensive. But I'm afraid we just took it for granted.
The Marx Brothers were steady customers for my mother's cooking every time they were in town, and we loved having them there for pot roast and noodles or whatever home cooked delicacy she decided the boys might like. I was a kid at the time and I'm afraid I didn't realize the stellar spot I was in. Of course I thought they were funny but I didn't know just how funny. It was after I'd gotten out in the world that I realized all people didn't grip Groucho's brand of humor or play the piano like Chico or clown like Harpo. I just thought the world was made up of delightful zanies and I've never quite gotten over the shock of finding out that it isn't.
It was Zeppo who brought Jack over. Jack was playing at the Orpheum and Zeppo told him there were a couple of girls he wanted him to meet, and Jack came all expectant and hopeful, dolled up in a new tie and his best suit, only to discover the girls were my sister, Babe, who had reached the provocative age of fifteen and myself a skinny, gangling kid of thirteen.
For once Jack didn't appreciate Zeppo's humor.
"Fine thing to do, bringing me here to meet a couple of kids," he said.
I was furious. After all there's no time in her life a girl takes herself quite as seriously as when she's just entered the teens. Me a Kid! I glared at him, hating him with all my soul. Why I'd even escaped my mother's watchful eye long enough to put lipstick on. She had to keep her shoes under lock and key in those days. Babe and I were always sneaking her highest heeled pairs and risking our necks in trying to look as grown up as we possibly could.
Jack saw he had hurt me and was sorry. It isn't in him to hurt anyone consciously and certainly not a child, even if she were a brat like me.
"Do you like dolls?" he asked, trying to make conversation and I was more furious than ever. I just stalked out of the room without answering him.
The next afternoon I had my revenge. I gathered my gang around me, and a formidable gang it was, too, and announced I was taking them to the Orpheum with the money I'd been saving for Christmas. There was a string to that offer though, a long one full of knots. They had to heckle a guy called Jack Benny.
We got there early and held the first two rows in the orchestra for an hour before the show began. We applauded every act enthusiastically. We laughed in all the right places and kept a respectful silence in the others until the cards appeared on either side of the stage announcing Jack Benny.
Then we sat there with faces as stony as our hearts, deadpanning his best gags. Jack told me, years later, he had never wanted to do anything as much in his life as he wanted to reach down into the orchestra that day and yank me up on the stage and turn me over his knees.
The next time I met Jack Benny was after my sister had married and moved to Chicago. She had married an actor who was a friend of Jack's and the three of them became pals. Babe adored him but felt she had turned traitor to those two kids of a few years ago. Imagine her liking that upstage so and so. Jack Benny.

I was engaged to a boy nobody but I seemed to like very much. I was always getting engaged to boys like that. My views of life were alternately rose color and drab gray in those days. If ever there was a romantic little ninny it was me. Every time I met a new boy and he had a line that pleased me the world turned rosy. Then, a few days later, they hardly ever lasted longer than that, I began to get fed up with romance and the world would look as if it never could stop raining again until I met a new lad I could rhapsodize about.
Much to my surprise I liked Jack when he came to see us. We had moved to Los Angeles and he was playing the Orpheum there. It's always the Orpheum on Keith time you know. But I had a date right after dinner and I kept it without a twinge. And the next day when Jack appeared at the store where I was working as a buyer, and asked me to lunch, I didn't turn a hair when I refused. He came to the store every day for a week after that and I went out with him twice, but it didn't mean a thing.
A week afterwards our telephone rang at three o'clock in the morning. The family was in a frenzy before my father got to it. What awful thing had happened? Could it be Babe? Could it be Grandma? None of us could think of anything but a major calamity that could make any telephone ring at three in the morning.
But the world hadn't turned upside down after all. It was only Jack Benny calling from San Francisco as casually as could be to say, "Hello Doll, I was just wondering how you are and what you're doing?"
At that moment I was shivering in my nightie motioning appealingly to the family not to stand there glaring at me. For now that they were no longer scared they were furious. But I wasn't mad. I was thrilled. It was my first long distance call and that meant something to a kid still in her teens. What if it wasn't a romantic conversation, full of pleas and endearments, it was still a long distance call.
I think even then I knew that call didn't mean much to Jack. It was just an impulse that stage people get all the time to call long distance as casually as anyone else would call from a few blocks away. And three o'clock in the morning didn't mean anything more to Jack than it did 'to any other young vaudevillian having a bite to eat after the show. It was just the middle of the afternoon to him. But to me it was an event and I did my darndest to turn it into a throbbing moment. But it didn't quite come off. How could I get romantic over a man kidding me in that casual, easy way Jack has of doing things.
Anyway I must have known that another BIG MOMENT was due. I told you I was a crazy kid, didn't I? Well it did, a week or two afterwards. I had gone north to visit my grandmother and I met a boy I thought I was mad about and we became engaged. Only it was different this time. The wedding day was set for January and this was November.
I was wearing his engagement ring too. That made it seem pretty formidable this time. I was scared to death when my head wasn't in the clouds, where it was most of the time.
I couldn't wait to call my sister in Chicago and I was pretty crestfallen at the way she took the news. "But you don't know what it's all about," she wailed. "You're such a goofy kid. Don't do anything in a hurry. Come out here to visit me and I'll try to pound some sense into that head of yours."

The first person I saw when I got off the train at Chicago was Jack. There he was standing beside my sister and brother-in-law grinning and he was the first of them to reach me. He took my hand and there wasn't any wild thrill. Only that nice, warm glow. Suddenly I knew how frightened I had been. I knew it because the way I was feeling now was just sort of happy and secure and peaceful.
We went around a lot together in the next week or so. I'd never had so much fun in my life. Funny, the way Jack and I clicked. We laughed at the same things without even realizing we were doing it. We were serious about the same things too. We'd sit together on the shore of Lake Michigan and sometimes we'd talk and sometimes we wouldn't. When two people speak the same language they think the same language too. And though it was November and those Lake breezes blow pretty hard we didn't even know it was cold.
We did the goofiest things together. We always just fell in with each other's ideas. We never had to explain things. So when we got on a bus once and I saw a couple of rather prim women stare disapprovingly at the length of my skirt, we were wearing them short that year too, remember, I decided I'd give them something to be really shocked at. So when Jack came along I pretended I didn't know him.
He came right into the game and started to play. He never put on a better act in his life, even in the old Palace on Broadway. He sat in the seat across from me leering in the most awful way, raising his eyebrows in a way that would send any respectable girl post haste in search of a policeman.
But I wasn't pretending to be respectable. And I acted as badly as he did, tossing my head and giggling and using my eyes in a way eyes have never been used outside of a home for moronic girls. You could hear the gasps, not only from the two women but from the whole bus when he confidently took the seat beside me and I slipped my arm through his.
We got off at the next stop followed by the indignant "Well!" of those two women.
You know it's easy enough to find kindred souls for a serious moment or even for a sad one. But having fun together . . . that's different! Senses of humor vary so. Some are scholarly, some subtle, some broad. Some are pedantic and some are whimsical and some just aren't there at all. Having the same sense of the ridiculous is awfully important for two people. For if a man and a woman can laugh at the same time you can risk your last dollar on their being happy together.
We were all invited to Jack's father's house out in Lake Forest for a weekend, and on Friday night Jack and I sat up talking after the others had gone to bed. It was grand. We didn't realize how late it was. We always had so much to say to each other even if we had seen each other only an hour or so before.
Then, without any warning at all, Jack asked me to marry him and I said I would. I knew it was right. Don't ask me how I knew it, but I did. I'd never felt so happy before, so entirely without doubts or misgivings of any kind. We woke up the whole house and told them our news. And as long as I live I'll never forget Babe throwing her arms around me and crying, "You little ninny, I never knew you had sense before."
The next morning I felt myself smiling before I really was awake. I'd never awakened, so completely contented before. Then I saw the engagement ring on my finger and I was petrified. I'd been so happy the night before I'd completely forgotten I was engaged to another man.
I threw on my clothes any which way and ran downstairs to find Jack. I threw myself in his arms and sobbed out my story. He took out his handkerchief and wiped away the tears streaming down my face. Then he held it out to me and said, "Here Doll, blow! Blow hard!" And I did and it sort of cleared all my tears and my fears away at the same time.
Then Jack said, and he was very serious now, the kind of nice, easy seriousness that I've gotten to know is one of the nicest things about him, "Listen, if we don't get married now, we never will. You know that and I know it. So get your hat and we'll be on our way."
Well, it's funny the way I took his orders, relying on his wisdom the way I've relied on it ever since. I went upstairs and got dressed all over again just as calmly as you please and even remembered to put powder in my compact and get myself a fresh handkerchief. And then without telling anyone what we were doing we got in the car and drove out to Waukegan.
We didn't do much talking on the way and when we did it was about the most casual things, and I didn't feel excited or up in the clouds at all. But when the ceremony was finished and Jack turned to kiss me he couldn't because I wasn't there at all. I was flat on the floor. Ninny that I was, I had fainted. So maybe I was excited a bit after all and didn't realize it.
I don't know just when it was I began getting up in the air about Jack. Only that I'm getting more that way every day that passes. I'll hear a song and somehow it seems as if that song had been written just for us, and I'll feel like crying as if I was a youngster who had met a man for the first time and was mad for him and didn't know yet if he returned the feeling or not. And if he's a few minutes late getting home I'll pace the floor like a crazy thing.
Only one thing was missing and for a long time it seemed that Jack and I were never going to have what other husbands and wives have. We both wanted a baby so desperately. Then we discovered that a baby doesn't have to be your own to love it and want it above everything in the world except each other.

When we decided to adopt a baby we gave a lot of thought to the type we wanted. Just when we thought we wanted a girl we'd think a boy would be nice and when we decided on brown eyes we thought of blue ones in the next breath. Of course we were sure we were going to select a pretty baby. Wouldn't it be just too ridiculous to have the advantage of our own selection and not pick the prettiest one we could find.
But we didn't. Our little Joan was only three months old when we found her and she wasn't a pretty baby at all. But it didn't make any difference. We felt something, as soon as we looked at her, that we hadn't felt for any of the other babies. Maybe it's true, as scientists think, that- attraction is a matter of chemicals and that you can't help being drawn to some people more than to others. Maybe it's just that it was destined little Joan was coming to us. At any rate there was a bond between that baby and us and we felt it the first moment we saw her. No mother and father looking at their baby for the first time could have felt more in awe of the thing that was happening to them than Jack and I felt looking at this, our first child.
Today that baby is the loveliest child you've ever seen. And that's not just a fond mother talking either. She has the bluest eyes in the world and the yellowest hair and her face is as lovely as a Botticelli cherub. But that isn't important. That little girl, she's five now, is as spiritually and mentally and physically kin to us as if she had become ours by birth as she now is through love.
Nothing in the world makes me as furious as to have people say, "Isn't she lucky that you adopted her."
Why, we're the lucky ones getting a child like that. And we're not such egotistical fools either that we don't realize our own baby, had we had one, might not have been as perfect. We didn't know then how she would develop, any more than other mothers and fathers know how their children are going to develop. That she has become the individual she is, is only another one of the blessings that have come to us.
For we're been awfully lucky, Jack and I. We've laughed together and sometimes we've cried together — as what two people who love each other and have been together for a long time haven't? And we've seen some of our friends part and we've been unhappy about it. But we've never been afraid for ourselves.
Because the thing we have isn't a thing that was conjured up some spring evening out of a handful of stars and a mist of moonlight. It's a thing we've built together, slowly and securely out of the days and the years of being together. And you don't lose a thing like that!

1 comment:

  1. I laughed when she said she fainted. Oh Mary!