In Memoriam...

It has been personally difficult to write these memorials, as two of these gentlemen were friends of mine for nearly 20 years.  Another I met earlier this year after 15 years of correspondence.  I miss them very much.  They left the world a more beautiful place than they found it, and they brightened mine personally.

Two men of music, two men of media...two worlds which Jack Benny spanned and expanded.

Larry Adler

Larry Adler was reknowned for his virtuoso harmonica (or as he preferred to call it, mouth organ) work on stage, screen, and recordings, plus his work behind the scenes of movies such as Genevieve.  He worked with Jack in many venues:  appearing in The Big Broadcast of 1937, appearing on several radio programs (2/13/44, 2/27/44, 11/19/44, 5/20/45, 5/27/45, 10/14/45), and navigating the globe to play for military stations during World War II.

To quote Larry's words about preparing for the WWII shows (from my talk with him at his apartment in London in 1998), "I went to New York and was introduced to Jack Benny, Martha Tilton, and Marie Shaw…no, it was Anna Lee.  And Jack and I got on right away.  It didn’t take any time to know him, we fit as if we had been brothers for a long time, and we did these shows.  Working with Jack, for me, was like going to a university of show business, because that man knew, but not only knew, but was generous in imparting what he knew.  There was no jealousy in him, there was no envy."

It was through his work with Jack that Larry met Ingrid Bergman, who was appearing with the show in Germany.  Larry and Ingrid would develop a deep and lasting attachment that nearly resulted in marriage.  Bergman also prompted Larry to learn to read music, which led to his writing scores for many movies.

Larry recalled, "Jack would never ask for a favor for himself.  I started to tell you that I wrote this sketch for Ingrid and Jack, I based it on Casablanca, and at one point Ingrid is trying to get Jack to leave his wife and run away with her, and she’s shaking him, 'Don’t you realize this thing is bigger than we are?'  And he’s supposed to say, 'You’re bigger than I am!'  He couldn’t say it because she was bigger than he was, and the ridiculousness of it made him laugh, so when he got to that line he couldn’t say it.  The only time it got said was when Jack had a cold and I did the sketch with Ingrid."

On a more personal note, Larry was a phenomenal letter-writer.  For a few years we sent puns (a personal passion for both of us) back and forth, but I was completely out of my league.  Larry had been an occasional attendee of the Algonquin Round Table, and could easily recall bon mots spun by some of the sharpest wits of the 20th century.  He also had been acquainted, and often friends, with most of my major "heroes" (Jack Benny, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, etc.)  To talk with him was to be in the audience of a living encyclopedia of 20th century show business.  I have no doubt that he is once again verbally matching with Dorothy Parker, and discussing musical  arrangements with Maurice Ravel.

Larry Adler passed away on August 7, 2001 at the age of 87.

Frederick DeCordova

Frederick de Cordova was an instrumental man in show business through seven decades.  He worked in theatre in the 1930s, directed movies in the 1940s, and television through the rest of the century.  He is best-known for his work as the Executive Producer of The Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson would occasionally reference him from a dark section of the wings.

Fred was the producer/director of The Jack Benny Program in the late 50s and early 60s.  He had known Jack and Mary since 1936, and they spent a great deal of time together through the years, on and off the set.

One of Jack's favorite expressions, in Yiddish or English, was "kiss my ass".  One Christmas, he presented Fred with a barrel of liquor with the expression engraved on it.  I asked Fred in 1995 if he still had it, and he said, "The barrel is tucked away near my swimming pool with the brass plate on it:  'Love and kisses and kiss my ass, Jack.'”

Fred also recalled, "Over a period of time, and God knows I’ve been over a period of time, somebody asked me—lots of people asked me—about all the people I’ve worked with, and that goes back forever and ever, people like Bea Lilly and Fanny Brice and Bert Lahr and Durante and Bolger in the New York days and all the people in pictures and 22 years with Johnny Carson, who was my favorite person?  And it is a good but absolutely honest answer that both on and off stage, the one person I miss most is Jack.  I continue time and time again to, something will remind me of something about Jack that again will bring back that feeling that there was nobody like him.  And Mrs. Benny and Mrs. deCordova became close friends, so we had a great deal of on stage and social evenings.  I don’t mean necessarily big social evenings, although Mary was a wonderful hostess.  He was the kind of a man that if he went out to buy a tie, he bought a tie for other people who were close to him, with a note that would say on it 'Kiss my ass.'   So anyway, any memory of the time I spent with Jack comes under the heading of just about the nicest times I ever spent."

Again on a personal note, Fred was one of the first honorary members of the IJBFC.  He was always tremendously supportive and generous, putting me in touch with Mary Benny and many others.  Although I was in awe of his work in show business and the people he had known, he had a way of always making me feel personally special.  Everything that you'd want to attribute to classic stars on the big screen:   class, suaveness, charm, elegance...Fred had all these qualities, and they came naturally to him.  He was a beautiful human being, and I will miss him for many, many years to come.

Fred de Cordova passed away on September 18, 2001 at the age of 90.

Isaac Stern

The current issue of The Jack Benny Times is devoted almost exclusively to Isaac Stern's friendship with Jack Benny.  So to summarize:

Jack Benny on Isaac Stern:  I just worship Stern, who is not only one of the greatest virtuosos now living, but who is also a man with a passion for life and eating and humor.  He is wonderful company.  And he became my friend.  Can you imagine what it would have meant to my mother if she could have known that someday a man as great as Isaac Stern, a musician like him, would accept her son as a friend?

Isaac Stern on Jack Benny:  He was one of the most generous men I’ve ever met, and I sort of became his manager, arranging his benefit concerts all around with orchestras and conductors.  I was very fond of Jack because he was as gentle and generous a man I think I’ve ever met, and who had no bit of show business blown-up self esteem.  He would have loved to have been a fiddle player, and I once said to him, “You know, Jack, if you worked a little bit, you could play a lot better.”  He said, “It wouldn’t be funny.”  And he was right.

Ralph Levy

Ralph Levy was the Executive Producer-Director of The Jack Benny Program on television for 1951 to 1957, directed The George Burns –Gracie Allen Show until 1953, and also directed the TV pilots for I Love Lucy and You Bet Your Life.  Levy had his hand in the directing of many other notable shows on CBS through the 50s and 60s. 

When shooting the Jack Benny programs on location in Europe, Levy cast Sean Connery in his first acting job, playing an Italian porter in Rome with one line.  He also cast Peter Sellers (then still a minor) in the London show, but was later dropped because Jack felt Sellers’ timing and delivery was too similar to his own.

 In 1957, Levy became ill before a Shower of Stars program, and was replaced by Studio One’s Ralph Nelson.  Levy directed a few more half hour shows, but owing to his health problems, was shortly thereafter replaced by Seymour Berns.  Levy later directed two 1959 The Jack Benny Hour specials, which earned him an Emmy;  and the 11-3-65 The Jack Benny Hour, with Bob Hope, Elke Sommer, Walt Disney, and the Beach Boys.

 Ralph Levy passed away on October 15, 2001 at the age of 81.