Review Of Jack Benny

’s Autobiography Essay, Research Paper



The Jack Benny Story

by Jack Benny with Joan Benny

Warner, $19.95, 302 pages


The late Jack Benny wrote an autobiography that was known

to almost no one. So few, in fact, that his only daughter Joan

was surprised to find the finished manuscript among her mother’s

files after her death in 1983. Joan Benny has augmented her

father’s words with her own memories and some interviews

accomplished expressly for the book. It is very good.

As one might expect from the most popular comedian of the

age of radio, Jack Benny’s memoirs are fast-paced, lively, and

entertaining. His recollections are positive, and he says almost

nothing negative about anyone. He traces back to his humble

beginnings as Benjamin Kubelsky in Waukegan, Ill., and reveals

many intriguing facts about his early life and entry into show

business. He was a high school dropout (although, as he notes

with irony, Waukegan eventually built a junior high school in his

honor) and took to serious study of the violin only after

flunking out of the family haberdashery business. (”Do we have

to know their names?” he asked his father after an unknown

customer left an account payment with him.) Over his mother’s

objections, he eventually found employment as a violinist with a

local touring singer. After a while, he began to talk, which

grew into a comedy monologue. Jan Kubelik, a concert violinist,

forced Benny Kubelsky to change his name in 1912. He next became

Ben Benny, and became fairly well known as a violin-and-comedy

performer. After serving in the Navy in World War I, a similar

entertainer named Ben Bernie forced him to change his name again,

and he chose the name Jack, by which all sailors in the war were

informally known to each other.

Some of the stories have been told before, but get a much-

deserved retelling from the horse’s mouth here. Jack met his

wife, Sadie Marks (she later changed her name to Mary

Livingstone, the name of the character she played on the radio

show) when he was 27 and she 14 at her family’s Passover

celebration in Vancouver. She was related to the Marx brothers,

and Zeppo Marx (then Marks) had brought his colleague to the home

for the occasion. Mary insisted that Jack listen to her violin

playing. He found it horrible and he and Zeppo made a quick

exit. Several years later, they met again and married in 1927

after a brief courtship. It was only after they were married

that Mary reminded Jack of their first meeting.

Jack continued his successful career in vaudeville, and when

his partner took ill, he persuaded Mary to fill in. She was a

hit. Eventually he found himself on Broadway and then in the

movies. He vacillated for a time before deciding that going into

radio would be worthwhile.

While they were living in New York, they adopted Joan. She

learned in writing the book that Mary Benny had planned to take

her only to nurse her to health while they awaited an arranged

baby. (Jack opposed this idea.) Naturally, they found they

couldn’t part with Joan.

Much of the book consists of Joan’s writing. She seems to

be in a different book from her father. It would be a major help

if she used a writing style that conformed more closely to that

set by her father in the early chapters. Her short, simple

sentences slow the pace in a sudden manner. She provides

extreme levels of detail about her early life, homes, and the

trappings of being a celebrity daughter. While this matter is

interesting to a Benny buff, one hopes that none of the venerable

comedian’s material was subjugated to make room for it. It

would be far more relevant if Joan Benny were a celebrity in her

own right. But this is the fall of 1990 and such things are to

be expected of celebrity offspring. George Bush is our president

and no doubt he approves.

Some of Joan Benny’s passages are curious. Obviously, had

her father wanted details of his premarital womanizing in his

book, he would have put them there himself. Her life is very

well detailed up to about 1965, but she says almost nothing of

her activities for the past quarter century.

Joan Benny pulls no punches in discussing her mother. The

two had what would mildly be described as an adversarial

relationship. Mary Livingstone Benny (who always introduced

herself as Mrs. Jack Benny) is portrayed as a vain, insecure

spendthrift. She allegedly was most interested in being with and

accepted by the Hollywood elite. Studio moguls, that is, not the

entertainers that her husband called friends. Jack Benny

attended Friar’s dinners and the like alone. Mary Livingstone

Benny may have played the role of Mrs. Jack Benny to the hilt to

gain social standing, but Joan Benny’s words must be taken with a

teaspoon of salt (or a more healthful sodium-free substitute) in

light of the obvious delight she displays on every page at being

Jack Benny’s daughter.

Jack Benny tells a good many anecdotes that have not been

printed before. Obviously, none of the three Benny intimates who

wrote biographies had access to this material. He tells how he

learned from others’ mistakes in developing his radio style.

(Other comics used visual material for their studio audience,

which left home listeners in the dark about what was so funny.)

There is a certain paradox in the greatest radio comedian also

being the greatest user of facial expressions and body language.

Perhaps, as Jack suggests, his secret wasn’t those mannerisms but

his timing. Jack acknowledges that he was but a mediocre

violinist. Nevertheless, he won the respect of some of the

world’s greatest violinists. These stories are a treasure.

Isaac Stern called him the most fortunate concert artist because

he didn’t have to live with the pressure of having to be perfect.

The book is must reading, but the reader can’t help but

agonize over how much better it would be had Joan Benny published

the autobiography verbatim (Jack wanted to title it “I Always Had

Shoes,” a reaction to comedians who claimed to have risen from

abject poverty) or more successfully integrated her words into

it. With any luck, the book will spark a renewed interest in the

legendary comedian. His television show could stand to be

revived by one of the cable networks, and a TV movie about him is

a possibility. Joan Benny selected dozens of family photos for

the book; they are a contribution. The most striking thing about

the book is how fresh Jack Benny’s words sound, even though they

were written almost twenty years ago. It’s almost like having

him back.


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