Stars of Vaudeville #134: George “Doc” Rockwell
Here’s a singularly odd tidbit. The father of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi party, was a famous vaudevillian and radio star. As it happens, he is the only vaudeville performer (so far) to whom I have found a family connection. I am related to Rockwells father and son, and wow, what an eloquent, symbolic representation of this complex and strange nation these two guys make.
George L. “Doc” Rockwell (born in Providence, R.I. on this day in 1889) was a nut comic who gave mock “lectures” on anatomy at the Palace and throughout the vaudeville circuits throughout the twenties and early 30s. He also starred in Broadway revues, and had his own coast-to-coast radio show for NBC in 1939, as well as appearing on Fred Allen’s show with frequency. He also wrote a humor column. His tagline was “Quack Quack Quack”. He was a very silly comedian, much beloved, and he STILL has his fans.
Yet for all the joy he produced for audiences, he somehow…. produced an insane son who was filled with hatred. I want to learn more because this is a fascinating story. How does this happen in America? The younger Rockwell seems to have been a brilliant guy. He studied philosophy and sociology at Brown, then served heroically and with distinction in the navy in World War II and the Korean War. After the war, he attended Pratt in Brooklyn to study to be a graphic designer and it was there that he became an anti-Semite and tilted hard to the right. He began to smoke a corn cob pipe in emulation of the far right Douglas MacArthur. He was rabidly anti-communist and anti-integration (i.e., racist). And in 1959 he founded the American Nazi Party, becoming perhaps the fringiest of far right fringe leaders during the 60s. But for an American to be a Nazi??? It feels like an intrinsic contradiction in terms, and would appear to be a real heresy for someone who actually fought in World War II (although he had fought against the Japanese). George Lincoln Rockwell’s mother WAS of German extraction. Long time readers know that I’m not prone to demonize Germans in that common fashion (the list of liberal and humanist figures those people produced and exported over the centuries compares favorably with any nation in the world, despite a catastrophic strain of authoritarianism in their political life for a stretch of time). BUT, his mother’s identity might be one possible explanation for his willingness to admire the Fuhrer, given that most Americans would rather jump in front of a moving bus.
At any rate, what’s the deal, you can’t help wondering? Was the father like-minded at home? He certainly seemed embarrassed by the son in public. Was he too absent to have an influence? Was he too laissez-faire? Or did he privately share his son’s beliefs? Did George Lincoln hear his WASP father put down Jews (there are a few in show business) in the privacy of the home? Given the present political moment as I update this post, one can’t help obsess about how it is possible for such beliefs to sprout up in THIS country, with THESE values. “All Men Are Created Equal” — those are among the first words in our founding documents. Yet so many people don’t seem to espouse them. Why is that?
At any rate, the elder Rockwell lived until 1978, long enough to see his son go out (assassinated) in a blaze of ignominy in 1967. Did he kick himself for having produced the absolute worst son possible? Did he wash his hands of it? It’s a story I want to explore. You have to admit it is intriguing, and oddly (and sadly) may provide a key to understanding the ugly underbelly of an otherwise great nation. All show biz and smiley faces on one side; and something not as pretty on the other.
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.