What with Black Friday and the Holiday season soon upon us, here’s a great gift for the vaudeville lover in your life. David Weinstein’s new book The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics will be a valuable addition to any performing arts library. To date, the average fan has Eddie Cantor’s own autobiographies to rely on, augmented by Herbert G. Goldman’s Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom, released in 1997. The new one is most welcome, and examines the subject from a distinctly different angle.
The first half of the new book’s title is unfortunate. It is the same as that terrible movie, making Internet searches not as advantageous as they might be. But the second half of the title is right on the money. It’s perfectly descriptive and it’s what makes the book both valuable and timely at this historical moment. Cantor doesn’t get nearly enough credit these days for the crucial precedents he set on many fronts. “Long after I’m through being a comedian, I’ll still be a man”, Cantor once said. He was one of the first major Jewish-American entertainers to foreground his identity, and one of the first show business figures to put his political and social conscience out there, some might argue to the eventual detriment of his career. He supported Jewish charities and the creation of Israel, and was one of the earliest and most vocal of American opponents of Nazism (and anti-Semites on the homefront like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh). He took heat for this. He lost sponsors. He got hate mail. But he stood his ground.
At the same time, his legacy is complicated by the fact he is so closely associated with blackface, and was indeed wearing it on his television program as late as the 1950s. Cantor was on the right side of the Civil Rights movement politically, but he was reactionary when it came to the minstrel tradition. To counteract the criticism about his liberalness, he spent a lot of energy presenting himself as a super-patriot and family man. The book provided context that helped me understand (and forgive) George Jessel’s rabid flag waving a bit more. 20th century Jews were eager to assimilate, to prove themselves good Americans. At the same time, Cantor wasn’t about to deny who he was, or sit still for any denigration or harm coming to his people.
Like many or most academic books, The Eddie Cantor is weakest when it comes to the actual comedy material, diluting the pleasure with over-explanation. But ya know what? For that stuff, you can go right to the source. This isn’t a humor book, it’s a biography of a pathbreaking entertainer. And as a source of inspiration at the moment it couldn’t be better timed.
Order it here.