- Historic Sites
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
When you were on Broadway in How to Succeed, there was a malicious rumor that you were renting folding chairs to the overflow audience. How did you get a reputation as such a tightwad?
I did purchase four folding chairs, but I gave them freely to be used by friends who could only get standing room. It is true that I am a thrifty person. I didn’t grow up in wealth, and I came from New England, where life is spartan and hard, and people know the value of a dollar. I am now comfortably fixed, as the saying goes, although my legendary millions are just that—legendary. After the ’29 fiasco, I’ve been careful to invest in conservative annuities. I live well, I like nice things, I go first-class, but I do have a decided aversion to exaggerated, showoff tips, especially the ones that celebrities are expected to throw around. That doesn’t mean I don’t tip. I have always tipped and tipped happily, when it was merited and even when it wasn’t. For instance, at Lawry’s, which is our favorite restaurant, I always tip the man who carves the meat, and they have told me that I am almost alone in this act, as it never occurs to the average customer that this man deserves a tip for his skill in cutting the fine beef they serve there.
However, I am convinced that the actual source of this reputation for cheapness dates back to the igso’s. In those days I used to do a lot of weekend charity performances—as many as 125 a year—and when I discovered that it was the promoters who chiefly benefited from these shows, I started a crusade against them. The promoters got their revenge by claiming that I was too money grubbing to help out a worthy cause. Yet for many years I maintained a three-hundred-acre estate and five lodge buildings in Maine where I entertained my band, wives and sweethearts, and the acts in my current stage shows once a year, for a week of the best in food, drink, boats, canoes, and what have you. I entertained hundreds of celebrities and executives for a five-day stay over a period of ten years. But lavishly , with the utmost in comfort and appointments in the Maine woods!
Why do you suppose you had all the business difficulties you mentioned?
Most of the trouble was the professional advice I did or didn’t get. No man is any better than his advisors, and I’ve had some real incompetents, mostly of my own choosing, of course. Also, a celebrity is a target for nuisance suits of all kinds. Fortunately I’ve had very few. One was a legitimate $100,000 breach-of-promise suit by a Ziegfeld chorus girl, settled for one thousand dollars. There were three litigations over the authorship of songs I’ve introduced. That’s a story in itself, really. The legal problems that can crop up over the creative ownership of a melody and lyrics are simply incredible, especially after a tune has been passed around for a while and modified extensively. I was once described—unfairly, I thought—as a song pirate. It was all part of the business, and you just had to accept it, although I still am annoyed at the way Yale treated me after I introduced the general public in 1936 to “The Whiffenpoof Song,” via radio and my recording of it. The university’s alumni secretary told me that he regarded the publication of the song as “reprehensible,” even though I merely made a new arrangement of it and introduced it, after it had lain undiscovered and unsung for many years. The lyrics of the chorus had been adapted from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and the other three composers and authors, one of whom wasn’t even a Yale man, received substantial royalties, too. I sent my first two royalty checks to the alumni fund, but after they did not acknowledge the checks, I decided to donate the rest of my royalties to my favorite charity—Rudy Vallée!
Tou mentioned that fame brought you some personal headaches.
I was thinking primarily of my second marriage. I’ve been married four times, actually three. The first was annulled, which may or may not fit my early image as a born romantic. Well, I am, in many ways, and one is women. At Yale I fell in love with the painting of a dark, sultry beauty on the cover of College Humor magazine. I wrote to the editor, saying I would like to meet her. He never answered, of course. I found her “alive” in Fay Webb in 1929. She was an extraordinarily sexy-looking girl with dark hair, heavy lashed eyes, and luscious lips that could contrive the most enchanting—and for me irresistible—come-hither smile I’ve ever seen. I was hooked the first time I saw her. Her father was the police chief in Santa Monica, and I think that MGM had her under a movie contract because of that. It didn’t matter. On our second date she consented to marry me. Two years later she came to New York, and we drove over to a New Jersey justice of the peace late one night in July, 1931, to do the deed, quietly I thought. I even tipped the J.P. several hundred dollars not to say anything, only to learn that my manager had done the same thing. But unknown to me, my manager and my new wife had already informed the newspapers.