- Historic Sites
The Ed Sullivan Age
He took vaudeville, Broadway, the tabloids, and, with his strange, gray, tongue-tied genius, melded them into a working model of a better America
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Imagine at any moment in those prime-time years a six-room suite on the eleventh floor of Manhattan’s Delmonico Hotel, where Ed and his wife, Sylvia, seem to have lived forever, with a Renoir landscape, a small Gauguin, autographed snaps of Cardinal Spellman and Ella Fitzgerald, and an original Disney cartoon in which Ed plays golf with Donald Duck. He gets up at 11:00 A.M.; breakfasts invariably on artificially sweetened pears, iced tea, and a room-service lamb chop; reads the papers; and makes hundreds of telephone calls, dialing them himself. He puts on one of his Dunhill suits—numbered, like his shirts and ties, so that he can tape a new introduction to an old rerun without looking as though he’d dropped in on his own program for a surprise visit from Sirius, the Dog Star—and a pair of buckled loafers. (His favorite shoes were a gift from George Hamilton, whose feet he once admired.) He lunches invariably between 3:30 and 4:00 P.M. at Gino’s on Lexington Avenue on roast chicken, from which he detaches and pockets a drumstick, which he’ll nibble later on. (From a childhood bout with scarlet fever and a high school football injury, he developed permanent sinus trouble; America’s tastemaker can’t smell or savor his food.) He hasn’t a manager, an agent, a chauffeur for his limo or even a limo. He likes to talk to cabbies about his show and to Lincoln-Mercury dealers. On his way to the studio, he will carry his own change of clothes on a wire hanger in a garment bag. After a movie screening or a Broadway play, he’ll supper with Sylvia at the Colony, Le Pavilion, or La Grenouille. They order sweet wine, which Ed improves with hoarded packets of Sweet’n Low. And then they are off to the Yonkers harness races and the frantic nightlife of the clubs.
We aren’t talking about a Rupert Murdoch, a Michael Eisner, a Ted Turner, a Barry Diller, an Aaron Spelling, or any other morning star pedaling his epicycle in a Ptolemaic universe of hype according to which the very heavens buzz in eccentric orbits around the need of a vacuous public for gas. Ed is a regular guy. Except … he’s made somehow of air.
Almost from their first date, at a heavyweight prizefight, Ed and Sylvia were self-sufficient, a mollusk of a marriage. They never ate in. Nobody cooked. The only domestic help they needed was the hotel maid. Isn’t this odd? Not just the single chop for breakfast, the drumstick in the Dunhill pocket, the Sweet’n Low for wine, but this peculiar weightlessness, as if the Delmonico were an aquarium: artificial sweetening, artificial light. As in a Hollywood movie or a television action-adventure series or an experimental novel, nobody had to wash a dish or make a bed. Till she was twelve, their daughter, Betty, never ate with them; she ate at Child’s with a paid companion. Days and nights always had this floating quality, like the dream life of athletes and gangsters, actors and comics, showgirls and sports, hustlers and swells; of songwriters, gagwriters, and ragtime piano players; of men who gambled and women who smoked; guys and dolls. Ed and Sylvia were children of the Roaring Jazz Age Twenties, that nervy postwar adrenaline-addicted Charleston state of mind confabulated in New York by admen, poets, and promoters and then nationally syndicated by Broadway columnists like Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, Louis Sobol, and Ed himself—men who had gone to newspapers instead of college.
Newspapers and Broadway: Together, as Ed came of age, they were inventing twentieth-century American popular culture. Though vaudeville had been around since the 1880s, its heyday began on Broadway with the Olympia Theatre in 1895; the Victoria, the Loew’s American, and the Palace in 1913; Ziegfeld Follies in 1915. Shubert Alley with all its legit theaters was just a couple of blocks from Tin Pan Alley in the Brill Building at Forty-ninth and Broadway, where pop music got composed and published. Nearby bloomed every variety of cabaret and lobster palace. To the north, Madison Square Garden and Fifty-second Street jazz clubs. To the south, the Metropolitan Opera and the garment district. In between, wigmakers, costume cutters, set designers, booking agents, and burlesque. And just a cab ride away for the afterhours thrill seeker, Harlem’s Cotton Club. In this same neon-and-billboards Broadway entertainment zone, the new radio networks located themselves, the movie studios established New York offices, and television with its cumbersome machinery scrummaged for space. Mass communications, by trial and error, formed a mass taste. Whatever else might go on behind the shades of a Puritan-genteel New England, a Calvinist-Victorian heartland, a Pentecostal small-town South, or the desert-Western wastes—and probably a lot more did go on than anybody guessed, except the expatriate novelists—Broadway was the big time and the hot ticket, where they dreamed for us all those imperial-city dreams of license, celebrity, and scandal; of crossing race, class, and gender boundaries into the demimonde and the forbidden; a floating operetta; a rilly big shew.