- 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
Or so we were told by the columnists. Because the newspapers moved to Broadway too, and magazines like Vanity Fair, Smart Set, and The New Yorker. Broadway was invented by Variety, the show-biz daily, and by Runyons and Winchells who covered the theater, nightclubs, and crime waves the way they covered sports. The columnists all had been sportswriters, anyway, before they went to Broadway; they reported the neon night as if it were one big game, in a permanent present tense, with its own peculiar slanguage of ballpark lingo, stage idiom, underworld argot, immigrant English, fanspeak, black talk, promoter hype, and pastrami sandwich. That’s about all they reported too. They certainly didn’t report the political corruption and the racism that have always been the big city’s biggest stories, not even the real estate swindles attending the construction of the IRT subway that brought those crowds to Times Square to begin with. What they wrote, in a Broadway Babel pastiche of “suckers,” “lowdown,” “scoop,” and “who sez?,” were press releases for a saloon society of singers like Caruso, fighters like Dempsey, and mobsters like Lansky, a fictitious twenties when the long legs of the chorus girls went on forever and all the gangsters were as cute as Gatsby.
Ventriloquists and animals and marching bands, David Ben-Gurion, Brigitte Bardot, and the Singing Nun.
This was Ed’s grand, buoyant world—of the first book clubs, record charts, opinion polls, I.Q. tests, and birthcontrol clinics; a Waste Land with jumping beans—from 1922 at the New York Evening Mail to 1947, when he was discovered as a Daily News columnist who happened to be emceeing the annual Harvest Moon Ball, while a fledgling CBS just happened to be trying out its primitive cameras. Serendipity! Like show biz, sports, or war, like organized labor, organized crime, and organized religion, tabloid journalism had been an agency of upward mobility. But television would prove to be a trampoline … a flying carpet.
Ed was born, in 1901, in a Harlem that had been mostly Irish and Jewish but was changing fast when Sullivan abandoned it five years later for Port Chester, New York, on Long Island Sound. A twin brother, Danny, died at nine months. One thinks of Elvis and the stillborn Jessie. Ed always felt that if Danny had been around, nobody would have beat up on him. Perhaps Danny was the one who had been intended to sing songs, tell jokes, tease cats, and spin plates. Maybe Ed spent seventy-two years looking for him. This might also explain why, every Sunday night after the show was over, he always went to Danny’s Hideaway.
His paternal grandfather fled County Cork in one of the nineteenth-century potato famines. Ed’s father, Peter, was the oldest son in a family of eight. He had gone to work instead of finishing high school and resented a patronage job at the customhouse. Ed’s mother, Elizabeth, was an amateur painter and had a green thumb in the garden, when they finally got one. On the top floor of the two-family Port Chester frame house, in a parlor with velveteen-upholstered furniture, an upright piano, and an aspidistra, there was always music. Peter was partial to opera, especially Melba. Elizabeth loved John McCormack. And Port Chester was the sort of town in which an impresario of the democracies of performing talent should have grown up, a ragtime mix of Irish, Italians, Germans, and Jews with a factory and a railway station but also a village blacksmith and watering troughs for the horses bought from Gypsies to draw the carriages that went into the medicine shows with the snake-oil salesmen. A young Ed stood on the Boston Post Road and watched the Fierce-Arrows and the Packards chug their way to football games at Yale. He pumped the organ at Our Lady of Mercy for a nickel a mass. He caddied at the Apawamis Country Club in Rye for Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia University’s insufferable president. He lettered in four varsity sports at St. Mary’s and ran away to Chicago at the age of fifteen. In Chicago the Marines wouldn’t have him, so he returned to his parochial-school newspaper and wrote about sports instead.