Friday, August 3, 2007

Al meets Ruby

Al Jolson Returns With Bride From Honeymoon Abroad. Among the many returning voyagers on the "Leviathan," which arrived on New York Harbor, on October 22nd, were the couple well-known in theatrical circles, Al Jolson and his bride, the former Ruby Keeler, whose recent marriage caused a sensation. Pacific & Atlantic photo, 10-22-28. No photographer credit.

Alternate versions to the facts and mythos of the infamous Al Jolson introductions as detailed in Dell Hogarth's Silver Screen profile below can be found in Patrick Watson's "Ruby Keeler: Queen of Nostalgia" (2002), Nancy Marlow-Trump's "Ruby Keeler: A Photographic Biography," (1998), and Michael Freedland's "Jolson: The Story of Al Jolson."

Patrick Watson's chapter uses judicious use of Herbert G. Goldman’s "Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life" (1988) as his primary source. I am currently making my way slowly through Goldman's volume and will post discrepancies found there - and elsewhere - down the road.

Watson sets the scene, during the era of prohibition and speakeasies:

Nils Grunland had a "speak," a pretty notorious nightclub called the El Fey. He not only ran the club, he also produced its entertainment, and when he came to see Rosie O'Grady there was something about the young dancer that caught his eye, so when the show closed he offered her a regular spot at the club. There was a kind of innocence about her that struck everyone, a vestal virgin kicking up her heels in a seductive short-skirt tap-dancing routine.

Watson writes that the New York Italian mobster Johnny "Irish" Costello became enchanted in Ruby, and "began to suggest around town that it might be a good idea if some Broadway producers found her more roles in Broadway musicals. Producers did not like to say no to Johnny Costello, and Ruby began to get some very nice roles."

[Al Jolson] had a weakness for young girls with innocent looks. He saw Ruby Keeler in a show called Sidewalks of New York at the Woods Theater in Chicago, and he was smitten. Jolson was very powerful by then, very well-connected, very capable of getting good intelligence on people’s comings and goings, very capable of finding out when this enchanting child would be in circumstances where he might be able to get to know her without interference from her handlers. When Ruby got off the train in Los Angeles one afternoon, where she had gone for a brief engagement, for once all on her own, there on the platform was one of the most famous men in America, calling out to her, to Ruby Keeler, "Hello Kid!"

Jolson knew he was living dangerously; this was Costello's girl. But he wanted her. He spared no expense. […]

Johnny Costello found out that they were secretly engaged. Apparently, instead of ordering the great man's assassination, he decided that his code demanded he act in Ruby's best interest. Perhaps he could understand that Ruby might really love the great entertainer. In any case, having heard that Jolson had abused a former wife, he let the singer know that his life was forfeit if he ever harmed Ruby, and that he had better make sure she was financially secure. On September 21, 1928, the couple got married and boarded a transatlantic ocean liner for their honeymoon in Europe. Costello had found out that some of his hoods were so offended they planned to take a shot at Jolson on his behalf. He threw an immense party down in Atlantic City for all of "his people," on the very night that Al and Ruby sailed from New York on the Olympic, and the story is that he did it to make sure they had a safe departure.

Nancy Marlow-Trump, in "Ruby Keeler: A Photographic Biography," provides her version of the meeting.

Many stories have been printed about the first meeting of this very famous couple. One version holds that Jolson saw Ruby at the El Fey Club and asked, "Who's the cute little tap dancer?" Ruby was 16 at the time and still largely unknown. Suddenly, one of the best-known entertainers in the world proceeded to sweep Ruby off her dancing feet. This version of the tale has Jolson showering Ruby with diamonds, furs, and baskets of flowers. It was even reported Jolson gave her a penthouse on Fifth Avenue and a pigeon-blood (dark red) ruby ring to match her name.

The truth is that Jolson saw Ruby in the Chicago run of Sidewalks of New York and never forgot her. When she disembarked from the train in Los Angeles, Jolson was at the station with Warner Bros. brass to meet famed comedienne Fannie Brice. He spotted Ruby immediately and asked for an introduction. Ruby said in an interview for "Films in Review" (September 1971), "The introductions were perfunctory, and everybody went their separate ways. That's the true story of how I met Jolson."

Ruby's mother Nellie tells Marlow-Trump that she knew about the wedding plans long before the press did.

Ruby and Al had told her they loved each other and always wanted to be together. When interviewed, Momma told the press, "For the first time, Ruby felt real love when she met Mr. Jolson. She asked me if I'd mind if she married him. I encouraged her, and I knew then the marriage would take place."

Another version that helps bring the strands together is Michael Freedland's, "Jolson: The Story of Al Jolson". Freedland writes:

One night Al was at Tex Guinan's place [the El Fey Club] and it was profoundly to affect his life. He walked into the club in full evening dress, as always, looking immaculate and acknowledging the welcome the assembled company were giving him.

He sat down with Eppy [Louis Epstein] and Harry Akst, trying to keep his mind on the show in front of him. Just sitting in an audience was always a hard job at first. But then a girl in a chorus caught his eye.

"What's the name of that cute little dark one?" he asked Tex.

"Her name’s Ruby," the club owner replied. "Ruby Keeler. But keep away. She's Johnny's girl."


"Yeh – Johnny Irish."

I can find very little information about Johnny "Irish" Costello online. Marlow-Trump says he was a close friend of heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney.

Freedland, continuing directly:

[Jolson] went up to Ruby after the show and liked the smile she gave him even more than he had when she flashed it across the footlights. They talked and liked each other.

But at that stage neither was taking the other very seriously. […]

Months later, Al was at a Los Angeles railway station to meet Fanny Brice on one of those show business welcomes that delighted the publicity agents. She got off the train accompanied by two young girls. Fanny introduced them to Al, "Mary Lucas. . ." Al smiled like a gentleman. "And Ruby Keeler." There was a blush on the young brunette's face as she was introduced to Jolson. Of course, she remembered him. How could she possibly do otherwise? But did he know who she was?

Because this was a showbiz gathering, the agents were there in force, too. Including Al's own man, William Morris.

As tough as Al was with most of his contemporaries, his heart melted like butter when faced with a pretty show girl. Looking at Ruby through the corner of his eye, he told Morris, "Get that girl a job dancing for $350 a week. Say Jolie says she's the best little hoofer he's ever seen." […]

The next day Morris personally made the calls. […]

Every night after the show there was a bouquet waiting for her from Al.

When she returned to New York, Johnny Irish sent for her. Irish was as soft as far as women were concerned as was Jolson – but he was inclined to take that softness to greater extremes than the singer ever did.

When he saw that Ruby was quite clearly more interested in Jolson than she was in him, he had the word passed through the gang grapevine that it might be a good idea for Jolson to come to see him. Al did just that – like a prospective bridegroom calling on his father-in-law.

"Ruby loves yer," said Johnny Irish without any formalities. "So you'd better marry her – or there won't be a certain singer on Broadway no more. Get me?"

Jolson got the idea. […]

Al and Ruby were married at Port Chester, New York on 21 September 1928. He was (at least) forty three. She was nineteen.

Ruby's parents objected to the marriage right up to the time the ceremony was performed by a justice of the peace.

Al Jolson’s birthdate is officially listed as May 26, 1886.

Freedland writes, "no one can be positive about Jolson's birthdate […] assuredly it was not 1886," and that Jolson told friends "he had invented the year as well as the month because he never knew for sure when it was that he was born." He further examines the mystery, explaining that George Jessel told him "he remembered Al saying he had taken off a year from his real age," and making the observation that Jolson looked a lot older than his official sixty-four years while on a tour to Korea immediately prior to his death in 1950. Freedland deduces Jolson's birth year was more likely 1885.

Marlow-Trump's account, however, suggests he may have been older than even that. She writes:

Margie Keeler-Weatherwax, Ruby's younger sister, disputes Jolson’s birthdate. "Al was the same age as our father [Ralph Hecter Keeler] when Ruby met him," she told the author. "Poppa was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1882. Al was 46 when he married Ruby, and she was 18."

Returning to Freedland:

The papers splashed the story of Abie's Irish Rose come true. Abie the big Broadway stage success was now being made into a film and Jewish Al and Catholic Ruby seemed to epitomize the talk.

The gossip columnists loved every detail of the story. Wherever Al and Ruby went, the newspaper men and women went, too. […]

When he and Ruby returned on the Olympic from their European honeymoon, a new home was awaiting them at Encino, a few stones' throw from Hollywood. Al carried Ruby over the threshold for the cameramen. The couple had a meal together and just as the bride was settling in, Al decided to go for a short walk – "to help the food go down, honey," he explained.

(See note about the Olympic below. -Dave.)

He was away for the rest of the evening and a few hours into the morning besides. "The guys at the fire station saw me as I passed by," he explained to Ruby, "and I gave them a song or two."

Ruby didn’t argue. After all, she wasn't married to a man. She had teamed up with a legend and she knew she would have to share him.

To be continued...


Some obvious errors of note:

1. At the end of Patrick Watson’s chapter, he’s got Jolson biographer Herbert Goldman mistakenly named as “Howard Goodman.” No web search filters this name as a Jolson biographer.

2. Nancy Marlow-Trump's Keeler biography lists Ruby's birthdate as August 25, 1910, a year later than every other source.

3. Michael Freedland identifies the liner that Al and Ruby returned to America as the Olympic. Most sources indicate the ship was actually the Leviathan. The Olympic was the liner they escaped to Europe aboard.

There will likely be more errors corrected in the coming weeks.

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