The Dance Magazine. September 1929. Cover design—Ruby Keeler Jolson, painted by Jules Cannert.
Following-up on the last entry, as mentioned, author Patrick Watson sourced much of his material for “Ruby Keeler: Queen of Nostalgia” to Herbert G. Goldman’s “Jolson: The Legend Comes Alive” (Oxford University Press, 1988).
I recently completed Goldman’s book, and re-read all the passages about Ruby and her marriage to Al Jolson. By way of a personal review, I preferred the more compelling narrative of Michael Freedland’s biography to Goldman’s, but Goldman’s volume is superior in value of facts, resources and leads. The material he compiles about Keeler is extensive, and much of it will be cannibalized here.
Goldman states up front that he never interviewed Ruby, “who suffered a burst embolism, [and] did not choose to abet my efforts.” Hence he compiles his version from secondary sources, including contemporary 1930s movie magazines (which I will be examining at later postings) as well as the memoirs of others, particularly Mr. Billy Grady, Ruby’s first manager and the author of "The Irish Peacock: Tales of a Legendary Talent Agent". In the same fashion that Patrick Watson mined much of his primary material from Goldman’s book, Goldman in-turn makes ample use of Billy Grady’s memoir as his primary Ruby source. I will be reading the Grady volume in short order. For right now, Goldman’s accounts are gold, and I recommend it to any-and-all Ruby fans.
In the version sourced by Goldman, in the spring of 1923, Ruby, then thirteen years old, is hired as a chorus girl for producer George M. Cohan’s The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly. The show tours for more than six months before opening at the Liberty Theatre on Broadway on Christmas night, where it runs for 11 weeks.
During Rosie’s Broadway run, Ruby wins a beauty and dancing contest run by producer Nils T. Granlund. Ruby is too young to be hired by Granlund, “but Earl Lindsay, one of the contest judges, offered her a two-year contract at seventy-five dollars a week to dance in his new club on the roof of the Strand Theatre.”
Several weeks later, Granlund offered Ruby a featured spot as a dancer at the El Fey Club. […] Ruby released from her contract with Lindsay, became a principal attraction at the El Fey before she was fifteen. Larry Fay was the owner, but the club was soon identified with Texas Guinan.
Goldman introduces us to Johnny “Irish” Costello:
A handsome, baby-faced Italian, he frequented the Broadway speakeasies to protect the interests of Owney Madden, a former killer who supplied most of the bootleg whiskey drunk in New York clubs throughout the twenties. Writers have tended to white-wash Ruby’s relationship with Johnny, claiming he was just a friend protecting the young girl from nasty characters. The fact, however, is that Ruby was Costello’s girlfriend from the time she was seventeen years old. Ruby was, by then, no longer innocent, but she recognized the value of her charm and could appear naïve when the occasion demanded.
Under Johnny’s patronage, Ruby’s career in night clubs blossomed.
Goldman does an excellent job itemizing Ruby’s early stage career with Johnny Irish as her suitor, beginning with a floor show at the Silver Slipper, and then headlining at Tex’s 300 Club in September, 1926. (The Silver Slipper was a nightclub owned by Johnny Irish and Billy Grady. Goldman does not mention whether there were other owners.) Billy Grady becomes Ruby’s agent later that same year.
Goldman continues the stageography:
Ruby returned to the Broadway theatre as a featured dancer in [Earl] Lindsay’s Bye, Bye, Bonnie. The show opened at the Ritz Theatre on January 13, 1927, and Ruby won a huge hand for her “Tampico Tap” number. Charles Dillingham, [Florence] Ziegfeld’s greatest rival, now wanted Ruby for the part of “Maxie Maxwell” in Lucky, his $313,000 vehicle for Mary Eaton. Bye, Bye, Bonnie was still running, but Lindsay was persuaded to give Ruby her release. It marked the second time she had deserted that producer.
Lucky plays the New Amsterdam Theatre and closes after seventy-one performances. Producer Charles Dillingham then hires Ruby for Sidewalks of New York, at Broadway’s Knickerbocker Theatre. The show opens in September, 1927 and runs for 112 performances before hitting the road.
Jolson saw Sidewalks of New York at the Woods Theatre in Chicago on April 9, 1928. He already knew who Ruby was, but that night in Chicago was when he was smitten. Ruby was now eighteen, a five-foot-three, one-hundred-pound beauty.
Ruby returned to New York after Sidewalks of New York closed in Chicago, and Grady booked her for a six-week tour of west coast picture houses at $1,250 a week. Ruby was accompanied by her sister Helen on the trip to California. Al was there when the train pulled into Los Angeles, and William Perlberg, later a producer but then a Hollywood agent, made the introductions.Shortly before production on [The Singing Fool] started, Jolson, William Morris, Bill Perlberg, and a handful of Warner executives went to Union Station to meet Fanny Brice, coming to Los Angeles to make her first talking picture, My Man.
Al saw a wide-eyed girl deboard right after Fanny. [...]
"Hello, kid," Al greeted her.
The startled girl looked up, seemingly surprised that the great Jolson knew her.
Perlberg, who was handling the details of Ruby’s picture-palace tour for Grady and the William Morris Agency, told her to drop by and sign the necessary contract the next day. When she got there, Ruby was amazed to find Al Jolson—greeting her like an old friend and insisting he could get her even more money than Grady had. Ruby protested, but Al spoke to Perlberg, made a few calls, and got her a slight increase.
Goldman proceeds to describe how Ruby—Johnny Irish’s girl—was shocked and scared by Jolson’s interference and advances. Ruby opens at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles on June 15, 1928. For the first four shows Jolson sends secret gifts to her every evening, showering her with roses, toiletries and a lynx fur.
When Ruby discovers the identity of her secret admirer, she freaks. Goldman quotes Benny Rubin, on the same bill, speaking with Los Angeles Herald Express columnist James Bacon in 1971:
[Keeler] was aghast and brought Al all of his gifts, wanting to return them. Naturally, he wouldn’t accept them. He then asked that she and her sister go to coffee with them.
“Ruby begged off because she had a date. Al said: ‘Is it that important you can’t break the date?’
“A voice behind us said, ‘Yes, it’s that important.’ We turned to see Jackie Fields, the famous boxer.” Fields, who would win the world welterweight title, was looking after Ruby for Costello.
If Fields was moonlighting as Ruby Keeler's personal bodyguard, he was an especially busy boy. BoxRec's profile shows Fields fighting Don Fraser the week before and Jack Zivic the week after (Fields won both by KO).
Goldman writes Jolson is at Grauman’s Egyptian almost every day, that Ruby is horrified by the stalking, and counting down the days till her Los Angeles engagement ends and she could move on to San Francisco and rid herself of Jolson. Goldman, bluntly: “She was wrong.” Jolson begins his mashing of Ruby anew, and Keeler again panics, calling her agent Billy Grady and crying. “That guy Al Jolson is out here and keeps sending me flowers and calling me to go out to dinner with him. I don’t want to go. I’m afraid. Get Johnny to wire me the money. I want to come home.” Five days later Ruby is home in New York.
Jolson is in California filming The Singing Fool for Warner Brothers, his follow-up to the first talkie The Jazz Singer.
In July, Warner said he wanted Ruby for a “gala presentation” at the new Warner Theatre in Hollywood. Grady set the price at $1,500 plus round trip transportation—after getting Warner’s word that Jolson was in Florida and would not be near Ruby. Jolson, of course, was still in California, and it was at his suggestion that Jack Warner asked for Ruby.
By the second day of her engagement for Warner she is on the phone crying to her agent, and returns home at once.
Goldman raises a bizarre report in Variety magazine three weeks’ later that says Ruby married Johnny Irish, on August 31, 1928, and showed a ring backstage at the Fox Theatre in Washington. The engagement is announced on-stage, with a claim the ceremony was performed by a Rev. Father O’Grady. Keeler later calls the whole thing a joke, and somewhat disingenuously tries to pass the ring off as her cousin’s.
When reporters begin asking for more details, Keller calls her agent and says she is with Jolson in Washington; that she is in love with Jolson; and would Grady please pass the heartbreaking news to Johnny.
Goldman writes, “Grady broke it to him, and the gangster took it. Costello’s cohort, Tommy O’Neill, and Larry Fay found him outside of Dinty Moore’s restaurant in tears.”
The only time that Ruby ever talked about her courtship by Al Jolson, she said that a mutual friend invited them to dinner. “I was doing five shows a day,” she said, “but I said yes, because you found time to have dinner. Al was at their home and that’s how it went. He had a big ring he brought me and I said yes, I would marry him.”
Goldman rightly states, “Parts of the true story are still missing.” I’m going to eventually pull all the different versions together and work out a spreadsheet and timeline. Re: Goldman's comment above, Marlow-Trump’s book provides some newer information (see comments prev. posts). In the preface to his Jolson bio, Goldman mentions his inability to get Keeler on the record; one presumes he would almost certainly have liked to talk about Costello. He continues:
Miss Keeler’s reluctance to discuss Al Jolson is familiar to most students of the subject. Less known is her refusal to discuss Johnny Costello. Was the ring that Ruby flashed in Washington the one that Irish gave her in New York, or the one she claims was given to her by Al in Washington? […]
At any rate, she was “Costello’s girl” no longer. By the time that Ruby got back to New York to start a two-week engagement at Loew’s Capitol on September 1, 1928, she was Al Jolson’s fiancée. The engagement, however, was kept secret.
Costello’s scary gangster pals are the reason for the secrecy. Johnny Irish spares Jolson’s skin, but hardballs him into giving Ruby “a wedding present of one million dollars—payable before the wedding." More mobsters try to extort money from Jolson, thinking him a soft touch, but Jolson gets columnist Mark Helliger of the New York Daily News to use his underworld connections to get heavies to back-off Jolson. Helliger, and photographer Tom Donahue, are later rewarded with a trip on the Jolson’s European honeymoon aboard the Olympic and provided exclusive scoops for the Daily News.
Irish had promises Ruby that no harm would come to Al, so he arranges a party for his friends in Atlantic City on the night of the sailing. He figures that would keep any of them from putting Al—and possibly Ruby—to sleep. [...]
Shortly after the Olympic "steamed," someone phoned Johnny Costello at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Atlantic City. As soon as Johnny heard the ship had pulled out, he put down the phone.
"All right, boys," he called out, "the party's over."
Al and Ruby were married at the home of Surrogate George A. Slater in Westchester County, 3:30 p.m., September 21, 1928. On the marriage certificate, Goldman reports Jolson “filled in the space calling for his mother’s maiden name, he put down “Ethel Canton,” not Naomi. Ethel was Ruby’s real name. Once again, Al was, in essence, marrying his mother. Al and Ruby board the Olympic before midnight.” Neither Jolson’s nor Keeler’s names are recorded on the official passenger list. They are jined by columnist Helliger, photographer Donahue, and Als' pal Louis Schrieber.
On the honeymoon, Ruby is offered a role in Florence Ziegfeld’s Whoopee, and she agrees to join rehearsals on October 22. Ruby’s mother Nellie offers crazy tales (which I’ll try to examine closer at a later date) to the New York American about the marriage while the Jolsons’ are travelling, including a story about Ruby’s threat to kill herself if Jolson didn't marry, and a confirmation (of sorts) about that one-million-dollar dowry. Al and Ruby return aboard the Leviathan and angrily deny the reports.
Whoopee opens in Pittsburgh the first week of November, 1928. Jolson, in California shooting The Singing Fool, begs her to run away from the show and join him without Florence Ziegfeld's permission for a release. She dutifully complies and arrives in Los Angeles on November 14. The couple make a trip to Hawaii aboard the City of Honolulu and return to California in early January, 1929 with tabloid rumours of marital friction.
If Florence Ziegfeld was stung by Ruby’s cheeky departure from Whoopee, he nevertheless offers her a starring role in his new production of Show Girl. Ruby begins rehearsals in May of 1929.
Goldman sets it up:
In New York, the fights between Al and his ten-aged wife continued. Al attended almost every rehearsal of Show Girl, giving Ruby more advice than she could possibly absorb and making her even more tense than she would otherwise have been. Ruby, who had never had more than a minor featured role in any show before, was shouldering a big Ziegfeld production. She was not yet twenty, and the knowledge of what was expected, plus the strain of the rehearsals, made her irritable and nervous. Miss Keeler had “a temper to begin with” according to Billy Grady, who was called in to make peace with the Jolsons whenever Al and Ruby had a fight.
Show Girl opens at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on June 25, 1929, with Ruby playing the lead role of “Dixie Dugan.”
The best song in the score was easily “Liza,” written especially for a second act minstrel number with what one critic described as “one hundred beautiful girls seated on steps that covered the entire stage.”
The high point of this number came when Frank McHugh sang the verse and Ruby stepped into a spotlight at the top of a magnificent series of platforms. Miss Keeler had barely gone into her dance when Jolson rose from his seat in the second row, scrambled into the aisle, picked up the refrain, and sang “Liza” at the top of his lungs.
The Jolson-Keller “Liza” has become one of the most famous moments in musical comedy history.
[We’ll get to the re-fried version as played in The Jolson Story at a later date. Continuing directly...]
Why did Jolson do it? “I don’t know” was Ruby’s answer to that question on a 1971 Dick Cavett TV show. “I was just as surprised as anyone. I guess he just liked to sing. But I don’t know why he did it. I’m not very bright, you know.”
Jolson certainly did like to sing, but he rarely gave extemporaneous performances. The most likely explanation for what happened probably lies in what Matilda Golden, Ziegfeld’s secretary, told author Charles Higham. According to Miss Golden, Ruby momentarily froze on the top platform in the dress rehearsal. Dance director Bobby Connolly yelled “Come on, Ruby!” and Jolson, who was out front, started singing the song back at her. It was apparently Ziegfeld’s idea to have Jolie repeat the act during performances in order to boost ticket sales. Ruby was not told of the arrangement.
At least one Boston critic found the Jolson-Keeler “duet” an obvious and tasteless blight on what was otherwise a fine evening, and Ruby’s friend, Patsy Kelly, was still indignant almost fifty years later. (“That was her show, not his.”) Whether Al sang “Liza” as a p.r. stunt to help the show, to steal his wife’s thunder, or simply because he “liked to sing” did not help his marriage. The Jolsons were quarreling—again—when Ruby arrived at the Ziegfeld theatre for the Broadway opening of Show Girl on Tuesday night, July 2nd. […]
Al sang “Liza” to his bride again that night, just as he had done throughout the previous week in Boston.
The September, 1929 issue of The Dance magazine (see illustration at top) features a striking Jules Cannert illustration of Ruby on the cover. There is no accompanying feature, but the magazine does run a review written by critic Paul R. Martin. Excerpt:
Probably everyone remembers Show Girl, the magazine serial, novel and motion picture by the adroit J. P. McEvoy. This, then, is the musical comedy version of the same, and it looks like a winner, though certainly not the type of sensational smash Mr. Ziegfeld has come to demand of himself. […]
But the vehicle offers the indubitable advantages of Ruby Keeler Jolson […].
Ruby Keeler Jolson is of course the center of interest, having been elevated to featured position for the purposes of this opus. She displays exceptional promise for the future, with a taking personality and her w.k. ability to buck dance with wooden shoes. That there are many things about filling an ingénue role she does not know should not be held against her. In time, Ruby Keeler Jolson will be a leader, and now she is doing remarkably.
Milton dismisses George Gershwin’s score as “a distinct disappointment… dull and undistinguished.”
In the same issue, another reviewer “Keynote” (Black and Blue Notes), reckons the show “pretentious.”
In [Show Girl], Mr. Ziegfeld, famed for actively disliking “jazzy” music, leaves a straight band in the pit, but bows to public opinion far enough to put Duke Ellington on the stage in two spots.
Ellington is probably the leading dispenser of hot Negro music. His records have been very successful, and he has been a Harlem drawing card for several years. That he is not given a full opportunity to display his wares in the show is not his fault. He is not given the chance, though Show Girl, a very pretentious production, could be a lot livelier.
There is no mention in either review of Al Jolson’s “Liza” duet.
Jolson continues with the “duet” for a week and then returns to California. Keeler goes through a series of undisclosed health problems, presumably including exhaustion, and misses several performances. She has an undisclosed operation at Lenox Hill Hospital on August 1st; again, the illness and reason for the operation never disclosed. The show runs without Ruby for several weeks, and Ruby leaves to California to join Jolson.
Future searches: Charles Higham, Billy Grady, more...
Note: Goldman provides different spellings on the name Nils T. Granlund, sometimes on the same page, alternately spelling it "Granlund" and "Granland." To further muddy the confusion, Patrick Watson spells it "Grunland." The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) entry uses "Granlund" as the primary entry, and "Granland" as an alternate. Marlow-Trump's book quotes Ruby in an early interview explaining, "Lord knows I certainly wasn't Granny's [Granlund's] type. He loved the tall, buxom, glamorous chorus girl. I wasn't a beauty, but he hired me, anyway, to dance at the El Fey club." It's a great quote. Moreover, Ruby's use of the nickname "Granny" suggests "Granlund" more than Watson's "Grunland." In future I will use the primary IMDB spelling as the proper form.