Ruby Keeler-Jolson and Al Jolson. Vintage photograph, date-stamped Jan 31, 1929.
Returning once again to the mystery of the Keeler-Jolson nuptials (see passim), we come to the version recorded in the memoirs of Ruby's agent Bill Grady. It is an excellent account, and often cited, but one that doesn't always line up with other versions. For instance, Grady cites the Keeler-Jolson marriage as having transpired at Greenwich, Connecticut, where others have them being married at Port Chester, New York. And Grady doesn't see off the pair on their honeymoon, instead, in his version Ruby is back to work. Grady is working from memory here, so it calls into question how reliable a witness he is. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating tale, including a sympathetic portrayal of the vanquished gangster beau Johnny "Irish" Costello, and will be added to the timewarp Ruby spread-sheet currently in production.
The Irish Peacock: The Confessions of a Legendary Talent Agent
By Bill Grady
Arlington House, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1972
Much has been written about the courtship and subsequent marriage of the young and beautiful Ruby Keeler and the one and only great Al Jolson. What has been written, plus what was told in the movie versions, is not the real story. The real tale is a fantastic one. As Ruby's agent and manager, I indirectly had a hand in it.
Ruby Keeler was the darling of Broadway. At a very early age she was dancing at the famous Texas Guinan's nightclub, also appearing in a Broadway musical, Bye, Bye, Bonnie.
Her press notices from Bonnie were outstanding, and in no small degree helped me to arrange a contract with Charles Dillingham for her to appear in Sidewalks of New York, the musical that introduced Kate Smith to Broadway. A short run in Sidewalks, and another Dillingham musical, Lucky.
Unfortunately for Dillingham, Lucky, which had cost $313,000 to produce, was a flop. It was the beginning of the end of this great man's career. To keep Miss Keeler busy, I arranged some bookings in important motion picture theaters. She was in great demand.
It was known on Broadway that Ruby and a Broadwayite named Johnny "Irish" Costello were carrying on a tacit romance. Johnny watched over Ruby like a mother hen. In the Guinan Club, woe to the ringsider who made a pass at young Ruby while she was doing her dance specialty on the cabaret floor. Two-fisted Johnny Irish would have to be reckoned with.
I didn't know Johnny's business. His constant companion was his pal Tommy O'Neil. Johnny was the quiet, nonsmoking, non-drinking type—Tommy just the opposite, talkative and prone to move in on arguments. It made no difference what subject was under discussion; pro or con, Tommy could move in uninvited.
Likable Tommy had a very annoying habit. In conversation he always repeated your last four or five words. If you were trying to explain something, it really threw you off.
Johnny and Tommy were highly regarded on Broadway. I never asked their means of livelihood, but assumed they were associated with the notorious Owney Madden, and his far-flung beer bootlegging racket. Both men were with me during my Silver Slipper days. I felt their presence there was as representatives of Madden, who had a big hunk of the operation.
As Ruby's agent, I kept Irish informed of my every move in her behalf. When I advised Ruby of a new booking, she would always inquire, "What did Johnny say?"
I received a call from Hollywood. It was Sid Grauman calling. Sid was the famous impresario of Grauman's Chinese Theater. He was planning a presentation and wanted Ruby as one of his stars. I asked $1,250 weekly, a six-week guarantee, and two round-trip fares New York to Los Angeles. Either her mother or sister would accompany her. I had been getting $500 weekly for Ruby in Eastern engagements. Grauman knew my reputation for nondickering and quickly okayed terms of $1,250.
Irish was pleased at the new salary, pleased for the Keelers. If that family had a desire in the world it was to possess money, and lots of it.
There was quite a brood of Keelers and Ruby was the big breadwinner. I was happy because studios in Hollywood were preparing musical pictures, and Grauman's would be a good showcase for Miss Keeler.
The fourth day of Ruby's engagement at Grauman's, I was at my usual table at Dinty Moore's when I was called to the telephone. It was Miss Keeler calling from Hollywood.
"Where is Johnny?" she asked excitedly.
"I don't know, Ruby," I replied, suspecting nothing. "Want me to find him and have him call you?" She was now crying. "What's the matter, Ruby, anything wrong?"
"Yes, that guy Al Jolson is out here and keeps sending me flowers and calling me to go 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."
No use reasoning further. I knew from experience that young Miss Keeler had a mind of her own and once it was made up nothing could move her. It was her mind to come home so I went in search of Johnny Irish.
As I was leaving Moore's, a taxi drew up and out jumped Johnny. I took him to the only place for privacy we could have, Moore's men's room. There I related my phone conversation with Ruby. His only comment?
"We gotta get the kid home. Where's there a Western Union Office?"
We went to the telegraph office on West 48th Street; the money was sent to Ruby, together with a long telephone conversation. We would meet her when she arrived in New York.
Five days later Ruby was home, and in the meantime I had arranged some bookings, starting at the Metropolitan Theater, Boston, to be followed by an engagement in Philadelphia.
During the Philadelphia engagement I received a call from Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers. His company was planning a gala presentation at their Hollywood theater. They wanted Miss Keeler as one of their headliners. I told Warner about the Grauman's Chinese episode, pointing out that the first question I would be asked would be, "Where is Jolson?"
Warner replied, "Don't worry about Joly. He is in Florida. Took a house there. Send her out, everything will be all right."
I set Ruby's price at $1,500 with the round-trip transportation for two. Everything was agreed to.
I went looking for Johnny to tell him what had transpired. I found him and Tommy O'Neil at Moore's. Listening to my recital of the Warner phone call, he thought several moments before answering.
"You sure that guy Jolson is in Florida?"
"All I know is what Warner tells me, that Jolson will not be in Hollywood."
"You better be sure, Grady. I don't want to have any trouble."
"No trouble," echoed Tommy O'Neil.
"I know the Keelers will think twice before they turn down $1,500. Did you tell Ruby?"
"No, Johnny, not until I told you. You know she's going to ask if you know."
"Tell her I said she can do whatever she wants to do, but talk it over with her mother."
I placed a call to Ruby in Philadelphia and anticipated her first question. "Where is Jolson?"
"Ruby, I can only tell you what I told Johnny. Jolson is in Florida and not expected in California. You call your mother and talk it over with her. Irish says to do whatever you want to do." I repeated the salary twice at her request.
The decision, after a talk with her mother, was to go to Hollywood.
Warner's Hollywood, and the second day of her engagement there, I got a call at Moore's. It was from Miss Keeler in California and she was crying.
"Where's Johnny?" she whimpered.
"Cripes, Ruby, not again."
"Yes, that guy Jolson is here, not in Florida, and the same thing is happening. I want to come home. Tell Johnny . . ." We were cut off.
I had been sitting with Johnny Irish and his pal Tommy. I went back to the table and beckoned to Johnny, and we went again to the only privacy in the place. There I told Johnny about the phone call. When I finished my tale, Irish went white and threw a left into my middle. It doubled me up like a pretzel. Man, he could hit hard.
Johnny apologized and we talked.
I repeated Warner's statement re Jolson being in Florida. I was at a loss for an explanation. Irish kept pounding his left fist into his right palm. I knew he would like to be in California at that moment.
Leaving me, he went up to Moore's apartment over the restaurant and placed a call for Ruby in California, followed by our going to the Western Union office and wiring the money to Ruby.
When the fair Miss Keeler arrived at Grand Central Station, Johnny Irish was there with a beautiful diamond engagement ring, cementing their troth.
Several more picture house engagements and Ruby was playing Loew's Washington. Again the fourth day and a pphone call, "Where's Johnny?"
"My God, Ruby, not again?"
"Yes, Jolson is here in Washington. I was all wrong. I've fallen in love with him. Will you break the news to Johnny?"
When the call came in I was in the midst of dinner. I was seated alone, and on returning to my table I couldn't finish it. How could I tell the devoted Johnny Irish? This was going to be a toughie.
Irish came into Moore's all smiles. He greeted his friends and came and sat with me. Noting my mood, he asked, "Anything the matter?"
"John, this is the toughest assignment I've ever had."
"Yeah," he replied. "What's goin'?"
"I just received a call from Ruby in Washington."
"Jolson is down there, Johnny, and she has fallen in love with him."
This nice man lowered his head without a word and for several minutes stared at his clenched fists. The knuckles were white from pressure. That good-looking Irish face was portraying inner agony. A lapse; he looked at me, banged his fists together, and abruptly left the table without a word.
Tommy O'Neil and Larry Fay came over to me. "What's the matter with Johnny? We saw him outside. He's crying and won't talk to us."
"John just got some news about Ruby. I think you guys better go out there and be with him. He needs you mostly, Tommy. I can't help."
O'Neil and Fay left. I ordered a stiff drink and followed, but when I got outside, Fay, Tommy, and Johnny were not around.
Following Washington, Ruby was to play the Capitol Theater in New York. Irish was not around his usual haunts. Only O'Neil knew where Irish was and he wasn't talking.
I wasn't exactly getting the brush from the Moore gang, but there was a strained air about their attitude toward me. Did these men think I had a part in the Keeler-Jolson affair other than arranging Ruby's bookings? Did I know about Jolson's intentions when I first booked Ruby in California? Did I know he was in or going to be in Washington when I booked her there?
This was the Broadway mob. They knew nothing about the theatrical business, other than their interest in nightclubs and speaks as an outlet for their bootleg goods. It looked like I was in a spot. I showed up at Moore's as usual. I had nothing to hide. O'Neil and Johnny didn't appear. I heard that Johnny was taking it pretty hard.
Ruby Keeler attended an early rehearsal at the Capitol Theater, New York. Immediately after orchestra rehearsal, she and Jolson went to Greenwich, Connecticut and were married. She finished her engagement at the Capitol Theater that week.
The Jolsons were living at the Ritz Towers, 57th and Park Avenue. I had a deal pending for Ruby and needed her okay. It was Show Girl for Florenz Ziegfeld, a starring role with Clayton, Jackson, and Durante as costars. Throughout this country and abroad papers were full of the Jolson-Keeler marriage.
When I arrived at the entrance to the Ritz Towers, I found Tommy O'Neil, Larry Fay, and a hoodlum known as the Slasher. Fay grabbed me as I approached. "You go upstairs and tell that dirty bastard we're gonna get him and we're waiting here until he comes downstairs."
I tried to talk them out of rough stuff. Nothing good could come of it. None of us could afford a police marker, and I think they realized it. Tommy O'Neil stood in the background. Loudmouth Fay did all the talking. He used to be Ruby's employer at the Guinan Club. I found I was getting nowhere in my peace talk, so I went upstairs to the Jolson apartment.
I'll give Jolson credit. When I told him about my encounter with the three men downstairs and their threat, he grabbed his hat, said nary a word, and left the apartment.
Tommy O'Neil told me later. "Jolson came up to us and said, 'You guys looking for me? Well, here I am. What are you going to do about it? Ruby and I are married. We fell in love. I'm sorry about Irish, but that's the way it is. Now get out of here and leave us alone.'"
When Jolson ended his talk with the trio they left, with O'Neil in the lead. A few feet away, Fay turned and said to Jolson:
"I'm telling you, Jolson. If you ain't good to little Ruby we'll kill you."
Jolson turned on his heel and came upstairs, and not a word about the downstairs happening.
The Jolsons disappeared from the Broadway scene for a while. It was a few weeks before Ruby would be needed for Show Girl rehearsals. I was offered as high as $2,250 a week for the Keeler act, but booked no dates for the time being. The Jolsons were in San Francisco. It was reported that Johnny Irish called them there and said just one thing, "Jolson, don't let me ever hear anything about Ruby that isn't good." He hung up.
The Jolson marriage, to all outward appearances, was a happy one. Al was an adoring husband, as well he might be. Ruby Keeler was a beautiful young woman. There was quite a few years' difference in their ages. Asked by many the why of the marriage, I had no answer. There was Ruby, there was Jolson, it was their life.
Show Girl rehearsed five weeks. Jolson attended every rehearsal. He was devotion itself. It was a tough show for Ruby. She was the star and carried a weighty load. It was natural that after a rigorous day of rehearsal she would be a bit edgy. Possessed with a temper to begin with, there were man-and-wife differences and sulking on both sides. I would then be called in as peacemaker.
Knowing Ruby, I could only offer Al one bit of advice. "Leave her alone. These rehearsals are tough. She'll come around in her own good time," and she did.
The show opened at the Colonial Theater, Boston, after numerous rehearsals at all hours of the day and night. Miss Keeler was a tired young lady. Jolson, noted for his inexhaustible energy, demanded more attention from Ruby than he should have under the circumstances. There was a spat and I was again called in. Jolson, a softhearted guy with even more of a temper than his wife, was in tears. I suggested a ride in the country to break the tension. Jolson and I took off.
To my surprise, instead of the ride in the country, the unpredictable Jolson ordered the chauffeur, Jimmy Donnelly, to drive to the nearest Catholic church. Jolson pleaded with me to go to the altar rail and pray that everything would be all right between Ruby and himself. I proceeded to pray while Jolson lit every candle he could find. The candle stands were ablaze with light, and Jolson stuffed bill after bill into the money slot. We went through the same proceedings in three churches, but at the third Joly wanted to be really sure about the prayers so he had Jimmy Donnelly join me at the altar rail.
Show Girl got off with a bang. It was light and melodic, and the audience loved it. The air was electric. The new star, Mrs. Al Jolson, was onstage and her famous husband was seated with me second row on the aisle. Ruby didn't disappoint, she was wonderful.
Just before the finale of the first act, Ruby had her specialty. She was to sing the hit song of the show, "Liza." It was planned that she would sing a verse and the chorus, then dance two choruses, but midway in the verse Ruby forgot the lyrics.
There was an instant of silence and Jolson rose to the occasion before the stunned audience. Stepping into the aisle, he nearly knocked me out of my seat in his haste. Jolson picked up the "Liza" lyrics and sang the song, while his beautiful young wife danced on stage. It was electrifying. Jolson, with tears of emotion streaming down his face, poured his heart out in song, his Ruby danced as she had never danced in her life, she, too, almost blinded with tears. I have had moments in the theater that thrilled me in my time, but never anything like this.
Every person in the jam-packed theater rose to his feet and applauded and cheered this great moment. As Joly returned to the seat beside me he was trembling. The audience insisted, and one verse and the chorus were repeated. The audience sensed that Ruby was exhausted and reluctantly allowed her to make her exit. Anything that followed in the first act was anticlimactic: the Jolsons, husband and wife, caused a sensation.
The incident became part of the show for the next several weeks. Ziegfeld prevailed upon Jolson to repeat the "Liza" singing while Ruby danced. New York had heard of the Boston episode, but when it happened on opening night at the Ziegfeld Theater there was no holding the audience. Many encores, and again the standing ovation.
The Jolson suite at the Ritz Hotel in Boston, after the opening, was the scene of a happy gathering of friends. All displays of temper and slight differences of opinion behind them, Al and Ruby Jolson were ecstatically happy, a wonderful climax in a history-making night in the theater.
The Irish Peacock: The Confessions of a Legendary Talent Agent
By Bill Grady
Arlington House, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1972