The Eddie Can­tor Sto­ry: A Jew­ish Life in Per­for­mance and Politics

  • Review
By – December 13, 2017

Eddie Can­tor? Real­ly? If you’re a mil­len­ni­al, you have no clue who he was, or why you should care, and your boomer par­ents may only remem­ber him as some­one Lenny Bruce dissed by call­ing him goy­ish, uncool. So it is no small mir­a­cle that author David Wein­stein man­ages to make the sto­ry of Eddie Cantor’s career time­ly, instruc­tive, and real­ly rather remarkable.

Eddie Can­tor (18921964) was orphaned young and raised by his grand­moth­er with lots of love but lit­tle mon­ey. Like many kids on the Low­er East Side, he dropped out of school and tried his hand at pet­ty crime before he real­ized he had a use­able asset, his gift of gab. After work­ing as a singing wait­er he tried show busi­ness, which, at the time, meant any­thing from bur­lesque halls to the Broad­way stage. Once he caught Ziegfield’s eye he had more reg­u­lar work, and the chance to devel­op his own rou­tines. From the stage he broke into movies, then radio, and final­ly television.

Cantor’s rags-to-rich­es sto­ry becomes a lot more com­pli­cat­ed when his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is fac­tored in. The 1920s, when he was build­ing his stage iden­ti­ty, were also years of intense nativism in Amer­i­ca. Cantor’s deci­sion to weave strudel and mat­zoh ball ref­er­ences into his lyrics, and to car­i­ca­ture pushy Jew­ish sales­men and neb­bishy guys with sly sex appeal, seems utter­ly dar­ing, even heroic.

But then there are his black­face per­for­mances, and sud­den­ly his eth­nic brav­ery seems decid­ed­ly one-sided. For­tu­nate­ly, Wein­stein spends some time on the nuances of Cantor’s black­face, assert­ing that it wasn’t some racist nos­tal­gia for Dix­ie, but a com­plex ethnic/​Jewish some­times cross-dress­ing shtick. Read­ers can exam­ine for them­selves a copy of the cov­er of Cantor’s sheet music for My Yid­disha Mammy.”

Since the use of black­face could be mate­r­i­al for a whole oth­er book, Wein­stein wise­ly returns to his larg­er theme, Cantor’s pre­sen­ta­tion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Can­tor always walked a fine line with his cul­tur­al choic­es — when to play with Jew­ish stereo­types, when to tone them down. Increas­ing­ly, he chose to devel­op an off-stage com­mit­ment to the sur­vival of the Jew­ish peo­ple, as a fundrais­er and spokesman for Jew­ish refugee agen­cies, Israel bonds, Hadas­sah, and oth­er Jew­ish phil­an­thropies. When World War II approached, he became a major fundrais­er for the Amer­i­can war effort, sell­ing war bonds, head­ing blood dri­ves, and orga­niz­ing Christ­mas gifts for wound­ed sol­diers (“Give a Gift for a Yank Who Gave”). So high pro­file were his ecu­meni­cal, pro-Amer­i­ca cam­paigns that after the war, he was less vul­ner­a­ble to McCarthy­ism than oth­er Jews in show business.

This recon­sid­er­a­tion of the career of Eddie Can­tor pro­vides an unex­pect­ed look at a pio­neer in the art of being pub­licly Jew­ish. As the old say­ing goes, Try it, you’ll like it.”

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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