The Rise of Billy Rose: An Interview with Mark Cohen

Today on Gotham, editor Katie Uva interviews Mark Cohen, author of Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose about the legendary New York City showman and his legacy.

How did you become interested in Billy Rose?

Like Philip Roth’s fictional Portnoy, I learned about Rose from my father. Rose was a legend to the generation that grew up the ‘30s and ‘40s and that paternal infatuation was one of Portnoy’s many complaints. “My father plagued me throughout high school to enroll in the shorthand course,” says Portnoy, who quotes his father’s plea. ‘Alex, where would Billy Rose be today without his shorthand? Nowhere! So why do you fight me?’” Ha! Unlike Portnoy, my father did not urge me to study shorthand so I could take Rose’s path to great success. But the stories of Rose’s investing prowess and wealth did get lodged in a brain cavity somewhere. That kernel remained dormant, though, until novelist Saul Bellow in 1989 wrote “The Bellarosa Connection,” his terrific short story about Rose. By that time I had been a Bellow fanatic for more than ten years and read everything he wrote. Then five years ago, when I was looking for a new biography subject, I read in the preface to a collection of Bellow stories that “Bellarosa,” about Rose’s rescue of a Jew fleeing Nazi Europe, was based on a true incident. Bellow’s widow, Janis Freedman-Bellow, wrote that preface. I seem to have been the only person that read it. Nobody ever followed up on her information. I contacted Janis and she kindly and generously replied. That was enormously exciting. I was off to the races.

What was Billy Rose's childhood in New York City like? How did he get into the entertainment business?

Rose was a master showman who never let an inconvenient fact ruin a good story, but if he could have plotted out his birth and childhood to imbue it with every dramatic effect and cliché he could not have come up with anything better than the reality. In 1899 he was the first born child to impoverished Jewish immigrants living in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It is the story of teeming streets, gangs, economic want and struggles to Americanize that many of us are so familiar with we’re tempted to dismiss it as one of those Washington-chopped-down-the cherry-tree tales. But despite our weariness the stories are largely true. Rose’s father could not make a living. His mother was an energetic powerhouse who latched onto her son with a fury of love and ambition that matched and inspired his natural gifts. As Fanny Brice, his first wife observed, Rose was “clever, clever, clever.”

As for Rose’s attraction to the entertainment business, anyone in tech or finance today will recognize the allure. “It gets into the newspapers that a chauffeur has written a tune which has made thousands of dollars” and this attracts newcomers to songwriting, wrote Isaac Goldberg in his 1930 book Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket. In the '20s, New York’s song publishers, theaters, and nightclubs made the city an entertainment hub. The field played to Rose’s strengths. In 1917, he played piano in the orchestra at Commerce High School. He was also attuned to words. As a fellow songwriter put it, Rose had a “perfect ear for speech.” Even his detractors, and he had many, had to admit he mastered the lyricist’s craft in songs standards such as “Tonight You Belong To Me,” “Me and My Shadow,” “It Happened in Monterey,” and “Paper Moon.” As songwriter Ray Henderson said in bewildered exhaustion, “All I can say is by sheer determination and studying he learned the modus operandi of songwriting.”

Did Billy Rose have a particular style that defined his work?

Rose admired hard work and was a ferocious worker. As he once told an interviewer, “The American businessman as I came to know him is not a jerk or a schnook as he is frequently painted. He’s a damn smart guy who knows his job and works harder than anybody on his payroll.” Few of his fellow songwriters followed that creed and he dismissed them as “spontaneous grasshopper types.” Rose was the hardworking ant.

He mastered every detail of his chosen trades, whether it was songwriting, theatrical producing, running and owning nightclubs and theaters, producing spectaculars, investing in the stock market or buying great art. Rose always made sure he knew his business better than anyone. As one associate noticed, when Rose produced theatre “a certain kind of curtain cost a certain amount a yard. [Theatre producer Jed] Harris didn’t know. Others didn’t know. He knew.”

What is his most well-known or significant work?

Rose’s name was once unavoidable in New York City and across the country. In New York alone he had his Billy Rose’s Music Hall, Billy Rose’s Casa Mañana, and Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclubs; his musical theatrical, Billy Rose’s Jumbo, with songs by Rodgers and Hart; and his Ziegfeld Theatre and Billy Rose Theatre. His Billy Rose’s Aquacade was also in New York, at the 1939 World’s Fair, which increased the national fame that first came his way in 1936-37 in Texas with his Billy Rose’s Frontier Fiesta and, in Cleveland, his first Billy Rose’s Aquacade. By 1945, Hollywood capitalized on his name recognition with the movie, Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, starring Betty Grable. In 1947, he had an internationally syndicated newspaper column and was on the cover of TIME magazine. Rose was everywhere.

But to me his most significant contribution was how over his lifetime he managed to forge a public Jewish American identity that presaged and paralleled the general rise of ethnic identity in the 1960s. Americanism was the overwhelming mood of the country nearly his entire life, and finding a place for his Jewish identity alongside his American was something he wrestled with since the 1920s, when Rose wrote “Since Henry Ford Apologized To Me,” a comic song about Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism. During WWII, news of the Holocaust again spurred him to Jewish activism. But it was only during the last years of life, from 1960 to 1966, when America’s more tolerant attitude toward ethnic identity overlapped with Rose’s excitement about Israel that he became a public and proud Jewish American. It marked a transformation in American identity that is still unfolding.

Who were his main contemporaries/collaborators/rivals?

Rose’s crowd reads like a roll-call of New York’s famous. Legendary comedienne Fanny Brice was Rose’s first wife. They were married in 1929 by New York’s mayor, Jimmy Walker, a high-living good-time Charlie type often called New York’s nightclub mayor. The theatre-owning Shubert brothers were one of Rose’s favorite targets. He featured them as the Shufelds in a vaudeville sketch and in 1938 the Shuberts tried to shove aside Rose in a battle over who would control a lucrative performance space at the 1939 World’s Fair. Rose won. Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht, famous for the 1932 movie Scarface, was a close friend and Bernard M. Baruch, Wall Street multimillionaire, statesman and confidante of Winston Churchill, acted as a substitute father. Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem in the 1960s was another friend, and associates ranged from Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, whose Lilliom became Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, to famed acting coach Lee Strasberg, playwrights Clifford Odets, George Kaufman, and Moss Hart, composer Marc Blitzstein, conductor Leopold Stokowski, film star Edward G. Robinson, and so-called toastmaster general, George Jessel. Gangsters such as Dutch Schulz also formed part of his circle.

Rose made it his business to know those he referred to, caustically, as “the big boys.” Rose was short, just 5’2” and started out very poor. He always had something to prove.

Are there particular ways that being based in New York shaped Billy Rose's career? Do you feel that Billy Rose's life is a quintessential New York story, or is he anomalous in important ways?

Aside from his parents, Rose had no influence greater than New York City. It was determinative. Rose’s desperate hunger for and love of the gargantuan and the tremendous that found expression in his outdoor spectaculars, such as his famous Aquacades — synchronized swimming shows replete with hundreds of swimmers, dancers, musicians, acrobatic clowns, light shows and more — seem a symptom and extension of the extraordinary possibilities of New York. During his youth, the city’s first skyscrapers were being born. In 1902 Harper’s Weekly proclaimed, “It is as if some mighty force were astir beneath the ground, hour by hour pushing up structures that a dozen years ago would have been inconceivable.” In 1904, novelist Henry James detected in New York “the power of the most extravagant of cities, rejoicing, as with the voice of the morning, in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions.” Rose’s productions also seem inspired by New York’s public amusements, such as Luna Park and Dreamland at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, which during Rose’s childhood drew millions of visitors to a fantasy-world historian David Nasaw terms a mad hodgepodge “where all was artifice, extravagance, and excess.” These were direct ancestors to Rose’s multimedia nightclubs that offered dance, music, and films projected on the walls and his mixture of circus acts and musical theatre in his 1935 Jumbo. Gondolas gliding on an artificial lake and a buffalo stampede emerging from a man-made mountain at his 1936 Texas Frontier Centennial can also be seen as products of the Coney Island spirit that embodied in dream form the New York ideal architect Rem Koolhaas terms “Manhattanism.” In Delirious New York, Koolhaas interprets the idea as the wish to live in a fantastical invented world, “to live inside fantasy.”

That was Billy Rose’s dream and he fulfilled it. In 1943, he bought New York’s greatest theatre, the Ziegfeld, and made it the home to some of Broadway’s greatest musicals, including Brigadoon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Kismet. In 1956 he bought a home that nearly matched the great theatre in size and grandeur. His 23,000-square-foot, 55-room mansion at 93 Street and Park Avenue was one of the last great houses built in New York during the pre-Depression boom and Rose filled it with art and sculpture by Rodin, Isamu Noguchi and more. A newspaper reporter wrote that the “living room... may have been slightly smaller than Madison Square Garden.” Art museum curator Karl Katz visited Rose there to discuss donations to what became Jerusalem’s Billy Rose Art Garden. “He was living in that incredible house,” Katz said. “It was unbelievably palatial... over the top plush.”

Little wonder then that Abe Burrows, one of the writers of the New York musical Guys and Dolls, said he “couldn’t bear the thought of a New York City without Billy Rose.” The guy lived out a New York dream of wealth, luxury, and fame.

What was a favorite or particularly important archival resource as you researched this book?

Hooray for the New York Public Library! While I used many archival sources in the city, none compare to the research library on Fifth Avenue, where I was able to find Rose’s high school magazine from 1915-17, which reported on Rose’s first triumphs as a champion shorthand writer. But the main library’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division was the real treasure trove. Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair made him his first million, and in the archives room I was able to go through the World’s Fair papers. Those hundreds of pages of letters, contracts, photographs and other materials document how Rose landed his contract with the Fair. The book would not have been possible without access to those papers.

Of course, the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the NYPL’s Performing Arts library was another gold mine. Maurice Zolotow’s unpublished biography of Rose is there, along with Zolotow’s interview notes! Another crucial archive was at the Israel Museum, which holds the correspondence documenting his donation of the art and construction costs to build the Billy Rose Art Garden there. The scale of his support for the museum as a whole, and not just his Art Garden, is not sufficiently recognized. Archival research is a scholarly version of a children’s scavenger hunt game. It is great fun.

Why should people be interested in Billy Rose today?

Billy Rose personifies the ambition and tough-guy “making it” style of New York, and as such offers an interesting perspective on Donald Trump, who could learn something valuable from the showman.

The two men share some characteristics. Rose’s habit of putting his name on all his nightclubs and productions seems to have been a model for Trump, who also attached his name to everything he touched. There are other similarities, too. Rose spoke a fluent Damon Runyon dialect of New Yorkese, replete with cynical and wry wisecracks, such as his assertion that as a show business guy his business was a “racket” and he wasn’t “supposed to have any friends.” And when caught in a lie Rose shrugged and explained, without embarrassment, “my line’s full of hullabaloo, ballyhoo and razzle-dazzle, and you have to beat the drum.” Our president is also fond of this language and style, as the New York Times recently noted. “Mr. Trump is comfortable with the wiseguys-argot” of “shady businessmen.”

But the story of Rose's life reveals that Trump’s version of the old-time tough New Yorker is distorted. Trump cherishes the rough behavior and tosses out the decency of guys like Rose. Without fanfare, Rose directly supported his extended family and also associates, such as acting coach Lee Strasberg and composer Deems Taylor, by giving them jobs on his productions. “He never made a show of it, but he was an extremely benevolent man,” said Taylor’s daughter. “He didn’t impress you as being benevolent, he was always rather brusque.” Rose was the New York type personified by Humphrey Bogart's Rick in the movie Casablanca. Rick also is a hardboiled New York nightclub owner (one almost certainly modeled on Rose) who announces, “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” But when a moral choice has to be made, Rick makes the right choice. Rose also made the right choice during the war. He rescued a Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe.

Billy Rose and Casablanca’s Rick are examples of the tough but ultimately decent New Yorkers we need to be reminded of today.