John Florence Sullivan was born May 31, 1894, to John Henry and Cecilia Sullivan. Within three years, Cecilia was dead and Henry Sullivan embarked on a successful career of alcoholism and a rather disastrous stint as a single parent. In time, however, the young John Sullivan grew to manhood and, after adopting a series of stage names, finally settled upon Fred Allen.
Under that name, he became one of the legendary stars of that most intimate and personal entertainment medium, radio. Along the way, however, Allen paid his dues in countless venues throughout the United States and Australia from Cleburne, Texas, to Toowoomba and finally Broadway. The “act” was altered and modified along the way, needless to say, and thus Allen acquired a breadth and depth to his humor all too often absent in the work of contemporary comedians. For the wit of Fred Allen was his alone and, to a degree unparalleled then or later, was the result of his own comic genius. Allen would employ other writers, most notably Herman Wouk, but his was the dominant voice in all such collaborations.
Biographers, of necessity, find themselves faced with a dilemma of classic proportions. If they concentrate upon the subject and his or her existence exclusively, they run the risk of failing to put matters in the larger contexts necessary for full understanding. On the other hand, if they concentrate their attention on the circumstances within which their subject functioned, the individual is obscured by the welter of supporting detail. Robert Taylor hews to the middle course in this work, and if, at times, he appears to wander off into an examination of Allen’s world to the exclusion Allen, the digressions are rather brief. Unfortunately, Taylor presents far too much of the what of Fred Allen’s life and far too little of the why. Thus, although this biography presents a mass of information about Allen’s life and a representative sample of his wit, the man behind “California’s a wonderful place to live--if you happen to be an orange,” is seldom revealed.