This anecdotal, fast-moving biography is not only a tribute to revered comedian Jimmy Durante but also a vivid sketch of the colorful entertainment world of the twenties and thirties. Durante’s rough and tumble childhood in Brooklyn, his early gigs (he dropped out of school in seventh grade to play the piano), and his success as an entertainer are presented through a series of swift takes. Robbins explains details of the era, so that the reader painlessly acquires a sense of the time period with deftly sketched images of vaudeville, soft-shoe, speakeasies.
Durante dominates the stage, with his “dese” and “dem,” his strut, his malapropisms, and his famous sign-off, “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are”—which Robbins explains as sheer fabrication, an invention of Phil Cohan, producer of Jimmy’s show. The fable of how Durante turned his “schnozzola” from the liability that plagued his childhood to the asset insured for a million dollars by Lloyd’s of London is a fascinating American story.
Robbins outlines Durante’s career in movies as well as on the stage and on television—the comedian played in thirty-nine movies, most of them bad, and in seven Broadway shows. But the most memorable parts of the book are the descriptions of the entertainer in night-club acts and among his friends, with his first wife Jeanne, to whom he was married for twenty-years until her death in 1943, and with his second wife Margie, whom he married sixteen years after Jeanne’s death.
The book is too sympathetic to please those who want biographical subjects represented “warts and all,” but most will find it a delight. It includes a group of well-chosen photographs which enhance its appeal.