Book Talk: “Christmas with Ed Sullivan”

“This book, then, is another attempt of mine to share this great and holy day…My only hope is that this book constitutes another ‘reaching out’, another sharing of all that Christmas has come to mean to me.”

“Christmas with Ed Sullivan” edited by Ed Sullivan (1959)

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For me, the only thing better than Christmas is a Mid-Century Christmas. I found this wonderful book many years ago in a second-hand store and I wish I could remember how long ago because I have read it every Christmas since then; a good 15 years, I’d say. So, I’ve read Christmas with Ed Sullivan 15 times.

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It is truly a priceless and unique book and one that I cherish. As I say, it combines for me two things I love; Christmas and the 1950’s. Sullivan wrote two articles for this book, one that describes his own memories of Christmas and one that looks at Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”. The rest of the stories are Christmas tales Ed has chosen to share combined with yuletide remembrances from many of his famous friends, people who were popular in the ’50’s. It’s a warm and nostalgic artifact from a time – and concerning a season – many of us love.

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I have read that Ed Sullivan wasn’t exactly the lovable guy a book like this may suggest he was. This has made me ponder the sincerity of the book itself and Ed’s story about the Christmases of his past. I soon discarded this notion and continued reading it every year free from any cynicism. Often through the years, though, I’ve thought I’d like to find other sources that would corroborate Sullivan’s tale and some of the stories his friends submitted.

The book begins with Ed telling of the Christmases of his youth in Port Chester, New York with his family. He then details many of the Christmas Eves he spent entertaining wounded troops at Halloran General Hospital on Staten Island and he mentions some of the Christmas shows he produced for television on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Sidebar: this is like something out of my UnEarthed series. Halloran General, once the largest Army hospital in the world, was for soldiers recovering from wounds sustained in battle. In 1950, the patients began to be transferred to other facilities and the hospital became Willowbrook State School, an institution for the intellectually disabled. The school engaged in horrid practices and “ethically dubious” experiments and was derided as a “zoo” by Robert Kennedy. Geraldo Rivera won a Peabody Award for his exposé of the institution which was closed down in 1987.

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Each of the reminiscences submitted by Sullivan’s various friends are prefaced in the book with a “Dear Ed”. First up is Bing Crosby, telling of a sled he received one Christmas back in Spokane. Jack Benny shares a story of a lonely Christmas that was saved by the kindness of a priest in Salt Lake City. Clark Gable tells of a Christmas in Africa while shooting Mogambo that featured a surprise appearance by Frank Sinatra. Ed’s daughter, Betty, confirms that her dad did indeed often wake her up in the hours way before dawn on Christmas Day to show her how nicely he had decorated the tree. And Helen Hayes relates a Christmas memory involving her adopted son, James MacArthur, years before his tenure on TV’s Hawaii Five-0. Other memories are provided by the likes of Edith Piaf, Walter Cronkite, David Niven, James Garner, Lucy and Desi Arnaz, Cole Porter, Perry Como and James Cagney.

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What you get when you search “Christmas with Ed Sullivan”. This DVD is excellent, though.

The stories Ed includes are for the most part obscure but some of them have become cherished annual elements of my Christmas. Through the years, I have always imagined them in filmed versions. I’ve often toyed with the idea of turning them into screenplays and I like to imagine which actors would play what roles. I’ve daydreamed about owning my own network and buying the rights to these stories and presenting them at Christmas on television. Most of these stories appeared in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire and I’ve always marvelled at how Sullivan found them to use in his book. Truman Capote’s story A Christmas Memory is here. It appeared in 1956 in a collection of short novels of his that included Breakfast at Tiffany’sA Christmas Memory was made into a 1966 TV program starring Geraldine Page. What is a Miracle? is by Manuel Komroff and tells of Rufus, a beloved small town school bus driver who has lived alone for many years. I always see Morgan Freeman in this role.

A Certain Star (1957) by Pearl S. Buck is one of my three favourite stories here and one of those “cherished elements” I mentioned before. Buck was quite a lady and won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize for her novel The Good Earth, the best-selling novel in the US in 1931 AND 1932. A Certain Star (Clooney in the lead role?) is about an atomic scientist whose life was changed when he discovered the power in the nucleus of an atom. He has become estranged from his family and finally demands that the four of them spend Christmas together up at his childhood farm house. Unbeknownst to him, his wife has become gravely ill and his children think he is a monster, an “atomic bombmaster”; “but to drop it – and on people!” It is excellent.

James Hilton (Lost Horizon) is represented by a war time tale and both it and Bret Harte’s story of a cowboy salvaging a sick child’s Christmas are good reads. As is When the Wise Man Appeared (1942) by William Ashley Anderson that was featured on a 1955 episode of TV’s TV Reader’s Digest. Damon Runyon’s singing language leaps from the pages of Dancing Dan’s Christmas (1932), the second of my three faves and a story that is hilarious even by today’s standards. I used to dream of Steven Soderbergh filming a version for me utilizing his gang from the Ocean’s Eleven remakes. Dan is a stick-up man who one Christmas Eve gets liquored up on hot Tom and Jerry and then with a couple of buds stashes his stolen loot in his girlfriend’s grandmamma’s stocking, narrowly missing getting killed by a couple of heavies with sawed-offs. Delightful. The Tree That Didn’t Get Trimmed by Christopher Morley contains one of my favourite and oft-quoted lines; “Christmas is always a little sad, after such busy preparations”.

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Part of the Table of Contents.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s 1947 story As Ye Sow is a tale of a mother who gives of herself to her children’s benefit without seeming to get any consideration in return. The payoff though comes when her young son reveals the growing sensitivity of his character to her and I’m handed another great line about a parent’s sacrifice being rewarded; “he put into his mother’s hand the pure rounded pearl of a shared joy” Miss Kitty Takes to the Road is an interesting 1934 story by Alexander Woollcott about the great stage actress Katherine Cornell and the touring company of The Barretts of Wimpole StreetThe Facts (1944) is the third story I love dearly in Christmas with Ed Sullivan. Blacklisted, Oscar-winning author Ring Lardner, Jr. presents the story of Billy Bowen and Ellen McDonald who meet and fall in love one winter. Billy stays sober while meeting his betrothed’s family but then gets loaded and lets his buddy buy his future in-law’s Christmas gifts. The results are clever and audaciously funny. “Gee! Billy sure had nerve!”

This book also features illustrations by artist Don Almquist. Several years ago I was able to correspond with him a few times via email. It was nice to be able to tell him that his drawings have been a part of my Christmas traditions, lo these last many years. I tried again recently to get in touch with him but unfortunately his website seems to be inoperative but as far as I can tell he still is; he turned 90 in the summer of 2019.

Christmas is a lot about nostalgia, looking back. It’s also about traditions, things you return to every year that remind you of Christmases past. Christmas with Ed Sullivan is something that I’ve returned to every year for a long time. This artifact from a simpler time is something I hold dear. It’s always a joy to read about Christmas through the words of some legendary performers from the glorious middle of the 20th century.

7 comments

  1. What a find! What a tradition!

    I’m afraid I’ve become so busy in the last few years that I don’t take as much time as I should for the familiar old stories that revive and restore. You have given me a most timely reminder.

    – Caftan Woman

    • Yes, you know, every year I strive so to do all my “Christmas stuff” and “feel all the feels” – we all could use a reminder to just relax and let it all happen and just appreciate where we are in the calendar. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Another great and inspirational piece. I’m in awe at the amount of work and research that goes into all these great posts. I was fascinated to see Ring Lardner’s name, because I was always under the impression that Ed Sullivan was a strong and vocal anti-communist, but am I getting him mixed up with Walter Winchell?

    • Thank you, George, for your kind words. That’s a very astute point about Lardner. While Winchell was certainly the more vocal of the two, Sullivan seems to have been “anti-communist” when it came to controversies with sponsors and guests on his show. Ever the showman, if a guest would boost ratings, he would book him or her. But if letters poured in and his sponsors squawked, he would cancel a guest’s appearance. Same with Ingrid Bergman; when she was living in sin and disgraced, Sullivan wanted her on; what a coup that would be! But when Standards and Practices said “no way”, she was cut – and went on to win an Oscar.

      • Thanks for that clarification. The subject of a more pragmatically applied opposition to communism is an interesting one. I think that was the general attitude of many of the moguls, particularly when it came to valuable studio talent, until the studio heads themselves were testifying at the HUAC committees, when their attitudes hardened. My favourite was Jack Warner, (a Democrat) who got very agitated giving evidence, and promised to subscribe to a “pest removal fund” to ship professed communists to Russia. I’m not sure what to make of Hollywood communists; middle class naive hypocrites has been my general impression, although they certainly didn’t deserve the HUAC witch hunts. Sorry, I seem to have digressed a little from Ed Sullivan’s Christmas…

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