Book Talk: The Great One

“The more one digs into the life of Jackie Gleason, the hazier the truth becomes. He was many different things to different people and, moreover, many different things to himself. He was…prone to false revelations and to concealment. All of his art was a kind of confession, and applause was his absolution.”


“The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason” by William A. Henry III (1992)


Jackie Gleason is a singular figure that checks a couple of significant boxes for me. First and foremost, for me he is the creator of a clutch of wonderful records of mood music from the 1950’s and ’60’s that are the very symbols of the swank life of that era. Any self-respecting mid-century record collector must have Gleason in their collection. Secondly, there is his pioneering television show, The Honeymooners, a program that looms large in my family. These things and many others are illuminated in the book we’re looking at today.

William A. Henry III had already won two Pulitzer prizes by the time he wrote The Great One. His book is a more recent biography of Jackie that follows and borrows from two previous works. I always check the dates on the biographies I read and – as nothing much has happened to add to Gleason’s story since ’92 – this is likely as good a life story of the Great One as you could find. I was sad to learn that William Henry passed away two years after this book was published.

Previously, I reported on Anthony Summers’ biography of Frank Sinatra and presented my findings here in these pages as well as on my “Words With Wellsy” segment on Koop Kooper’s Cocktail Nation radio show podcast. Reading that book proved a challenge as page after page presented me with supposed proof that Sinatra was a mean person. Well, I ran into the same thing here with Jackie’s story. The difference though is that with the Sinatra book you are left to decide for yourself. In Jackie Gleason’s case, it seems there is no debate. Jackie Gleason was a jerk.

I do not get the impression, though, that there is any malice in Henry’s reporting. In fact, he sometimes seems hesitant to tell you the truth about Jackie and he couches the negativity in mitigating fashion. While not presented as an excuse, one can make assumptions based on Henry’s reporting of Gleason’s childhood. Born into meagre surroundings in 1916 in Brooklyn, John Herbert lost his mother and brother to death and his father to desertion by the time he was 20. From the outset, Henry establishes the lifelong Gleason method of embellishing his life story. As with his mother’s and brother’s deaths, his father’s disappearance and his debut on the high school stage, Henry says that the only truth you could count on from Jackie was one that changed almost every time an interviewer asked a question about his early days.

“Jackie told the story in so many sharply different ways that one cannot be sure when it happened, or in whose company, or indeed for certain that it happened at all.”

– Henry tries to tell the tale of Jackie’s intro into show business

Gleason’s subterfuge when it came to tales of his life is considered by Henry to be telling when trying to understand Jackie’s make-up. For example, previous biographers had cited Herb Gleason’s desertion of the family as a cause of Jackie’s ravenous appetite. Gleason had bristled at this and denied it by saying he already began to eat before his father left – and also by saying that he did not start overeating until much later. Both could not be true but what Jackie really objected to was the idea that anything that happened to him in his childhood could have caused other things to happen. Jackie didn’t want any sense to be made of his life; “To be understood could only make the Great One ordinary. In mystery and enigma, he felt, lay the wellspring of his persona”. From the outset, the reader is troubled by the thought that this is another sad story. A story of a man who lacked something in his childhood and in his life and sought to replace it with fantasy and with the trappings of fame and fortune.

“If he could, Gleason would probably have reinvented his personal history to have been a full-blown version of The Great One practically from the womb.”

Henry dissects Jackie’s work on CBS, highlighted, of course, by The Honeymooners. It is reported that Jackie often claimed that the network was enamoured of his early work on the DuMont television network and the brass said “Get me Gleason”. Typical Gleason embellishment. Truth is, Jackie propositioned CBS and offered his services. The antics of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton had always been a sketch in Gleason’s favoured variety-show format. For one season, as we all know, The Honeymooners was a stand-alone series and has gone down in history as one of the two pinnacles of early television and Gleason’s most significant cultural contribution. The problem with working in television – or anywhere, really – was the need for writers. Henry reports that Jackie Gleason was resentful of wordsmiths because he needed them, not being able to write himself. Many examples are given and many writers from the past are interviewed and all confirm that Gleason disrespected them, robbed them and claimed his work as his own. The gentle if tormented Art Carney is interviewed and strenuously avoids speaking ill of his former co-worker.

“‘I could do The Honeymooners with any Alice Kramden and any Trixie Norton that I picked up off the street. But I couldn’t do it without Art Carney’.”

– what passes for praise from Gleason.

Henry describes the many ways that Gleason was aware of Carney’s talent but was also perhaps subconsciously determined to safeguard his own career by keeping Carney a second banana. It’s accepted that Carney was, by yards, the better actor, as evidenced by his 5 Emmys – to Gleason’s none – and Academy Award win.

The Kramdens and the Nortons.

William Henry uses many examples to illuminate Gleason’s personality, one comprised of voracious appetites for food – “Two wagon-wheel-sized pepperoni pizzas…two steaks, big enough to have been carved off a brontosaurus…he would have another for dessert. Five-pound boneless roast of beef – with no leftovers” – and drink, his exorbitant spending – “He seems to have reacted to the deprivations of childhood by waging a lifelong battle against the tyranny of economic common sense” – and his flaring temper – “Gleason had a mercurial temper, a ferocious will toward self-expression and an absolute need for control”. It seems an irrefutable truth that Gleason was difficult simply because he could be. He had no yearning to be considered nice or to conduct himself properly.

In The Great One you will get a good overview with pertinent details of the whole of Gleason’s career arc. Starting on Broadway and moving into television. A brief sojourn to Hollywood where Gleason made negligible films before returning later to appear in better movies including his only true cinematic triumph, The Hustler (1960). Henry discusses the only film Gleason conceived and controlled basically on his own, 1962’s Gigot. In that film, Gleason channels Chaplin and plays a mute, n’er-do-well janitor in Paris. (A quote of Jackie’s that made me chuckle was in reference to The Little Tramp; “Chaplin could make you laugh while throwing babies in the furnace”). Gleason hoped for Oscar glory but Gigot was a failure. It received one nomination for Michel Magne’s Adapted Score.

“All his life, he would be less someone who said funny things than someone who said things funny. His true gift was as a sketch comic, an acting comic, who could make you believe in the emotional reality of even the silliest or most formulaic situation.”

For us vintage record collectors, little is discussed about Jackie’s immensely successful mood music albums of the Fifties and Sixties. But what William Henry does relate – by quoting at length many interviews with Jackie’s colleagues – is Gleason’s glaring lack of ability in any aspect of musical composition or orchestra conducting. I feel like this is not news to any of us who maintain a love of Jackie’s records but no punches are pulled in this book. In reference to songs he claimed to have written; “…he didn’t really seem to understand any of them. He didn’t grasp the harmonics…there was no way he could have completed the basic melodies of these songs”. Conducting an orchestra; “It looked like a routine from the variety show, a vaudeville strut with wavy arm movements. He didn’t even indicate the tempos, which is the basic thing a conductor has to do”. (For perhaps the only expert look at Gleason’s records, pick up James Spencer’s book here)

Other highlights include much talk of his first marriage which bore two daughters. His first wife was very Catholic and would not consent to a divorce. Highlighting Jackie’s flaws as husband, father and son, Henry explains that the shame of personal failings prompted a plethora of fabricated biographical information, making the story of Jackie’s life hard to tell. Jackie eventually received a divorce but it’s noted that he spent the whole of his adult life married to three women for all but a few weeks; quick turnarounds between marriages. There’s the amazing fact that for years CBS paid Jackie a hefty annual salary even when he didn’t have a show; the money was so that he would not take a job on a rival network. Eventually, Henry reports, CBS came to despise Gleason and finally cut ties, saying, remarkably, that if the public ever learned what Jackie was like, they would despise him, too. Gleason was offered the role of Archie Bunker and his rejecting the part effectively put the nail in the coffin of his acting career. At two points I was actually enraged reading The Great One. While working in a Broadway show, Gleason is quoted as having said regarding the show’s advertising “Any time you can see the name of the show I’m in, my billing isn’t big enough”. And later, near the end of his life, Gleason maintained the false and somewhat pathetic claim that all three television networks were still begging him to do a series.

  • “Did he like other people at all? I don’t know. I always felt Jackie was retreating when he was not performing” — lifelong Gleason writer, Leonard Stern.
  • “Unless a person has some other target than a materialistic one, it’s ridiculous to be successful” — Gleason in a rare candid moment. Seems no target – attained or not – brought him happiness.
  • “Count your own money or it isn’t yours” — perhaps Gleason’s only true friend, Jack Haley, who tried to provide financial counsel.
  • “Gleason always seemed to me an arrogant man. He could make me laugh sometimes but I could always see through to the arrogance. [I worked hard finishing my first play, Come Blow Your Horn because] I did not want to get to be a middle-aged man waiting for the phone to ring so I could go to work writing gags for some abusive, unappreciative sh*t like Jackie Gleason” — playwright Neil Simon. Art Carney played Felix Unger on stage and would liked to have done the film with Gleason. Simon was not down.
  • “A man unavailable to ordinary friendship and common conversation, holding you at bay equally with his easy charm when sober and his absolute irascibility when in his cups” — Arthur Penn, director of Sly Fox, a second chance at Broadway for Jackie, one he screwed up with his belligerence.
  • [He was) the worst person I ever worked with in my entire life and it’s not even close. He wanted to be feared and kowtowed to. Power was what interested him more than love. He really didn’t give a sh*t about anyone else…” — general manager of Sly Fox, Gene Wolsk. Gleason, tired of acting in the play, ate himself into a cardiac episode.

This book’s author did an admirable job until late in the game when, to use a football analogy, his tired legs may have caused him to make some mistakes. Henry says Carol Channing filmed How to Commit Marriage with Jackie when it was instead Skidoo they appeared in together. He unspeakably adds an “s” to end of Sally Field’s last name and, a personal beef, he trots out the word “simulacrum”, a word no one needs to use and one I had to look up. The publisher should be taken to task for designing the edition of the book I read so that it had no page numbers listed on either page at various chapter closings and openings.

Jackie in semi-retirement. Miami Beach, 1968.

The Great One, and, I suppose, any biography of Jackie Gleason, is frustrating to read. For more than 300 pages, you are subjected to countless episodes of Gleason working hard at being an unlikeable, demanding charlatan. One can’t help but wonder if he would have been happier if he had simply been more chill. Similar to the previously mentioned Sinatra book, though, I feel we all have to separate the performer from the man. Even those friends of Jackie’s that gathered for a memorial for him “all remembered the angry moments, the cruel moments, the cold and detached moments. But to them the real Jackie Gleason was the man who could choose to be so sweet”. Hard for me to get behind someone who has to “choose” to be sweet. You should assimilate the things that are hard to learn about Jackie but they shouldn’t reduce your enjoyment of Velvet Brass or Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

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