Thursday, October 18, 2012

Allan Sherman and President John F. Kennedy

There won't be a better time to talk about Allan Sherman and American presidents than right now, during the last weeks of this presidential election campaign. So here is a cool photo and some punditry. (It's election season. You have to have some punditry. Eat your punditry or no dessert.)

Sherman and President Kennedy meet briefly on March 4, 1963,  at the Dept. of Labor's 50th anniversary dinner . Sherman was one of the event's performers.

Okay, so here is our boy Sherman with the dashing President Kennedy, who loved pop culture, humor, Hollywood, glamour, etc. But more than that, the Kennedy White House seemed to emanate a mood of joie de vivre, of unrestrained enjoyment.

"The food is marvelous, the wines are delicious, there are cigarettes on the table, people are laughing, laughing out loud, telling stories, jokes, enjoying themselves, glad to be there," is how Leonard Bernstein remembered dinner at the Kennedy White House. (The emphasis is in the original.) The president "enjoys satirical comics, particularly Bob Newhart, Joey Bishop and Mort Sahl," reported the NYTimes in January 1962.

Sherman's My Son, The Folk Singer appeared in October, and Sherman's success is sometimes mistakenly credited to Kennedy being a fan. According to Sherman's autobiography, Sherman heard from his manager, Bullets Durgom (he had brothers nicknamed BB and Buckshot), that Durgom got a call from a newspaperman who heard Kennedy sing lines from Sherman's "Sarah Jackman" parody in the lobby of New York's Carlyle Hotel, where the Kennedys kept a residence. Talk about the old kids game of telephone. That's what lawyers call hearsay. It's not reliable, but it's also quite possible.

"It would not surprise me," said Kennedy's FCC Chairman Newton Minow. "JFK had a wonderful sense of humor."

Still, JFK did not make Sherman famous or a success. JFK heard of Sherman because of Sherman's success. But Kennedy is the most visible and memorable example of that early 1960s moment that welcomed Sherman. The key ingredient of those days is usually assumed to be innocence, but if it was innocence it was not the starry-eyed kind. It was a confidence of strength un-rattled by criticism or mockery and that paradoxically allowed for mockery.

It's elusive. I can't quite put my finger on it. Anyone have a better or different take on it?


Turns out today's Times has an article on Robert Kennedy's wife and family, which has a "long record of ruined marriages, premature deaths and horrifying car wrecks."

It made me think again about the JFK moment, and its enduring charm. The Times article shrewdly sees that the Kennedys' charming daredevil recklessness often ended badly, as it had to sooner or later as the law of averages asserted itself after many rolls of the dice.

There is a self-destructive element to charm, in making the dangerous look easy, unthreatening. Allan Sherman was also charming and enormously self-destructive. But that's for another post.


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