Staged Make Up
Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan
by James Maguire
Billboard Books (2006), 344 pages, $34.95 (CDN) $24.95 (US)
Ed Sullivan, host of the long-running Sunday night television show that bore his name, was a study in contrasts: on-stage, he was wooden and awkward, sometimes mumbling an introduction, sometimes flubbing a name completely; behind the scenes he was a controlling perfectionist whose salty language and blistering tongue could make even the roughest of stagehands blush or cringe. On stage, he was considered to be the American arbiter of good taste and modesty; off stage he was a nighthawk barfly, a glad-handing associate of hoodlums and floozies. Clearly, Sullivan was way more complex than the lily-white persona he presented weekly for 23 years on CBS television.
Seen through the eyes of New York author James Maguire, Ed Sullivan is not always likeable. In this captivating biography, Sullivan is seen to be arrogant and egotistical, overbearing and controlling, competitive and bombastic. Sullivan, it seems, was capable of nearly any emotional outburst or action to protect his own position when he was an up-and-coming writer covering the Broadway beat. Later as host of the popular Sunday night show, he was still willing and able to throw a ruckus at full volume in front of the network executives at CBS in order to get his own way.
James Maguire’s work is thorough, taking us back to 1901, when twin boys Edward and David were born to a working class couple in East Harlem, New York City. Only Ed survived, and very soon the family moved to Port Chester, just 26 miles north of the city, but a world removed in its small town values and slower pace of life. Sullivan’s tenacity and competitiveness were obvious even then, and he often arrived home with a split chin, a bloodied nose or a black eye. By high school, Sullivan was not only captaining the team, he was writing about it for the local paper. It is apparent Ed Sullivan learned two lessons from those early days: everything he did in life was going to take guts and grit; and playing sports against teams that were racially mixed taught young Ed that people were not different because of their skin colour.
Sullivan was determined to move to New York City to get a job in one of the newspapers and by age 19, he landed a sports writing position with the Evening Mail. When Sullivan was not writing about the likes of Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, tennis star Bill Tilden, or boxing champion Gene Tunney, he spent his late night hours in many of the speakeasies that flourished in New York City, often in the company of the racketeer owners and the alluring women they attracted.
By the end of the 1930’s, writes Maguire, almost everything Sullivan did was so he could keep himself in the spotlight. He switched from sports writing to Broadway gossip columnist, a move that allowed Sullivan to continue to socialize with the stars of a different universe -- Rogers and Hart, Fred Astaire, Eddie Cantor and George Gershwin. Three times in the 1930’s he hosted relatively short-lived radio shows, often promoting his own show in his newspaper column. Sometimes, Ed Sullivan would unethically promise his radio show guests extra ink in his column if they agreed to be on the air with him. A radio guest who displeased Sullivan or failed to appear would be the victim of nasty articles in Sullivan’s column. For example, Sullivan’s revenge on one occasion was to accuse Eddie Cantor of stealing material from another performer; a later column contained the assertion that Joan Crawford lacked talent.
Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan is full of anecdotes that shed light on Ed Sullivan, his personality, ego and ambition, in a way no one has done before. Maguire’s tale is smoothly told and richly detailed, and often quotes from Ed Sullivan’s own columns to support Maguire’s contention that Sullivan was a capable of being belligerent and bullying in order to get his own way.
The real brilliance of this book is Maguire’s vivid writing about the inception and continuation of “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS TV. Maguire credits Sullivan with helping to break down racial barriers in the entertainment world, as the show would regularly feature artists of any skin colour. He also points out how the conservative leaning Ed Sullivan, who insisted that females were never allowed to show any cleavage and males always had to be nicely dressed, helped change perceptions of popular culture by booking artists such as Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Doors.
In Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan James Maguire makes us realize how much our entertainment world has changed since Ed Sullivan’s show ended in 1971. Clearly, there will never be another Ed Sullivan. And like Ed Sullivan himself, that has two sides to it.
Mike Gange teaches about the media in Fredericton.