Jackie Gleason drank up life in huge, full-throated swallows — straight-up, no mixer, and the tab was on him. And when I say life, I mean booze.
Hard drinking was certainly in his blood. Born into the stark poverty of 1916 Brooklyn, Jackie absorbed two vastly different lessons about boozing from his inebriate mother Mae and carousing father Herb. One of Jackie’s earliest memories was as a six year old waiting outside a speakeasy while Herb got loaded before taking him to the movies, something that would become a Saturday afternoon ritual. Jackie would peek through the saloon door and observe the boisterous camaraderie the bottle offered, and the lad took full note of the transformation of the man who walked in dour and repressed and emerged carefree and cracking jokes.
Mae, though not averse to visiting the occasional speakeasy, preferred to drink at home, especially after Jackie’s sickly older brother passed away. From her Jackie learned the pain-killing power of liquor, of its ability to block out the despair the drinker chose not to face. He also remembered the dark and lonely nights he and his mother spent waiting for Herb to return from one of his frequent three-day benders.
Eventually Herb didn’t come home at all. Ten days before Xmas and two months before Jackie’s tenth birthday, his father vanished. He clandestinely took every picture of himself from his home, collected his last paycheck from the insurance office he worked at then walked into the shadows, never to be seen again.
It’s not certain what psychological effect paternal abandonment had on Jackie. If he carried any grudges he never voiced them, refusing to criticize the man who left him and his mother high and dry. “He was,” he would ambiguously inform interviewers, “the best father I’ll ever know.”
His mother had tried to shield Jackie from the rough Irish neighborhood in which they scraped by. But now, without Herb around to enforce his curfews, Jackie took to the streets to gather the hard lessons that would serve him well later in life. By the age of ten he was smoking regularly, by eleven he was hustling pool, by twelve he’d enjoyed his first taste of bootlegger gin.
While Mae retreated deeper into a prison of despair moated by gin, Jackie ranged free; when he wasn’t hustling suckers at the pool hall, he was running with a gang or catching vaudeville acts at the nearby Halsey Theatre. It wasn’t the vaudevillians that enthralled the boy, it was the adulation the audience showered upon them. Jackie would turn in his seat and face the crowd, pretending it was he they were applauding, and it was then he swore that one day he would be the guy up on stage, basking in the adoration, however fleeting, of the crowd.
His mind made up, Jackie dropped out of the eighth grade and started emceeing one night a week at the Halsey. It only paid three dollars a show, and his act, largely stolen from Milton Berle, wasn’t exactly the toast of Brooklyn. It was, however, a chance to start learning the dynamics of the profession that he swore he would one day conquer. And when he wasn’t up on stage he dedicated time to learning another valuable skill: the art of cadging free drinks off the Halsey’s bartenders.
Shortly after Jackie turned nineteen, Mae Gleason died of erysipelas. He spent what money he had on her funeral then walked straight from her eulogy to the subway where he caught a train to Manhattan, swearing he wouldn’t return to Brooklyn until he was a star.
Drinking From Buckets of Blood
“I only made $200 a week and I had to buy my own bullets.”
So there he was, an orphan with exactly thirty-one cents in his pocket and nothing to show save for an undiminishable store of supreme self-confidence he had no right to possess. It would have been reasonable for Gleason to have felt victimized by the cards life had dealt him so far, but he never saw any advantage in playing the role of the victim, he loathed the very idea, he was always quick to say he’d much rather be hated than pitied. As he strolled down Broadway, looking up at the famous names in lights, he didn’t feel sorry for himself, instead he felt a little ashamed. Ashamed of how free he felt following the death of his mother; every possible bridge that led to his past had been burned and now he figured there was only one way left to go: up.
He got his first boost when he stopped at a stand to splurge five cents of his bankroll on a hot dog and cider (beer was a quarter and he knew one would only make him thirstier). Of the ten million inhabitants of Manhattan, Jackie knew exactly one: a fellow comedian named Sammy Birch who had crossed over a year earlier to try his luck.
And, as luck would have it, just as Jackie was finishing off his hot dog, Sammy came bopping down the sidewalk. Jackie chased him down and Sammy, feeling sorry for his old neighborhood drinking buddy, let Jackie shack up with him and another comic in a one-room suite at the Hotel Maxwell.
Sammy wasn’t exactly conquering Broadway at the time and the trio learned to live on Starving Artist Soup: hot water flavored with ketchup, Tabasco and A-1 Steak Sauce they lifted from restaurants.
A couple lean weeks later Sammy did Jackie an even greater favor, hooking him up with talent booker Solly Shaw. Solly, without knowing a thing about Jackie’s ability or lack thereof, immediately shipped the alleged comic to Reading, PA to perform in a club called Tiny’s Chateau.
Despite its continental ringer, Tiny’s was no champagne and lobster joint. Quite the opposite. It was a filthy cesspool full of mean-spirited truckers and miners who got their kicks heckling and hooting comics off the stage. An unsuspecting Jackie showed up in his best suit and earnestly rolled out lame jokes he’d lifted from Broadway comics who wouldn’t have the guts to step inside a place like Tiny’s, never mind actually perform there. After getting booed off stage, Tiny (who was a giant, naturally) sadistically made Jackie watch as he called up Solly and demanded to know why he’d sent him such a bum. Solly promised to ship down a replacement the next morning. The patrons at the bar, who’d been eavesdropping, cheered.
To prove he wasn’t a total bastard, Tiny let the crushed Jackie drink free at the bar until his second show, after which Gleason was expected to pack his bags and jump the first bus back to NY.
Fuck it, Jackie thought, deciding he would at the very least extract some measure of revenge from the liquor stocks. One drink turned to two, two to five, five to ten and ten to fifteen. Then it was time to get back up on stage and face the bastards one last time.
Jackie didn’t stutter out the same bad gags and half-assed impersonations. They’d taken him to task the first time and, emboldened by the booze, he was bent on bloody revenge. He went after the crowd like a rabid pit bull, he unloaded all the bile in his heart, individually insulting every bastard in the joint. He did somersaults, banged on a piano he didn’t know how to play, told jokes he’d never heard of before. And they ate it up.
Climbing down from the stage to a hail of applause, Tiny rushed forward, demanding, “Why the hell didn’t you do that the first show?”
Jackie mumbled some lies about “still breaking in,” but deep down in his private heart he firmly believed he had just learned a whole new lesson about booze: it was the catalyst that ignited his raw talent. Tiny signed him back on and put him up in a room over the bar.
When Jackie came down the following evening to repeat his brilliant performance, he discovered he couldn’t remember a word of it. With a slim two hours before he had to go on, Jackie rapidly sank his lucky fifteen drinks, bounded up on stage and it all came flooding back. For the rest of his life he would neither forget nor neglect this ritual of getting hammered before doing a gig.
Word about his ferocious improv act started to circulate and it wasn’t long before he was taking on better playing gigs in other clubs. Just because the money was better didn’t mean the clubs were. He performed in what the comics of the day called “buckets of blood,” places where if you cracked wise with a customer he was as likely to physically attack you as was he was to laugh. After bouncing from club to club, Jackie settled into a long run at the Miami Club, who Gleason would later admit wasn’t so much interested in has act as his actions.
“They didn’t ask me if I had a good act,” Gleason said, “but whether I could fight or not. Our instructions were, if we heard a glass crash at the bar, the band would go into ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ and we would go to some location where we had stashed the leg of a chair and then go to the bar to see that the disturbance was quieted right away.”
Jackie fulfilled both his jobs with aplomb; what patrons who couldn’t win over with his comedy he was more than willing to win over with his street-fighting skills. He was starting to think he might have missed his calling as a boxer until a night he took the stage after putting away a couple quarts of scotch. He was in no mood for hecklers and a gorilla in the corner wouldn’t shut up. Jackie excused himself to the audience, walked over to the ape and said, “Come on, you.” The loudmouth followed him into the alley and Jackie woke up with a splitting headache about an hour later. Unknown to Jackie, the heckler was Two Ton Tony Galento, the current contender to the world heavyweight title. Jackie decided boxing might not be his bag after all.
Jackie played at the Miami Club for over a year, earning $80 a week, which was a decent chunk during the Depression. Not that Jackie ever managed to save any money. In Jackie’s way of thinking, socking away dough for a rainy day was akin to confessing you lacked confidence in your ability to get more money. Jackie had never possessed security from the day he was born and hadn’t developed a taste for it since. No matter how much money rushed at him, and later it would be in the millions, Jackie always managed to not let any of it stick. It was never hard for Jackie to get rid of that filthy lucre because early on he discovered twin vacuums that would suck up as much cash as he could throw at them. The vacuums, the bywords by which he lived, the touchstones that guided his behavior, the prizes he sought with the most vigor and attention were the hazy concepts of class and style.
A noble act done with neither was at best a sham; an act of outright roguishness committed with both was at the very least forgivable, if not very fine. If he couldn’t do something with class and style Gleason figured it wasn’t worth doing at all.
Of course, in accordance with his background, Jackie had very plebeian ideas of what truly constituted class and style. The way he saw it, Class meant picking up the tab no matter how many people were on it and how much more money they made than him. Style was buying a round for a bar full of strangers, apropos of nothing. If he decided it was necessary to party until dawn in his hotel room (and he often felt it was), class and style both dictated there would have be a full Dixieland Band playing at top volume and his guests would drink nothing but the best booze his wages could buy. Tipping the bartender what he usually made in a week (the bartender and Jackie) was not foolish to Gleason; it was the epitome of class and style.
Which made him a popular guy around the bars. A drinking gang started to form around Jackie, as it would everywhere he went. The man who had no family to speak of suddenly found himself part of a massive (and thirsty) clan.
Of course, this kind of largess didn’t leave much scratch for anything else. Once, when he was a couple months behind on his rent at a lakeside flophouse, he donned his bathing trunks and marched past the eagle-eyed landlady as if he was going for a quick dip. He then scuttled around the hotel to where he’d thrown his bags out the third story window and fled. Years later, when he returned to pay up, as he invariably did, the landlady burst into tears at the sight of him. “We’d thought you drowned,” she sobbed.
It was while performing at the Miami Club that Jackie met first wife Genevieve Halford, a leggy blond ballerina. Devoutly Catholic and not a huge fan of the booze, she seemed a very unlikely mate for our carouser until you reexamine Jackie’s past. A lifelong, if backsliding, Catholic himself, Jackie’s over-protective mother and disappearing-act of a father gifted him with a deep-seated need for a motherly type in his life. Someone to scold him for his excesses, to play the role of the sinless Madonna that would create a holy nest, so he could have something to run away from and, occasionally, return to. How fun could a party be without the keen knowledge that there was a worried and angry wife out there, waiting to scold him for being bad? It gave the whole thing perspective and a deeper meaning. As for her aversion to booze and bars, well, Jackie considered that an important plus. He couldn’t very well have his wife hanging around his neck like a goddamn albatross while engaging in a male-bonding, high-stakes whiskey drinking contest at five in the a.m. It would only mess with his concentration. He roundly discouraged her from visiting the clubs he worked in and drank at, assuring her they were no place for a lady.
On the other hand, Jackie preferred his mistresses to be cast in the mold of not the sacred Madonna, but rather the hard-drinking Whore of Babylon. A good-time girl he could sin with then abandon without feeling any real guilt. For the rest of his life he’d swing between the two archetypes and by many accounts he started swinging shortly after he married Gen.
Under the Table and Scheming
“If you have it, and you know you have it, you have it. If you don’t have it and think you have it, you have it. But if you have it and don’t know you have it, you don’t have it.”
Jackie was now 21 and he sensed it was time to move on and up. More specifically, it was time to move back to Manhattan and this time take it by storm. He was better prepared this time, he’d earned his stripes in some of the toughest clubs on the Eastern seaboard and now he felt it was time to move up the ladder.
His tenure in the buckets of blood certainly hadn’t been a waste of time. He’d not only sharpened his comic chops, he’d made a phonebook-full of industry contacts that he would mine to great effect later, including a skinny Italian kid from Hoboken named Frank Sinatra, whom would become a lifelong pal. He’d also learned how to carouse like a champion, a prized skill in 1940s New York. All the gossip columnists, play producers and agents in the industry were bombastic boozers back then, and if you wanted to network you had to be able to hang with the big boys.
Jackie’s mad ad-lib skills immediately earned him a spot at Manhattan’s swanky Club 18. Performing there was akin to walking through a looking glass for Jackie. It was the manner of joint where big shots and celebrities went to for the sole purpose of getting insulted by brash young comics, a mirror image of the buckets Gleason had just graduated from. The club aggressively promoted the concept: whenever a celebrity walked in they would be hit by a blue spot, much as an escaping prisoner would be lit up for the sharp shooters in the watchtower. Jackie must have felt like a starving shark in a tank full of friendly tuna.
Things might have been sunny at work but storm clouds were gathering on the home front. Gen was pregnant with their first child and she tried to talk him out of show business, urging him to take up a career that was safer, more secure and less conducive to drinking around the clock. Jackie was livid. He could shrug off hecklers for what they were, he looked forward to someday shaming the naysayers from the old neighborhood who said he’d end up a bum—but to have his dreams sullied in his own home? Well, it was akin to treason and one more reason not to go home when the bars closed and the real party was just starting.
That’s why it was always Jackie the cad, Jackie the roustabout, Jackie the carouser who drank until nine in the morning, and never Jackie the nine-to-fiver who trudged home after a beer at the corner bar. Jackie wanted to hit all the corner bars, even if it meant traversing the length and breadth of Manhattan. He was terrified and disgusted by the concept of moderation and security Gen was preaching. It was alien to him, perhaps on some level he thought it impossible to obtain; he’d certainly never caught sight of it while he was growing up. Giving in to moderation and comfort was akin to having his head forcibly held underwater until he drowned or, worse, settled down.
Ignoring her pleas, Jackie cranked up his hustle, probing Broadway as a possible route to the success he craved. He got a minor part in a Broadway play but nothing came of it. Ironically enough, it was his bully-pulpit act at Club 18 that opened up the golden door. Jack Warner, the ruthless tyrant at the head of Warner Brothers, wandered into Club 18 and when the spotlight hit him, Jackie lit him up good. Having no idea who the Hollywood titan was, the thoroughly inebriated Gleason tore into him wholesale, mercilessly attacking his baldness, waistline and his appearance in general. Warner made a point of paying Jackie a visit after the show—not to fight him, but rather to sign him to a studio contract for $250 dollars a week.
Jackie was certain this was the chance he was waiting for. “I’ll take Hollywood by storm,” he announced over a toast at Kellogg’s, a nightclub he frequented. “They won’t know what hit them. I’m going to be the biggest star that town has ever seen.”
Whatever small doubts of his eventual greatness, if he ever had any, were washed away. A fateful echo of what he told his Brooklyn cronies, he swore to his Manhattan pals that he would never return, that he would make Tinseltown his personal fiefdom, and they were all welcome to come out and pay homage to the future king.
Face Down In the Dung Heap
“Drinking removes warts and pimples. Not from me. From those I look at.”
Jackie was deathly afraid of flying so he took the train with a couple hundred dollars of borrowed money in is his wallet. Of course, NY to LA is a long trip and he felt it necessary to stop in Chicago for a breather. He ended up drinking through dawn with a young Lebanese comedian who would later be known as actor Danny Thomas. Now that he was a genuine movie talent, he spent even more lavishly, buying every stranger he met a drink, assuring them they would all be seeing him up on the big screen soon enough.
The next morning he found himself back on the train, his traveling companion a colossal hangover and possessed of not a single dollar to kill “the dog that bit me.” He survived on a Snickers bar and arrived at the Burbank, CA station the literal embodiment of a starving artist.
His wife Gen declined to join him in sunny California. She didn’t particularly care for any new adventures and he didn’t particularly want her hang-dogging around, putting a clamp on his fun. Those that suspected Jackie’s excesses, his drinking, his carousing, his partying until the wee hours would increase exponentially to the distance from his wife were absolutely right. He not only had no one to tell him to cut it out, he had a decent salary to fuel his escapades. And a whole new city of bars and nightclubs to explore. He boomed through Hollywood like an oversized cannonball aimed directly at the Sunset Strip watering-holes, where he quickly made cheap and idle boasts of any drinking records they had on hand. Gleason was that rare breed of cat who could rise after two hours rest, wickedly hungover and possessed of the terrible knowledge he’d sacrificed his entire paycheck at the altar of Bacchus; then not only shake off the guilt and regret like dead leaves, but immediately begin planning that evening’s adventures, this time on the cuff of the clubs whose palms he’d greased the night before.
He also found time to appear in a handful of films, playing goofy sidekick roles which involved a lot of rolling of the eyes and corny anecdotes. When he demanded the leading man roles he imagined he’d signed up for, they told him he had to lose some weight. He embarked on one of his obsessive fasts, quickly shedding fifty pounds to weigh in at a trim 180. This feat was even more remarkable when you consider he refused to cut down on his drinking during the diet. Now svelte and dashingly handsome with his coal black hair and light blue eyes, he went back to the studio heads and informed them he was ready for his close-ups. Rather ironically, they then told him they liked him better as a comedian, and he was now too attractive and skinny to be comical. So, too good looking to be funny, too fat to be handsome, Jackie said to hell with it and took on a second job doing his stage act.
He got on board at Slapsie Maxie’s, the Hollywood version of Club 18. This put an additional 350 clams in his pocket and with the studio money Jackie was making about twice as much as a doctor did back then. Undaunted by these numbers, Jackie managed to spend it about twice as fast as he got it. He built remarkable tabs at bars all over LA and Vegas too, hocking his charm and vague promises of future settlements. He quickly attracted a West Coast version of his NY drinking gang, a retinue of a dozen actors, including established talents Anthony Quinn and Martha Raye.
Warner Brothers was not terribly impressed by Jackie’s talent of being able to turn in a full day on the set, dash off to Maxie’s to work and drink until 2 a.m., then dive headlong into his third full-time job as a drunkard, which busied him until it was time to show up on the set in the morning. He was always on time and ready with his lines, if not exactly sober. He had no respect for film acting. To him it was this simple: “You wait until they yell ‘Action,’ stand where they tell you to, and just say your line.” And the way he figured it, you hardly needed to be stone sober to pull off that kind of monkey work. What’s more, the entire process bored him. On stage he was in command, he was calling the shots, making it up as he went along; filmmaking on the other hand, with all the waiting around, the endless retakes and that tyrannical jerk of a director telling him what to do, was not only a drag, it was creative stagnation.
Perhaps fed by exhaustion and his traditional pre-gig cocktails, Jackie’s improvs at Maxie’s were getting decidedly bizarre. Long before Lenny Bruce made free-form weirdness cool, Gleason would bound onto Maxie’s stage with no material whatsoever, spouting off whatever craziness came to mind; sometimes he would act out the complete story lines of movies he’d just seen, playing every role and contriving all the sound effects from whatever props were on hand. When some of his NY cronies flew out to catch his show, they returned home with tales that ol’ Jackie boy had lost his freaking mind.
It was probably just a reaction to the stifling environment of the movie set. And it was no surprise, at least not to Jackie, that when his one-year studio contract expired, he packed his bags and headed back to where he’d sworn up and down he’d never return. He’d chewed long enough on the fat of Hollywood to know he didn’t care too much for the taste. He wrote off the movie experiment as a bust, and went back to the launching pad.
A Triumphant Retreat
“I’m no alcoholic. I’m a drunkard. There’s a difference. A drunkard doesn’t like to go to meetings.”
This turn of events, this sad return after so many vain boasts, would have made a shamed recluse out of a normal human being. But not Jackie. He drew energy and light from his unassailable inner store of faith, certain his rocket to the top was counting down, he merely had to remain steadfast in the cockpit. The idea of which, considering his track record, was akin to being a fourth-class passenger on the sinking Titanic, one of thousands trying to get aboard lifeboats that would only hold a select few, yet possessed of the bedrock certainty that he would not only get a seat, he would get the best seat, perhaps even a boat all to himself, with a complimentary bottle of excellent scotch to suck on while awaiting rescue.
Of course, this wholly unsupported optimism did not sit well with Gen. Now that he’d been bully-whipped by Hollywood (or so she thought), she figured she possessed the ammunition to slow down the rampaging elephant with a couple well-aimed shots to his ego, wounding him just enough to get him and his drinking under control. She was mistaken. Hollywood hadn’t dumped him, he assured her in no uncertain terms, he had dumped it. And rather than slowing down his drinking, he hit his true stride.
Instead of assuming the humble role of studio reject, Jackie swung into his old haunts like Richard the Lionhearted marching home from the Crusades. He’d sallied forth to conquer the Holy Land, only to find out it was in reality a dung heap not worth squatting on. He also discovered his appearance in a half dozen films was a form of currency, adding fresh credence to the claim he was surely a star on the rise, allowing him to run up towering bar tabs that the proprietors assumed he would someday be able to pay off in spades. He was in debt to everyone, and everyone seemed to want to loan him money. He milked this new power for all it was worth, he became notorious for solemnly borrowing a hundred dollars from a bar owner, which they assumed by his troubled mien was for food or rent, then turning right around, slapping the money on the bar and buying the house a round.. He drank with a gusto rarely seen in even the lowest of dives, it was nearly a compulsion; he never watched his drinks, never tried to guess how many he’d already had that night, he had no care to remember the past at all, it was the next drink and their successors that he was worried about.
By this time his home life was no obstruction at all, he barely went back there anymore, save for the random visit. He preferred to live in a hotel with 24 hour room service
He was soon gigging at Club 18 and other clubs, at a much higher wage, and picked up the odd role on Broadway. It was known throughout the industry that Jackie’s loyalties leaned more toward the jug than the job. He often showed up fantastically smashed, sometimes he was too drunk to even go on stage at all. This should have had a negative impact on his career, actors have been blackballed for a single such act, never mind a seemingly endless succession of them. But the shine of Gleason’s talent was too bright to ignore, overshadowing the risks the club owners or play producers assuredly knew they were taking.
Quite frankly, there was no one like him. Sometime during the Hollywood bar hopping and madhouse ramblings at Maxie’s, Jackie had been handed the comedic pearl. He didn’t even have to say funny things anymore; he said things in such a funny way, putting so much manic energy into the delivery, the audience felt compelled to laugh. He had discovered the secret of harnessing his inner hurricane of chaos, then turned it loose on the audience like a flamethrower.
Jackie soon reigned supreme over all the premiere clubs in NY, yet he felt it as not nearly enough. He knew that gigging in clubs could only take you so far, you could only reach a roomful of people per act, so Jackie redoubled his assault on Broadway. He acted in a half-dozen plays during the early forties, some very successful, some less so. He returned to film to play a supporting role as an Arab camel driver in the film The Desert Hawk which the critics did not care for at all. And neither did Jackie, his co-stars all later claiming he was noticeably drunk every moment he was on the set. He later appeared in his first TV series, playing the lead in the unheralded and the moderately successful series The Life of Riley. Cramped in a role that had been fully molded during its long tenure on the radio, Jackie wasn’t allowed to unleash his chaos. The show won an Emmy but not an audience. It was cancelled after one season.
And so it went. Jackie was getting work, but nothing meaty, none of his roles on film or stage were true leads. It was the manner of moderate success that would be plenty for most men, but Jackie viewed himself as a loathsome bottom-feeder, barely sucking up enough slime to stay alive. For eight long years he hustled and rolled the dice, drinking ‘til dawn, spending far beyond his means, sinking deeper and deeper in debt, haunted by the unfulfilled promise and meager celebrity that crushes the spirit and makes hacks of many a mid-level entertainer.
Then, in 1950, not long after his 34th birthday, Jackie heard the call. Not from blasé Broadway, certainly not from hoary Hollywood, but from a new medium that was starting to catch on. It was only after Jackie was offered the job of hosting a low-budget variety show on a second-rate television network that the Great One was allowed to earn his title and claim his mantle as the highest paid performer on television. And have a few drinks on the way.