Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom

By Herbert G. Goldman | Go to book overview

Chapter 14

"... AND YOU HAVE TO
GIVE IT ALL BACK "

"I don't want to die a rich man."

Cantor was depressed, "first because I thought I was dying, then because I realized I wasn't. How could I ever entertain again? How could I raise money or sell bonds if I couldn't get around to make people laugh?"

Although he had increasingly become more of a humanitarian and showman than a performer, Cantor nonetheless had been an entertainer for more than forty years and had been identified with energy and youth. Many of his older contemporaries had died in the past half dozen years -- W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice. Will Rogers had been dead for seventeen years and Bert Williams for thirty. Cantor found himself asking why Jolson, victim of a heart attack, and Brice, who had died of a burst embolism, had died while he had lived. He asked it in the same way he had asked why he had been sent to Surprise Lake Camp and why he had become a rich, famous entertainer while another boy from the East Side had wound up in the electric chair. The answer, as he saw it, was the act of an essentially benign universe. God was good, the world was good (with a few villains), and God had spared his life in the same way that "somebody" (the good people who founded and ran the Educational Alliance) had sent him to Surprise Lake Camp in 1903.

Cantor never stopped, and if his body could not function, his mind worked all the harder. His incapacitation forced him to reflect on his life, past and present. There were, presumably, regrets. But surely his involvement with performers' unions and humanitarian efforts had more than made up for whatever sins he had committed.

Cantor doubtless saw himself as one of those slightly wayward youngsters played by Mickey Rooney at Metro-Goldwyn -- Mayer -- someone who proved himself to be on the side of the angels by some noble deed before

-282-

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