These days Jerry Lewis gets a bad rap for being an old man with too many outdated opinions. He’s easily angered and often seen as preachy and arrogant.
In spite of this, I adore him. He’s my all-time favourite comedian and, in spite of the fact that his influence in today’s performers is very clear, I don’t think there’ll ever be anyone like him.
In 1946, Lewis began to gain recognition in show business as one half of the duo Martin & Lewis; Dean Martin was the handsome and dashing Italian singer, Jerry was the skinny, squeaky-voiced idiot. Over the next ten years, Martin & Lewis would become comedy legends, dominating films, television, radio and clubs all over the world.
In 1956, millions of fans were devastated to hear the news they’d been dreading: Martin & Lewis had split up. Following stories of feuds and jealousy that had plagued the twosome for years, the inevitable had happened: Martin & Lewis were no more.
The truth about their break-up sparked many rumours over the years and, it wasn’t until 1976 on Lewis’ National MDA telethon, that the pair appeared in public together again thanks to a reconciliation organised by Frank Sinatra.
While they never performed together again, it was always assumed that any bad blood between them had been put aside.
In 2005, Jerry Lewis published a book, Dean & Me (A Love Story), chronicling the ten years of his and Dean’s partnership and what really caused them to split up.
I was, of course, eager to read it but approached the book with caution: We all know how easy it is to talk smack about someone once they’re no longer around to defend themselves. I wasn’t sure what Lewis was going to reveal and prepared myself for a little bitterness and a few scathing remarks.
What I did read surprised me, though. In a brutally honest and heartfelt story, Lewis movingly describes the absolute love and devotion he felt (and still does feel) for his hero, his ‘big brother’. He never puts blame on Martin for the conflicts that arose between them and doesn’t ever try to ‘win you over’ to his side. In fact, he doesn’t even provide sides. This isn’t about the conflict. This is a moving tribute to his former partner, a man Lewis clearly respected, loved and adored more than anything:
I stood in the wings, mesmerized, as he performed. He really was an amazing singer, warm and direct, with a way around a romantic tune that got to women where they lived. But the funny thing was, Dean didn’t seem to understand his own power. Some part of him was always standing back, making fun of what he did. He wasn’t yet at the point where he would stop a number to make a wisecrack (and very often, get lost in the process – that’s where the drunk act eventually came in handy), but occasionally you could see in his eyes, as he sang, that he just couldn’t take the song seriously. And he had a way of making little self-deprecating remarks between songs, almost under his breath, remarks that if you listened – and I sure did – were killer-funny. But they were throwaway, as much of his singing itself was. There was something about how ridiculously handsome Dean was – about the way he could practically get away with just standing there and being admired – that made trying hard seem almost laughable to him.
Lewis’ admiration of his former partner never stops seeping through his tales of fortune and glory. His words don’t focus on the success and fame, though. He always comes back to their relationship.
He’s brutally honest about the latter years, admitting that as he began to take over the business side of their partnership, a distance began to grow as well as an unspoken resentment. The fact that Lewis was always hailed as a comic genius, while Martin was often overlooked, is another subject he handles with care:
Dean had it, too, yet he never understood the depth of his own skill. He was insecure about it; at the same time, he was never one to betray his insecurities. So he was stuck in kind of a hard place – one that became progressively harder as the press wrote about the comic brilliance of “the funny one.” And that was how our reviews went: “The handsome one comes out and sing pretty nicely – although he’s no Bing Crosby. Then the kid comes out, and the act really catches fire.” Time after time, Dean had to read those words.
Lewis’ sensitivity to Martin’s feelings provides wonderful reading that tugs at your heartstrings. He never shows bitterness or arrogance, even when conveying how things were between the duo as they made the announcement of their separation.
All he describes is the reality of Martin & Lewis from 1946-1956. His love and sheer admiration for Dean never falters and he’s always quick to disclose all the little things that made his former partner the star people loved and the incredible person he always was.
From enjoying the highs and perks of their quick success, to dabbling in a little too much booze, gambling and girls, to schmoozing with the big (and, sometimes, dangerous) boys of the show business world, to negotiating contracts and deals that would cause tension, to jealousy, antagonism and public arguments, Lewis never leaves anything out and isn’t one to point the finger in a last act of malice. Instead he’s loyal to his old team and writes a perfect love story.
If you’re a fan of Dean, Jerry, Martin & Lewis, or anything at all from that time period, I couldn’t urge you to get your hands on a copy more. This is beautifully written and profoundly moving. Lewis’ anecdotes are always entertaining and somewhat fascinating – so much so that it makes the book a hard one to put down. As I became more and more engrossed in the bond between these two entertainers, I was almost a little too scared to turn the page as I knew the inevitable break-up was inching its way closer. That’s how exceptional this story is.
I’m going to leave you with the moment Jerry Lewis was reunited, after 20 years, with Dean Martin on live television. Truly one of the most emotional and touching moments I’ve ever seen.