Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram

George Jessel

George Jessel, veteran comedian, talks to Wallace about television, Jimmie Hoffa and the Teamsters Union, fame, Jewish performers, relationships, and his desire to be named ambassador to Israel.

Watch Video

Guest: George Jessel

WALLACE: Good evening. What you are about to witness is an unrehearsed, uncensored interview. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Philip Morris.


Tonight we go after the story of a veteran comedian who belonged to the "Golden Age of Vaudeville" along with Al Jolson and George M. Cohen and who now appears all too infrequently on television. You see him behind me. He's Georgie Jessel, showman extraordinary and a man about town in every town he's ever been in. If you're curious to know what Georgie Jessel has against television, if you want to know why he may soon do public relations work for Jimmie Hoffa and the Teamsters Union, and if you want to know whether a bachelor's life in hotels and night clubs makes Georgie Jessel a happy man, we'll go after those stories in just a moment. My guest's opinions are not necessarily mine, the station's, or my sponsor's Philip Morris, Incorporated, but whether you agree or disagree we feel sure that none will deny the right of these views to be broadcast.


WALLACE: And now to our story. Though he insists he's only fifty-nine years old, Georgie Jessel has been one of the most colorful figures in show business for nearly fifty years now. He launched his career singing in orchestra pits with a school boy named Walter Winchell. Since then Mr. Jessel has told jokes, he's acted, written songs and books, produced Hollywood films, married three women, and he's made a small fortune as about the best after dinner speaker in America. Georgie, first of all let me ask you this, the newspaper advertisement for tonight's interview said that you were going to talk about girls, entertainment, unions, loneliness, and criticisms of Georgie Jessel, and so I'm going to give you your choice. Which do you want to talk about first, George?

JESSEL: Well first in all fairness, Mike, the last time we had this interview, and this is because this is your client cause I don't smoke cigarettes as a rule, the last time the last question you asked me -

WALLACE: You are a smoker by the way.

JESSEL: Yes ... The last question you asked me in our last –


JESSEL: Yes....At our last interview was, whether or not I had shot William McKinley and I didn't have time to answer and I did not. My hand was bandaged in 1904, but it was because of a fight I had with Joe Ganz.

WALLACE: Well, we're glad to get that straightened out.

JESSEL: Now you can start asking. I'll answer any questions that makes any sense because I think what I'll have to say will be informative and my opinions are not humble I don't think at all.

WALLACE: No, I would not suggest that that is the quality for which you are most known.

JESSEL: Now, you said earlier before the commercial -

WALLACE: George, may I put just one thing to you right at the beginning?

JESSEL: What's that?

WALLACE: I want to know what you want to talk about first? Girls, entertainment, unions, loneliness, or criticisms of Georgie Jessel?

JESSEL: Well, I'd like to talk about unions first because you said that it had been rumored that I was going to do some public relations for Jimmie Hoffa.

WALLACE: That's correct.

JESSEL: This is not quite true. When the Beck thing came up in the Teamsters Union, I thought it might be a good idea for America in general to offer my services to make a series of pictures about unionism and the great good that it's done.

WALLACE: Why I understand that you were going to work for the Teamsters Union and Jimmie Hoffa in particular. Isn't that true?

JESSEL: No, I had some meetings with the attorneys as to doing -- the thought of doing some public relations for the Teamsters Union.

WALLACE: Well you had a meeting with Edward Bennett Williams who was Hoffa's attorney...

JESSEL: That's right.

WALLACE: ...in the trial down in Washington, therefore I put two and two together and decided that you must be working for Hoffa because you'd met with Edward Bennett Williams.

JESSEL: Well no, two and two together, that's very old fashioned. Years ago that made four, now it's now it's nine.

WALLACE: Well why would you want to work for Jimmie Hoffa in view of his alleged --

JESSEL: I haven't any idea of working for Jimmie Hoffa. I wanted to - what I wanted to do, was to do some public relations for unions in general, basing it on this thought: that while there may be somebody who has broken the law in many cases - and I have some in my own family - that unionism has done a great deal of good for America particularly and I was going back to the days of Gompers and the days of the sweatshops on the East Side...

WALLACE: Well I think --

JESSEL: ...and great men like Dave Divinsky and Dave McDonald and many others.

WALLACE: If I may suggest it, I think that public relations jobs of that nature have been done many times for unions and probably the unions can do their own best public relations job by getting rid of racketeers within unions, don't you?

JESSEL: I believe that too but I did think that it needed and I believe it does need some heroic exploitation and something rather fast, like a series, perhaps, of maybe television shows showing what of the great work and the good work that the unions have done for American labor.

WALLACE: All right now so much for --

JESSEL: And of course I would like to make a buck out of it, too.

WALLACE: I can understand that.

JESSEL: But you're not doing this for nothing either.

WALLACE: What's that? J

ESSEL: It's nothing I just - -

WALLACE: Well now I want to get this straightened out.

JESSEL: Well I mean this is your this is your business.

WALLACE: Oh, I thought you were saying you were not doing this for nothing. You are doing this for nothing.

JESSEL: Oh this tonight? ...



WALLACE: Yes, well all right --

JESSEL: But what do I do now? I'm stuck.

WALLACE: Now then, what --

JESSEL: But I'm also going to plug a new album that I have for the Cabot Recording Company called "Fifty Years In Front Of The American People - Georgie Jessel of Show Business."

WALLACE: Well I'm anxious to hear that album.

JESSEL: This is with your permission and it's very nostalgic and I think you'd like I think you'd like it.

WALLACE: Now shall we talk about girls --

JESSEL: Cabot Records, they've --

WALLACE: Cabot Records --

JESSEL: And to Philip Morris. It's a fine smoke.

WALLACE: Girls, entertainment, loneliness, or criticism of Georgie Jessel?

JESSEL: Well, let's take -- what criticism particularly of me, in what respect?

WALLACE: All right, when you published your autobiography, "So Help He," in 1943, New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott wrote in May of that year that it was written, quote: "By a vain man, an egoist who loves flattery and fame, and boasting, and the sound of his own name; a sentimental man whose sentimentality reaches saccharin depths," end quote. What do you think of that analysis of George Jessel?

JESSEL: Well I if I recall correctly and I do he also said: "This is a remarkable book." As a matter of fact, I used that quotation amongst some of the others in the advertising of the book and the book was highly successful. I think that most men who get anywhere or at least become something have some vanity or some ego. I think if they didn't have it, I mean I think they'd be in pretty bad shape. I think that nearly all of our presidents have been vain men, nearly all of our generals have been vain men ... ego is a virtue in many cases when you have to have authority and when you have to make decisions.

WALLACE: But controlled ego -- when you talk about a vain man, it seems to me that we are talking, are we not, about a man who is perhaps too much inclined to want to hear nice things said about him.

JESSEL: Oh I don't think so, Mike. I don't think that that especially means vanity. What person in my business doesn't want to hear nice things said? In the theatrical business if you're in the tiniest small town, --Embling, Louisiana or someplace, you look for the morning paper even though you may never come to that town again. I wouldn't I think --

WALLACE: Does the does the sound of a - no let let's not say the sound of applause - does a picture of Georgie Jessel in the paper, the name Georgie Jessel in a gossip column does this give you a real sense of satisfaction when you read about yourself?

JESSEL: Not of satisfaction but it gives me a little sense of security because having never been able to keep enough money to say, "well I don't care what they say, it doesn't make any difference," I naturally look forward to find out whether I'm still in the public eye cause I haven't been as you said on television as often as perhaps I'd like to be.

WALLACE: Why not?

JESSEL: There is very little -- what's that?

WALLACE: Why not?

JESSEL: Well now I don't know. I think that - yes I do know. I have been able and the record lately shows it in my concerts and so I've been able to get along with the public on almost every occasion...


JESSEL: ...on almost every occasion. When I've had a bad play, they didn't come in, they were right; but in almost a half century, I've been able to get along with the public. I have hardly ever been able to get along with maybe one or two individuals who own a program or an advertising company

WALLACE: Do you have any idea why, is there some quality within you that offends them?

JESSEL: No, I think that in many cases there might be something about my - let's say my type of humor when I originally went on radio and television - such as talking to my mother over the phone.

WALLACE: Well of course you were a huge success for doing that --

JESSEL: Not with clients.

WALLACE: Not with clients?


WALLACE: Just for the audience?

JESSEL: Just for the audience.

WALLACE: Well, wouldn't -- wouldn't the clients be happy that the audience was happy because after all what they want to do is sell their cigarettes or their soap or whatever.

JESSEL: Well unfortunately most of the clients, before they think of the sale of the product, generally went to the ratings and on most cases I was on on several different times and the ratings never favored me a great deal. And I was also told that this warm telephone conversation which I did and which I didn't write - which was in the creation of my own mind, I started it and then my friend Sam ___ wrote most of the jokes - but most of the sponsors and a lot of the advertising companies thought it was too - shall I be kind - too Bronxy.

WALLACE: Too Bronxy?

JESSEL: Not this Bronxy, Puerto Rico Bronxy. Bronxy of, shall I say, twenty-five years ago. You know what I mean?

WALLACE: What you're saying is that perhaps it is too Jewish?


WALLACE: And you think for that reason clients did not want you?

JESSEL: It's quite possible, it might be merely coincidence, for the same reason why there are so few singers, shall I say, on radio and television of the Bronx type. You know?

WALLACE: What are you saying, George?

JESSEL: Didn't you understand me?

WALLACE: No I don't quite understand you.

JESSEL: I said that type of humor has to go possibly with the same type of singing, the type of singing that Cantor, Jolson, and a lot of them, myself, Richmond and Georgie Price.

WALLACE: Well now let's face it, George. Over the years, I think that Jewish comedians, Jewish singers, Jewish entertainers have done extraordinarily well and have been taken to the bosom of America and have been sponsored on television and radio programs. There's no denying it.

JESSEL: Well there's no denying - I didn't say that.

WALLACE: Oh! All right, all right. George, Jack Gould, in reviewing your autobiography, "So Help Me," which you wrote back in the forties, said: "Mr.Jessel cannot hide the fact that he is a very lonely man whom fate or perhaps Mr. Jessel has not treated too kindly."

JESSEL: Well I think that was very, very fair. I think that as a rule a man is exactly what he writes. I think that most books, as Anatole France said, are the "dreams of sick men," and I think when you write a book you are inclined to either be bitter about some things or inclined to be affected by some things and actually the the outlet is by your pen and I have been lonely. I have no kin of any kind except my daughter and I might say that makes up for everything else...

WALLACE: Of course.

JESSEL: ...but that's only lately since she's a grown-up girl and nearly sixteen but before that I've been kind of lonely and I think that - so you might have people could read that, they could see that I've been searching for something. Now it's quite possible, I was searching in the wrong places.

WALLACE: That is possible, of course. Do you consider yourself a bitter man? Do you feel in a sense that life -- the life that you want so much has passed you by?

JESSEL: Oh, not at all, not at all. In fact I would say very honestly and under oath that these last two or three years are the happiest that I've ever had because as you do get on, a little bit older, you become mellow and what you lose in some extremities you gain in the others.

WALLACE: Well you've never been --

JESSEL: I know my "tummy" isn't as good as it used to be, but my mind is better.

WALLACE: You've never been reluctant, I think you'll agree, to speak to newspapers about your three marriages, have you?

JESSEL: No, I don't think that's such a terrible thing to be married three times. You've been married twice.

WALLACE: That is correct. No, I'll say as a matter of fact, three times, George.

JESSEL: Well, there you are.

WALLACE: A Saturday Evening Post article in 1953 described your home life this way, George. It said: "Jessel spends little time at home, sleeps there maybe three nights out of seven. He has never eaten lunch or dinner at home. He must eternally be among his friends in the crowded show business haunts." Is that, George, really what you want out of life?

JESSEL: No, I had no home life. I've been a bachelor for the last almost fifteen years and I have a big house in Santa Monica, California which I would like to sell and if there's anybody listening, cause the last offer that I had for it was an unsigned autograph - an unsigned picture, rather - of Sophie Tucker, not even the autograph. So I live there all alone, and it's on the water, and I'm trying to get melancholy there, and I run out of it and generally go to the Hillcrest Country Club and look for someone to talk to unless I'm making a speech that particular night.

WALLACE: Well then, in that regard, the newspapers also carry accounts and fairly continuously, of your friendships with young girls, 22, 23, sometimes even younger.

JESSEL: Well, I think that's been greatly embellished. I think that, not I think, I know. As a matter of fact, Mike, of my three marriages, my first two wives were a year or two older than I. And then I married Lois Andrews and she was very young. But she'd been the most beautiful girl in New York as a show girl and I couldn't guess that she was a show girl when she was 14. So I did marry her when she was 16 and this made a big to-do. All the comedians, it gave them a whole harvest to tell jokes. Even my closest friends said, Jessel was going to bring his wife but she's teething and all such kind of things. But I've been repayed magnificently by that because from that marriage, as I say, I have this lovely child.

WALLACE: But are you sensitive about being....

JESSEL: I'm sensitive now because it's kind of up-to-date to say I'm around with young, you know, dashing around romantically young, real young girls now, as if there were jokes about Mae West and ....

WALLACE: You don't dash around with young girls now.

JESSEL: I don't dash around with anybody.

WALLACE: You're 59 years old.

JESSEL: Yes, I am.

WALLACE: This is, I suppose, a forward and impertinent question, but it's a sensible question. Why, George, don't you find yourself, because you talk of your loneliness, a mature woman and marry and settle down?

JESSEL: Well, Mike, this isn't a kind of thing that you can get up in the morning and say I'll get a blue suit. You know, I mean, this doesn't come over a transom. This might happen, but I don't think I'm looking for that now. What I intend to do is, you know I'm making a series of films for television.. I imagine they'll be distributed, I'd like to have them distributed in Cincinnati, and separately. Not the network, so that I have to go through that baptismal fire --

WALLACE: What has that got to do with your personal relationships, George.

JESSEL: It's very important because if they're successful, it changes the whole viewpoint.

WALLACE: How do you mean?

JESSEL: Well, if the series is very successful, which I think it will be if it is distributed. I wanted to finish that point, but if it has to go on the network where a phone call may go wrong in Schenectady, that would mean I'm not funny or the show isn't any good, I get thrown out like several others I know.

WALLACE: What you're saying then is that if you had a hit...

JESSEL: Yeah, that changes everything.

WALLACE: ...you would be attractive to all kinds of...

JESSEL: Well, I wouldn't say that, but it would give me a sort of "raison d'être" for say, well hey, listen I may, perhaps I will.

WALLACE: Now I'm a guy again and now I'm going to be attractive.

JESSEL: No, no, no. A hit wouldn't make me less attractive or make me more.

WALLACE: Well, let me put it in your own words, again. You once wrote this, you said: "A hit is what you need no matter what business you're in...

JESSEL: That's right.

WALLACE: "If you don't go over in the particular line you're in, your entire life is changed...

JESSEL: That's right.

WALLACE: "If applause follows you it has its affect on the girl you want, the pal you want, and everybody in the world, and sometimes that even goes for your mother."

JESSEL: That's exactly right. Don't you believe that's true?

WALLACE: No, I don't, George.

JESSEL: Oh, you must!

WALLACE: No, I don't. I think that if you have enough inside you, success or failure, or hit or no, you're going to be attractive to yourself and therefore you're going to be desirable to other people.

JESSEL: I think you're entirely wrong. In the first place, the authority of being a success in something makes you walk into a restaurant differently. It makes waiters react differently to you. It makes a conductor on a train, a stewardess on an airplane. Success.

WALLACE: But what do those things really mean? Because a head waiter recognizes you, because a stewardess is nice to you on an airplane.

JESSEL: Well, it simply means that you're going to be attractive to, you're going to be important to everyone else.

WALLACE: Do you think, sensibly George, that that kind of success, that that kind of acceptance is the right kind of acceptance? If a person cannot like you for any other reason except your professional success.

JESSEL: Well, it isn't a question of professional success. Once in a while a man might meet some woman who finds within him some great nobility or some soulful quality. But this isn't the average way of life. You got to make good. And the taxi driver comes home to his wife and says, honey, I got more tips today and I drove Mike Wallace and I drove this one and I drove that one and he makes a big hit with his wife than the fellow who comes home and says I didn't get anything today. Unless there's some physical attraction that makes her forget everything else.

WALLACE: Then failure is the thing that you fear most.

JESSEL: The crime is to lose, in everything you do, in a dice game, in a ball game, in a football game, and in politics, and that's why there are so many people in politics who say all is fair and who do dastardly things, based on the idea, well after we get elected we can clean it up then.

WALLACE: Let's go to entertainment for just a little while. We only have about a minute, minute and a half to do this part and then we'll get to some other things too, George. What do you think of Jackie Gleason?

JESSEL: Well, I like Jackie Gleason. As a person, I think he's a fellow who, at the moment, is suffering a tiny setback as far as his mind is concerned. Now that gets, that's the same question, same angle. How Gleason has plenty of money, I believe, and he's gonna earn plenty more. But he's not on the front page of Time at the moment, and I think it's affected him because Jackie Gleason, without the authority of a great success, is a very nice fat fellow, who comes in and sits down. But with the billing and with everything else, he becomes a personage. I blame only one thing for anything wrong that might happen to Jackie Gleason, and I hope that nothing ever does. I blame these, again, these phony surveys that tells a man one morning, everybody in the world is listening to you. We multiply 86 by 159 and you're the greatest man that ever lived and then the next day he didn't get a few phone calls and he's a bum. I think they made too much about Gleason, and didn't give him a chance to bring out his great talent.

WALLACE: All right George. We'll get to your opinions of some other comedians, some other performers in show business and also in a moment, I'd like to ask you about one of your chief ambitions, which is to be appointed the United States ambassador to Israel. I'd like to know what qualifications you think you have to be our ambassador to the state of Israel. And we'll get the answers to those questions in just 60 seconds.


WALLACE: Georgie, let's go back to show business for some capsule opinions. What do you think of Steve Allen?

JESSEL: Oh, I'm crazy about Steve Allen. I think Steve Allen has a great deal of charm, a great deal of gentility, I think he's highly talented. I'm crazy about him.

WALLACE: Phil Silvers.

JESSEL: Good, resourceful comedian with a great deal of experience in the burlesque.

WALLACE: Red Buttons.

JESSEL: I haven't seen Mr. Buttons on the television or as a comedian in a long time. I know he's a fine actor.

WALLACE: George, you have said publicly in the past, that you'd like to be our ambassador to Israel.

JESSEL: Now let me clear this, Mike. I didn't say that publicly. This sort of was one of those things that got built up. Not that it is as important as atomic energy or anything like that. But one time, when I was campaigning, deservedly so, for a great American President, Harry S. Truman, I said to him at one time, some day, this is before there was a great democracy of Israel, some day I said, if it ever becomes a country, I'd like to be an ambassador to it. And then I said it again once to Mr. Stevenson, and then Senator Frank Lausche made a speech in Cleveland, and he got up and said that, 'cause I said that it was possible that when we do become a little bit more tolerant, that a man like Frank Lausche, regardless of, or Kennedy, religion, would be present and if they did, I would be happy about it. And Lausche said he wants to be ambassador to Israel. Time magazine picked it up and then this whole thing built up.

WALLACE: Tell me truthfully.


WALLACE: Do you feel that you possess the qualifications to be an ambassador?

JESSEL: I don't think I'll ever be and I don't think even the Israeli government would feel that it was right, because of my religious persuasion, to have me. I think if they did, I'd make a very good ambassador. I've just returned from the holy land six days ago and the people like me and ...

WALLACE: What are the qualifications though? What background do you have to be an ambassador?

JESSEL: well, I would say that having dealt with the public nearly all my life, all kinds of public, and speaking enough of six or seven languages, as I do, I'd be just as qualified as some of the ambassadors that have been named this year by this administration. Don't you think so?

WALLACE: George, must I answer?


WALLACE: George, you wrote in your autobiography, you said: "Drinking is not good, but the false courage and the little haze it puts over reality after a couple of nips are worth more than three morning hangovers, at least I think so." Do you really think that the false courage you get from drink is a sensible way to solve --

JESSEL: Well, I think this was written, this is also in a book of mine, some years ago, and I can qualify it better now. I don't think that the Lord God ever planned that people should wear glasses, but at that time if He knew that we were going to have lights much stronger than these, these are very gentle by the way, you have to have them. And if you have to do as many things as I have to do, such as I will speak now for the Israel Bond thing in 70 cities, possibly every day. Now, you need a little something. False courage is a wrong word. Alcohol, a dash of alcohol at times, does something for you so that the blood rushes to, shall I say, semi-tired arteries, if you please.


JESSEL: And...

WALLACE: One final subject. Earlier this week you toil our reporter that in your opinion most people in show business practice no formal religion. You believe that?

JESSEL: Well, most of the people that I've met .... This doesn't say that they're wicked people, but they haven't had time to have any formal religion.

WALLACE: That is the only reason?

JESSEL: That's the only reason why I've found.

WALLACE: Do you?

JESSEL: Do I? Well, I have a general feeling about religion. I do believe that there is some great power that stage manages everything. It must be so. How you acquire salvation I don't know. Whether you beat yourself on the press, whether you perform the stations of the Cross anyway is all right but you must salute a higher power. The stars don't come out willy-nilly. Somebody's doing it.

WALLACE: George, I thank you for coming and talking to us for this half hour tonight.

JESSEL: And I thank you for this opportunity.

WALLACE: Eddie Cantor once said: "Georgie Jessel puts more drama and comedy into one sentence than any speaker of our time." And I think it may be fairly added that Mr. Jessel has also packed more drama and comedy into his life than most of his compatriots in show business. And he's gained the respect of his audience for the past half century. I'll bring you a run down on next weeks interview in just a moment.


WALLACE: Tomorrow night at this time over many of these stations, we'll do a special interview with Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas from the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock. That is tomorrow night. And next week on our regular Saturday night interview, on most of these stations, and I hope that you'll check your own newspaper in your own locality to find out if it is on Saturday night in your locality, most across the country it is on Saturday night now on and henceforth. Next Saturday night we'll go after the story of the woman who has led the crusade for birth control throughout the world. You see her behind me. She's Margaret Sanger who was thrown into jail forty years ago for opening the first birth control clinic here in the United States. If you're curious to know why Mrs. Sanger has devoted her life to teaching birth control, how she answers the charge made by some that birth control is, in reality, murder, and if you want to hear her thoughts on child bearing, divorce, and God, we'll go after those stories next Saturday. 'Til then, for Phillip Morris ... Mike Wallace ... goodnight.

ANNCR: The Mike Wallace Interview is brought to you by Phillip Morris, Inc., the quality house.

Digitization Credits