Off-Ramp

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George Jessel’s "Lena Horne at the Stork Club story," via Milton Berle, via Hank Rosenfeld

Lena Horne’s death Sunday, at 92, triggered this letter to the John Rabe Blog from Hank Rosenfeld. For the kids, George Jessel was a famous actor and producer known as “America’s Toastmaster General.”

Milton Berle was a famous comedian, known as “America’s Crossdresser General.”

----

Hi John,

The following is a Lena Horne story I heard on an audiocassette of Irv and Norma Brecher's wedding in 1983 at Hillcrest Country Club and transcribed.

[Milton Berle has snatched the mike from George Burns who took it from Danny Thomas who took it from Red Buttons who took it from Milton Berle, because they all wanted to emcee right? So Berle by now is in the middle of another long spiel...]

One morning I was here, it was about fifteen years ago, and having coffee and I look over at the bar, and George Jessel is standing at the bar, and he has on tails. Never got out of the monkey suit. Full dress suit and he’s got the medals that are weighing him down you know. From the USO, right? And he’s … at 8:15 in the morning: ”Give me another...”

Drinks it. Puts it down. I saw him drink – Irv, you were sitting with Me — I saw him drink eleven martinis. After another.

(A glass clinks loudly.)

There’s one of ‘em… it just dropped.

Eleven martinis. So I walked over to him, I said, “Hey George. For Chrissake, it’s twenty of nine...”

Now he always had to make an excuse for drinking.

“I just watched you drink twelve martinis!”

He said, “Didn’t you … didn’t you hear about it?”

I said, “No. What?”

He said, “Norma Talmadge left me.”

Maybe fifty years before.

[SO THAT'S THE SET - UP, RIGHT? BERLE CONTINUES]

Greatest story I heard about Jessel, is that Jessel, before it was allowed and before we accepted it -- it was segregation at that time -- anyway it was in New York, and it was 1934. And Lena Horne was in the chorus at the Cotton Club. And she’s doing: (Sings) “I don’t want you! I’m gonna hate you! You’ve got me in between…devil and the deep blue sea!”

She’s dancin’ bah bah bah bah! She’s gorgeous! Gorgeous! Gorgeous! So Jessel – the chutzpah Jessel had – he hires a car, a big limousine and drives up to Harlem. He’s got on a Sol Hurok coat, with the fur. He’s got a black hat like Morris Guest and a cane.

He says to the chauffer: “You wait here, and I’ll go in and pick up the goil.”

So he picks up Lena Horne, he says, “Hello, my beautiful! You look beautiful, you’re beautiful, you sun-tanned beautiful thing. Is the show over or you got another show?”

She says, “No, that’s the last show we do.”

He says, “We’ll go out, we’ll have uh, some midnight snack.”

So of all places, he says to the driver: “Take us to 52nd Street to the Stork Club.”

Sherman Billingsley’s, right? He walks into Sherman Billingsley’s club, Lena on his arm. Captain at the ropes. Here’s the take: Lena’s standing here, he’s standing here. Captain says: “How’re you doing, Mr. Jessel? And how are you—uhhhh …”

And he [THE CAPTAIN] says, “I’ll be right back.” So he went in the back. I guess he spoke with Billingsley.

Captain came back. He’s at the door, he says, “Mr. Jessel, who made your reservation?”

Jessel, without missing a beat says, “Abraham Lincoln, you son-of-a-bitch.”

True story. Right?

[HUGE LAUGHS, NEEDLESS TO ADD]

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