The witty and erudite Dick Cavett has a new book out. Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets is a collection of the very worthy opinion columns Cavett’s written for the New York Times over the past few years, and in that book he tells a story about Jack Benny that is one of best we have ever heard.
We spent several years in the 1990s tending bar at Mickey Mantle’s Sports Bar on Central Park South, and if we hadn’t guessed already that fame came with a price, we certainly learned that lesson in our time at Mantle’s, where we saw not only the Commerce Comet himself deluged by fans, many of whom behaved questionably, but dozens of other celebrities as well, from both the sports and entertainment worlds. (Just as an aside, O.J. Simpson, who had not then yet fallen afoul of the law, was the one celeb who created the most excitement when he dined at Mantle’s. The buzz in the room while he was there was palpable.)
We don’t consider it telling tales out of school to say that we saw the Mick have run-ins any number of times with customers who had crossed a line, and generally, there was blame to be placed on both sides. In Mickey’s case, to be frank, alcohol generally played a role in his turning surly, and on the customers’ side — well, alcohol again often played a role in their penchant for placing unreasonable demands on the former slugger. After all, even a Hall of Famer likes to enjoy a brief meal with friends from time to time.
It’s that double-edged sword of adoration that Cavett’s story about Benny touches upon, and so aptly. The finish is a little coarse, for the more sensitive souls among the Cladrite community, but frankly, we wouldn’t change a word of it. It just goes to show how even a soul as gentle as Benny—by all reports, the loveliest and gentlest of men—can be beaten down by the devoted attention of fans.
As Cavett tells it, here’s how the story goes:
When Jack Benny first came on a show of mine, I suddenly blurted, “Isn’t it a drag, Jack? Constant recognition?” To my surprise, he blurted back, “I like being famous!” A rare admission at any time.He elaborated: “I go to a night club, I get a good table. I go to the theater, I get the best seats. At the country club, the steam room attendant gives me the best towel.” Then came, delightfully, “And ya know, kid, what the best part is? People are generally glad to see me.”I declined to remind the great man of something I had witnessed years before when I was writing for Jack Paar. Mr. Benny, as I then called him, was on that night’s Paar show, and when taping was over I made my habitual point of getting into the elevator with one of my heroes. So did a bunch of audience members. The son of Waukegan looked smart in his belted, classic Burberry.For what follows, younger readers will need help with the trademark Jack Benny references, so dear to the memory of those of a certain age.First, someone asked, “Do you still drive the Maxwell?” Then came, “Are you really cheap?” This of course triggered, “Do you really keep your money in that underground vault?” Before we reached the main floor there was time for several more, including the inevitable, “Do you really not pay Rochester much?”Realizing that he must have become numb to being asked these same questions for decades, you had to admire the gracious way he nodded and smiled. He was a very nice man.When the doors opened, the civilians all rushed out to astonish their friends with reports of whom they had met and actually spoken with.Jack put his arm around my shoulder and in that soft voice, said, “Ya know, kid, sometimes ya jes’ wanna tell ‘em to go fuck themselves.”
Speaking of Dick Cavett, we’ve had occasion to meet him a few times over the years. Not in any formal setting, but just bumping into him at various spots around the city. As fellow Groucho Marx devotees, we’ve felt comfortable in approaching Mr. Cavett and telling him of our appreciation of his work and our shared admiration for Groucho, and he’s always been nothing less than gracious and warm.
We honestly think you could do much worse than to buy his book for several of the people on your holiday gift-giving list.