George M. Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy of the American stage who gave his country its greatest song of the first World War died yesterday at 5 A.M. in his home overlooking Central Park. His death climaxed more than a year's painful illness and was not unexpected. His family and his closest friend were with him when he died.
The great song and dance man--perhaps the greatest in Broadway history--was 64 years old. All but eight of them, in one way or another, had been devoted to the stage. A year ago--Oct. 19, 1941--the man who wrote "Over There" and received a Congressional Medal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for writing it underwent an operation for a serious intestinal ailment. Several weeks ago it became apparent that his death would come at any time.
Family With Him at the End
It came peacefully in his bedroom at 993 Fifth Avenue. There at the time were Mrs. Agnes Mary Nolan Cohan, his wife; Private George M. Cohan, Jr. and his wife and Mrs. George Ronkin, Mary Helen Cohan and Georgette Cohan, the actor's daughters. Also present was Gene Buck, former president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Mr. Cohan's closest friend.
Although his friends knew that recovery was improbable Mr. Cohan within the month had talked of returning to the stage and to his neighborhood post as an air raid warden. He wanted to get out and walk the paths of Central Park, to talk with people and feed the pigeons again.
Although he was famous for his songs and dances in many shows, for his impersonation of President Roosevelt in "I'd Rather Be Right" and of the country editor in Eugene O'Neill's "Ah Wilderness!" it was as the author of "Over There," the stirring march of the First World War, that he was internationally respected. Not since the Civil War had so popular a patriotic song been forthcoming. It was his unfulfilled ambition to give American another "Over There" for this war, a war thus far without a song to match it.
Tribute From Roosevelt
President Roosevelt and Mr. O'Neill were among thousands from all walks of life who sent telegrams of condolence to Mrs. Cohan, it was learned last night.
President Roosevelt's telegram read:
"A beloved figure is lost to our national life in the passing of your devoted husband. He will be mourned by millions whose lives were brightened and whose burdens were eased by his genius as a fun maker and as a dispeller of gloom. My heartfelt sympathy to you and all the family."
Mr. O'Neill's telegram, which was also signed by his wife, Carlotta, read:
"Our deepest sympathy to you in your grief. The news of your husband's death is a great sorrow to us. We admired and loved George Cohan and we feel that we have lost a genuine friend."
Mayor La Guardia praised him for having put "the symbols of American life into American music" and Mr. Buck called him "the greatest single figure the American theatre ever produced--as a player, playwright, actor, composer and producer." Former Mayor James J. Walker said he would be remembered "as an inspiration to love of God and country, and clean fun and friendship." Deems Taylor, president of ASCAP, called Mr. Cohan a "genius."
The last rites of the church were administered to Mr. Cohan shortly before his death by Mgr. John J. Casey, representing Archbishop Spellman, and the Rev. Francis X. Shea, vicar of the archdiocese.
A solemn high mass will be celebrated in St. Patrick's Cathedral tomorrow at 10 A.M. Burial will be in Woodlawn Cemetery in the family mausoleum.
A Versatile Member of Stage
George M. Cohan called himself "just a song-and-dance man," but at the height of his career he was unquestionably the first man in the American theatre. Songwriter, dancer, actor, playwright, producer, theatre owner--he was the most versatile person in show business. An old trouper and hoofer, whose dapper costumes, derby or straw hat cocked jauntily over one eye, wisecracks from the corner of the mouth, and lively caper across the stage with his fast-swinging cane, were nationally known trademarks, he was regarded for years as just a Broadway vaudeville performer, but astonished the theatrical world by developing into a serious actor and dramatist whose work won praise even from the intellectuals who had previously ignored him. Born and raised in the theatre, he could give lessons to the most erudite of university men in its technique.
He was "the original Yankee Doodle boy--born on the Fourth of July." Waving the American flag as a sure-fire finale to bring down the house with applause was established as authentic "theatre" in Cohan shows. In the first world war he wrote the stirring march, "Over There!"--the most inspirational and popular American patriotic song of the period. For this and for another patriotic piece, "It's a Grand Old Flag," which he wrote in 1905, he received a gold medal under a special act of Congress dated June 29, 1936. The medal was presented to the actor at the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Mr. Cohan had impersonated in the musical comedy "I'd Rather Be Right."
Was Trouper at 8
A trouper at the age of 8 and a successful songwriter before he was 21, Mr. Cohan wrote both words and music, sang his own songs and danced to them, and wrote his own plays, directed them, starred in them and produced them. He starred in vaudeville, musical comedy, drama, on the screen and on the radio. He wrote more than fifty plays, including several variety sketches, and hundreds of songs of every description.
Every theatre-lover who saw his plays remembers them with pleasure. Some of the most popular were "Little Johnny Jones," "Forty-five Minutes From Broadway," "Talk of New York," "The Honeymooners," "Broadway Jones," "The Yankee Prince," "The American Idea," "Get Rich Quick Wallingford," "The Man Who Owns Broadway," "Little Nellie Kelley," "Rise of Rose O'Reilly," "The Song-and-Dance Man," "Molly Malone," "Hit-the-Trail Holliday," "The Cohan Revue of 1916," "The Cohan Revue of 1918," "Seven Keys to Baldpate," "The Miracle Man," "Hello Broadway," "Little Millionaire," "Billie" and "Pigeons and People."
Some of his songs bring back memories of a New York era long past, but are recalled with delight by many: "Give My Regards to Broadway," "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "So Long, Mary," "Mary Is a Grand Old Name," "Life's a Funny Proposition After All" and "Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye."
The last-named illustrated as well as a whole textbook one of the most effective of his stylist devices in acting and playwriting. He seldom failed to send an audience home laughing at his third- act ending.
Collaborated on Dramas
Mr. Cohan also collaborated with other writers on several successful dramas, including "Elmer the Great," "The Tavern," "Three Faces East," "The Royal Vagabond," "The Meanest Man in the World," "The Tailor Made Man" and "The Beauty Shop."
Mr. Cohan became a very rich man from his theatrical and songwriting enterprises. As he lived simply, this gave him an opportunity to play still another role, which was unknown to the general public but was very well known, indeed, along Broadway. He was probably the most generous man of his day in a profession noted not only for its ups and downs but for the generosity of those of its members who are "in the money" to those who are not. If an old actor asked him for a "loan" without getting it, this never became known.
On the other hand, his reputation as "a soft touch" was widespread. "Okay, kid," was his favorite response to any approach. He had a long list of "retainers" and "pensioners" to whom he made regular allowances--people who had acted with him, had worked for him, or had merely known his father and mother in show business. In at least one case, when a former partner was caught in the 1929 stock market crash, Mr. Cohan advanced several hundred thousand dollars to save him. In private life also he was modest and soft-spoken, a far different person from the Broadway "smart- aleck" he often appeared to be on the stage.
Son of Vaudeville Troupers
Born on July 4, 18781, in a little theatrical hotel in Providence, R.I., amid the noise and celebration of the holiday, he was the son of Jeremiah and Helen Costigan Cohan, vaudeville troupers from away back. He had a sister, Josephine, and the whole family later became well known in vaudeville as "the Four Cohans."
George M. was first presented to the public as a violinist, playing second fiddle in an orchestra which accompanied the tour of "Daniel Boone." Then he made his appearance as a child prodigy of the violin, billed as "Master Georgie--violin tricks and tinkling tunes," and presenting himself in velveteen breeches. At 11 he was doing a "buck-and-wing" dance in vaudeville, and two years later he was on tour as the star of "Peck's Bad Boy," in which he played the title role.
Meanwhile his parents and sister were traveling about the country with various road companies. In 1890 the family came together, and for the next ten years were billed as "the Four Cohans," from Tony Pastor's in New York to the old Orpheum in San Francisco, except for rare intervals when they appeared separately. On one of these occasions, George M., at the age of 15, made his Broadway debut at Keith's, appearing as a "song-and-dance artist" with his sister Josie in an act called "The Lively Bootblack." Jerry and Helen Cohan, his parents, did another act at the same theatre the same week.
During the "Gay Nineties" period, George M. coined his famous curtain speech: "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you and I thank you."
Mr. Cohan once autographed a photograph for Arnold Daly thus:
"I can write better plays than any living dancer and dance better than any living playwright."
Temperamental at First
As a precocious young actor, Mr. Cohan had fits of temperament and anger which were never characteristic of his mature life. He continually quarreled with managers and stagehands, periodically announced himself "through with the theatre" and caused endless trouble for his family because of his rows. Once he left the theatre at the end of the first act on an opening night because the producer rebuked him for playing the part, not as he had rehearsed it, but as his personal conception. His father and several stagehands dragged him back.
Often when "the Four Cohans" were billed first, a bad spot in vaudeville, he would fly into a rage and tell the theatre manager he would buy the theatre some day "just to throw you out."
Starting in his 'teens to write songs and vaudeville sketches, Mr. Cohan turned out 150 sketches between the ages of 17 and 21. In these he laid the foundation for his fortune, as he did not sell them for the standard rate of $50 each, but insisted on royalties of $10 to $25 a week on each sketch as long it was played. Soon after the turn of the century he had an annual income estimated at [text missing] from his songs and sketches and the plays that he was beginning to write.
In 1901 he wrote, composed, directed and produced "The Governor's Son," his first Broadway production, which took "the Four Cohans" into the legitimate theatre. Soon thereafter, at the age of 26, he joined forces with another young man, the last Sam H. Harris, in a partnership that took Broadway by storm and made reputation and riches for both. Together they put on "Little Johnny Jones," a patriotic production toward which the orthodox dramatic critics were cool, but which became one of Broadway's greatest hits.
"Energized American Stage"
The Cohan and Harris partnership lasted for fifteen years, during which they produced more than fifty comedies, plays and revues, with and without music. At one time they controlled five theatres in New York, including the George M. Cohan Theatre at Broadway and Forty-second Street, and one in Chicago. They split in 1920, each going along "on his own," but came together again temporarily in 1937 to produce a play called "Fulton of Oak Falls," which Parker Fennelly wrote. Mr. Cohan revised it and acted in its title role.
In his heyday Mr. Cohan possessed an amazing energy. He would go on the road as the star of one play, take the cast of another with him, write a script late at night, and rehearse the second cast in the morning. He did most of his writing, either on the road or at home in his Fifth Avenue apartment, between midnight and dawn. Sometimes, when not acting, he would take rooms in an Atlantic City hotel to write a new play. He wrote with a pencil on yellow paper.
According to some of the critics, his greatest contribution to the theatre was in "energizing the American stage." His plays were all action and speed. At first they were criticized for having no "ideas," a criticism which he voiced himself, but as he grew older his work came to have more intellectual content. His reputation as a playwright grew gradually from the time he dramatized "Seven Keys to Baldpate" in 1913. The play offended some of the critics because of the unorthodox manner in which it baffled the audience, but it was a big hit, and its formula has been successfully followed by many subsequent writers of mystery plays.
An Eccentric Dancer
The fast movement of his playwriting derived largely from his experiences as a "song-and-dance man." He and his sister, Josie, were early exponents of eccentric dancing. They stepped high, fast and lively, sometimes dancing right over the stage furniture. At first Josie was more in demand as an entertainer than her brother. There was a time when "the Four Cohans" act had to be broken up because theatre managers were willing to pay Josie alone more than all four together.
In his playwriting Mr. Cohan used the fast tempo of his vaudeville days. One of his big hits, "The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly," was a continuous dance, the characters swaying, stepping and posturing through their entrances, lines and exits.
From old-time vaudeville he also brought to the legitimate theatre a keen sense of burlesque. His "revues" of 1916 and 1918 struck a new and fresh note in Broadway musical comedy with their satire on people and events of the day. He was adept at taking old-fashioned melodramas, burlesquing them and transforming them into hilarious comedies, as he did with "The Tavern."
He used the patriotic note whenever opportunity offered, and it was no accident that he happened to be the author of "Over There." The tune, he said, popped into his head one day on the way to his office, and the bugle-line refrain and most of the first verse had formed themselves in his head by the time he reached his desk.
Joseph Tumulty, secretary to President Woodrow Wilson, sent him the following appreciation:
"Dear George Cohan: The President considers your war song 'Over There' a genuine inspiration to all American manhood."
"Over There" sold more than 1,500,000 copies. Mr. Cohan received $25,000 for the mechanical instrument rights alone, which he gave to his mother, who distributed it among soldiers' funds and civic charities.
He joined an all-star cast in 1918 which made a two-week tour in a war play called "Out There." This grossed $600,000 for the Red Cross.
During the 1919 actors' strike Mr. Cohan, then one of the most active producer-manager-actors in the country, would not side with the actors, who were in the throes of forming Actors Equity Association. After a bitter row, in which he took a leading part, he helped found the rival Actors' Fidelity League. He became president of this association, long since dissolved. Even after Equity dominated the situation he would not become a member, although after many years Equity actors were allowed to appear with him on the stage under an amnesty granted to some members of the league. At the time of the strike he also resigned from the Lambs and the Friars. He closed all his shows in protest and retired for several years from the stage.
Star of "Ah Wilderness!"
As an actor in musical shows Mr. Cohan brought the same vivacity to his performance as he did to his playwriting. It was when he acted in a revival of his own play, "The Song-and-Dance Man," in 1930, that he described himself as "just a song-and-dance man," but by that time everybody in the world of the theatre knew better. Incidentally, he wrote this play in tribute to his father, the old trouper, and to the vaudeville stage he himself had known as a boy, and which in later life he said was the only theatrical life he ever really loved.
It was as the star of "Ah Wilderness!" by Eugene O'Neill, that Mr. Cohan gave his finest performance as a serious actor. Here "the man who owned Broadway" proved that he could play with deep understanding and effect a role far removed from that garish thoroughfare or anything with which he had previously been associated. But he might not have accepted the part except that Mr. O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, star of "Monte Cristo," "The Three Musketeers" and many other plays, had been a trouper in the same old days as his own father.
Mr. Cohan had little use for Hollywood. He resisted all efforts to get him into the films until 1915, when he signed a contract that resulted in three silent movies. He did not return to Hollywood until 1932, when he made his first "talkie."
"It's my last one, too," he announced when he returned to New York. He had been treated none too sympathetically by Hollywood. Movie producers and employees, not recognizing his unique position in the American theatre, had failed to make use of his genius. A gatekeeper had barred his automobile from the movie lot because he was "not a star," and an obscure young sub-executive, immersed in routine, had reproved him for submitting a manuscript in his familiar penciled writing on yellow paper. He felt lost, and was glad to be back on Broadway.
But the movies, which eventually came to appreciate Shakespeare, though in its own good time, woke up to the devotion Mr. Cohan's public had for their idol nine years later. After talking about filming Mr. Cohan's life for a year, one studio moved the project into the script-writing stage in the Spring of 1941, titling it "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Mr. Cohan, having facts pried from him by a Hollywood writer, was dubious but anxious about the whole business.
"Would anybody go to see it?" he asked. "I don't want to be connected with a box-office flop."
"Tell you what, we'll give away dishes and make sure," the Hollywood man offered. Mr. Cohan was reassured, but he had a request--"I'd like to sit all by myself in a theatre and see what it adds up to." After eight months, during which the veteran actor busied himself with plans for taking part in entertainments for soldiers and sailors, the private preview was held. Cohan walked out of the theatre and into a telegraph office to send a message to the Hollywood writer. It read:
"Thanks, kid. Hope you don't run out of dishes. George M."
Proved a Box-Office Hit
For the privilege of attending the New York premiere at the Hollywood Theatre of the film, in which James Cagney played the part of Mr. Cohan, on May 20, 1942, a distinguished audience purchased $5,750,000 worth of war bonds. By Fall the picture had grossed more than $1,000,000. July 3, 1942, was observed as George M. Cohan Day in New York by proclamation of Mayor La Guardia. The film had its premiere in London at the Warner Theatre on Oct. 15, 1942, and Britons bought & #163;870,269 in war securities to attend.
For all the money he made, Mr. Cohan was always predominantly the artist rather than the business man. He had an office, but seldom went to it. He transacted much of his business from public telephone booths, remarking that his office really was in his hat. He liked to mingle with the audience between the acts or after the show, or to sit up with cronies over a late meal and a drink in an after-theatre restaurant off Broadway, talking about the current theatre. From these listenings and talkings, many new ideas for plays, as well as changes in plays already on the boards developed.
At one time he was almost as well known as a baseball fan as he was as a theatrical man. He remained a fan to the end of his days, but finally gave up his practice of going to the game every day the Giants were in town.
He married twice. His first wife was Ethel Levey, who became his dancing partner with "the Four Cohans" after his sister Josie married. A daughter, Georgette, who became an actress, was born to them. The marriage was dissolved in 1907, after which Miss Levey was prominent as a dancer in England. He married the second Mrs. Cohan on July 4, 1908. Their children were Mary Helen, Helen Frances and George Michael Jr.
Mr. Cohan was president of the Catholic Actors Guild, which he had headed for several years. He was a member of The Players, The Dutch Treat and The Lambs.