Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

George M. Cohan, composer/lyricist (1878 – 1942): God: Georgie, Georgie, we hardly knew ye, #2

The lyrics of Cohan’s life

The later years of Cohan

He was a life long Democrat (as in Al Smith) who detested Roosevelt and had to do his best acting when he finally made the trip to Washington, DC in l941 to receive from FDR the 1937 Congressional Medal of Honor.

In l968, Joel Grey starred in the successful Broadway musical, George M based on Cohan’s best songs.

In 1970 the American Guild of Variety Artists, over the written objection of Actors’ Equity, named its annual honorary award “Georgie” after him. AGVA gave the first “Georgie” to his old pal, Jimmy Durante. Apparently the forces of darkness from Actor’s Equity opposition won out because AGVA now claims that the “Georgies” are named for, George Jessel.

In the 2009 book, I’m the Greatest Star: Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today by Robert Viagas, Cohan is the only American songbook composer/lyricist given a separate chapter.

My favorite Cohan songs: “Mary is a Grand Old Name,” “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Personal observations

What about George Cohan’s religious life? Cohan kept a wall around his private life, not agreeing to show his personal side in his famous movie biography in l942. Indeed, the standard biographies of his by Ward Morehouse and John McCabe say very little about his religious or even moral convictions. So if one is interested in the spiritual life of Georgie Cohan one must extrapolate a bit.

For instance, he kept his connection to the Catholic Church throughout his life as witnessed by the requiem Mass at St. Patrick’s in l942.

Also, he was a participating member of the Catholic Actors’ Guild throughout his life. He spoke at Guild events and wrote for its publication, The Call Board.

Like his fellow New England Catholic, McHugh, Cohan did not let his Catholic scruples interfere with his love life because he divorced his first wife (Ethel Levey) and married a second time, to Agnes Nolan. During the second marriage he had several adulterous affairs.

Concerning his view of himself, early in his career, in l906, he took to his company’s internal house organ, The Spot Light, to rebuke his critics with an Obama-like arrogance and self-righteousness: “I write better songs than anyone else that I know of. . . . . I have not yet seen or read plays from the pens of other authors that seem as good as the plays I write. . . . I dance because I know I’m the best dancer in the country. I sing because I can sing my own songs better than any other man on the stage. I never hang out with actors because I think they know so little of the business they’re in. . . .I think I write stories better than other writers of stories….I think I’m the best actor available. . . .But believe me, when I say, I am not an egotist.” The only person Cohan thought his stage equal was Noel Coward.

A friend of his is quoted as saying, “He was vain and violent tempered, childish at times, sulky and temperamental, but a man with a heart and soul, one who was easily hurt and one who could be a great friend.” By all accounts he had a legendary generosity, was soft and sentimental and capable of great affection and loyalty. But when he bore a grudge he was a hard man. The Equity strike in 1919 and the episode with Rogers and Hart in 1937 give testimony to this.

In a l941 article for The Call Board, Cohan remarked on the current state of Broadway morals with criticism of the “unnecessary profanity” in the plays making them unsuitable for children (“barroom conversation is like a prayer meeting compared with some of the dialogue in present-day stage productions”), and playwrights and producers who call a “mother’s song ‘mush’, but some rotten, dirty little off-color ditty sung by a well manicured, highly perfumed, effeminate guy with black velvet hair a ‘wow.’”

Cohan liked to drink alcohol but hated those who got drunk. He preferred the company of men to women and liked to smoke cigars and tell stories for hours.

By design, not much is known about his family life except that he was a devoted son and was emotionally devastated by the death of his parents, Jerry and Nellie. Concerning his own family, at his death his four children were at his beside and his hand was being held by his second oldest daughter, Mary.

He was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in l878 in Providence, Rhode Island and received a Requiem Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan in l942. For the first time in St. Pat’s history, a secular song, “Over There” was played on its great organ by the renowned Pietro Yon, the Cathedral’s organist. He was buried in the family Cohan mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

There is little evidence that Cohan believed in the redemption offered only by Jesus Christ but he was a moralist and a faithful member of the American Roman Catholic artistic coterie.


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