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

Jimmy Van Heusen (1913 – 1990): Swinger on a Falling Star, #3

The later Years of Van Heusen

1960s

In the late l960s a back operation left Van Heusen in chronic pain, resulting in his addiction to pain killers. A confirmed bachelor and sybarite, Van Heusen married in l969 at the age of 56 to divorcee Josephine “Bobbe” Pearlberg, a 68 year old vaudevillian who had danced and sung for an Irving Berlin Broadway musical (Music Box Review) in the early l920s. He worked off and on for another 20 years.

1970s

He basically retired in the 1970s to his desert estate in Palm Springs and his ranch in Yucca Valley. Among his many toys and collections, Van Heusen had an invaluable collection of manuscripts of famous composers decorating the walls of his master bedroom, hallway and living room – original music sheets from Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Vaughn Williams, Puccini, Stravinsky, Gershwin, to note just a few. Gonzaga University, Bing Crosby’s alma mater, conferred an honorary doctorate on Van Heusen in l975.

1980s

In l980 a stroke put him permanently in a wheelchair and deprived him of the ability to speak.

1990s

He suffered from cerebral vascular disease for several years before finally he died in l990 at age 77. He is buried in the Frank Sinatra family plot in Cathedral City, CA. His grave marker has his name, dates and “Swinging on a Star.” Wife Bobbe Van Heusen died in l999 at age 98 and is interned next to him. Van Heusen had no children. When Sammy Cahn was notified of VH death, he stated that Van Heusen was the most fascinating person he ever met. Cahn was asked, “’What about Sinatra?’ I tell them Sinatra thought he was Van Heusen, but he couldn’t pass the physical.”

Personal Observations

My favorite Jimmy Van Heusen songs are too many to cite but I really like “Darn that Dream,” “Sunday, Monday and Always,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” (Johnny Carson’s favorite song), “I Thought About You,” “It Could Happen to You,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” “ Nancy (With the Laughing Face),” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Call me Irresponsible.”

The focus of my blog is more on the personal life and worldview of these wonderful composers and lyricists of the American Songbook, and not their musicality.

Jimmy Van Heusen was a voluptuary of a legendary magnitude. He is quoted as saying, “I dig chicks, booze, music and Sinatra – in that order.” He abhorred physical exercise. Actress Angie Dickenson, who was a reputed bedmate of both Frank Sinatra and VH, is quoted as confirming his Rabelaisian appetite, “You would not pick him over Clark Gable any day. But his magnetism was irresistible. He was clever and funny.  . . . We would go out in Palm Springs, and we would not be sure which house we’d end up for the night. Frank’s or Jimmy’s. Jimmy had that attitude of ‘Come on, let’s go back to my house,’ and Frank the same. They never stopped.”

Van Heusen was an alcoholic, drug addict and sex addict – all at the same time and all the time. James Kaplan writes, “In the mid-60s, after the early death of his friend Nat King Cole, he wrote to the dean of students at his old school Cazenovia, ‘However, we all must do that very same thing some day [die] . . . and I feel that if I remain a drunk and a sex maniac, I’m liable to be very, very happy along the way.” He was a close friend to both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and engaged in bacchanalian orgies with both men. Crosby sobered up in the early 1940s but Sinatra never did. Katheryn Crosby (Bing’s widow) told Wilfred Sheed that Sinatra had written a note to Bing not long before Crosby died expressing concern over Van Heusen’s enormous consumption of alcohol. One of Van Heusen’s many paramours was unable to comprehend  why Jimmy, a creative, manly-man would be a pimp for Sinatra and refer to him as “his eminence” to his face but “the monster” behind his back: “Why do you put up with Frank’s craziness?” she asked Van Heusen. “Because he sings my songs, that’s why. I’m a whore for my music.”

Van Heusen was a tall man (6’2”) with a barrel chest who hated physical exercise. A Crosby story: “One day I asked him to go for a walk. ‘Not me,’ he said. ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Walking’s corny,’ he replied scornfully. Jimmy takes all of his exercise, violent or mild, out in song writing.” The Frank Sinatra biographer, James Kaplan, wrote that VH was a hypochondriac constantly “injecting himself with vitamins and pain killers and had surgical procedures for ailments real and imagined.”

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