Carol Channing is one of America's most beloved theatrical legends. Known for Broadway's Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the actress has written an autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts. The book takes the reader behind the scenes of her life, and talks about other stars she met along the way, including Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brandon.
Excerpted from Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts:
Many people ask me, "Carol, how did you get into the theatre?" I never mind being asked that question because I do so dearly love to hear my own answer. So, during my winter period from Bennington I went first to the William Morris Agency. I was warming the bench outside Mr. Lastfogel's (the president's) office waiting to go in. On my right were Betty Comden and Adolph Green, two members of the Revuers who had appeared at the Village Vanguard just once, and I saw them. They were an innovation! Judy Holliday was one of their group. No one had heard of the Revuers yet or any of their names.
On my left was Alfred Drake, who wasn't the great Alfred Drake at all yet. Mr. Lastfogel's door finally opened. His secretary pointed at us and said, "You! Come in." Betty said to me, "She pointed at you, Carol." I said, "I could swear she pointed at you and Adolph." "No! Go in. Go!" Betty said.
I picked up my little Haitian drum, went through the door, and began my first audition. Years later I opened my Carol Channing and Her Ten Stout-Hearted Men show at the Drury Lane Theatre in London with that story.
Mr. Lastfogel was a man who was known as having a touch of genius, and so of course as a result he never saw anyone, excepting occasionally Katharine Hepburn, or John Wayne, or Mrs. Lastfogel — he saw a lot of her. But now, there I was face to face with the great man himself. He was a rugged tycoon who could make or break anyone's career with a single bite on his cigar. I swung right into my first number — something I was sure of because it was a big hit with the girls at Bennington — a simple ancient Gallic dirge, in obsolete Vercingetorix French. Vercingetorix was a conqueror before all Gaul was hauled together. This dirge was adapted from the original Greek tragedy, Orestes, and this was the most thrilling part of the whole thing, the Orestes Funeral Chant.
I remember how Mr. Lastfogel's eyes filled with wonderment as I showed him how the women of the Greek chorus lamented the ravages of war and the shortage of men. As I say, I had my little drum, this was in 9/5 time, very difficult. I chanted in obsolete French. Then, while beating my breasts, I swung into the rousing finale, "Oo — oo — oo."
Well, Mr. Lastfogel thought I should do someone better known than Orestes, like Sophie Tucker. I sensed I was losing the great man's attention, so I said, "Wait, Mr. Lastfogel, please. I have another song here that the girls at Bennington just love. It's a Haitian corn-grinding song rendered by the natives as they stomp out the kernels with their feet. They sing of their lost youth and pray for rain." The lyrics were in patois, a Haitian bastard form of French.
Mr. Lastfogel thought he could see some signs of improvement but that perhaps it would be wiser for me to get out of ethnic music and into the straight classics, like Ethel Merman. As he was ushering me to the door and telling me not to phone him that he would phone me, I said, "Wait, Mr. Lastfogel, please. I have one more song here that I ran across in my studies on Mittel European cultures." And before he could close the door in my face I sang it. I sang from the middle to the end of "Roumania" here in Galitzianer Yiddish.
"Wait," Mr. Lastfogel said, "I think I see a glimmer of talent in this girl." He said his grandmother used to sing songs like this to him when he was a little boy. And, do you know, Abe Lastfogel and I sang this song together. He was my agent all my working life.
From there he sent me over to Marc Blitzstein, who was writing modern American operas: The Cradle Will Rock and this new No for an Answer. I got the job, my first job on Broadway, and then I thought I was on my way. Well that's what lots of people think, but I learned. After Blitzstein, I used to do free benefits for the Knights of Columbus, the Shakespeare Club, the Elks, the Shriners, the Hadassah, and bingo games for the Catholics. But that's how I got into the theatre.
Now once Mr. Lastfogel arranged a meeting for me with Marc Blitzstein, Marc treated me as if I were dear and tender. I was so grateful I talked, sang, and danced for him everybody that I had seen on Broadway, mostly because he seemed delighted with my renditions and I enjoyed making him happy. He was trying to find a girl to do his one comedy song in No for an Answer. The song he handed me was to be sung by a young girl at a roadside bar, who didn't know who she was yet. Perfect! Well, I still don't know, but I was nineteen then so I had a good excuse. The name of the song was "I'm Simply Fraught About You" — very subtle and sophisticated lyrics, but I threw everything but the kitchen sink into it, which Marc said was just the right thing to do.
I asked him if I could make parts of it Merman, parts Gertrude Lawrence, others Bea Lillie or Sophie Tucker. He said, "Absolutely! That's why I want you to do this song." He was right. We did the show in a huge theatre that was then called Mecca Temple or the Shrine Auditorium. Now it's the City Center Theatre on Fifty-sixth Street west of Avenue of the Americas, but they've cut it up or done something to it. It's not as big. However, the distinguished classical music critic Virgil Thomson on The New Yorker magazine gave me one encouraging sentence in his good review of Marc's work. "You will surely hear more about a satirical chanteuse named Carol Channing." I'll never forget that sentence. Of course he was "distinguished." He was to me, anyway.
But let me back up. During rehearsals the company constantly told me to write to my congressman and complain about something. I could never remember what. I'd get to Mecca Temple the next day and they'd say, "Well? Did you write to your congressman?" I finally said, "Look. I was nailing my lyrics and rehearsing them all last evening. I can't do two things at once. Let me get this song right first." I never got off the song. I don't when I have a performance to do. Who does? Sometime later, the McCarthy era began. I used to read some of their names in the daily papers.
Why didn't the hearings ever call on me? How did those unconstitutional, undemocratic McCarthyites know I was always busy with my fabulously funny lyrics? I was in the same show as these accused people. No for an Answer was about the formation of a labor union. Apparently being any part of singing the story of building the labor unions automatically labeled you a Communist. But then, why did I come out smelling like a rose? Almost all the actors I knew lived in terror they'd be called in and suddenly labeled Communists, which as we know ended their careers. I was even worried for myself. There must have been a spy or spies in that company who knew I was too obsessed with my own performance to think of anything else.
I just looked it up on the Internet. Marc Blitzstein openly declared himself a card-holding member of the Communist party at the McCarthy hearings in 1958. I never knew that! No wonder everyone wanted me to write my congressman and complain. They took it for granted I shared their political views if I was in the show. Most of the company seemed to be Russian Jews whose parents were still celebrating having a congressman to write to and not being executed for it. They couldn't stop writing to him they were so happy to be Americans. It never occurred to me there was anything un-American about forming a labor union. I still don't see that there is. Do you? Equity, SAG, and AGVA are surely sustaining me now, and they were never Communists. Ronald Reagan was president of SAG for years, and you know to him Russia was the Evil Empire, so he wasn't either a Communist … or a card holder...or anything … and we love him.
After No for an Answer a group of very good young male country singers and songwriters asked me to be their only girl and vocalist. I was happy to be working some more. I sang:
Told the people how he felt
We damn near believed What he said
He said "I hate war
And so does Eleanor
But we won't be safe
Till everbody's dead"
We sang a lot more, for benefits and group meetings all over Manhattan. Then Mildred Weber, the great organizer of the New and Unknown Talent Department of William Morris, put me on the Borscht Circuit for one summer at Camp Tamiment in the Catskills, pronounced by the clientele "Cahmb Dowmnt" in the "Kedzgls." Betty Garrett and I were assigned as roommates, only tentmates is what we were. We lived in a tent with a wooden roof over it and Betty's twelve cats and a drawing of Ethel Waters that Betty did for me. I framed it and hung it above my cot.
Most of the cats were housebroken, but we got used to the cat litter within twenty-four hours and it never bothered me, mostly because Betty was the best roommate and friend anyone could have. She was so in love with Larry Parks, later her husband and father of her two sons. He was just great starring in the movie The Jolson Story. Then the House Un-American Activities Committee axed his career, and no movie people dared touch him again. He died young. Who could live through that? If he wanted to overthrow democracy, Betty would have known it, I swear. I mean, even I wrote a paper at Bennington called "The Difference Between Communism, Socialism, and Democracy," figuring I would therefore know all this for the rest of my life. All I can remember now is communism and socialism didn't work and democracy did; I could tell that just from researching the facts.
I was fired shortly before the end of the season for having no talent and after much degrading name-calling from Max Liebman, our director, always in front of the entire company. I don't remember doing a bad show there. Actually, I was in my element … revues.
Anyway, Jerome Robbins was our choreographer. The steps he gave me I wallowed in, so he'd give me more. They required a body elasticity that I knew I could give them as soon as he demonstrated them to me. I was crazy about those steps! I can't say I was crazy about Jerry because I never got to even talk with him, just to say "uh huh" and "I see what you want." I knew him only through the dances he gave me. He paid no attention to me as I remember. He was hell-bent on trying out the extent of his own choreography. I certainly don't blame him. He was on a divine mission. He was also living with a girl who was one of his dancers, and that took up the rest of each day. He rehearsed all day Saturdays and Sundays, though. Her husband and little boy arrived every weekend.
We did three shows a week, all different and never repeated. Betty and I did one sketch I remember. We played switchboard operators for a legal firm. We'd answer, "Beaton Barton Batten and Button, good morning." It got more and more complicated. We adored the way we did it. So did the cats and the audience.
Some of the musicians said, "Why don't you yell back at Max Liebman? He has to have a 'patsy.' He dishes it out to anyone who'll take it." Finally, Max screamed at me rehearsing onstage, "You're nothing but a dirty chozzer [pig]. You're fired!" Betty and one of the musicians took me for a walk along the lake until I could breathe again. They must have had humanitarian natures. I asked them what I had done wrong. "Nothing!" Betty kept saying. It's one thing to be fired from the Bake Shop at Macy's, which I had been because I ate the blueberries that had fallen out of the blueberry muffins into the pan. Then there were the blueberries that almost fell out, and the next one that could have fallen out. And finally I was fired because there were holes in the blueberry muffins, though I was their fastest helper because I made the work into a piece of choreography, so the hours flew by. To be fired from the Bake Shop at Macy's is bad enough, but to be fired for the one excuse for your existence is numbing.
The reason Max had such an indentation on me was because he was the producer and director of the biggest TV musical and sketch show for years, Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Marguerite Piazza. So I felt he had to be a man to be respected. He wasn't. Well, he hated me, didn't he?
When the dinner gong rang and everyone went to the dining room, I began walking down the road to Unity House, the summer camp place for the ILGWU -- the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
There was a big wave coming up over the lake. I thought, How convenient. I could accidentally drown. But, better yet, a truck was coming toward me down the road. That would really look like an accident. I tried to get in its way, because this pain would all be over if I could get in front of it. But as in the nightmare of not having a voice to yell back at Max, my legs wouldn't take me to the front of the truck. Of course I wouldn't have done it, but it was slightly comforting to realize there is another way out.
Mr. and Mrs. Dubinsky were sitting in rocking chairs on the wooden front porch at Unity House (Dave Dubinsky was the president and organizer of the ILGWU). As they rocked Mrs. Dubinsky said, "You look like death, Carol. What is it?" I told them I just got fired. Dave said, "Your only cure is to get right up on our stage here and do the best performance you can. Someone, get Perry Bruskin to come and rehearse the piano with her." Perry rehearsed a samba for my Carmen Miranda with me and "Happy Birthday" for my Tallulah. He knew "Mama Goes Where Papa Goes" for my Sophie Tucker and got the drummer for Ethel Waters's auschpannens. We did a show that went over like knishes at Coney Island. I always liked Perry Bruskin (you don't know him, I'm sure), but that night I was devoted to him. I decided Dave Dubinsky had a touch of greatness. What a remarkable man to take such an attitude toward someone who wasn't even a member of his union (me). His nature was simply like that, and so was his wife's. I wish I had told him what he had done for me. He was right. When one is thrown from a horse, get right back on it and keep riding. Don't wait, or you'll never get back on.
It was necessary for me to tell you my Max Liebman experience because only a few years later, just as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened on Broadway, Time magazine put me on their cover. They had to interview Max for the story. He came into my dressing room at the Ziegfeld raging angry. "Why did you tell them I fired you? I discovered you! How dare you say that?" I answered him, "Because, Max, it proves something important in the arts. The reaction to an artist's work is all in the eye of the beholder. It's only a matter of opinion. People who fail at any time could remember that." And that is true, isn't it?
Speaking of that Time cover, there used to be a newsstand on the corner of Commonwealth and Mass Avenues in Boston. The man who owned the stand told me many years ago, but after my father was gone, that he'd see my father walking home from his office. Even after new issues of Time came out, the newsstand man kept the old one with me up for weeks. He said, "It made my day just to see your father's face as he looked at it."
Most of us would like to have somewhat repaid our parents by letting them know they helped us achieve some of our goals. Wasn't I lucky? I got to before it was too late.
I auditioned for everything and everybody on or off Broadway while living alone in New York after being fired from the Borscht Circuit by Leibman. I talked alone with Lee Shubert in his office. He asked, "Well, what do you want to be in the theatre? Do you want to be like Eve Arden or Margaret Dumont or Charlotte Greenwood or who? You're very tall." I tried to explain that I wanted to be in a revue and play all different characters when, all of a sudden, I started to cry out of frustration because I couldn't succinctly tell him. He handed me a box of Kleenex and kept smiling at me. I was now nineteen years old, which is always an interesting age to older people. Finally, he sent me to the director and playwright of a play called So Proudly We Hail. I got the job! We closed within a few months.
More auditions for the Rainbow Room, the Village Vanguard (where I got the job), little clubs like Spivey's Roof, and more shows like Nancy Hamilton's 2 for the Show (a revue). This one was at her home. They were welcoming to me, but they already had an understudy.
Finally, I saw in Variety that Vinton Freedley was producing a musical that had just opened at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. It was Danny Kaye's first starring part, costarring Eve Arden. I got myself to Boston, where my parents were living in Mary Baker Eddy's home on Commonwealth and Mass Avenues because that's where the first reader of the Mother Church and his family live during the reader's tenure.
I went straight to the Colonial. Mr. Freedley was an aristocratic, lovely gentleman. I asked if I could audition for him as Eve Arden's understudy. He said, "Certainly. Go onstage right now and I'll sit in the audience." Danny Kaye remembered me from the Borscht Circuit. He decided to sit next to Mr. Freedley for this. Again, I was doing everybody I had ever seen on Broadway. Vinton was laughing, and both of them seemed to be enjoying my program. Finally, Danny said, "Oh, Vinton, give her the job. It'll save you money. She'll fit into Eve's costumes."
I got the job and went right to work. Danny was always my dear friend after that, inviting me into his dressing room to talk while he made up.
I must tell you that decades later, when I had to leave Hello, Dolly! in Chicago to film Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mr. Merrick replaced me for four months with Eve Arden. I had just told the company that I had understudied her once. So Eve got up and told them the reason Mr. Merrick wanted her for this Dolly job was because she fit into my costumes! The cast embraced her immediately.
I wound up understudying everybody in Let's Face It, that is most of the women, because Vinton saw how eager I was to do it. I talked him into my standing by for Edith Meiser, Vivian Vance, and the entire chorus. I never went on for Vivian or Edith, which was a blessing because they were playing elderly society matrons. You know how it is when you're nineteen -- you don't realize you're young. But filling in for the chorus gave me an excellent opportunity to try out different makeups.
One time I tried an interesting Uday Shan Kar effect, whitening my cheekbones so they appeared high and wide and putting brown shadow below them, which made my cheeks look sunken, I thought. The eyes were elongated to much wider than my own in a Cleopatra influence. I was able to get into one of the chorus girls' short costumes but was a head taller than all the rest of them.
Danny and Benny Baker were singing their duet in front of the chorus when Danny happened to look back, double-took on me, and couldn't remember his next lyric. So Benny looked to see what was throwing Danny and couldn't remember his next lyric. Myself, I felt I had looked pretty exotic in the mirror, but the entire number fell apart because of Danny's and Benny's reaction. It was the last time they let me fill in for anyone but Eve, and I was told to report to the stage manager so he could check me before going on for that.
from Just Lucky I Guess
Tallulah Bankhead and I had the same birthday. Also, we were both born at 8:30 at night, only she was in Alabama and I was in Washington State, so there had to be a three-hour time discrepancy. The difference of the year we were born she utterly ignored.
As I've told you, Tallulah was the first actress to appear on the cover of Time magazine. I was the second, we surmised. At least we were the only two we remembered. In those days Time put only world leaders, politicians, financial figures, sports champions, that sort of thing on its cover. Today it often has performers, but at the time we were quite tickled with ourselves.
Later we appeared at the Time magazine celebration party for all the people who had been on the cover. This was before I met Charles, so I came alone. It was hosted by Henry Luce, who personally met all the guests, and Clare Boothe Luce, who was the warmest, most devastatingly feminine lady ever...and pretty! Well, we all knew that from her pictures. But she was laughing for some unknown reason as she stood at the door of the Waldorf's Grand Ballroom greeting her guests. I looked behind me; there was no one, so I decided t'was I. I couldn't stop laughing with her; she was so contagious. It was indeed I she was laughing at, I found out, but she never told me and we celebrated our first meeting right there. This was just after the Blondes opening.
I've often asked, and especially after meeting Mrs. Luce, "Why are pretty girls almost always so sweet and friendly?" Finally, after I met Charles years later, I got an answer. "Because you're not in competition with them." And do you know, I married him anyway after that? Well, I thought it was funny then.
There were place cards at the dinner tables for us all, with four at each table. I had Donald Budge, the great tennis champion, on my left; Cardinal Spellman in his little costume on my right; and across from me was Jean Kerr, the finest comedy book writer, to me, since Clarence Day or Woody Allen. I knew, of course, the name Don Budge, but Tommy Tune and I think it's a tennis course and possibly a golf court that he played on. So I couldn't ask him, "What did you win, Mr. Budge, and when and where?" You see, by the time everyone concerned with a Broadway show gets it to look as if it could be a hit, they have no idea what Donald Budge or even O. J. Simpson ever did.
I tried to talk with Cardinal Spellman, but Betty Beale, at the table behind me, whispered, "He's known for being extremely taciturn." She was right. He never ever answered me. So finally Jean Kerr said to him hopefully, "I met the Pope." It got a nod of his head. But it didn't trigger any mutual acquaintance whatsoever. The cardinal never said a word, not even to a devout Catholic like Jean.
Well! Talloo and I celebrated all the birthdays we could together. She took home the booze, I took home the birthday cakes, and I looked it, but most women think themselves to be overweight I found out. The first mutual birthday party was when I was one of twenty unknowns in Lend an Ear running in Los Angeles and she was also in Hollywood to finish the movie Lifeboat. Out of Lifeboat came the oft-told story of what to do about her not wearing any panties under that mink coat. They didn't know which department's problem it was. Who was going to tell her? Makeup, Hair, or Wardrobe?
At another mutual birthday she informed me, "Listen, dahling, everybody great was born on our birthday. Franklin Roosevelt was born on our birthday." (No, he was one day earlier.) "Julius Caesar was born on our birthday." (How could she have known that?) "Napoleon Bonaparte" (now I knew this was all what she preferred to believe) "was born on our birthday."
Me: And Eddie Cantor.
Talloo (thundering): Oh, now you've completely destroyed my point! Don't interrupt me. Napoleon, even Jesus Christ almighty was born on our birthday, and don't let those Romannnnnn … calendars fool you.
Another very important element Tallulah and I had in common: Richard Maney. He was always her personal publicist. My father used to point out to my mother and me, when I was in junior high school, "That takes courage to offer the press the whole truth of an episode with which someone is trying to blackmail Tallulah."
I remember the newspapers said her secretary, who made out her checks, had Tallulah sign them and then added hundreds of dollars in front of the figures after that.
When she was discovered, the secretary tried to blackmail her boss with incidents Tallulah didn't want made public. No newspaper mentioned anything she tried to use for blackmail. That had to be Dick Maney at work. His charisma, like my father's, was enormous. As I said in my introduction, This is my book, so I can write anything I want to. If it's annoying you're free to skip it. If it's not annoying to you, then you might as well go along with me that everybody great was like my father, okay?
Again, Dick Maney and my father were molded out of the same clay, cut from the same cloth, wallowing in the enjoyment of their self-earned education that had opened them up to the big, wide, wonderful world of poetry, essays, and the onomatopoeia of the English language.
My third meeting with Tallulah was when we were both guests on the Jimmy Durante TV show. She, Jimmy, and I had a song together. On the day of the live broadcast she came bursting into my dressing room yelling, "Oh my God, I've got laryngitis."
I reacted as you would have. I was perplexed and calmly said, "Well, Tallulah, who's going to know the difference?" I shouldn't have said that.
She lunged on me. Her voice dropped two more octaves. "Can't you hear it, you fool?" She shook me. "Tell your father to pray for me. Pleeeeeeese! Do it now." It always amazed me that she knew so much about my background.
Just then Daddy walked in. She didn't even let him take off his coat. She threw her arms around his neck and hung there like a bib. She was surprisingly small. "Oh, dear Mr. Channing, please help me. Do something! I've got laryngitis. Make it go away."
Daddy put his arm around her and sat her down. She was like a little girl. I never saw her like that. She listened. She cried. They whispered, so I don't know just what he said. My father didn't find her eccentric at all. He seemed to know all she needed was a little understanding. We're all wired for love, and I guess Talloo needed it as much as the most starved of us. Her automatic security and sweetness with Daddy made me suddenly wonder if she wasn't in love with Dick Maney all the years of their association. She seemed to know my father well. I was happy for her. I knew she had stage fright.
Tallulah spent a lot of the week of rehearsal for Jimmy's show saying to me, "Just because your father's a newspaperman, Dick Maney is partial to you," or "Dick was born in Seattle and so were you and he loves publicizing it." How did she know so much about me? Maybe Dick Maney.
Anyway, she did a terrific Durante show. I don't know, as I said, what Daddy and Talloo talked about, but she wanted me to be with her for her opening night of Noël Coward's Private Lives on Broadway. She sent me into the audience to watch her perform Noël's character Amanda and then report to her at intermission.
"I know, but dahling," she'd ask, "is it Amanda?"
Me: Oh, Tallulah, this audience couldn't be happier. Why shouldn't Amanda be you? They bought their tickets to see you, and they're getting you, every nuance. They don't know Noël Coward wrote it for Gertrude Lawrence. I'm thrilled with you as Amanda, and so are they.
She let out that terrible bleat that was her version of crying. (Some idiot must have insisted she play it like Gertrude Lawrence, the original. Why?)
Thank you, my father, for another soul-fulfilling friendship.
An interesting quirk of Talloo's was one that I suspect very few people have. Some people love to appear in the nude...for anything from auspicious occasions to just putting the garbage out in the hall. Sue Mengers appears to be such a person. She was the personality agent who helped put Streisand in the Hello, Dolly! movie. They don't appear in that condition in order to be lewd or even sexy. They don't seem to be showing off, either. Now Sue, for instance, is pear-shaped. I know because I spent a weekend with her at Jerry Herman's house on Fire Island. As each of Jerry's guests awakened in the morning and came into the kitchen, we would find one part or another of Sue left out in the breeze. Later, when she entered Jerry's pool, all of her was out. Many of Jerry's neighbors were around the pool watching her swim.
They'd say: Are you in show business, honey?
Sue: No, only sort of.
Boys: What business are you in?
Sue: I'm a literary agent and also a writer myself.
Boys: Oh, what's your name, sweetie?
Sue: Audrey Wood.
Boys: Audrey Wood! You're a well-known name in the literary world.
(Actually Audrey Wood was a great name to be conjured with in the book world, but then you knew that.)
As plethoric as Sue's figure was, she used her pudgy little fingers in a very dainty manner, often with each of her pinkies held out. As she got slowly out of the pool and put on her cotton sweater, it was noticeable that the sweater ended where the bottoms of two soft pink cheeks peeked out. She made a few delicate efforts to pull it down in the front, but it snapped right back up again. I never met Audrey Wood, but her reputation is that of a woman of integrity and, of course, impeccable literary taste. I imagine her office being besieged by summer habitués of Fire Island and Miss Wood finally announcing: "I was never in Jerry Herman's pool. I've never even seen Fire Island. Why am I plagued by this irritating identification?" Sue must savor that thought, too.
Sue especially enjoyed putting her little garbage pail out in the hallway of her New York apartment building each night wondering if she could make it back inside before her heavy kitchen door would close behind her nudity, leaving her locked out. One night it finally did close. She told us she had no recourse but to knock on the apartment door across the hall, which a nice young man opened. While she explained what had happened, she could see a gray-haired lady, perhaps his mother, sitting behind him. The man quickly closed his door, leaving her in the hall again. She was therefore forced to ring the elevator button. Of course the elevator had people in it, staring at her while she slowly explained to the elevator boy her labyrinthine tale.
Jerry Herman and all of us made up the rest for her. We told her, "Of course you asked him if you could ride down with all of them to the lobby. You crossed the lobby to the concierge's desk, only to find there was no other key, so you went round with the glass revolving door to hail a cab back to your office for the other key." She cut us off because she felt we were just making fun of her. We were. I do not know if Sue's story was true or not, but I suspect most of it was. Tallulah could easily have done the same thing.
Years later, Orry-Kelly, who created movie gowns that were works of art, was fitting me. He had a mouth full of straight pins to pin the dress on me but went right on with his steady stream of talk.
Orry: I don't know why Tallulah does that all the time.
Me: Does what, Orry?
Orry: She gives these grand cocktail parties, invites the finest people, and then when she opens the door to usher them in, she's wearing a large black garden hat, a strand of pearls, and her black pumps. That is all. And, you know, it isn't pretty.
Me: What isn't, Orry?
Orry: It looks like an old Chinaman's mustache … It's food stained … and it's on the bias. It has a sneer.
To drop two names and a place, I was first introduced to Marlene Dietrich by Tallulah in the lobby of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Is that a good drop? However, what usually happens when I'm with two celebrities is they're so entranced with one another, they leave me with nothing to do but count the diamonds in my bracelet while I pretend to be happy. Does that happen to you, too? I'm invisible in a three-way conversation. Not with you would I be. We're only invisible when we're in between two Greek gods, even though they're both dear, kind people, as vulnerable as you and I. Have you found that? Let's not dwell on it. That's their problem, not ours.
My second encounter with Marlene was when her daughter, Maria Riva, was playing in Chicago at the Drury Lane Theatre and I was in Wonderful Town at the Shubert. I met Maria in 1949 on the Milton Berle TV show. We've enjoyed a heavenly friendship ever since. Maria and I made a date to meet Mama Marlene after our shows. Dietrich was arriving on the Twentieth Century Limited train and was to go straight to her old hangout Gibby's Bar and Grill in Shubert Alley to meet her daughter.
Prior to Mama's arrival, Maria and I were trying to save a table for the three of us. The circus was also in town. Two members of its audience sat down with us uninvited saying, "Ain't you Maria Riva?" and "You're not Carol Channing!" Stupidly I said, "I'm not?" I wasn't thinking because I was trying to figure out how to keep the seat ready for La Dietrich. They were firmly immovable. So I beckoned Maria to come with me to the bar to the safety of the Wonderful Town chorus (now called the ensemble). A touring company is like a family. We're protective of one another. Just as they were squeezing to make room for us, the two circus attendees were on our tails.
Maria and I ran back to our table, dragging two chorus members to sit with us. Too late! The two civilians sat down just before us and almost got in a verbal fight with the ensemble. They went on asking Maria and me questions until Dietrich appeared. She came straight to our table, and stood to dictate to us: "Maria, you sit here. Carol, you sit there. I will sit in this chair, and you two, out." They ran like bunnies. It was as simple as that. Sprung and leaping with fright over Mama is what they were. Will Maria and I ever garner that kind of respect from two beer-guzzling strangers?
Marlene, lowering her famous heavy eyelids, said to the waiting waiter, "The usual." It arrived almost immediately...little squares of assorted cheeses. She started in without bothering with any grand greetings, or even small greetings, to her daughter, yet they seemed to me to be so close they didn't have to bother with that rot. She'd come from L.A. by train, it had to have been a while since they saw each other, but Maria appeared securely and contentedly used to this. Good.
Even though the cheeses were in very small squares, from the first bite on Marlene had rapid-fire bite-bite-bite-bite-bites with only her front teeth, like a rabbit. It was startling, she made no attempt to hide it. I realized she didn't have any back teeth. She must have had them pulled after Der blaue Engel. She was, by the way, dynamite in The Blue Angel, her first movie from Berlin that Americans know of. It's what caused all the Sturm und Drang about Dietrich. Through her then round face and unstudied brunette hair came waves of concentrated thoughts of sex, with no seeming awareness of her own face or body at all, only cleanly mental hypnosis and an underlying good nature that must have disappeared with the teeth. She was powerful in that subtitled movie. Over my lifetime, for one, unforgettable. Until she came to Hollywood, she was the only human being before or since her who had a healthy, joy-of-living energy underneath relaxed, sinful sex. At least she made sex seem sinful.
See, what angers me is there is a stock European female sexpot. To Americans they seem phony, because in comparison we're steak fed and athletic and usually unaware of ourselves. These European dime a dozens are mysterious, silent, thin, more of a presence than human beings — faces in the passing train. Utterly no sense of humor, especially about themselves. But Dietrich in Blue Angel was far from ordinary, like those women. I read in Maria's biography of her mother that Josef von Sternberg was stipulated in her contract to be her only director in Hollywood. He made her a walking Hurrell still photo.
Remember Hurrell? He was great, but he made all his subjects look alike when they were important enough to have their own individual dynamics. He made them all look as if they had no back teeth and no interest in anyone but themselves. Oh well, I'm mad at von Sternberg. He had an assembly-line mind, and Marlene did not. I'm mad because such a talent shouldn't have handed herself over to someone else. This is probably the answer to why brilliant minds like Barbara Walters say, "Never mix business with sex." Instinctively I agree. The man you're attracted to is the man who owns you. Dangerous when it comes to your work. Your work is you, with no other influences. Your boss or director can order you around all he wants. You can follow him implicitly provided you're not in love with him.
Well, according to Maria, von Sternberg and Dietrich was one hot affair for years. The moment he went back to Germany she became the one and only great Dietrich, not a second Garbo, not a second anybody, I thought. There was a scene with John Wayne in a Hollywood movie of her descending a stairway in a white-and-gold Navy officer's uniform and cap, all her hair scooped up under the cap, one hand in her pocket, and John Wayne laughing at her. Maria told me that scene was made while Wayne had made up his mind he was not going to let her get into bed with him. She never made it. She was at top pitch, pulling every color of herself out on camera, but looking at him. Wow! It's true. Don't dissipate the attraction off camera or offstage. The audience gets the impact instead. On second thought, how should I know? I never had an affair. I keep telling myself the deep grooves of Puritanism in me surely have some payoff.
So! One night in Vegas, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz brought Dietrich to the show. I prayed to do her accurately. That was before I found out the last person to know what your victim is like is the victim herself. There were seven boys doing me in Vegas at the time, all acting exactly alike, with not one tiny thing that resembled me, I felt. However, George Burns laughed his head off at them. All I could see on a couple of them was five o'clock shadow, but how come they all assumed exactly the same weird mannerisms? Then I knew anyone who knows what he himself acts like is totally phony and therefore a bloody bore. Well, even Dietrich, whose greatest creation was herself, didn't really know how she looked and sounded when she did what she did. She was busy thinking great thoughts, though, or we women wouldn't all have worn men's pantsuits for the first time in history hoping we looked something like her. I did, anyway, wear men's suits … hoping … something like … maybe.
Oh! Lucy, Desi, and Marlene! I forgot. So I did George's Dietrich number, ending with "you dunderblitzen dummkopf (spotlight man)" (you see, I rehearsed him to keep moving it off her). I got up off the floor and explained to the audience (as me) that the great lady herself was in the audience and would the spotlight man please move my spot to her. He did. Where we knew she was sitting before was an empty chair! She was nowhere to be found. The maître d' said she didn't pass him on her way out, that she must have gone down the laundry chute. Even Lucy and Desi didn't see her leave, and they were sitting with her. Lots of national press came that night to see her reaction. They caught up with her at the Desert Inn, where she announced, "They don't want stars anymore in Las Vegas — only this cheap clop-throp like Carol Channing."
After finishing my act I was in misery over her. Charles said he was leaving to get the press back. "Just keep crying like that and don't stop." I, of course, couldn't stop. It was a reaction to being nervous about her, and why wouldn't I be? She's not a barrel of laughs about other people's acts to begin with, let alone that she herself should emerge as laughable to an audience. He returned saying, "This is the best thing that could have happened to you. The more questions the press asks her, the madder she gets." Her remarks went all over the world. The immortal Hirschfeld did a brilliant caricature of Dietrich and me facing forward, seated on twin wooden Blue Angel chairs, the only difference being our faces. It was blown up in The New York Times the very next Sunday. Charles was right. Mary Martin told me she was in Siam when our interviews were in the International Herald Tribune. I was not aware that I was that well-known at the time, but I was now!
The press asked Dietrich if she thought some of the lines were funny, like asking a man at the first table to come back to her dressing room for "a little Schnitzel à la Holstein mit an egg on the top? Hah? We'll talk about you for a while. How did you like my performance?" It was all very true to her nature and the audience knew it, but it obviously fell on her ears and eyes with a dull Teutonic thud. Noël Coward, her dear friend, for a while, told me I dropped twenty pounds as I turned into her, and he said my facial bone structure became fragile. "It was extremely accurate," he said. Yes. That's show business. That's our job.
But wait! Desi and Lucy came backstage to scold me. Lucy said, "Oh, Carol, you don't have fun with icons like that. It's almost sacrilege." So this noble speech to me was in deference to their friendship. You see, Marlene had made it her business to become Lucy's and Desi's closest family friend. Whoever the top names — "Papa" Hemingway, Noël, Jean Gabin, Yul, Orson Welles -- were at the time, she glued herself to them, for only as long as they were at the very top! And do you know, in two weeks Lucy was doing Dietrich on her I Love Lucy TV show? Talk about sacrilegious! She must have been laughing at the idea while she was scolding me. Then she did me! I was so pleased to be done by an attractive, feminine woman for the first time. It's always these bass-voiced laryngitic men, as I say. It makes one wonder if one has a glandular imbalance of some sort that no one ventures to tell one about. However, the last line of Lucy's sketch on me was "Oh, officer, I didn't mean any harm."
Officer: Harm? Look what you just did to Marlene Dietrich and Carol Channing.
I love being grouped with Marlene Dietrich and Lucille Ball. Nice company, don't you think? Excerpted from Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts, by Carol Channing. Copyright, Oct. 8, 2002, Simon & Schuster. Used by permission.