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SUNDAY NIGHTS AT SEVEN

The Jack Benny Story
by Jack Benny with Joan Benny

Warner, $19.95, 302 pages
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The late Jack Benny wrote an autobiography that was known
to almost no one. So few, in fact, that his only daughter Joan
was surprised to find the finished manuscript among her mother's
files after her death in 1983. Joan Benny has augmented her
father's words with her own memories and some interviews
accomplished expressly for the book. It is very good.

As one might expect from the most popular comedian of the
age of radio, Jack Benny's memoirs are fast-paced, lively, and
entertaining. His recollections are positive, and he says almost
nothing negative about anyone. He traces back to his humble
beginnings as Benjamin Kubelsky in Waukegan, Ill., and reveals
many intriguing facts about his early life and entry into show
business. He was a high school dropout (although, as he notes
with irony, Waukegan eventually built a junior high school in his
honor) and took to serious study of the violin only after
flunking out of the family haberdashery business. (Do we have
to know their names? he asked his father after an unknown
customer left an account payment with him.) Over his mother's
objections, he eventually found employment as a violinist with a
local touring singer. After a while, he began to talk, which
grew into a comedy monologue. Jan Kubelik, a concert violinist,
forced Benny Kubelsky to change his name in 1912. He next became

Ben Benny, and became fairly well known as a violin-and-comedy
performer. After serving in the Navy in World War I, a similar
entertainer named Ben Bernie forced him to change his name again,
and he chose the name Jack, by which all sailors in the war were
informally known to each other.

Some of the stories have been told before, but get a much-
deserved retelling from the horse's mouth here. Jack met his
wife, Sadie Marks (she later changed her name to Mary

Livingstone, the name of the character she played on the radio
show) when he was 27 and she 14 at her family's Passover
celebration in Vancouver. She was related to the Marx brothers,
and Zeppo Marx (then Marks) had brought his colleague to the home
for the occasion. Mary insisted that Jack listen to her violin
playing. He found it horrible and he and Zeppo made a quick
exit. Several years later, they met again and married in 1927
after a brief courtship. It was only after they were married
that Mary reminded Jack of their first meeting.

Jack continued his successful career in vaudeville, and when
his partner took ill, he persuaded Mary to fill in. She was a
hit. Eventually he found himself on Broadway and then in the
movies. He vacillated for a time before deciding that going into
radio would be worthwhile.

While they were living in New York, they adopted Joan. She
learned in writing the book that Mary Benny had planned to take
her only to nurse her to health while they awaited an arranged
baby. (Jack opposed this idea.) Naturally, they found they
couldn't part with Joan.

Much of the book consists of Joan's writing. She seems to
be in a different book from her father. It would be a major help
if she used a writing style that conformed more closely to that
set by her father in the early chapters. Her short, simple
sentences slow the pace in a sudden manner. She provides
extreme levels of detail about her early life, homes, and the
trappings of being a celebrity daughter. While this matter is
interesting to a Benny buff, one hopes that none of the venerable
comedian's material was subjugated to make room for it. It
would be far more relevant if Joan Benny were a celebrity in her
own right. But this is the fall of 1990 and such things are to
be expected of celebrity offspring. George Bush is our president
and no doubt he approves.

Some of Joan Benny's passages are curious. Obviously, had
her father wanted details of his premarital womanizing in his
book, he would have put them there himself. Her life is very
well detailed up to about 1965, but she says almost nothing of
her activities for the past quarter century.

Joan Benny pulls no punches in discussing her mother. The
two had what would mildly be described as an adversarial
relationship. Mary Livingstone Benny (who always introduced
herself as Mrs. Jack Benny) is portrayed as a vain, insecure
spendthrift. She allegedly was most interested in being with and
accepted by the Hollywood elite. Studio moguls, that is, not the
entertainers that her husband called friends. Jack Benny
attended Friar's