The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan
On an overcast Sunday morning he sat in his robe and hurriedly typed his column. Next to the typewriter sat his usual breakfast – a lamb chop ordered from room service, an artificially sweetened pear, and iced tea – and he ate while he worked.
Sundays were the longest days. He cranked out his New York Daily News column late morning, his driver picked him up early afternoon, then dress rehearsal – in which he pummeled the show into shape – followed by a lengthy production meeting, numerous last minute details, and finally, at eight o’clock…the cameras blinked on and he walked into millions of living rooms. So this morning, his poodle Bojangles (named after storied tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) went neglected. And he could not so much as glance at his clutter of office mementoes: the caricature of him drawn by Walt Disney, a framed copy of Time magazine with his face on the cover, and, by the typewriter, a photo of his wife, Sylvia, inscribed To Ed with love – till the winds stop blowing.
Sylvia. When he and Sylvia Weinstein began dating in 1926, she told her parents she was seeing a boy named Ed Solomon, who worked as a sports reporter for the New York Graphic. “Oh,” her brother said, “you mean Ed Sullivan.” The possibility of a Jewish-Catholic marriage made both families apprehensive – Ed’s much more so – and the romance was on-again, off-again for three years. Now, however, Sylvia and Ed formed a unit. Yes, there had been rumors of Ed and other women, but they never derailed the marriage. The couple went out to eat five nights a week, rotating through their favorite Manhattan nightspots, trendy places like Danny’s Hideaway or Jimmy Kelly’s. Like the show he produced, the marriage was a union of supposedly dissimilar elements that was larger than the sum of its parts. Ed called Sylvia every Sunday night immediately after the show – she watched at home – wanting to know how it had gone, but she understood he wanted only reassurance. Sylvia was a cheerleader, a supporter, tolerant of his moods, a safe harbor in a world filled with critics.
And, on that day in late 1969, she was the wife of the greatest impresario television had ever known. On that evening’s program would be The Rolling Stones, whose lead singer, Mick Jagger, was four years old when Sullivan debuted his program. Throughout all those years he had beaten the odds, the critics, the network executives, the talent agents, the well-financed competition. That so many people across boundaries of age and class were captured for so many years by one individual’s idea of entertainment was a cultural first, and perhaps a last. He created a strange alembic of highbrow and corn pone, Borsht Belt and middle America, shaping it week after week down to the last punch line. And the folks at home, regardless of the critical carping, loved it.
Later that day, as part of his Sunday ritual, he took a walk prior to show time. A little night air on Broadway, invariably running into fans, some pressing of the flesh to get the juices flowing for live TV. Ed walking up Broadway was like a creature in its most natural habitat. It was some 70 blocks uptown, in a Jewish and Irish neighborhood in Harlem, that he had been born. And it was in this very neighborhood, the heart of the theater district, that he had earned his stripes as a gossip columnist, making side money by producing countless vaudeville shows. Over on 48th he lived above a tavern in his early twenties, driving a new Durant roadster and dating flappers. It was on 53rd at the Stork Club that he had, according to Broadway lore, dunked the head of gossip king Walter Winchell into a toilet. With a few exceptions – childhood years in rural Port Chester, a three-year stint in Hollywood – he had lived his entire life within a 100-block area of Manhattan. When he made big money in the mid 1950s he and Sylvia bought a 180-acre estate in Connecticut, but later sold it because, as he put it, he was “temperamentally unsuited to country life.” Clearly, the street he was walking down was where he was meant to be. As he finished his walk and neared the theater, he saw his name up in lights; CBS had renamed Studio 50 the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was everything that he had ever dreamed of.