[4 October 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He’s been labeled a genius and an oversized goofball. His movies have been hailed as masterworks and derided as dumb. He considers himself an accomplished auteur, authoring a textbook on what it takes to be a “Total Filmmaker”. But there will always be two things that cannot be taken from Jerry Lewis. He has raised billions of dollars as chairman and host of the annual Labor Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy, and for 10 years during the 1940s and 1950s, he was part of the most famous and celebrated comedy duo of all time.
Along with the dashing Dead Martin, a talented crooner from Steubenville, Ohio, a 19-year-old Lewis suddenly found himself in a maelstrom of unbridled popularity. Money was pouring in, movie offers were waved under both neophytes’ noses, and the accolades were unmatched. Martin and Lewis were the post-war pulse of a battle weary nation, and the resulting hilarity and hi-jinx looked like it would never end. So when the duo officially called it quits, 10 years to the day after getting together, fans were flummoxed—and the confusion continued as neither man spoke to the other (at least, not in public) in 20-plus years.
The legend of Martin and Lewis has been done to death in the media. But the story of their breakup, the emotional and psychological elements that lead to their demise has long been left to speculation and myth. Now, decades after the fact and years after Martin’s passing, the “monkey” part of their partnership (as Lewis routinely referred to himself) is here to expose the reasons behind the Martin and Lewis demise. Over the course of 352 pages, Dean and Me (A Love Story) hopes to show how fame becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually, even in the most successful enterprises, ego will wipe out years of goodwill and free-flowing friendship.
Lewis’ loving memoir (written with the help of James Kaplan) is conversational and winning. It moves along at a page-turner’s pace, and barely lets up as it barrels through decades of fame and (mis)fortune. As much a story of Martin and Lewis’s founding as it is their finish, this is an attempt by one half of the most famous comedy team in the history of show business to set the record straight. Naturally, you have to take some of it with a dump truck full of salt. Lewis is not out to destroy his, or Martin’s reputation. He also wants to keep the eternal flames of his own fame burning bright. So don’t expect a lot of dirt dishing here. Instead, Dean and Me is a snapshot of how a couple of divergent characters came together to literally change the face of popular entertainment.
Lewis makes the wise decision to concentrate almost exclusively on the decade the pair spent as entertainment superstars. He colors in both he and his partner’s past, and spends a couple of nostalgic chapters looking back and longing. But for the most part, Dean and Me is an account of how the unlikeliest of duos—a handsome Italian crooner and a slapstick-inspired Jewish comic—came to own the world. Lewis is not that adept at describing ethereal significance. He can tell us what made the Martin and Lewis combo kick, but he has a hard time translating that into overall appreciation. His only real reference point is the massive paychecks the pair was receiving—obscene amounts of money that, even today, would make several of our more significant performers green with envy.
Lewis is good when it comes to the grind, however. Many people outside the industry believe that the creative process is one that comes easily, requires minimal effort and exacts never-ending rewards. Lewis debunks all those myths,—well, all except the immense wealth to be earned—especially when he’s listing a performance schedule that requires three shows a night (usually finishing around 3am) for several weeks, including a daily schedule that required publicity stops and business meetings. It is easy to view Dean and Me like a surreal suspense story, a tale of two candles ablaze at all ends, each one waiting for the other to finally flame out. Funny thing is, we learn that Martin and Lewis didn’t actually burn out. Instead it was souring second banana sentiments and an army of interfering lackeys that lead to the final fracture.
There will be people who wince at the sly amount of scandalous material in the book. Over the years there has been a dedicated attempt to paint Dean Martin as a tea-totaling family man who never indulged in the vices—drinking, gambling, womanizing—that he flaunted on stage as part of his post-team solo act. Lewis does lob a few hefty tabloid grenades into this legend, however, describing pre-Hollywood stardom trysts with a couple of famous MGM starlets. He makes it very clear that Martin loved the ladies - as he puts it, “often and very well”—and that such adulterous tendencies were part of the make-up of male oriented show business in the ‘40s and ‘50s.But it’s the wagering that will wow some people. Martin could win big (there is a great story about card sharking some gin rummy players in Atlantic City) but he was also capable of losing bundles. The numbers tossed around here are mind numbing, and bring into focus the solitary figure that Lewis claims Martin was.
Still, for the most part, Dean and Me is balanced. Lewis does not blame his partner for the inevitable and bitter break-up in 1956. Instead, he makes it very clear that the separation was almost all his idea. He wanted to expand into filmmaking, and Martin was happy with continuing the nightclub comedy act. But there is also a kind of backward compliment being paid here, since Lewis also indicates that it was his partner’s seething rage, his lack of individual respect, his cold interpersonal nature and the nudging from yes men that drove the divide between them. Lewis’s creative longings, his desire to be part of movies from both behind and in front of the screen gets just slight lip service, as does the control freak image the comic has confessed to over the years. It’s Dean’s desire to step out of Jerry’s generous limelight (according to Lewis, he was the beneficiary of glowing notices, while Martin was universally panned) that really drove the decision to quit.
Once they’ve ended their run, Dean and Me loses a little steam. We learn that the pair did occasionally speak on the phone, and that once they decided to bury the hatchet publicly (thanks to a famous Sinatra-inspired reunion during an MDA telethon in 1976), the men stayed close. The final years for Martin are depicted as celebrated, but sad. He did finally make it as a solo performer away from the duo, but his insularity grew even more extreme. After his son Dino died in a military plane crash, Lewis laments that Dean decided to “die” as well. His eventual death is handled by his partner and friend with dignity and grace. It may be the most moving part of Dean and Me.
Indeed, the notion of pride is at the heart of this late in years tell-all. Lewis has battled severe health problems recently, and even with a lifelong addiction to painkillers cured and remedies prescribed for his numerous other ailments, the 79-year-old comic must feel his own mortality looming. Thus, the time has come for a final confessional, a chance to get the story—or at least, his version of the story—out on the record before the end actually arrives. In reality, Lewis needn’t have bothered. Dean and Me is a wonderfully engaging read. But his history with Martin guarantees his lasting presence in the pop culture archives. They were the best there ever was. Lewis just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget his partner when it’s time to divvy up the praise.