On the Double: The Hidden (Queer and Jewish) Career of Danny Kaye

Michael Bronski was awarded the 1998-1999 Martin Duberman Fellowship to assist with his latest project. This work explores shifts in conceptualizing outsider status and citizenship that occurred during the 1950s as the restrictions of overt (although not covert) discrimination changed for American Jews, and a more vocal and visible “minority” of homosexuals emerged into mainstream consciousness. Bronski presented “On the Double: The Hidden (Queer and Jewish) Career of Danny Kaye” at CLAGS’s Colloquium Series this spring. What follows is part of Bronski’s discussion.

Last t year, in the early stages of applying for the Duberman Fellowship, I began by trying to discern a topic, a subject, that would involve me intellectually as well as emotionally. As a free-lance writer and cultural critic I am, more frequently than not, assigned subjects, books, movies, performances by my editors. If I received the Duberman I wanted to research and write about something that resonated with my life and current interests.

The name of my proposal was “Shifting Concepts of Citizenship for Jews and Homosexuals in the 1950s.” I wanted to examine how the ideas of “the Jew” and “the homosexual” were conceptualized and represented in the popular culture of the 1950s. Were the stigmas attached to each similar? Were they overlapping? were they in flux? Was there any truth in critic Leslie Fiedler’s suggestion that— as the more blatant forms of U.S. anti-Semitism became coded in post-World War II —homosexuals became the Jews of the late 1950s?

My proposal listed 10 iconographic cultural events from the 1950s that touched, in some way, on Jewish and homosexual identity. These included, among others, “The Goldbergs,” the first, and maybe only, working class Jewish family on television; West Side Story, written directed, composed and choreographed by four gay men; and the novel, stage and film versions of Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, a sympathetic account of boyfriends and murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. It also included the career and public persona of Danny Kaye. Internationally recognized as a major film star and stage entertainer, Danny Kaye was one of the most popular and beloved public figures of the 1950s. He was also—at a time when Hollywood was helping to invent a new American male from the rough-and-tumble Rory Calhoun to the more sensitive James Dean—incredibly flamboyant and swishy. Kaye conformed to no recognizable male gender roles of the decade. In film after film he always played Danny Kaye – a sissy afraid of stronger men, a hypochondriac worried about his health, a leading man who had no chemistry with his leading ladies; truly, he seemed fairly frightened at the very prospect of heterosexuality. Even his singing voice was queeny (he had stared in several Broadway musicals including Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s 1941 Lady in the Dark in which he played an openly, and very decidedly, gay man) filled with funny vocal tics, a nonsense patter talk he called “git-gat-gittle,” and extravagant, unmanly flourishes. In other words: he looked like a big old queen. There were a few rumors of homosexuality, despite his marriage to Sylvia Fine who also managed his career and wrote most of his material, but for the most part Danny Kaye was that fabulous nonesuch: an effeminate man who was praised, not ridiculed, for his affect.

I had been fixated on Danny Kaye from the age of seven when my father had given me a set of 78rpm records (this was 1956, pre-LP for our family). Knowing that I would never be the man I was expected to be —I wasn’t particularly prescient, merely observant — I was drawn to Kaye because he was, in the language of both then and now, queer. I saw all of Danny Kaye’s movies growing up and relished the idea of this quick-witted, clever, non-man being the hero (even if he did get the girl in the end, and of course, he didn’t seem very interested either.)

Kaye fit perfectly my criteria for the Duberman Fellowship. He epitomized the myriad gender, sexual, ethnic identity contradictions I saw as exemplifying1950s popular culture: He was queer (and probably gay in his sexual life as well), he was Jewish (and although he never hid this, it was never discussed either), and he captured the public imagination – two cov er stories in Time magazine – in such a way that we know he was important to the inner lives andimaginations of audiences. I was awarded the Duberman and when I began working on my proposal I thought I would start with Danny Kaye.

A year later I was still heavily involved in reading and research and my video presentation “On the Double: The Hidden (Queer and Jewish) Career of Danny Kaye” is only the beginning of the results.

I began my research by reading the three Danny Kaye biographies and watching all of his movies and tapes of excerpts from his television show from the 1960s. I also listened to as many tapes of his 1950s radio shows, and LP recordings as I could find – do you have any idea how many used records you can buy for $7,500? As I did this two elements became clear. Kaye’s immediate roots were Jewish show business, particularly the Borscht Belt, and his profoundly Jewish immigrant childhood in Brooklyn. This was never a secret, but certain themes began to emerge: one writer suggested that his “git-gat- gittle” nonsense talk had roots in Yiddish; another argued, in passing, that the plot of The Kid From Brooklyn, his second film, borrowed from the classic Yiddish drama The Dybbuk. What was fascinating to me was how little overt Jewishness, or even coded Jewish heritage was ever present in Kaye’s performances or films. The second theme that leapt out was that in almost all of his films Danny Kaye’s character splits in two, twins itself. In Wonder Man, The Kid From Brooklyn, The Court Jester, On the Double, On the Riviera, Knock on Wood, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty— Kaye’s character sports an alter-ego, one that is usually more butch, more traditionally manly, more heroically heterosexual than his primary character. What was happening here? How was Kaye’s character’s masculinity—-or lack thereof— being configured by this constantly reinvented alter-ego?

I begin reading about the history of Jews in entertainment from vaudeville, Tin Pan Ally, on through films and television — Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, The Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis – and discovered that Jewish male performers, who were not assimilated and “read” as goys, more likely than not were also not perceived as “real men.” And as often as not their performances – and the characters they played – were quite consciously critiques of the very idea of what is considered to be a traditional playing out of “masculinity.” As I watched more old films, it became clear that Eddie Cantor was an explicit role model for Kaye and his career. Not only was Cantor’s first big Hollywood hit Whoopie was the basis for Kaye’s first film, Up in Arms, but some routines from Cantor’s films even ended up in Kaye’s work 20 years later. The one major difference was that Eddie Cantor was allowed – in the 1930s – to be overtly Jewish and even openly desire men (although he was heterosexual in his own life) in his movies, while Danny Kaye had to closet both his Jewishness and the most overt aspects of his queerness. In this context Danny Kaye’s splitting narratives made sense; his queer, non-butch masculinity, was simply one aspect of his persona. Ironically, even as Jews faced less overt oppression in U.S. culture in the 1950s (and were, in the literary world, gaining increasing prominence) Kaye was forced to almost completely closet his Jewishness, but was allowed to display his gender-deviant queerness by using complicated, if somewhat obvious, narrative strategies.

There is much more work I want and need to do with these ideas: the role that cantorial music played in shaping what we now call popular American song in the works of Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, “Yip” Harberg, George and Ira Gershwin, Vernon Duke and other artists; how the Jewish heads of Hollywood studios helped shape (and usually deny) any presence of Jewish identity or culture in films; how the cold war and the HUAC hearings – which targeted Jews both in and out of Hollywood – shaped the face of popular entertainment; and how gender, sex, deviance, masculinity, and homosexuality all interacted with a Jewish identity in the 1950s. But for the time being I know have a much clearer sense of why this seven-year- old was obsessed with his Danny Kaye records and how Kaye, in curious contradictions to his own public career, made me the homosexual I am today.

Michael Bronski
Independent Scholar