George M. Cohan: A Biography
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 2002; revised 2014)
(All the photos on this page are thumbnail images click on them to see larger versions.)
Born on the Fourth of July?
He became the stuff theatrical legends are made of, so it shouldn't be surprising that he instigated a few of those legends, including one involving his birth date.
The only written record of George Michael Cohan's birth is a baptismal certificate which verifies that he was born in Providence, Rhode Island on July 3rd, 1878. However, Cohan's family unfailingly insisted that George and his country shared birthdays on the 4th. Although noted for their honesty, the Cohans certainly would have found it hard to resist the publicity value of a performer being "born on the Fourth of July." While it may seem silly to begrudge a dead man a charming piece of his legend, odds are that he was actually born on the 3rd.
George was the second child of Jeremiah and Helen Costigan Cohan, better known as Jerry and Nellie. These New Englanders of Irish descent interrupted their endless tour of the variety circuit so Nellie could give birth in her hometown of Providence just as she had done when her daughter Josephine was born two years before.
When the time came to get back to trouping, Jerry and Nellie took the children along. Although George got little formal schooling, his later accomplishments suggest that he developed a more than passing mastery of reading, writing and arithmetic. He certainly got a first-hand perspective on geography, spending his childhood traveling perpetually around the United States. Although George got his start as a performer playing the violin in theatre pit bands, his aim was to appear on stage. When he was eleven, he and Josie joined their parents in a family song and dance act.
The Four Cohans
There were hundreds of family acts in vaudeville, but few as closely knit as The Four Cohans. They often worked on the prestigious but exhausting B.F. Keith circuit, grinding through an exhausting round of four to six performances a day. Their only breaks were summer layoffs with relatives in New England, but even these were usually interrupted for engagements at various summer resorts.
A creature of the theater, George grew up in a backstage world full of color and emotion. In boyhood, he was not shy about letting people know his opinions on anything, particularly anything related to "the show business." He had the jarring habit of telling off stage hands, fellow performers and theater managers several times his age. Seeing others take advantage of his naturally easy-going father only fed George's fire. Despite frequent warnings that adults did not appreciate his behavior, George kept at it until he was generally known as a backstage trouble maker.
Young Cohan learned that reputations could be dangerous when the family appeared in a stage adaptation of the popular novel Peck's Bad Boy (1891). George reveled in the title role, playing a clever teenage roughneck who could "lick any kid in town." He was such a success that a mob of boys from the opening matinee audience attacked him at the stage door. As Nellie tended to her son's bruises, the company manager warned that young Cohan would have to face that kind of response after every performance. Rather than give up a choice role, George learned to live with the fights for the better part of a year -- then his family returned to vaudeville.
Jerry insisted that The Four Cohans were a "road act," the sort that played well all across the country but could never please the hardnosed critics in New York City. So the act traveled to every corner of the United States, by-passing Manhattan year after year. But Broadway was the place to be in those days, the "big apple" that every self-respecting performer wanted to take a bite out of.
At age 14, George got tired of waiting for his chance. When his father bluntly refused yet again to take the act to New York, George bought a train ticket and prepared to run off on his own. Thanks to a kindly station master, Jerry got wind of this plan. Instead of reacting with anger, he told his relieved son that it would be better if the whole family ran away together. He booked the family for a New York debut that fall. All should have gone well, but the family's old friend-nemesis turned George's dream engagement into a nightmare.
The Four Cohan's made their Manhattan debut at B.F. Keith's new Union Square Theater in 1893. Keith needed to fill out the opening bill, so he ordered that the Cohans perform separately. This put the whole family at a disadvantage, especially George. The furious teenager made such a disruptive fuss that the theater manager almost fired him, then relegated him to the dreaded opening spot on the bill. Audiences still finding their seats (or reading newspapers) traditionally ignored the first act, and George's solo song and dance act was no exception. In vaudeville parlance, he "died" at every performance, four shows a day. Adding to his chagrin, Josie's solo dance act was such a success that it paid the family's bills for the rest of the year.
This event marked a turning point for George. It taught him that emotions could be dangerous. From this point forward, he usually kept his deepest emotions to himself, or channeled them into his plays and songs. In his vast archive at the Museum of the City of New York, there are no personal letters or written recollections of his feelings -- save for one scribbled poem deriding Hollywood film makers. There would be one time in later years that Cohan would let anger get the better of him in a public dispute, and the results would confirm his worst fears about the price of emotional expression.
As Josie became the toast of New York, George was unable to find bookings. But he made good use of his idle hours by writing songs. "Why Did Nellie Leave Her Home?" became his first published melody late in 1893. Encouraged, he haunted the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley, and soon had a string of minor hits, beginning with "Venus My Shining Love."
Vaudeville star May Irwin made Cohan's bouncy "Hot Tamale Alley" (which is heard very briefly in Yankee Doodle Dandy) an audience favorite, and other vaudevillians sang Cohan's hit "You're the Warmest Baby in the Bunch." At the same time, performers in search of fresh material were after George to write new skits and one act plays. This was enough to make Jerry recognize his son's talents. Sometime around 1895, he put 19 year old George in charge of the family act. While it must have been difficult for a veteran entertainer to defer to a teenager, it proved to be a brilliant decision. Josie happily gave up solo performing, and the reunited family act began its ascent to stardom.
The Four + Ethel
George's songs, skits and shrewd management quickly brought The Cohans greater recognition. They became the most highly paid four-act in vaudeville, eventually earning $1000 a week a tremendous sum for the 1890s. Vaudeville impresario B.F. Keith realized that a genuinely devoted family performing together had an irresistible appeal, and he now booked them at his best houses. When audiences demanded extra bows, George responded with a one-line curtain speech that was supposedly invented by a comedian spoofing the family's reputation for closeness. It became Cohan's lifelong trademark
"Ladies and gentlemen, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I assure you, thank you!"
B.F. Keith's dictatorial management style eventually became more than the Cohans could bear. When the family did not get proper billing at an important engagement, an enraged George swore that no Cohan would ever work for Keith again. Since Keith's office controlled the bookings for every major vaudeville theater in the country, the Cohans had no choice but to make the jump to the legitimate stage.
George and his family were on tour developing two of his sketches into full length musicals when he met and fell in love with actress Ethel Levey. A talented vaudeville singer and comedienne, she was George's match in temperament and ego. Jerry and Nellie were not thrilled, but they knew there was little point in arguing with George when his mind was set on something.
After conducting most of their courtship by mail, George and Ethel married in 1899. She continued performing on her own, joining the Cohans for several engagements. George and Ethel's daughter Georgette was born in 1900, just in time for her parents to star in their first Broadway musical.