Cohan 101
Cohan Bio: Part II
by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2002)

 

(All the photos on this page are thumbnail images – click on them to see larger versions.)

All Aboard for Broadway
George Cohan and his father JerryGeorge and Jerry Cohan face off in George Washington Jr. George tailored many of his early musicals to showcase his family.

In 1900, most Americans sincerely believed there was no problem that a little "Yankee know-how" and a dash of common "American" decency couldn't fix. George M. Cohan's writing reflected this jingoistic exuberance, expressing it as no other playwright or songwriter had. At first, New York critics did not know what to make of his shows, but the American public swiftly embraced him as one of their own.

Cohan's first Broadway musical, The Governor's Son (1901), was a near miss. It was an expanded version of one his vaudeville sketches, involving the comic misadventures of several guests at a country resort – a woman (Josie) in search of her runaway husband, two older battling newlyweds (Jerry and Nellie), and a vivacious girl (Ethel) competing with a widow for the attentions of a Governor's son (George -- of course).

From this show onwards, George invariably cast himself as an impertinent quipster with a heart of gold – his idea of the perfect American for the new century. Cohan's dialogue relied heavily on vaudeville-style wisecracks –

WIDOW: I hope to see more of you!
GEORGE: I'm going in bathing tomorrow.

Poor Broadway reviews sent The Governor's Son packing after an unimpressive 32 performances. However, provincial audiences delighted in this show's simple, wholesome humor. The Cohans trouped it around the country for two profitable years. Running for Office (1903) also failed in New York before turning a profit on the road -- again starring the Cohans. Then George was introduced to Sam Harris, a gambler and boxing promoter who combined a solid business sense with a passion for the theater. Cohan and Harris formed a partnership that became something of a Broadway legend in its own right.

 

Little Johnny Jones
Little Johnny JonesGeorge and Ethel Levey in Little Johnny Jones (1904).

With its patriotic yet sentimental story of an American jockey who is falsely accused of throwing the English Darby, Little Johnny Jones (1904) was the breakout hit George had long hoped for. Yankee honesty eventually wins out as the jockey wins vindication – as well as the heart of the all-American girl he loves. George wrote the script and the songs, produced, directed, and starred in the title role. There were tailor-made roles for all of the Cohans, with Ethel cast as George's love interest. The score was Cohan's best to date, including several memorable hits. In "Yankee Doodle Boy," jockey Cohan celebrated a few things that he and the fictional Jones supposedly had in common –

I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
A Yankee Doodle do or die,
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam's,
Born on the Fourth of July.
I've got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart.
She's my Yankee Doodle joy.
Yankee doodle came to London
Just to ride the ponies.
I am a Yankee Doodle Boy.

In "Give My Regards to Broadway," the disgraced Johnny, forced to remain in England and defend his reputation, asks his friends boarding an ocean liner bound for home to –

Give my regards to Broadway.
Remember me to Herald Square.
Tell all the gang at Forty-Second Street
That I will soon be there.
Whisper of how I'm yearning
To mingle with the old-time throng.
Give my regards to old Broadway
And tell them I'll be there 'ere long.

After the liner pulled away, it reappeared on the distant horizon, an electrified miniature passing across the stage backdrop. When a flare from the ship (an innovative stage effect in 1904) proclaims that documents proving the jockey's innocence had been secured, Cohan broke into a joyous victory dance.

Cohan changed the definition of a Broadway leading man. Tap dancing with a lightness that seemed to resist gravity while still looking manly, he broke out of the invisible box that had long restricted male dancers in the theatre. Cohan's dance routines covered the whole stage, even sending him up the side of the proscenium for back flips. 

There was no other performer, songwriter or playwright like Cohan at the time, and some critics were not sure how to react to his openhearted combination of catchy melody and patriotic sentiment. Audiences loved him. Little Johnny Jones made two return trips to New York during its triumphant year-long tour. George M. Cohan was finally recognized as one of Broadway's top stars, a distinction he relished (despite occasional denials) for the rest of his life. With his dream of stardom fulfilled, he set his sights even higher. As he reputedly told a friend –

"I'll never be happy now until I own a part of Broadway. Just a little part, mind you. The top part."
- as quoted by John McCabe, George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1973), p. 81.

 

Wonderworker
45 Minutes from BroadwayFay Templeton sings about her mother "Mary" as Victor Moore listens in 45 Minutes from Broadway.

Theatre owner E.L. Erlanger asked Cohan to write a show for musical comedy star Fay Templeton. The result was 45 Minutes From Broadway (1906), in which a suburban housemaid gives up an inheritance so she won't lose the big city smart-aleck she loves. Templeton co-starred with newcomer Victor Moore, who began his long reign as one of Broadway's favorite comic actors. Cohan's wisecrack-rich dialogue still echoed his years in vaudeville –

BURNS: How would you like to fall in with a millionaire?
MARY: I wouldn't mind if I had on a bathing suit.

But the overall story line had genuine charm, and the score included "So Long Mary," a catchy title tune, and the perennial favorite "Mary's a Grand Old Name" –

For it is Mary, Mary,
Plain as any name can be.
But with propriety
Society will say "Marie."
But it was Mary, Mary,
Long before the fashions came.
And there is something there
That sounds so square.
It's a grand old name.

While that show was en route to Broadway, Cohan was already working on a new vehicle for his family – minus Josie, who was pursuing her solo dance career. George Washington Jr. (1906) featured George as the son of a U.S. senator (Jerry), refusing his father's efforts to marry him off to a titled English woman because he loves a simple Southern girl (Ethel). Aside from some political pot shots ("The senate is the finest body of men that money can buy."), the show boasted the wildly popular "You're a Grand Old Flag." Cohan claimed he got the idea for this song when he overheard a Civil War veteran lovingly say of his battalion's tattered banner, "She's a grand old rag." When a critic complained about referring to the Stars and Stripes as a rag, Cohan changed the word to "flag."

Cohan had clearly hoped his marriage would be like that his parents enjoyed, but Ethel Levey was too talented to stay in George's shadow for long. Tensions rose between them, no doubt fueled by suggestions in the newspapers that Josie Cohan resented Ethel. When George's occasional overnight "writing" sessions at various hotels became more frequent and prolonged, Ethel suspected the worst -- as it turns out, with good reason. In 1907, she obtained a divorce on grounds of adultery. Ethel remained one of vaudeville's most popular headliners and raised daughter Georgette on her own.

Within months, George married Agnes Nolan, a chorus girl who was refreshingly unimpressed with his fame. Sam Harris soon married Agnes' sister -- and the longtime partners became in-laws.

George and Agnes Cohan had three children, Mary, Helen and George, Jr. The last birth was difficult, and the use of morphine as a prescribed pain killer left Agnes with chronic health problems that were never publicly discussed. She became a homebound recluse and some sources suggest that George eventually found extramarital distractions -- resulting in at least one illegitimate son. But the marriage endured, and George's peccadilloes remained well-kept secrets until long after everyone involved was dead.

 

Owning Broadway
George M. Cohan was now at the top of his profession, a position he relished for years to come. In an age with no electronic mass media, he was the first superstar of American show business, his name familiar from coast to coast. Cohan had triumphed as an actor, singer, dancer, songwriter, playwright, director and producer. No one else in the American performing arts has worn so many hats so successfully. Actor and longtime friend William Collier put it this way –

"George is not the best actor or author or composer or dancer or playwright. But he can dance better than any author, compose better than any manager, and manage better than any playwright. And that makes him a very great man."
- As quoted in John McCabe's George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway. (New York: Doubleday& Co., 1973), pp. xi-xii.

Cohan's professional habits became the stuff of legend --

  • He rarely let a promising idea die quietly. When his autobiographical drama Popularity (1906) failed, he turned it into a musical shamelessly entitled The Man Who Owns Broadway (1909) -- and this time around, it became a hit. 
  • Cohan directed all his productions to run at a quick pace, never giving an audience the chance to feel bored. He once defined his approach this way -- "Speed! Speed, and lots of it; that's my idea of the thing. Perpetual motion."
  • He was a popular show doctor, turning other people's flops into hits – a process he referred to as "Cohanizing." Because he rarely took credit, no one is sure how many plays and musicals profited from this treatment.
  • Cohan was so accustomed to touring that he didn't have a fulltime home during the early 1900s. When pressed, he listed the Knickerbocker Hotel (which used to stand at 142 West 42nd Street) as his residence.

While most sources refer to Cohan's "flag waving," patriotic fervor was only one of the noteworthy elements in his work. Many of his songs and plays also reflected his ethnic roots. Theatre historian John Bush Jones writes –

For Cohan, the spirit of Ireland thrived in the large Irish-American communities of New York, Boston and his native Providence. To be Irish in America was, for him, to be an American with a proud ancestral heritage. Accordingly, he wrote numbers like "Mary's a Grand Old Name" from Forty Five Minutes From Broadway, "Harrigan" from Fifty Miles From Boston and "Nelly Kelly, I Love You" from Cohan's postwar Little Nelly Kelly. These numbers' lyrics extolled the Irishness of the title characters, while the melodies fused an Irish lilt with American flair, trading on popular song-forms of the day, such as the "waltz clog" rhythm for "Nellie Kelly" . . .
- Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theatre. (Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003), p. 22.

Cohan had always known how extraordinary his talents were. Some considered him an egotist – he just saw himself as being invariably right. Cohan biographer John McCabe offers this view --

Cohan was not an egotist in the usual sense; he was inescapably an egoist, this in large measure deriving from his life pattern and full commitment to the theatre. A standard dictionary definition of "egotist" is "A conceited, boastful person." An "egoist" is defined as "A self-centered or selfish person." The words that describe Cohan accurately are "self-centered" which he was at times to almost appalling degree. . . Cohan's egoism was born of the need to succeed and it was nurtured by the circumstances of his taking on the duties of a man and a manager while he was still a boy, a boy forced to miss much of his boyhood. As he matured and his talents proliferated, his egoism, not surprisingly, grew proportionately.
- McCabe, p. 106.

Cohan was also noted for his professionalism and private generosity. His abrasive, demanding style covered a tremendous empathy for anyone else who shared the theatrical profession. No one cared more about theater people, and no one was as willing as Cohan to help out a performer or stage hand suffering from hard times or poor health. Unlike most Broadway producers, Cohan and Harris were unfailingly fair to actors and authors. Such qualities made it hard to hate Cohan. He was so popular with his fellow actors that they made him the "abbot" of the Friar's Club for two terms -- a unique honor.

 

On to: Part III

Back to: Cohan 101