A few months back I took a huge step in my life and began tracing my family’s history. Owing to a number of different groups of people converging into one space, known as my life, it’s a bit convoluted but I’ll try to sort it all out as I go. It was something I always wanted to do but for one reason or another I kept putting it off. There was always an excuse; work, moving, more work, cat is sick (I don’t have a cat), my apartment caught fire (again) and so on.
This installment entitled, “The Best Of Charlie Rice”, is about a grandfather who came into my life when I was about five years old. He was the only grandfather I ever really had. My dads father was killed by a hit and run driver before I was born and my mom was an OTB (off the boat) German. I never met anybody on her side of the family.
While I do have memories of Charlie, that are quite vivid visually, I really didn’t know a lot about him. All I really knew up until a few months back is that he was a writer and was well known in certain New York literary circles. I do recall that he and my dad, who was his daughter’s husband, got along quite well and they laughed a lot. After reading this I’m sure you’ll figure out why. And as I said this is only a part of an ongoing project and contains a cast of characters that have enriched my life in ways I can’t explain. Well – I could but thats for another article.
The following piece was written by Leslie Lieber, a true New York City journalist and jazz musician. And I just found out today that he is 100 years old and still around doing his thing. He worked with Charlie at “This Week” magazine in the 40′s and 50′s. “This Week” was a supplemental paper that was inserted into many Sunday newspapers nationally. Charlie had become a name and fixture in that world and “This Week” decided to put out an album featuring him, Mr. Lieber and several other humorists and musicians of that time. What follows is the story Mr. Lieber wrote about Charlie Rice and is on the back of the album sleeve. I was fortunate enough to find a copy of the album last month on e-bay.
Every now and then I’ll share a piece of this history with you. Maybe this is the start of a series and will inspire you to talk to the people in your life before they’re gone. I’m finding it much easier to find out who they are and what their lives were like when they’re alive. Funny how that works.
Charlie died at age 60 of cancer. I was about ten years old.
That was the sentimental and soul-stirring yearbook eulogy emblazoned under the photo of dashing young Charles D. Rice when he was finally allowed to graduate (some witnesses of this awesome ceremony say that “banned” would more aptly describe the event) from the Cambridge Latin High School. Never before the recent abject surrender to students by the beleaguered administration of Harvard University had New England’s educational system suffered such an ignominious setback.
Charlie Rice came from a respectable old New England family but this did nothing to cramp his style. It was his fate to grow up in Academe’s Grove in the days of bathtub gin, rolled stockings and high-flying flappers. His years at Harvard, which admitted all applicants in those days, did little to improve or reform him. On nights when he should have been studying, young Rice was plunking a banjo in a Charlestown combo fronted by another prodigal Rice, brother Dick, a pianist of ragtime vintage who had on occasion played with the Rudy Valle orchestra.
Charlie’s untamable imagination and Harvard’s incurable stodginess didn’t mix for long. He was expelled from that institution not once but twice – perhaps a record of sorts – for petty campus capers which compared to today’s student atrocities would qualify him for the dean’s list. Rice showed what he was made of – and humiliated Harvard – by packing his banjo and leaving the famous college in the lurch shortly before graduation. His destination? Paris of course.
Rice’s thirst for the unknown – Veuve Cliquot, Vermouth Cassis, Château Neuf da Pape – was slaked by nightly pub-crawling forays through the French capital with some of the most parched throats and roisterous expatriates of the epoch – Ernest Hemingway, Elliot Paul, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Prince Mike Romanoff.
The first piece he ever sold on his return to the U.S. was a story for the “sensational” Sunday section of the now defunct Boston Post. It was titled “What American Girls Really Do In Paris” – an article based on one full year’s persistent first-hand research with denizens of several finishing schools in the 6th Arrondissement. His appetite whetted by the $9 payment, Charlie began in earnest to write humorous short stories about race horses and a track tout named Long-Shot Louis for the old Argosy and Liberty magazines.
The sudden emergence of Charlie’s brainchild, Long-Shot Louis, in national publications came close to upsetting the fiscal equanimity of New England, not to mention the sanity and respectability of the Rice ménage. The trouble arose when the budding young humorist’s father, Charles D. Rice, president of the hallowed and sanctified North Avenue Savings Bank in Cambridge, suddenly discovered that he was being confused with Charles D. Rice, author of the funny but disreputable Long-Shot Louis yarns. The bank, which prized saving face even more highly than saving money, was annoyed as was Charles D. Rice, père. At an urgent family council meeting, his son, the writer, agreed to add a “Jr.” to future Long-Shot Louis by lines.
In 1936, banjo on his knee and typewriter in and out of hock, Charlie came to New York to lose his “Jr.” and earn his fortune. He immediately landed an editorial job at a “pulp house” specializing in detective stories. It took a pretty good detective and a magnifying glass to find a living wage in his weekly paycheck: $16 a week. In 1937, only a year after the unique new Sunday magazine began appearing in 40 of this country’s leading newspapers, C.D.R. joined the staff of This Week at a salary of $40 a week – handsome enough in those days to get married on, which he promptly did, to his childhood sweetheart “who’s been an angel of patience ever since, and has borne me three children.”
While still on editorial duty for This Week, Rice moonlighted as special comedy writer for W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Gracie Allen, Abbott & Costello, and a galaxy of other comics.
In 1960, Bennett Cerf, Who had written the magazine’s lively Cerfboard column for the preceding decade, suddenly discovered he had too many “lines” and had to give up the column. He persuaded the editor-in-chief to let Charlie try on the columnist’s hat and it fit. Today This Week without Charlie Rice’s Punchbowl would be as unthinkable as Rome without Ravioli.
Besides dreaming up games, crazy quizzes, and wonderful believe-it-or-not tidbits of trivia for his column, Rice has interviewed some 200-odd stars of screen, stage, and the sawdust trail of carnival and circus, ranging from Sophia Loren to the high diving horse at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. He has also penned two charming children’s books, “Minty’s Magic Garden,” about a little girl who discovers she can fly, and “The Little Dog Who Wore Ear Muffs,” starring a pooch who lives in a valley and wears earmuffs so he’ll stop barking at his own echo.
I suppose the happening that first attracted my attention to Charlie was his deafening sneeze. I say “attracted.” Actually Charlie’s sneeze blew me half way across the room. Charlie Rice is the world’s loudest sneezer.
Another Rice characteristic that distinguishes him from lesser men is his laugh. Charlie has the loudest, wildest, most abandoned laugh in the world. He unfurls it not only when telling funny stories but at musical comedies and funny movies. Charlie’s laughter is, of course, contagious. Many people who go to the theater to see the star remain to roar with Rice. Playwrights on second nights have been cruelly deceived into thinking they had a hit on their hands because, by osmosis, Rice had the audience in stitches.
Charlie’s hobbies are varied and colorful. A wild flower expert, he can call hundreds of them by either their Latin or familiar Anglo-Saxon name. C.D.R’s Swiss chalet in Ossining N.Y., boasts one of the world’s largest collections of three- dimensional wild flower color slides, and personally photographed by our hero.
Charlie’s love affair with wild flowers has sprouted a practical offshoot: French wild strawberries, a delicacy grown and served by Charlie and Winnie to dinner guests to fortify them for the showing of the W.C. Fields movies which inevitably follows desert.
Charlie never did play the banjo as well as Harry Resser, Eddie Peabody, or Mike Pingatore. But his theoretical knowledge of music, both sacred and profane, is still amazingly profound. He knows all the mathematical laws of harmony and progression and has written the words and lyrics to 163 songs – none of which he has ever submitted to a publisher but which posterity may some day discover in an Ossining attic.
These lines are being written a day before Charlie actually turns up at the studios to make this record, “The Best Of Charlie Rice.” We at This Week hope it brings you much pleasure and many smiles. Secretly I’m keeping my fingers crossed for my own special wish. I’m hoping somewhere on this record for an unscheduled event. I want Charlie Rice to sneeze – it’ll make this record a collector’s item. It will blow a fuse, break your amplifier, knock your needle for a loop. Let’s all hope for a sneeze. It’s the best of Charlie Rice.
- Leslie Lieber