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A talk with Gotham about Billy Rose

The Gotham Center for New York City History runs this excellent blog. Rose is a natural subject for the site. Nobody outdid Rose when it came to being a New Yorker. 


"Billy loved many things, but the deepest of his loves was the city of New York," wrote his journalist and screenwriter friend, Ben Hecht. Writer Abe Burrows, of Guys and Dolls fame, knew what made New York tick and "couldn't bear the thought of a New York City without Billy Rose."



Guilty As Charged

This review in Washington Jewish Week correctly notes that, "The author does chronicle Rose's shortcomings, but in the end, is clearly in the showman's corner."


And how. The guy was a marvel.




"A fine summation"

Harvard's Ruth Wisse had kind words for my Billy Rose biography in her thoughtful JRB article about Saul Bellow, his take on Billy Rose in his The Bellarosa Connection, and my contribution to the Rose story.


About the conclusion to my biography, where I argue that Rose "met the challenges of American Jewish life on both fronts with all the intensity and joy and enthusiasm and caginess and wariness and toughness that his dual inheritances encouraged and required," Wisse wrote, "This is a fine summation of Cohen's rightful claim of Broadway Billy Rose for the Jews . . . He is not mistaken, either, in sensing that Bellow found some virtue in both the man and his type."



Il vero Rick di "Casablanca"? «Si chiamava Billy Rose»

For some reason, my Forward article about Billy Rose as Casablanca's Rick caught fire in Italy. On Dec. 6, 2018, La Nuova ran the headline printed above. More Italian press appeared here and here.


Hello, Roma. I'm happy to be invited to speak about Billy.




NYT on Rose as Rick: Irresistible 

Just try cracking the editorial dept at the New York Times. It ain't easy. So I was pleased that my article in The Forward about Billy Rose as the model for Casablanca's Rick caught the eye of the Times' Dan Saltzstein, who gave it a boost. 


Thanks, Dan!



Bogart's Rick was based on Billy Rose

The Forward published my argument that the character of Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart in the legendary Hollywood film, Cascablanca, was based on Billy Rose. Casablanca was based on the unproduced play, Everybody Comes To Rick's. It was written in New York in 1939-40, when Rose ran the city's two greatest nightclubs, Billy Rose's Music Hall and Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, and when his name touted the New York World's Fair's most popular attraction, Billy Rose's Aquacade. The play's nightclub setting and tough New York club owner were preserved in the film. Rose's influence has been overlooked, until now.


Wall Street Journal praises Rose bio

"Mr. Cohen has a fascinating tale at his disposal, and he recounts it with relish. Then, too, he enjoys the advantage of a colorful cast of characters, including a circle of friends that runs from statesmen to gangsters while centering on Manhattan's talent elite."





Was Casablanca's Rick Blaine Inspired by Billy Rose?

The 1942 movie Casablanca was based on the play Everybody Comes To Rick's, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The pair wrote their play in New York during the summer of 1940, when nobody in the city was more famous than showman and nightclub owner Billy Rose.


Burnett and Alison could not have avoided hearing about Rose, and though there's no smoking gun for proof, the overlaps between Rose and the character of Rick Blaine are too many to be coincidental.


Here's my case,


  • Rose's famous and successful Billy Rose's Casa Mañana and Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclubs influenced the naming of Rick Blaine's nightclub. Rick's Café is named for its owner, just like Rose's clubs.
  • Rose and Bogart's Rick both toss off hardboiled one-liners. "What's your nationality?" the Nazi officer asks Rick. "I'm a drunkard," answers Bogart. Billy Rose told the newspapers, "I'm in a racket. I'm not supposed to have any friends," and Fortune magazine described Rose as "a cold, calculating little guy, who went into the theatre-restaurant business because he looked at it hard, decided that it was run by 'a bunch of waiters graduated into pin stripes,' and that he could make money in it because he was smarter. He hasn't been far wrong." 
  • However, despite their tough personas, Rose and Rick are both softies for songs. Bogart's Rick breaks down listening to "As Time Goes By." A 1939 New York Times profile of Rose asserted, "Hard as nails in a business deal, he is a sentimentalist at heart. An old song will raise a lump in his throat."
  • Rick's Cafe and Rose's nightclubs were havens for refugees from Nazi Europe. In January 1939, Rose produced a "Refugee Revue" show at his Casa Manana that featured refugee musicians and actors. The Times reviewed the show. In February, the Times again reported on Rose and refugees because he had donated his Casa Manana to a benefit for refugee children.
  • One of Rick's signature habits is that he never drinks with customers. Rose served liquor but did not drink it. "I've been selling the stuff for 20 years, and watching other people make jumping jacks of themselves," he said.

Finally, a Saturday Evening Post feature on Rose said he "looked like an undersized motion-picture gangster."


Get Bogart on the phone!

Starred Review from Library Journal



★ 08/01/2018


This comprehensive biography of Billy Rose (1899–1966), the ultimate "showman," vaudeville producer, husband to Fanny Brice (as well as four other marriages), is a compelling story of a man who had a talent for promoting the theatrical arts. Cohen (Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman) traces Rose's early days, his relationship with his mother, Fanny Rosenberg, whom he idolized, and his remarkable success in vaudeville and New York show business. Rose also nursed a desire to "add to his nightclub and producer credentials the role of Jewish hero." Affected by the Holocaust and the rise of anti-Jewish actions in Europe and anti-Semitism in the United States, he became an important supporter of Jewish movements and a great philanthropist of Jewish causes. For example, he donated his famed sculpture collection for a new sculpture garden designed by Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi to Jerusalem's Israel Museum. Rose's great success with the Israel Museum and his extraordinary wealth were for him the culmination of his extraordinary Jewish American life. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers interested in Jewish American culture and New York show business in the mid-20th century.—Herbert E. Shapiro, Lifelong Learning Soc., Florida Atlantic Univ., Boca Raton

Publishers Weekly, review of 07/13/2018

Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose, America's Great Jewish Impresario


Mark Cohen. Brandeis Univ, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-61168-890-0


Cohen—author of Overweight Sensation, a biography of 1960s comedian Allan Sherman—moves from the fringes of the entertainment world to the center of the action with a biography of show business legend Billy Rose, a songwriter, impresario, nightclub owner, art collector, and producer who for good measure was also a central figure in the American Jewish community of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Cohen ably describes Rose's mind-bending shows and productions, like a 1935 production entitled Jumbo that included horses, monkeys, and an elephant and was performed in New York City's Hippodrome, and a production for the Fort Worth Centennial featuring an outdoor-theater restaurant constructed on an artificial lagoon that boasted the world's largest revolving stage. Cohen also chronicles Rose's efforts to aid European Jews caught up in the vortex of WWII and to support the newly created Israeli government by, among other things, helping engineer a cloak-and-dagger arrangement to secure military arms. Although Cohen doesn't ignore Rose's penchant for tough dealing, or his celebrity divorces (one from the original Funny Girl, Fanny Brice), he focuses on Rose's successes and affectionately captures Rose's outsize personality. Readers will find Rose entertaining company. (Sept.)




Advance Praise

"A richly detailed, painstakingly researched, and highly absorbing critical biography of the great theater and music impresario Billy Rose. The story he tells is a once individual and universal, specifically Jewish and entirely American." — Noah Isenberg, Los Angeles Times-bestselling author of We'll Always Have Casablanca


"Once an impresario who orchestrated an unceasing string of show business successes, once an inescapable object of half a century of ballyhoo, Billy Rose has long needed to be rescued from the obscurity into which his singular career has sunk. Mark Cohen has now performed that salvage operation, with a mixture of judicious sympathy and critical detachment." Stephen Whitfield, author, In Search of American Jewish Culture

"A meticulously researched study of the impresario/philanthropist Billy Rose, a figure rich in contradictions: on the one hand, an anonymous altruist (working to rescue Jews from Nazism), on the other, a hard-nosed self-publicist, possessor of what Saul Bellow called 'a buglike tropism for celebrity.' Fascinating." Zachary Leader, author, The Life of Saul Bellow


"In the pages of this meticulously researched, probing and affectionate biography, Cohen grants Billy Rose the revival he deserves." Janis Freedman Bellow, Tufts University


"Mark Cohen's prodigious research and storytelling skills bring Rose to life in this literary and historical rescue mission." Eric Alterman, author, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One