“Dick, did you ever think that Jack was maybe deep in the closet?” - Jonathan Winters asking Dick Cavett about Jack Paar
I've always been intrigued by Jack Paar. Regarded as an immensely important cog in Tonight Show history, his name was referenced heavily in 'Late Night' news items at the start of 2010. However, few during the last forty years have seen an episode of his show from beginning to end and even less understand why he was special. He had wit, class and a great ability for conversation. Many concede that it was Paar who truly put the 'talk' in the idiom 'talk show.'
He was also a nut.
One of Dick Cavett's first jobs in show business was working for Paar. "He was uniquely neurotic in a way that made [one] addicted to watching him," recalls Cavett. "Kenneth Tynan said ... in effect ... about Jack's electric, dangerous on-camera personality, 'No matter who's on camera - if it were ... the President or Cary Grant ... you still can't take your eyes off Jack for fear of missing a live nervous breakdown.' And it was true."
While reading Jack Paar's second book, My Saber is Bent (1961, Pocket Books), my mouth froze during chapter fourteen. I assumed the page heading, Fairies and Communists, was a tongue-in-cheek title that one needn't take seriously. This is, after all, a book written by a top television comedian. Instead, what it fed me was hitherto overlooked information about Jack Paar. Granted, this was the early sixties; an era when social mores allowed sexism, racism and homophobia to exist more or less unabated. That being said, there were several people that rejected such offensive conventions and the arts were often far more accepting. This is what makes the stance of Paar, by most accounts an erudite man, all the more difficult.
Paar was known for his many feuds. He sparred with columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, actor Mickey Rooney and fellow TV host Ed Sullivan. But perhaps Paar's greatest feud was one that has been completely ignored - his vocal hatred of and decade-long fight with - the homosexual community. In the pages of My Saber is Bent, Paar writes without apology about his disdain for gays in show business. He obviously worked very hard to cull a series of quotes from other respected pop culture figures that at some point made a disparaging remark about gays. Ernie Kovacs, Oscar Levant, George Jean Nathan and Alex King are all dragged into Paar's essay to further his cause. This is the bizarre chapter, Fairies and Communists, reproduced in its entirety. It is followed by a brief story on a confrontation that transpired between Jack and the gay community a few years later.
There used to be a time when it looked like the Communists were taking over show business. Now it's fairies. They operate a lot alike, actually; both have a tendency to colonize. Just as there used to be no such thing as one Communist in a play or movie, now there is no such thing as one fairy. Where you find one, you usually find a baker's dozen swishing around. I had a little game I used to play when I was an actor in Hollywood, back in the days when Communists or Communist sympathizers were nearly as plentiful in the film capital as yes-men. If I spotted someone in a picture who was a Communist or leftist, I could usually pick out several others. They always came in sets. Now I play it a different way. When I hear that some fairy is producing or directing or acting in a play, I can often name some of the rest of the cast, even if I've never heard it. But Communists and fairies do differ in some respects. The Hollywood Communists had their "Unfriendly Ten," who refused to testify before a Congressional Committee, but the fairies are overfriendly. They do say no occasionally. "When a fairy says no," Alex King has observed, "he almost throws his back out of joint." The poor darlings, as they sometimes call themselves, are everywhere in show business. The theater is infested with them and it's beginning to show the effects. "The New York theater is dying," the late Ernie Kovacs complained recently, "Killed by limp wrists."
The dance is a mecca for the gamboling third sex, which prompted Oscar Levant to observe that "ballet is the fairies' baseball." The movies have long been a happy hunting ground for them, and now they're starting to take over television. No TV variety show seems complete without a group of fairy dancers leaping about with balloons.
George Jean Nathan wrote long ago, "What we need is more actors like Jack Dempsey. Jack may not be much of an actor but his worst enemy cannot accuse him of belonging to the court of Titania." Alas, things have been getting worse ever since.
The increasing emasculation of our stage seems to stem in part from the influence of actors from England, where homosexuality is rampant in the theater. Kenneth Tynan, the British critic, has acknowledged the growth there of the theatrical phenomenon known as "camp" whose distinguishing feature, he says, is a marked inclination toward the dainty, the coy and the exuberantly fussy. "High comedy in England is nowadays hostage in the camp of camp," he lamented. "With each new season its voice gets shriller and its blood runs thinner."
Formerly playwrights were writing plays about fairies and now they're writing plays for them. There was a wonderful scene in Peter Pan when Mary Martin turned and asked the audience if they believed in fairies and they answered with an affirmative roar. I began to get worried when the cast started drowning out the audience.
Not only have homosexuals taken over a leading role in the theater, but the theme of homosexuality is becoming increasingly prominent on the stage as witness Advise and Consent, Compulsion, The Best Man and Tea and Sympathy, some of which have been produced on both the stage and screen. Recently, not one but two versions of the life of Oscar Wilde were showing in New York.
A half century ago Wilde was jailed and disgraced in England for "The love that dared not speak its name," yet today actors found guilty of the same offense become not only famous but honored. One of England's most noted actors and a popular American male singer have both been convicted of homosexuality without it adversely affecting their public lives or careers.
I first noticed the widespread prevalence of homosexuality in Hollywood, which boasted a Fairyland long before it had a Disneyland. Fresh out of the Army, and rather naive, it became as quite a shock to discover that some of Hollywood's biggest he-man stars were actually more interested in each other than in the glamorous actresses they made love to before the cameras. One virile looking Western star was such a gay Caballero that he had to be restrained from riding side saddle. Another gorgeous hunk of man, whom millions of girls sighed over, had his voice dubbed by another actor to disguise its girlish quality. Other male stars, known as AC-DC types, are ambidextrous and can't decide what to do when confronted by "His" and "Hers" towels. In New York they are prominent in all of the arts. They cavort in ballet. They flutter on the Broadway stage. And they are everywhere in television. Wherever there is one you will find others. They are highly organized and indefatigable at assisting each other.
Although fairies are usually cool toward women, for some reason they seem irresistibly attracted to comediennes. Perhaps being a comedienne is unnatural for a woman, like playing the bass fiddle or pole-vaulting, which may be the reason why they have such an attraction for the limp-wristed set. There always seems something terribly sad about many comediennes, for all their talent, as they are almost inevitably surrounded by these demimales. I once mentioned on such famous comedienne to a friend of mine. "She is terribly amusing," the friend said. Then he added, wistfully: "Of course, she has no alternative."
Once Wilson Mizner, the noted wit, was having lunch at a New York hotel with Marshall Neilan, the director. At an adjoining table were several fairies, giggling as gaily as four suburban housewives having butterscotch sundaes at Schraffts. Annoyed by the girlish carrying-on, Mizner began directing audible disparaging remarks at the group. The giggling died away and the group began to direct some cold glares at Mizner and Neilan. Still Mizner continued to aim his loud barbs until violence seemed imminent. Neilan suddenly became philosophical. "Wouldn't it be strange," he mused, "if on Judgment Day it turned out they were right?" I feel quite sure it won't - but that's their problem. I just wish they would leave show business alone, and stop leaping about with their balloons on television.
We occasionally have fashion shows on our program so I've had a chance to observe at firsthand the havoc that limp-wristed designers and hair dressers and make-up men have wrought upon once beautiful girls. When they finish accentuating the hollow cheeks, the pallor and the blue circles under the eyes, the models look less made-up than embalmed. One night a group of them trooped out modeling bathing suits and they were so skinny and unfeminine I thought it was the mile relay team from the YMCA. Gradually I've become so accustomed to seeing these bony, boyish figures that I was pleasantly surprised one night when one model appeared displaying a full-blown figure with ample curves. Later I commented backstage on how rare it was now to see a model with curves. Our wardrobe lady chuckled cynically. "When she took off that bathing suit and dropped it on the floor," she said, "it bounced for five minutes."
Another lovely girl who managed to escape the ministrations of the fairy Svengalis is the 1961 Miss Universe, Marlene Schmidt. She is a tall, ravishing blonde with a figure like God intended woman to have, without alterations by Slenderella or some delicate designer. I asked her measurements and she told me they were 95-45-95! This was in centimeters, it turned out, but even measured in inches her endowments were opulent. The reason she still possessed her naturally lovely figure and rosy-cheeked, healthy face, I discovered, was that she was a recent refuge from East Germany and our fairy fashion fraternity hadn't gotten their clutches on her yet. Because of all this I've started my campaign to save our starving models by sending them CARE packages. For Christmas I plan to send my friends cards with notes saying that donations in their names have been made to Jinx Falkenburg.
I hope that all red-blooded men will rally to my crusade to have girls look like girls again. If we show our determination I'm sure that women will throw off the tyranny of fairy designers. They have nothing to lose but their falsies. Meantime, I must go now and give a blood transfusion to Suzy Parker
- Jack Paar, December 1961, My Saber Is Bent - Chapter 14 - Fairies and Communists (1961, Pocket Books)
It's interesting to hear Paar complain about "the exuberantly fussy." When Jack Paar first took over The Tonight Show in 1957, his sidekick was a wonderful character actor that carved an entire career out of playing "the exuberantly fussy." Franklin Pangborn, regularly cast as a hotel clerk, tailor or an eager-to-please bank manager was a familiar comic face in the RKO musicals of the thirties and forties. The various snippets written about Pangborn over the years refer to these fussy and prissy characters that were, indeed, coded homosexual portrayals. I can't help but wonder if Paar referring to "the exuberantly fussy" is taking a dig at his one-time sidekick. Pangborn's stint with Paar did not last long. Most accounts state it was because Pangborn, an often hilarious heel to W.C. Fields in old pictures, was not funny when he had to act as himself. Perhaps, after reading this essay, there was another reason he wasn't retained as Paar's sidekick.
Twelve years after this book, Paar was still complaining about homosexuals and making jokes about the gay movement on his new ABC program Jack Paar Tonite. By the early seventies homosexuals were far more vocal as a minority group. Gays joined the chorus of African-Americans, Native-Americans and women that were vocally demanding equal rights. In 1973, Jack Paar wrote a column for The New York Times denouncing adults that instill racist values in their children. It was ample opportunity for a letter writer to point out Paar's hypocrisy.
To The Editor:
We agree with Jack Paar ("Will Johnny Be Up to Paar) that "every time you tell a kid a word like 'spade' you haven't accomplished anything good." One word that Paar himself seems addicted to is "fairy." Let him try it out on some of the homosexuals he knows ...
We guess that those of us in the Gay movement he calls "amateur fairies" will have to go on battling until "professionals" like Paar are forced to shut their bigoted yaps - in print and on the airwaves. We clocked an average of five anti-homosexual jokes on each of his first week's shows. Paar, we think, is not the fellow to talk about dignity.
Gay Activists Alliance
New York City
Jack Paar Tonite was floundering in the ratings. Paar couldn't seem to figure out why. ABC's then vice-president, Tom Mackin, remembers, "He telephoned me one day to ask if I had any thoughts on the show. I wanted to tell him he was up to his old campaigns against marijuana, long hair and other manifestations of the sixties. It was as though he had been asleep for ten years - had never seen The Graduate, Hair or All in the Family. He and his TV guests still used such terms as 'fairies,' 'dykes' and 'fags.' The Gay Activist Alliance announced it would picket the theater where Paar's show aired. In a letter to Paar that reached my desk, the GAA said, 'In the course of one week you have managed to offend and infuriate 20 million Americans with a barrage of anti-homosexual jokes and innuendos.' Privately, I thought that if 20 million people were watching the show, I would encourage Paar to keep it up. The audience was about half that size. But I also wanted to tell him that doing 20 minutes on the size of Goldie Hawn's breasts no longer shocked TV audiences ... but being in the public relations business, I said none of these things. As the ratings plummeted, Paar called me several times to ask me what I thought of this program or that. I sensed that he did not want advice ..."
Paar was no coward, however, and he also knew how to create compelling television. Paar said he would invite two members of the GAA to come on Jack Paar Tonite to explain why he "and other entertainers should not call homosexuals 'fairies,' 'dykes' and 'fags." During the episode that aired February 28, 1973, Paar actually apologized for his deluge of anti-gay remarks. This infuriated Nicholas von Hoffman, a Washington Post commentator and regular contributor to 60 Minutes. He felt it was despicable of Paar to invite such characters on his show while "permitting their opinions to go unchallenged." Clearly Hoffman had never read the book My Saber is Bent. Jack Paar restrained from further anti-gay remarks, although one could argue that was because his show was canceled shortly thereafter. He no longer had a forum to spout his opinions and was increasingly viewed as an anachronism. It seems unlikely that he had truly changed his attitude after speaking with members of the GAA. Jack Paar never shirked from exposing the potentially uncouth thoughts swimming through his subconscious. He was an intriguing guy, any way you look at it.
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