Monday, June 24, 2013

MARY LIVINGSTONE: THE WOMAN BEHIND BENNY

My favorite comedian of all-time was Jack Benny. His personna of being a cheapskate, forever 39, and a bachelor was nothing further from the truth. Not only was he generous, but he always was married for many years to one woman - who was his partner on and off the stage. Mary Livingstone, born Sadie Marks on June 23, 1905,  was an American radio comedienne and the wife and radio partner of comedy great Jack Benny. Enlisted almost entirely by accident to perform on her husband's popular program, she proved a talented comedienne. But she also proved one of the rare performers – Barbra Streisand would prove to be another – to experience severe stage fright years after her career was established — so much so that she retired from show business completely, after two decades in the public eye, almost three decades before her death, and at the height of her husband and partner's fame.

Born in Seattle, but raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Livingstone's father was a Jewish immigrant from Romania. She came from a family of merchants and traders who had worked their way across Canada.  She met her future husband, Jack Benny, at a Passover seder at her family home when she was 14; Benny was invited by his friend Zeppo (b. Herbert) Marx while Benny and the Marx Brothers were in town together to perform. Sadie developed a near-instant crush on the funny, somewhat shy man eleven years her senior. But when he inadvertently insulted her by excusing himself for the night in the midst of her violin performance, she got her revenge the next night. She took three girlfriends to the theater where Benny performed, sitting in the front row and making sure not to laugh. Benny said later it drove him nuts that he couldn't get the four girls to laugh at anything.

Three years later, aged 17, Sadie visited California with her family while Jack Benny was in the same town for a show. Still nursing a small crush on the comedian, Sadie went to the theater to re-introduce herself to him. As he approached her in a hallway, she smiled and said, "Hello, Mr. Benny, I'm..." But he curtly cut her off with a "Hello," and continued on his way down the hall without pausing; she learned much later that when Benny was deep in thought about his work, it was nearly impossible to get his attention otherwise.

They met again a few years later — while she was said to be working as a lingerie salesgirl at a May Department Stores branch store in downtown Los Angeles — and the couple finally began dating. Invited on a double-date by a friend who had married Sadie's sister, Babe, Benny brought Sadie along to keep him company. This time, the couple clicked: Jack was finally smitten with Sadie and asked her on another date. She turned him down at first — she was seeing another young man — but Benny persisted. He visited her at The May Company almost daily and was reputed to buy so much ladies' hosiery from her he helped her set a sales record; he also called her several times a day when on the road.


As part of Benny's vaudeville act; she was still known as Sadie at the timeSadie took part in some of Jack's vaudeville performances but never thought of herself as a full-time performer, seeming glad to be done with it when he moved to radio in 1932. Then came the day he called her at home and asked her to come to the studio quickly. An actress hired to play a part on the evening's show didn't show up and, instead of risking a hunt for a substitute, Benny thought his wife could handle the part: a character named "Mary Livingstone" scripted as Benny's biggest fan.

At first, it seemed like a brief role — she played the part on that night's and the following week's show before being written out of the scenario. But NBC received so much fan mail that the character was revived into a regular feature on the Benny show, and the reluctant Sadie Marks became a radio star in her own right. Mary Livingstone underwent a change, too: from fan to tart secretary-foil; the character occasionally went on dates with Benny's character but they were rarely implied to be truly romantically involved otherwise. The lone known exceptions were a fantasy sequence used on both the radio and television versions of the show, as well as during an NBC musical tribute to Benny, in which Mary admitted to being "Mrs. Benny."

Livingstone soon enough displayed her own sharp wit and pinpoint comic timing, often used to puncture Benny's on-air ego, and she became a major part of the show, enough so that, giving in when she was addressed as "Mary Livingstone" often enough when out in public, she ended up changing her name legally to Mary Livingstone. Years later, her husband admitted how strange it felt to call her Sadie, even in private. They would also adopt a girl named Joan in 1939. Joan was always close to her father, but unfortunately did not have the same closeness with her mother.


Mary's trademark bit on the radio show, other than haranguing Benny, was to read letters from her mother (who lived in Plainfield, New Jersey), usually beginning with, My darling daughter Mary... and often including comical stories about Mary's (fictional) sister Babe – similar to Sadie's real sister Babe in name only – who was so masculine she played as a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers and worked in steel mills and coal mines; or, their ne'er-do-well father, who always seemed to be a half-step ahead of the law. Mother Livingstone, naturally enough, detested Benny and was forever advising her daughter to quit his employ.

Never all that comfortable as a performer despite her success, Livingstone's stage fright became so acute by the time the Benny show was moving toward television that she rarely appeared on the radio show in its final season, 1954-55. When she did appear, the Bennys' adopted daughter, Joan, occasionally acted as a stand-in for her mother; or Mary's lines were read in rehearsals by Jack's script secretary, Jeanette Eyman, while Livingstone's pre-recorded lines were played during live broadcasts. Livingstone made few appearances on the television version – mostly in filmed episodes – and finally retired from show business after her close friend Gracie Allen did in 1958.


George Burns revealed in his memoir Gracie: A Love Story (1988) that he and his wife and performing partner Gracie Allen loved Jack Benny, but merely tolerated Mary, whom they disliked. Lucille Ball felt the same way, referring to Mary as a "hard-hearted Hannah". Livingstone's relationship with their adopted daughter, Joan, was strained. In Sunday Nights at Seven (1990), her father's unfinished memoir that she completed with her own recollections, Joan Benny revealed she rarely felt close to her mother, and the two often argued.

Mary Livingstone's brother, Hilliard Marks (1913-1982), was a radio and television producer who worked primarily for his brother-in-law Jack Benny. After writing a biography of her husband, Mary Livingstone — whose surname is often misspelled without the 'e', as with her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contribution to radio — died from cardiovascular disease at her home in Holmby Hills, California on June 30, 1983, aged 78, hours after receiving a visit from then-First Lady Nancy Reagan, as daughter Joan noted, where the two women enjoyed a private manicure appointment, and seven days after her 78th birthday. "The doctor said it was a heart attack", Joan wrote, "but I have always felt she just gradually faded out of life."

Mary Livingstone is interred beside her husband in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. After Jack Benny died on Christmas Day 1974, he had Mary sent a rose every day for the rest of her life. In those years, it was estimated that Mary received 3200 roses. Mary Livingstone was truly the woman behind the man, no matter what her flaws...


22 comments:

  1. Thanks for the article. I love Jack Benny and Mary. I have been lucky enough to listen to them EVERY single night for the past five years when I go to sleep. The show never gets old.

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  2. I'm a baby boomer who recently found the Jack Benny program on Me TV. My parents used to watch and I would hear them laughing. Now I do the same. It is so clean cut compared to a lot of the shows that are blood and guts. Where did that life style go? I miss it!

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    1. I agree, and I used to watch the reruns as a small child!

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  3. I am enjoying "The Jack Benny Program," right now, much as I did when I was small. His antics would make me laugh, then, and do so (even moreso) now, over 50 years later.
    My favorites were his (supposedly) terrible violin-playing offerrings, and, of course, his faithful household helper, Rochester.
    Comedy was much more intelligently written back then... as they did not resort to filfth, etc., as is nowaday's first and seemingly only policy.
    We still love you, Mr. Benny!

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    1. Though I wasn't born until 1968, I thoroughly enjoy the comedy of Jack Benny (and Gracie Allen on the TV show she shared with her hubby). You are right, it was "intelligent."

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    2. unfortunately they did everything there was to do so well they left nothing for the newbies so they had to turn to raunch, so sad:, jack and mary and george and gracie are the best! Lucy who???

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  4. Thank you for this very informative article. I didn't know that they too adopted as did George & Gracie. For a long time, I have been fascinated by the friendship and love between Jack and George. I was very surprised to read what George allegedly wrote about his and Gracie's - and Lucy's - thoughts about Mary. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. There's nothing "alleged" here, Lisa. George vented his antipathy toward Mary even more brutally in "George Burns and the 100-Yard Dash," authored by celebrity writer Martin Gottfried. Published in 1996, "Dash" was a revealing, honest and unambiguous must-read for all George Burns fans.

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  5. Your article was fantastic I really did enjoy it it's funny how much you can find out about people by reading articles like this my family and I watch the Burns and Allen show and the Jack Benny show all the time on Antenna TV and we also listen to the radio programs on Sirius XM 148 Radio Classics it has sure been a pleasure my wife and I both feel we were born 10 years too late as much as we enjoy the TV and Radio programs and we were born in 1962. I know a lot of people our age enjoy this, thanks again for the wonderful insight and article.

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  6. Having grown up around the Plainfield(s) NJ I always get a kick out of hearing Mary and Jack mention the old place. I wonder if mom really liver there.

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  7. Born early 50's, I recall The Jack Benny Show as it originally aired. Having recently discovered the reruns on JLTV, i record each show and have a great laugh. I love the characters, skits and Jack Benny's dry humor especially when he pauses and looks out at the audience after a joke.

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  8. We listen to Jack Benny, Groucho, Burns and Allen, Amos and Andy, I Love A Mystery, Dragnet, Gunsmoke and many variety and music programs with big bands to the Grand Ole Opry, and all types of old time radio shows from the 1930's to about 1965 on KNLDJ Internet RADIO FREE AMERICA. On 24/7/365. The station has been programming since 1 April 2011. It's all FREE and you can listen on any device. Enter KNLDJ in Google.

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    1. Anon- Thank you very much for letting people know about where to listen to these shows. My wife & I live in Virginia & listen to WAMU from Washington, D.C.'s American University. WAMU is the NPR station, which has a program on Sunday nights called The Big Broadcast & it plays many of the popular radio programs that ran from the 1930s through the 1960s. The programs include Johnny Dollar, Jack Benny, Dragnet, Gunsmoke, Fibber McGee & Molly, Fred Allen, Father Knows Best, & so many more I'll run out of space listing them all. The evening is hosted by Tony Award winning playwright, lyricist, & Director, Murray Horwitz. While we're Baby Boomers, like many others here have noted, we like the fact that these programs use a smarter brand of humour rather than the nastier writing that sprung up in the 1960s & continues to appear today. The writers & performers of those times relied on keen timing & intelligence to exact the laughs from their audiences in those days that we prefer. DOn't get me wrong, the foul language & putdowns utilized by later comedy performers certainly has a place in the history of comedy, we would rather listen to the old time radio shows that the more common type of stand up & TV shows of today. I don't understand why that brand of humour is so popular now with its meanness, but it certainly has proved itself more popular than the things we would choose to hear & see. Oh well, times change & there's no stopping change, but it's nice to know that there's still a place for us Boomers to listen to what our parents grew up on instead.
      Since I don't know who you are, I can't thank you personally, but I sure do thank you & my wife will do so as well. Best wishes to you & yours, Anonymous!

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  9. For all I"ve read that no one other than Jack was very fond of Mary, and that she was only in show business thanks to their marriage, her performances always struck me as well done and her comic timing excellent. Of all things, I just came across her singing a comic duet with Phil Harris at 20:41 of this 1940 radio show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73J3xwZBrbA Not bad at all, kinda cute in fact

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  10. Other than the letters from her mom, most of Mary's lines are 'sneering jeers' of few words and less modulation. She suffers mightily compared to the other female cast like Verna Felton,(Dennis Day's mom) and the switchboard girls Bea Benadaret and Sara Berner who are laugh riots.

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  11. I met Jack in Montreal during Expo 67. He was stepping off an elevator on top of the French Pavilion and I almost bumped into him. I said "Hey, you're Jack Benny!" He said yes I am. He stuck out his hand and I shook it and for a few seconds he spoke with me as though we were old friends. He made me feel very good. Great and funny man!

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  12. It is sad, Mary is not here to answer. I enjoyed Jack and Mary together. They were a great team on radio and in real life husband and wife!

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  13. On Sundays at Seven, Joan did say that her mother was a very loyal friend and that she had a collection of friends (including Nancy Reagan and Fred de Corova's wife) who adore her. But when they thought that Sadie/Mary was putting on airs, they reminded her about the May Company. Her daughter also noted that Mary could be very generous.

    Frankly, I think that Mary/Sadie was a much better singer than Gracie Allen (but Gracie had better timing and was a better comedian. But as the author noted, Jack must have needed and wanted Sadie/Mary by his side professionally and personally-which is a testament of their loe and life together. And since Jack was one of the biggest stars of radio, that is a huge testament to his love for her.

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  14. Nothing "alleged" there, Lisa. Burns flat out said that. Read "George Burns and the 100-Year Dash" by the late Marin Gottfried. It's in there. "Dash" is the most honest, unambiguous, warts and all biography of Burns ever written. Gottfried's exhaustive research included surprisingly frank comments about the beloved, but very human Vaudeville legend, including rare statements from his children.

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    1. I find it hard to believe that Ronnie and Sandy, who were private people, would open up to their father's biographer about anything, nevermind such negative things. I read in a review about it that they, and George's friends, denied having spoken to Gottfried. Based on what I read in this review, it does come off as just another trashy biography.

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  15. That book was condemned by George Burns’ family and friends, as Gottfried allegedly wrote inaccuracies and things they hadn’t even said. After having read almost all of the George Burns bios and autobios, that is not the one to read. It comes off as, like the comment above says, a trashy book.

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  16. Not buying it at all. Mary was wonderful, I feel with her it made Jack so much better. The whole cast was perfect.
    Choose to believe what you want, but the simple fact that Jack sent Mary a rose everyday AFTER his death, says more than whatever was written or quoted by others about Mary.

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