Biography of George M. Cohan, Irish American icon of American theater and Broadway’s greatest showman.
In June 1878, Irish immigrants Jeremiah and Helen Cohan halted their touring stage act and returned to their home in Providence, Rhode Island. On July 3, Helen gave birth to their second child: a son they named George Michael.
Life on the variety circuit kept little George (and his older sister Josephine) on the move and mostly out of school. Both youngsters showed promising stage talent early; Josephine became a skilled dancer, and George learned the violin quickly enough to play with the pit band before the age of ten. By the time George was 11 years old, he and Josephine were regular members of the family act.
The prestigious B. F. Keith circuit demanded between four and six performances of the family act per day. In contrast to his accommodating father, young George became infamous among casts and crews for his short temper and brash opinions. The dreams of Broadway fame that appeal to every actor’s heart settled furiously in George’s. He argued with his father about taking the family act to the Great White Way. Jeremiah refused to believe the act could ever please New York critics and thought it should stay on the road. George did the only thing a frustrated 14-year old could do: he tried to run away.
Thanks to an observant and wise stationmaster, George never made it past the train depot. Still, his determination to find stardom, and his father’s reluctance to split up the family, resulted in Jeremiah relenting and taking the whole shebang to New York City. The family act debuted in Manhattan at the Union Square Theater in 1893.
New York — The Performers’ Mecca
B.F. Keith was a dominant impresario who controlled many New York theaters. He insisted the family members perform separately to fill out his stage schedules. George bombed solo and Keith refused to book him thereafter. Conversely, Josephine’s dancing act became the toast of the town and she paid all the family’s bills during their first year in Manhattan.
Despondent, George turned to songwriting, haunting the music publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley until he published his first song. He soon had a string of minor hits popularized by vaudeville singers. He also began to get requests from actors to write skits and one-act plays. Jeremiah recognized his son’s burgeoning talents and put him in complete charge of the family act in 1895, at the tender age of 17. George’s work as a writer, composer, performer, and manager helped The Four Cohans become the highest paid four-act in vaudeville, eventually earning $1000 per week (an enormous sum for the time). During this zenith, George coined the famous curtain call line, “Ladies and gentlemen, my mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you!” Eventually, the inevitable train wreck of wills between George and B.F. Keith happened and the family made the jump to legitimate theater.
Writer and Composer Extraordinaire
George began to create the most significant body of work in the history of Broadway. He would author more that 50 plays (20 of them musicals) and establish a hallmark style of theatrical movement, flippancy, and gaiety. His breakout hit Little Johnny Jones (1905) gave us the unforgettable song, “Give My Regards to Broadway”, and foreshadowed an unequaled string of classic theatrical music comprising hundreds of original songs. Among them are “I’m a Yankee Doodle Boy”, “Mary is a Grand Old Name”, “Over There”, “You’re A Grand Old Flag”, “Hot Tamale Alley”, “You’re the Warmest Baby in the Bunch”, and “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All”. In 1911, George opened Cohan’s Theater on the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street.
Irish American to the Core
Theater historian John Bush Jones commented on Cohan’s cherished Irish roots by saying, “For Cohan, the spirit of Ireland thrives 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… [his] lyrics [often] extolled the Irishness of his title characters, while the melodies fused an Irish lilt with an American flair…”
A Stormy Private Life
George’s private life was as stormy as his public one. He met and married actress Ethel Levey in 1899. She was his equal in both ego and temperament but they each shone too brightly for the marriage to last long. They finally divorced in 1907 amid accusations of adultery. Ethel remained a star in her own right and raised their daughter, Georgette, on her own. Within months, George married a chorus girl named Agnes Nolan, with whom he had three children. This second marriage endured, and Agnes lived until 1972.
The Performer’s Performer
Cohan rarely let a promising idea die quietly. He was an exceedingly popular “show doctor” among theater folk, continually asked to “Cohanize” other’s songs and dialogue. An acting colleague, William Collier, described George aptly by saying, “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.” He could be professionally abrasive, but privately he was exactingly fair, empathetic, and generous with anyone in show business. Fellow actors made him a two-time Abbott at the Friar’s Club.
Mixing Business and Politics
George was a savvy businessman; his prolific output and astute management skills resulted in a near saturation of Broadway theaters by his works. It was George Cohan who first said to the press, “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right!”
Politically conservative, George chose to make his statements through his plays and music. In 1940, President Roosevelt received him at the White House to present him with a Congressional Medal for his contributions to the WWI effort by his songs “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”. To this day, he remains the only composer ever thus honored.
The End of a Glorious Career
Unfortunately, doctors diagnosed him with terminal stomach cancer shortly thereafter.
Such a long and successful career cried out for a fitting memorial, which came in the form of the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring the great James Cagney. The musical film biography was completed in 1942, and Cohan saw it a few weeks before his death. (Actually, he snuck out of the hospital several times to see it.) When interviewed shortly before his passing, a reporter asked how he felt looking back on his life. His answer was simple: “No complaints, kid. No complaints.” George passed away quietly in his beloved New York City on November 5, 1942.
Memorialized in Bronze
Today, while you stand in line for show tickets at the corner of Broadway and 47th Street, make sure to notice the life-size bronze statue of George M. Cohan, the man who owned Broadway.
- www.americaslibrary.gov (Library of Congress)