Goodbye Mrs. Calabash
In a million American homes, the radio was on. Over it came the sounds of an orchestra, blaring out the raucous, joyous music that heralded the end of the program. Behind it the sound of applause could be heard, the last lingering echoes of laughter. Then, cutting through the noise, close to the mike—a voice. Husky, infinitely tender, the voice said: “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are!” Who was Mrs. Calabash? All America wanted to know. Those near Jimmy maintained it was a woman who was with him more than twenty years. Her name was Jeanne. Jeanne Durante. She was dead.
It began, of course, with a nose.
Even when Jimmy Durante was an undersized child, his nose was big—and old. Other children on the dirty New York Street pointed at the nose, made cruel jokes about it and its owner, and dared each other to pinch it and run.
The little boy Jimmy felt himself a thing set apart, a freak. How could he have been born, he wondered, to his father, Bartolomeo the barber, the elegant, dignified gentleman with the stunning mustacheo of his calling? How could he be the product of his mother, queenly beautiful Rose? Having, by some miracle, been born to these two, could he, in his ugliness, actually be loved by them? Jimmy Durante had a deep need for love—for more love than most people could stand. The too-small eyes peered out past the nose at the world, begging for love from anyone—strangers, animals, poets and gunmen. Eventually, it didn’t matter how much love he had. He wanted—no, he needed—more and more and more.
In 1910, when Jimmy was seventeen, times were hard. He heard of a job playing piano at a beer hail in Coney Island. To his surprise, his audition was successful. He was offered twenty-five dollars a week—a stupendous salary.
It was a lot of money to the Durante family. But to Jimmy, the real riches of the job were not to be counted in cold cash. He had received them on his first night at work when, after playing a group of songs, he swung nervously around on his piano stool to face his audience and found smiling faces and applauding hands. He saw them, and for a long time, that was enough.
And they didn’t even seem to see his nose.
Could a girl love him?
He became a very popular man. For the first time he almost believed he might be loved. He actually got up the courage to fail in love himself—and to tell the girl he cared for her. When she turned him down, it never occurred to him to find it ludicrous. After all, he was Jimmy the Nose. Doubtless he had gotten too confident, expecting a woman—any woman—to want him.
He got a job at a bigger place, The Alamo, and hired a band to play jazz with him. Sometimes he’d even heckle the other musicians with jokes and cracks. The audiences went for that. They would laugh and applaud and come back night after night to hear Durante’s New Orleans Jazz Band. Afterward he would play cards or drink beer or just talk to the guys. They never failed him, never turned him down.
And then one day a girl named Maud Jeanne Olson walked into The Alamo and asked for a job singing with the band.
Why he said yes, Jimmy never knew. The girl was a soprano, and sopranos hardly ever went over with his audience—they liked loud, deep-voiced, deep-chested singers. This girl was slight, with red hair and a pretty, quiet face, and a voice of delicate beauty. But her eyes shone, and she tossed her hair back when she sang, and in the middle of a song she broke off and said to Jimmy, “Who ever told you you could play the piano?” He started to laugh—she laughed—and by the time they were ready to finish the song, she was hired.
She was the first real lady he had ever met.
At first he was simply lost in admiration, her tiny hands and feet, her clear mid-western diction, of her neat, attractive clothes. She was a lady—and yet not a saint, not an angel. A lady with a quick temper, a sharp wit, a talent so forceful it quieted the rowdy Alamo crowds with the first notes and held them spellbound through her songs. A lady as wildly in love with performing as he was.
A miracle personified.
Very diffidently, after a show, Jimmy suggested that they go out for something to eat. To his everlasting gratitude, Jeanne agreed. Over hamburgers and coffee, he fell in love for the second time.
Only this time, of course, he had better sense than to say so. Yet he wondered what would a girl like Jeanne do if she suspected? True, she went out with him for coffee almost every night—but then, he was her boss. Possibly she was afraid to offend him lest he fire her.
He pushed his luck a little. He asked her to go to a show with him—it would be the first time he had ever been inside a legitimate theater.
At the appointed time, she walked to the corner they had agreed on, and there she stopped, stared at him, and planted her small fists on her hips.
“Are you going to the show with me?” she demanded.
Jimmy stared at her. “Who else?”
Her gaze traveled coolly over him. “In a cap and a sweater? No, thank you. Some other time, Mr. Durante!”
And she turned on her heel and walked off.
For a full minute, Jimmy stood looking after her, his face crimson. It had never occurred to him to buy a shirt and tie for the occasion—fool that he was, he had embarrassed Jeanne, humiliated himself, ruined his chances with her forever. If the pavement had opened and swallowed him up, it would have been fine. Just fine.
And then he blinked. She had walked out on him. Without a moment’s hesitation—she’d turned her back and stalked off. Didn’t that prove she wasn’t afraid of making him mad? It had to! In that case—
In that case, all those other times she’d gone with him—it must have been because she wanted to. Because she liked him.
No happier man
There was, in all of New York, no happier man than Jimmy Durante as he stood on the Street corner and tore up the expensive orchestra tickets to the Hippodrome Theater.
The next day, he bought shirts and ties.
He never wore a cap again.
After that, they began to see each other of ten. There were shows together, long walks, evenings spent talking. There were shared jokes: Jeanne’s heckling of Jimmy when he played the piano, the time he turned around suddenly and caught her waddling behind him in imitation of his walk—and knew without asking that there was no unkindness in the gag. And yet—she had other dates. There was one other fellow she saw often, a man who took her out for coffee almost as often as Jimmy did. Did she really like him? Was it just coincidence that almost every time she went out with him she would walk him past the window of a room where Jimmy and a group of friends played cards? Was she trying to rub it in—or to make him jealous? If she wanted to make him jealous, surely that meant she was serious about him. But how could that be? He was so ugly, she so beautiful. He could hardly speak English—she was so refined, so cultured—
Half in ecstasy, half in agony, he let time drag on.
In the winter of 1920, Jeanne became ill. She had an operation, then went home to her family in Detroit to recover. With painstaking attention to spelling and grammar, Jimmy wrote to her. Immediately, Jeanne answered. With a pen in his hand and his homely face invisible across the miles, Jimmy felt more at ease than he had ever been with her. Into his letters went more of his life, more of his heart than he had ever shown before. The answers came quickly, as warm as his own. They awoke hope so great it frightened him.
This time he didn’t think he would recover if hope lied. Nor could he bear the suspense any longer.
On the day Jeanne returned from Detroit, he asked her to marry him.
“Why, Jimmy,” she said. “Whatever took you so long?”
They were married in church—Jimmy in the clothes Jeanne had told him were proper, Jeanne in a brown flowered dress she had made herself. They were both in their late twenties.
After the wedding, a party was held. All the people from the Alamo were there, waiters, singers, musicians, steady customers.
“It’s a pity you don’t have time for a honeymoon,” someone said to Jeanne.
She looked around at the hundreds of friendly, well-known faces. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Working with Jimmy and everyone is like a honeymoon in itself. I won’t mind going back to work tomorrow night.”
She stopped short when she saw Jimmy staring at her. “Why, honey,” he said. “Listen. I thought you knew. I wouldn’t let you work after you’re married. Why, Jeanne. That—that ain’t anything for a lady to do.”
Jeanne glanced around. Then she took Jimmy’s arm. She pulled him over to a quiet corner. “Jimmy,” she said, “what are you talking about? Why should I quit? I love singing. It’s been my whole life till now. I like working with you. And you think I’m talented, you know you do—”
“Honey, honey,” he said. “I think you’re great. Only—don’t you see, Jeanne? I mean, you’re the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I got to be worthy of you. I want to give you everything. Diamonds. Fur coats. A beautiful house. Everything you want—”
“I want you, and to sing. That’s all.”
“Naw, naw,” Jimmy said. His eyes were anguished. “Jeanne, you gotta let me give you everything. And—and you’re not well enough to work all night like you used to. You gotta protect your health. Please, Jeanne. Please—”
The tragedy begins
She had never heard him so anguished, so in earnest before. She was a bride of a very few hours; she was very much in love. With tears in her eyes, she nodded her head. “All right,” she said.
She turned her head away. “I—promise.”
“Aw, honey,” he said. “You’ll be so glad. You’ll see.”
“Only—what will I do with myself?” she whispered. “What will I do?”
“You’ll fix up a place for us. You’ll have babies. And listen. You’ll help me manage my career. You know, make plans for it and figure out what a contract is talking about and all that stuff I don’t understand. You’d be great at that. Wouldn’t you, huh?”
She kept her head turned. Finally, muffled, she said, “Yes. I could help you. I could do that—”
“Sure,” Jimmy cried. “You’ll be the brains, I’ll be the breadwinner. Now smile. Come on. We just got married.”
Jeanne looked up. She saw the relief in his eyes. She smiled.
And so they collaborated in what was to be the great tragedy of their marriage.
The next night, Jimmy went back to work. Jeanne stayed at home in the furnished room they had rented. It wasn’t too bad at first. She would wait up for him at night, perform cooking miracles on a tiny stove—she was ambidextrous, and would delight Jimmy with her stirring and basting feats employing both hands—and then, when they had eaten, they would sleep all day. But gradually the walls of the tiny room seemed to close in on Jeanne; she was used to the bustle and noise and excitement of the clubs and stages in which she had worked.
“Jimmy—I’m so restless. I’m going nuts here!”
He didn’t know that she was waiting for him to say, “All right, honey. Come back to work.”
Instead, he looked around and nodded. “Yeah. No wonder. I’m gonna find us a bigger place.”
He rented a larger apartment in a better neighborhood. It meant his taking on extra work, and Jeanne’s finding a boarder to help meet the higher rent, but it never occurred to him to doubt that, in handsome new surroundings, Jeanne would be happy. So what if he had to work all night and well into the morning now? It was worth it.
But now Jeanne had a larger house to clean, a boarder to provide with linens, meals, a home. all day she shopped, cooked, cleaned. At night she waited up for Jimmy. At the end of a few months, she was exhausted. She began to fail asleep long before Jimmy came home. In the morning, when she rose to get at her chores, he was snoring peacefully. At the end of the day, he would get up, eat what she fixed for him, and leave again for work.
They were together for perhaps an hour and a half in twenty-four.
But they were still in love, still trying to do what each assumed was best for the other. During those snatched hours together, Jeanne held firmly to her part in her husband’s career. At her urging, Jimmy asked for, and received a badly needed raise. At her constantly repeated suggestion, he eventually nerved himself to try for what Jeanne told him was the world in which he belonged—the world of large, sophisticated clubs—the world that had as its center, the glittering stages of Broadway. He quit The Alamo. For a while he was out of work. For a while he played other clubs no better than that one. Once he even went back. But finally he landed a better job at a far better place.
“You see?” Jeanne cried. “Listen to me, Jimmy. You’ve got real talent—you’re more than a piano player. You’re going to be a comedian, to go places!”
Almost, she was content with her role in their lives.
One summer, Jeanne’s folks bought a camp on a California lake. For three months, Jeanne’ and Jimmy stayed there. It was the honeymoon they had never had; it was a world neither had ever known. They lived in jeans and old shirts, fished for their food. They were together and alone, twenty-four hours a day. When they left, it was, to Jeanne, like walking away from heaven. She began to talk wistfully of leading a simpler life, of moving to California some day. Neither she nor Jimmy fully understood that what she really wanted was not life in a fishing-camp—but the husband who was slipping away from her.
But there was nothing she could do to hold him.
Back in the city, they resumed their life—coming together briefly every day, parting for the long hours in which Jimmy entertained and Jeanne sat home. More money was coming in now. As soon as it was in his hand, Jimmy had to spend it—on Jeanne. Whatever her troubles, he thought, they’d be cured by having what every woman wanted—a home of her own. He bought a little house at the end of a wooded Street in Long Island. It would remind Jeanne, he thought, of the fishing camp at Clear Lake, where they had been so happy. Everything would be perfect now.
And so, with the best intentions in the world, he installed her in the lonely little house on the Island—where he could no longer even rush home for an unexpected half-hour in the evening, where their precious time together was cut still further by the hours of traveling it cost him to get home.
The next summer, Jimmy found a job for three months at a resort in the Catskills.
“It sounds wonderful,” Jeanne said. “I’ll take a room there, of course—”
“Baby, you can’t. It’ll cost everything I’ll make, and we gotta pay for the house.”
Her eyes filled with the tears that came more and more readily these days. “But I want to be with you. I can’t stay here alone—”
“Why don’t you go to California for a while and stay with your folks. You know how you love that place!”
“Honey, we ain’t millionaires. We gotta have money!”
She knew he didn’t want it for himself. He had no interest in money, or what it bought—except in so far as it paid for her pleasures. It never occurred to him that her joys, like his, were not to be bought with money. He was obsessed with the idea of proving himself worthy of her in the only way he knew. In a sense the tragedy came about because he could never believe that anyone could want, out of the whole world, only his company.
So Jeanne went to California for the summer. It was their first separation. She came back from it with two dreams, neither new. One was that Jimmy would take her there to live. The other was that he would ask her to work with him again.
Instead, he found a new way to make Jeanne happy. He opened up a night club with a friend, Eddie Jackson. It was Prohibition time then; little clubs all over New York served bootleg liquor and priceless entertainment to customers who ranged from Chicago mobsters to society leaders. The Club Durante was an immediate success—within months, Jimmy was bringing home the first real money he had ever earned.
That is, when he had time to go home.
When the club had been running for a while, Jimmy took on a third partner. His name was Lou Clayton; he was a great dancer, a shrewd businessman, a loyal lifelong friend—and the crowning blow to the Durantes’ staggering marriage.
For with Lou’s coming, Jimmy moved into a new life.
Lou had big ideas—and he knew how to make them work. He knew how to turn Jimmy into one of the world’s greatest comics, how to make a good night club into the most important in New York, how to blend a clever floor show into the top entertainment the East Coast had to offer.
To do it, all he needed was all of Jimmy’s time and all of his trust. There was no question of his being worthy of those things.
It was only that it left nothing for Jeanne Durante—nothing she could even pretend was a share in her husband’s life.
At first she fought bitterly and desperately against Lou—his friendship for Jimmy, his ideas, even his successes. When time after time Lou was proved right, when his schemes worked, when Jimmy started to become, under his management, a truly wealthy man—she gave up fighting. She never gave up caring.
In the fifteen years when Clayton, Jackson and Durante were the most famous entertaining trio in the world, Jeanne Durante spoke to Lou Clayton only once. And that was to say that he was destroying her.
More and more she withdrew into herself. She had never been afraid of anything; now she was afraid of everything. All night, alone in the house in Flushing, she sat among the expensive furnishings Jimmy bought her, and trembled. After a while she began to lock the bedroom door, to barricade herself inside. One night while Jimmy was on stage, a waiter interrupted his act.
“It’s your wife, Mr. Durante. She’s on the phone. Says it’s an emergency.”
He hurried to the phone. “Jeanne?”
“Jimmy—I—I’ve got to go to the bathroom. I’m so frightened to leave the room, Jimmy. Please—stay on the phone till I get back and tell you I’m all right. . . .”
It became a nightly occurrence.
It was, of course, inevitable that sooner or later Jeanne Durante would begin to drink.
It was inevitable that when she had irrevocably lost her health, Jimmy would finally wake up to his wife’s real needs, to the destruction he had so lovingly wrought. And by then, of course, it was too late.
Once, during the long slow years when Jimmy and Jeanne lived in California and Jimmy made his series of bad, degrading movies, he boarded a train one night without telling her. He didn’t even care where he went by then. He was running—only running not from her but from himself.
For by now he believed he had destroyed the high-spirited girl with the lovely voice, the girl who had laughed and tossed her hair, the girl to whom he had planned to give the world.
It seemed he had taken the world away from her, and given instead, a stone.
In 1947, when Jimmy’s income was almost nil, when Jeanne’s tears and protests prevented him over and over from accepting engagements at the New York and Chicago clubs where he was still loved and remembered, Lou Clayton got an offer for Jimmy to do two weeks’ worth of work in New York. He would net, Jimmy was told, eleven thousand dollars.
“I can’t do it,” he said. “Jeanne’s sick.”
Standing beside him, weak and ill, Jeanne said quietly, “If you leave me this time, Jim, you will never see me alive again.”
“I’m not going,” her husband said. “I won’t go. Let the bills wait a while longer. I won’t leave you.”
They sat together silently, the woman who kept her beloved husband from the work he loved and needed, the man whose penance had already begun. What they thought then, neither ever told the other. But an hour later, Jeanne Durante turned to her husband.
“Jimmy, I’ve changed my mind. It will do you good to go, and we do need the money. Take it, Jimmy. I want you to.”
When he had been gone for four days, she died.
He went back to Los Angeles to bury her, a lost, bewildered man. He began, after that, a life that lacked only the hair shirt and knotted scourge of the penitant. In every way that a man can cry, “Forgive me,” Jimmy Durante asked pardon. He haunted the places where memories lurked. Every Sunday he went to her grave to weep.
And above all, he kept his tortured mind and heart turned upon his mistakes, upon his errors, upon his guilt.
Even into the one part of his life that had been happy, his work, he brought his sorrow.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are. . . .”
How she had loved being called “Mrs. Calabash.” It was the one thing that always made her laugh. Once, when they were touring upper New York State, they’d visited a town that Jeanne fell in love with. Jimmy, unable to pronounce its name, called it “Calabash.” And, because of Jeanne’s love for the town, he’d nicknamed her “Mrs. Calabash.”
Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash. Forgive me. Goodnight.
He was free now to work—and no longer free to enjoy it.
He clung desperately now to the love of his friends—and knew always that it was partly that love that had killed his wife.
A year later, he met Margie Little.
She might have been Jeanne again.
She was red-haired, a singer, a lady—and a sprite. She had Jeanne’s once-light heart, Jeanne’s way with a joke.
If he had been anyone but Jimmy Durante, he would have known he was in love again. If he had been anyone but Jimmy Durante, he would have seen Margie and her love for him as his chance to start over.
But it was Jimmy Durante, who couldn’t believe he deserved another chance.
Who thought the rest of his life would be too short to be sorry enough for the mistakes of the past.
Who believed that loving him could lead only to disaster.
Who had promised Jeanne’s mother that he would never marry again.
Time and time again, he tried to put new love away from him.
Somehow, it wouldn’t go.
Somehow, Margie continued to wait.
And Jimmy to suffer.
And then one day in 1959, when Jeanne had been dead for seventeen years, Jimmy Durante woke up and knew that the burden had been lifted from his heart.
The reason, he never knew. Maybe penance is finite—that it is meant to last only a certain number of years and then end.
The reason didn’t really matter.
At the end of 1959, Margie accepted his proposal of marriage, and set a date for the summer of 1960.
The papers carried the announcement; they gave only the dates, the names, the facts.
They left out the most important line.
They left out the words that ended the past, and opened the door of the future.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are. Goodnight—and, at last, goodbye.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JULY 1960