Milton Ebbins; Liaison To Kennedys, Hollywood
Friday, April 4, 2008
Milton Ebbins, a well-connected show business manager who was a liaison between Hollywood and the Kennedy White House, died March 4 of a heart ailment at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 96.
Mr. Ebbins was a well-liked Hollywood insider who directed the careers of actors, musicians and comedians. For more than 30 years, he was the personal manager of actor Peter Lawford.
Through Lawford, who was married to Patricia Kennedy, a sister of John F. Kennedy's, Mr. Ebbins became a favorite of JFK's and a frequent guest at the White House and on Air Force One. At Kennedy's 45th birthday party in 1962, Mr. Ebbins gave Marilyn Monroe a push onstage at Madison Square Garden as she went out to sing her sultry version of "Happy Birthday."
He was a Zelig-like figure who was present at many celebrated events -- he stayed at the White House after Kennedy's assassination in 1963 -- and was a masterly storyteller who was often quoted in Hollywood biographies because of his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood lore. Far from being a loose-lipped tattletale, Mr. Ebbins was a trusted adviser who shepherded the careers of artists as diverse as jazz bandleader Count Basie, comedian Mort Sahl and teenage actress Patty Duke, and he became a close friend of Frank Sinatra and other Hollywood figures.
"He was the guy behind the scenes keeping it all together for these stars," said Anita Busch, a longtime friend and journalist.
In the late 1950s, Lawford was hoping for a Hollywood comeback when he bought a script about some Army buddies planning a heist. He tried in vain to sell the project to movie studios until Mr. Ebbins helped bring Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals on board.
The result was the high-spirited "Ocean's Eleven," filmed in Las Vegas in 1960 with the five core members of the Rat Pack -- Sinatra, Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Joey Bishop. Two years later, Mr. Ebbins helped coordinate production of a second Rat Pack movie, "Sergeants 3."
Mr. Ebbins served as a link between Hollywood and the White House and accompanied Monroe to the New York dinner party where she first met the president. He said Monroe sneaked past photographers in a red wig and kerchief.
Once, while visiting the White House, Mr. Ebbins was pointedly ignored by Cabinet officers and other Washington officials who had no idea who he was. The ice was broken when Kennedy entered the room and bellowed, "Hi, Miltie, baby!"
Mr. Ebbins was born Feb. 20, 1912, in Springfield, Mass. His father was a tailor who once hand-delivered a specially made coat to Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.
After briefly attending Amherst College in Massachusetts, Mr. Ebbins got his start in show business as a trumpeter, bandleader and songwriter. By 1940, he had left the stage to be the road manager for Basie, whom he called "the nicest man I ever met."
Mr. Ebbins later became a personal manager, or someone who "guides an artist through the pitfalls of the entertainment business," said his son Gary Ebbins, also a manager. Mr. Ebbins later managed the careers of singers Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Vic Damone and actress Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the 1960s TV comedy "Bewitched."
But his closest professional relationship was with Lawford. On May 19, 1962, when Kennedy's 45th birthday was being celebrated at New York's Madison Square Garden, Mr. Ebbins was backstage in Monroe's dressing room. He helped her slip into a form-fitting pink gown, which two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson described as "skin and beads."
The habitually tardy Monroe was introduced by Lawford as "the late Marilyn Monroe," as Mr. Ebbins, standing in the wings, gave her a shove onstage, where she made "Happy Birthday" practically a song of seduction.
Less than three months later, she was dead. Mr. Ebbins, who was among the first people to learn of Monroe's death, adamantly maintained that she died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
Earlier in 1962, Mr. Ebbins unsuccessfully tried to broker a reconciliation between Lawford and Sinatra after President Kennedy canceled an invitation to visit Sinatra's home in Palm Springs. After Lawford broke the news to Sinatra, Mr. Ebbins tried to keep peace between the Rat Packers, telling Sinatra that the president could not risk staying at the home of someone who had been photographed with gangsters. Sinatra never forgave Lawford or the Kennedys and did not attend Lawford's funeral in 1984.
Mr. Ebbins continued to counsel show business personalities throughout his life and at the time of his death was developing a multipart series on the Kennedy assassination with actor Bill Paxton for HBO.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 67 years, singer Lynne Sherman, both of Los Angeles.