With Jacob Kalich, her first husband, as her Svengali, Molly Picon rose to the heights to the Yiddish popular theater and then successfully made the crossover to Broadway, Hollywood and television. Born in Philadelphia in 1898 to Russian-Polish immigrant parents, she was a precocious extrovert who loved to perform and began winning five-dollar gold pieces at children's amateur-night contests at the age of 5. This led to the Columbia Yiddish Theater, where her mother was wardrobe mistress, and Molly was tapped to play Topsy. She eventually dropped out of high school in order to do more variety shows and vaudeville stints.
Picon met Kalich in the winter of 1918, during an influenza epidemic. He was managing director of Boston's Grand Opera House, overseeing a troupe of Yiddish actors. Her non-Jewish touring vaudeville act had been disbanded because of the epidemic, and she was stuck in Boston. Kalich's company needed a soubrette -- a young, flirtatious actress who could sing, dance and be a foil for the more serious leading lady. In the Yiddish theater this ingenue-soubrette was often called upon to play young boys as well. (Picon not only became famous for several of these roles, she continued to play them into her 50s.) She was cute, 95 pounds, 4-foot-11, a somersaulting bundle of energy and ambition, with an overflowing bag of "shtik" (tricks). Kalich hired her.
"I was the All-American Girl full of hurdy-gurdys and absolutely illiterate about Yiddish culture," Picon writes. Kalich, whom she calls Yonkel, "was the complete intellectual who knew not only classic Yiddish but its plays, theaters, and writers. He was my mentor who spoke to me in Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish and fractured English." Thus began the 57-year partnership that ended only with his death in 1975. Kalich groomed Picon for stardom, wrote plays for her, directed her, managed her and was her primary adviser. In addition, he was an important writer, director, manager and actor in his own right. His work, however, was not always well received by the Yiddish press, which seemed to feel he had betrayed his intellectual and artistic potential.
Picon's autobiography is drawn from the diaries she kept all her life. Unfortunately, it was written after Kalich died. She badly needed his advice and editing. One wonders what help she received from Jean Grillo, who shares authorship with her. It takes great resolution to slog through the first portion of this book, which is written in a cloying, breathlessly chatty, stereotypical Yiddish inflection. It appears that Picon is still trying to play the cute flirtatious soubrette. It doesn't fit with the times or her age.
Everything is "I" and "me." We are told over and over of her victories, her good notices, of the famous people who came backstage to kiss her, the crowds who idolize her. We are gorged with facts, where she went and what she did -- plays, theaters, benefits, radio shows, television appearances, industrial performances, salaries, bonuses and contract disputes. We get a number of famous personality anecdotes, some funny and some in poor taste, and we share all the details of buying, repairing and replanting Chez Shmendrick, their estate in Mahopac, N.Y. But we get no introspection, no real thoughtfulness. Her outward reaction to almost everything is a joke or wisecrack. And surprisingly, there are some gratuitiously snide comments as well. Being basically a cheerful, pragmatic individual, Picon seems to have left the deep thinking to Yonkel.
Gradually, however, if one perseveres, this record of an unusually full life and a rather disarming egocentric personality does grow on one. Picon is open and engagingly honest. The book really begins to show her human qualities when she details their brief marital breakup (in the early '40s) -- "Here was a man who was asking me to climb ropes and spin on roller skates but then denied me sex because he thought I was worn out!" And her account of their last years together, with Yonkel dying of cancer, conveys pain, urgency and even suspense as the birthdays and anniversaries tick by and they cling together, while one wonders how much longer it can last.
Well, it couldn't last, of course. Molly Picon is now a widow in her 80s. Though she no longer turns somersaults, she still seems to retain the incredible energy, cheerful outlook, zest for life, and personal ambition that propelled her all her life. She must indeed be a remarkable person if one can end up admiring and even liking her despite this wretchedly written book.