George Jessel, 83, a former star of stage, screen and radio and an after-dinner speaker, fund-raiser and professioal host of such enduring popularity that he became known as "the toastmaster general" of the United States of America, died of cardiopulmonary arrest Sunday at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Mr. Jessel, who began his career as a 9-year-old appearing in a vaudeville act that included Walter Winchell, remained active on the personal appearance circuit until the end of his life, and he had no plans to retire. He returned to Los Angeles from Florida two weeks ago.
A friend of many of the great and the near-great in show business and out of it, Mr. Jessel was known to five presidents.Among the stars with whom he appeared were Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Fannie Brice. He was proud of owning a watch given him by General of the Army Omar H. Bradley and of a walking stick he received from President Harry S. Truman, who also bestowed on him the title of "toastmaster general."
One of his three wives was Norma Talmadge, a goddess of the screen world in her day and, by Mr. Jessel's account, the great love of his life. In fact, there were times when Mr. Jessel's fortunes in love receive more attention that his prowess as an entertainer. His third wife was Lois Andrews, a 16-year-old showgirl whom he married in 1940 when he was 44.His name was linked with such beauties as Rita Hayworth. In 1961, when he was 63, Mr. Jessel settled a paternity suit by admitting that he had fathered a child by actress Joan Tyler and agreed to pay $500 a month in child support.
But none of these involvements slowed down his schedule of appearances. It is estimated that Mr. Jessel traveled as much as 8,500 miles each week to make 200 appearances a year at the height of his career. For years, he journeyed overseas to entertain U.S. servicemen. Visiting Korea during the war there, he jumped out of a helicopter, was injured and received the Purple Heart. He made several trips to Vietnam and was an outspoken supporter of the American war effort there. He frequently appeared in military uniform, calling it his U.S.O. outfit. Mr. Jessel also was a strong supporter of the State of Israel.
His politics were such that in 1971, a month after The Washington Post and The New York Times had published the Pentagon Papers, he made a television appearance on the "Today Show" and compared both newspapers to Pravda, the official journal of the Soviet Communist Party. Edwin Newman, then the host of the show, demonstrated with him and got him off the air.
In 1977, when he appeared at Hogate's in Washington, Mr. Jessel recalled in an interview with The Post his efforts to keep "Rebel Without a Cause," which starred James Dean, from appearing in Europe. "That movie," he said. "Well, it showed Americans as a lot of bums. No law and order. Making fun of policemen. I like things to be . . . well, I believe we all are victims of circumstance."
Regardless of his politics, Mr. Jessel was a comic of great appeal. A staple of his act was a piece of nonsense he developed early in his career in which he would talk to his mother on the telephone. "Momma Jessel" became almost as well known as her son. He kept up the pace until the end partly because he needed the money -- he said he lost a fortune in the stock market crash in 1929 and paid out other fortunes in alimony and child support -- and partly because he couldn't think of anything better to do.
Mr. Jessel was born in New York City on April 3, 1898. His father, a traveling salesman and an unsuccessful playwright, died when the boy was 9 and young George went to live with his maternal grandfather, who encouraged him to go into show business. His first job was in a boy trio, one of whose members was Walter Winchell. He was hired by Gus Edwards, an agent, to tour with an act called "Kid Cabaret" with Eddie Cantor.
As a young man, he appeared in such successful Broadway reviews as "The Gaieties" and "The Passing Show." One of his most memorable performances was as the star of the stage version of "The Jazz Singer." Because of a dispute with Warner Bros., the producers of the film version, he lost the movie lead to Al Jolson -- and with it the chance to appear in the first successful sound film.
Later, he returned to Broadway to costar with Fanny Brice in "Sweet and Low." He teamed up with Cantor again for a two-week run at New York's famed Palace vaudeville theater. The act was held over for three months.
Mr. Jessel began to divide his time between Broadway and Hollywood. In 1944, he became a producer for 20th Century-Fox and turned out such films as "The Dolly Sisters," "Do You Love Me," "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" and "When My Baby Smiles at Me."
By the end of the 1940s, however, he was devoting full time to personal appearances and hosting.
Mr. Jessel's first wife was singer Florence Courtney, to whom he was married from 1923 to 1932. He then married Norma Talmadge. That marriage lasted from 1934 to 1939. He married Lois Andrews a year later and they were divorced in 1942. Miss Andrews was the mother of one of his two children, Jerrilyn Jacobsen of Kansas, who survived him. Also surviving are his second daughter, Chrissie Jessel of California, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.