One night, during an early-1950s tour stop in St. Louis, the young Joel Grey went to see a well-known comic. “The hottest thing in town,” people were saying, but all Grey could see in that smoky room was a hack with an “aging face” and a “broad delivery” that “employed every virulent stereotype: take-my-wife jokes, fat jokes, crude sex jokes.” Gay jokes, too, but it wasn’t the guy’s crassness that horrified Grey. “It was his effectiveness. He would do, and did do, anything for a laugh, battering the audience into loving him. . . . They were in his thrall, screaming with laughter.”
For an intrinsically crowd-pleasing entertainer, the spectacle hit a little too close to home. “He was the epitome of everything I had been trying to escape,” Grey recalls. But a decade later, when he was struggling with a role in a Broadway show, that sleazy old comic returned in the form of a dream. Horror gave way to inspiration as Grey began channeling all that desperate, empty lewdness into the character he was playing, creating something that hadn’t been seen onstage before: a figure of “utter smiling soullessness . . . totally corrupt, desperate for adoration, willing to do anything.”
Thus was born the Emcee of “Cabaret” — a starmaking performance that would net Grey a Tony and eventually a best-supporting Oscar (defeating the “Godfather” trio of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan). It would seem that not every demon needs to be escaped. But perhaps the real message of Grey’s melancholy talk-therapy memoir, “Master of Ceremonies,” is that the act of escaping never ends.
Joel Grey was born Joel Katz, part of a fractious clan of Cleveland Jews. (On her deathbed, Aunt Fritzi whispered to him, “I always hated your mother.”) Joel’s maternal grandfather ran a fruit-and- vegetable stall in Central Market, and his father, Mickey, was a klezmer musician who specialized in popular Yiddish song parodies such as “Haim Afen Range.”
It was in Mickey’s show, “Borscht Capades,” that Joel first won acclaim as a juvenile star. But niche success didn’t satisfy; he craved the love of the mainstream. So he changed his last name. (All Katzes are Grey at night.) At the recommendation of his agents, he got a nose job (an accommodation to Aryan norms that Grey’s daughter, Jennifer, would reenact decades later). And through force of will, he transformed himself into a successful song-and-dance man on the 1950s nightclub circuit. “I was a very good faker,” he recalls.
That wasn’t the only thing he was faking. From an early age, he found himself drawn to other boys. Early sexual experiences with a hotel bellboy and a fellow actor led eventually to an affair with a Los Angeles cantor that nearly erupted into scandal. His mother’s succinct response: “Don’t ever touch me again. You disgust me.”
From then on, Grey made a point of publicly dating women, always in the hope of finding a wife and mother (like his own?). The ideal candidate came along in Jo Wilder, a singer-actress whose career Grey immediately set about discouraging — even more so when kids arrived on the scene. (In one of the book’s more damning episodes, he uses his panic attacks to manipulate her into quitting a Broadway show.) Like many show-biz alliances, theirs was happy, fruitful, vexed, wobbly. In the end, though, it couldn’t survive the revelation of Grey’s “complex sexuality.”
“Master of Ceremonies” has its share of showbiz unctuousness: “My great good friend Beverly Sills, the great soprano” and “Larry Hagman, my next-door neighbor in the Malibu Colony and one of my most cherished friends for years.” But its chief interest lies in how it diverges from the celebrity memoir’s triumphal arc. Yes, Grey’s career soldiers on, with steady film and TV work and well-received stage appearances in “The Normal Heart,” “Chicago” and “Wicked.” And yes, he sort of comes out — but only in the polite, elaborately prolonged way that tends to frustrate younger gay generations (who never lived or breathed life pre-Stonewall).
The actual “I’m gay” news release had to wait until 2015. By then, Grey had come to surprising conclusions: He is “a much better family man than a gay man,” he writes. Although his “true powerful pull to intimacy is with men,” the love of his life is “unquestionably Jo Wilder.” And as hard as he tries to embrace his 21st-century self, he can “never seem to let go of that feeling of shame or stop looking over my shoulder.”
Which is to say that he can never escape that St. Louis comic or that reviling mother or Aunt Fritzi or “Haim Afen Range” or, for that matter, Joel Katz. Willkommen to them all.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.
By Joel Grey
Flatiron. 246 pp. $27.99