Remembering My Friend, Jackie Mason Z’L
I’ve walked the sidewalks of New York City in many shoes and loved it at every bend. I’ve walked them as a single girl in Louboutins; I’ve walked them as a rabbi’s wife; I’ve walked them as a journalist on the arm of famous people; I’ve walked them in running shoes catering to the homeless; I’ve walked them proud and at times lonely and disheartened. But never were my amblings through the spirited streets of Manhattan more entertaining than doing so with comedian Jackie Mason.
Sometimes it took 45 minutes to travel down one short block. Every passing stranger, with uncommon familiarity, stopped to say hello and get his autograph. “Aren't you Jackie Mason?” the undecided would sometimes ask. Mason quickly replied, “I sure hope so because I've been cashing his check every week.” Then four seconds into the conversation--whether it be a Pakistani cab driver, a Jew from Borough Park or a farmer from Arkansas--they started to imitate him. But he didn’t rush away. He engaged people and analyzed them on the spot. Within 10 seconds he could guess what a complete stranger did for a living and whether he was a divorcé, a lawyer, a patsy, an actor or a fraud. He was right 95 percent of the time. As he’d write out an autograph he’d say, “Hey mistah, you look to me like you’re a homosexual.” They’d laugh and fess up. He is one person that I never dared lie to or exaggerate; he was literally a living, breathing lie detector on the go who could smell manure while it was still in fodder form.
Jackie loved the attention. Often when we’d go for a walk together, he’d avoid a street and say, “It’s not a good street.” It took me many years to understand that a street was deemed “not good” if there were not enough people on it to recognize him, the busier the better. With shoulders back and a confident unique gait, he walked like the Big Apple was his for the taking.
What I liked most about Jackie was that he didn’t hobnob with the upper crust who’d sit around impressing each other with their own vain shallowness. Mason’s favorite hangouts were New York’s delis and diners. It is there, and in the very streets of the city that we both loved so much, that Mason found food for his humor, studied human behavior and explored the gridlock of colorful characters with whom he intersected. I think for many years it was through his eyes that I learned to understand New York–in the jungle your instincts must prevail. And I also learned from him that if you ask a question with enough chutzpah, people will actually answer. In many ways he taught me more about being a journalist than the institutions which educated me.
Jackie read through a variety of newspapers for at least five hours a day. He had a terrific memory. Then sitting in a café or deli, eating something fattening when his agent wasn’t there to see, he’d discuss the world with his inner circle of friends, I among them. The worst thing someone could do at those meetups which were always filled with belly-aching laughter (he was hilarious on and off stage), was to say something stupid. The poor chap would end up with a humbling caustic tongue-lashing that they would not soon forget. It was my fear of being at the receiving end of one of those that forced me to make a choice, either to stay home, keep quiet or start reading newspapers eight hours a day just to keep up. I chose the latter.
It was often at these daily rendezvous where Jackie created material for his shows. He’d borrow a pen, grab a napkin and jot down a few ideas running them by his friends. I don’t use the term often even though I’ve interviewed some of the most powerful people in the world, but he was "brilliant." The mental acrobatics cultivated by his Talmudic training coupled with his extraordinary talents produced an agility of mind that I’ve never witnessed in anyone else; His ability to weave ideas together into a side-splitting act was surely a gift from God.
He rarely, if ever, called his friends by their proper name. With deep insight into people’s characters, he’d come to call them by a nickname that best described them. Despite all of my efforts at being a fancy blonde and a journalist, I was called, The Rebbetzin, i.e., meaning the rabbi’s wife. Others in the group included, The Dentist, The Ping Pong Player, The Judge, etc. I don’t believe he ever addressed me by my name. And as close as we were for 20 years plus, I wouldn’t be shocked if he forgot my name entirely. We were an eclectic group of friends and sycophants each vying for his attention. When he gave you a compliment there was no better feeling in the world. When he criticized you, it was mortifying. Often, I had to shoulder the pain of those he chewed up and sometimes spat out. If he deemed you a user, a freeloader, or a traitor you were out for good. It was never out of meanness but rather out of self-preservation. Only once during our friendship did we have an argument, and it was over Prime Minister Netanyahu. I was shocked Jackie screamed at me, he was shocked, docile as I am, that I answered back. A few days later we were back at the diner, friends again and a touch more appreciative of our friendship.
As a Canadian visiting NYC, I first saw Jackie Mason on Broadway when I was 19 years old. I never laughed so hard my entire short life. But I knew there and then (while sitting in row 10 I think it was), that I was going to meet him one day. Eight years later, Jackie was my first big interview in the big city. As editor-in-chief of Celebrate magazine, I tried incessantly to gain an interview with him. I wrote numerous letters to his agent, but to no avail. How could I blame her? I was an unknown. Characteristically, I would not take “no” for an answer. One day I found out that Mason was to make a very brief appearance at a fund-raiser on the Intrepid, the aircraft carrier museum on Manhattan’s West Side. I got myself in and paid each security guard to beep me with their gate number when Mason arrived so that I shouldn’t miss him. When I got the beep, I dashed over in my 4-inch heels to greet him. The first thing he said was, “Are you the girl who’s been looking for me?” My audacity paid off; Mason agreed to be interviewed.
I was living in Connecticut at the time and I was so afraid to be late for the interview which we had scheduled that I convinced my now ex-husband to stay in a Manhattan hotel with me so that I would be on time and not stressed. Of course, I was out to impress and so I stayed at the Regency and was to meet Mason the next morning at 11am at the restaurant there. I showed up at 10:30am. Eleven came and went. So did 11:30 and then 12. My heart sunk. He wasn’t showing up. I called his office and Mason had completely forgotten about the whole interview. He called me to apologize and then rescheduled for another day saying he preferred to meet at a simple New York diner. And we did.
The next time I was less uptight. I drove in from Connecticut the same day to conduct the interview. The allotted one hour he gave me became four. But when I went back to my office to transcribe the taped interview, all that could be heard was New York traffic and the initial three words, “testing, testing, testing.” I called Mason, explained what had happened, and asked if we could try it again. He immediately consented and said, “Your questions were so good, I didn’t mind having an extra day to think about them again.” As for the final article, Mason jokingly said it made him appear more interesting than he ever thought he was. We have been best of friends ever since. His death is truly a deep loss to all who knew him and loved him so much. Although he often said that he did not believe in G-d, I didn't believe him. Nonetheless, I pray that all the joy and laughter he gave us all will earn him a front row seat in Heaven where he can hear the chazzanut music he loved so much.
Unlike many famous people I’ve interviewed Mason didn’t deify himself either. He also wasn't a jealous person or begrudging and always tried to give someone a professional break if he could. And though he admitted to having an ego and jokingly said that his only fault was that he had no faults, he made no effort to render himself larger than-life. He collected no memorabilia or press clippings, playbills or anything of that nature in which he was featured. “I have nothing to gain by living in the past,” Mason said. “When you die no one cares except maybe one sister-in-law and two cousins because they care how much they can collect. So why waste your time filling up closets with papers and tsotchkes.” Instead, he suggests, “hang up two shirts.”
With a heavy sigh, I say goodbye to my friend. The final curtain has fallen on the Jackie Mason Show and it is certain that the likes of him will never grace the stages of Broadway again. He always said that he wanted no tributes, no flowers, no monuments, he simply wanted to be remembered as ‘still living.’ And that much we can do for you dear Jackie. For in our hearts, in our memories and in our laughter, you are loved, still living and always will be.