Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies: A Memoir

Joel Grey

  • Review
By – July 19, 2016

Joel Grey is much more than a con­sum­mate song-and-dance man with a career span­ning an aston­ish­ing eight decades: he is also the inter­me­di­ate link in a Jew­ish-Amer­i­can enter­tain­ment dynasty.

His father, Mick­ey Katz, was the clown prince of post-war klezmer par­o­dy and dialect com­e­dy.” Grey’s daugh­ter, Jen­nifer Grey, became a cul­tur­al icon in her own right when she por­trayed Baby in the unfor­get­table film Dirty Danc­ing. Read­ers inter­est­ed in con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish his­to­ry and the socio-eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tions of Amer­i­can Jew­ry will find much of inter­est in Joel Grey’s enter­tain­ing new mem­oir, Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies—espe­cial­ly if they love juicy Hol­ly­wood mem­oirs. For those sim­ply look­ing for a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten mov­ing and fun­ny per­son­al jour­ney: put Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies on your read­ing list.

Read­ers should be warned (or tan­ta­lized) upfront that there is quite a bit of sex, and dis­cus­sion of sex­u­al­i­ty in Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies. What might seem dis­taste­ful for many of us today is pre­sent­ed with empa­thy and res­olute­ly with­out judg­ment. For exam­ple, ten-year-old Joel has one of his first sex­u­al encoun­ters with anoth­er boy who is 16. His meet­ings with Jer­ry the ele­va­tor oper­a­tor are recount­ed with warmth, as well as a fond­ness for the excite­ment they held for a young boy oth­er­wise on the mar­gins of macho Amer­i­can cul­ture. Grey’s life­long strug­gle to embrace his sex­u­al­i­ty is at the emo­tion­al heart of the book. That strug­gle for accep­tance, from him­self and from his fam­i­ly, left me in tears, but ulti­mate­ly, feel­ing hopeful.

The title Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies is a nod to the role that would define Grey’s career. He cre­at­ed the role in the orig­i­nal Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Cabaret and then went to on to re-cre­ate it for the film ver­sion a few years lat­er, win­ning a Tony and an Oscar in the process. The cov­er of Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies is a strik­ing black and white image of Grey in the MC’s ghoul­ish­ly the­atri­cal make­up: mime white make­up, over­drawn lips, a cig­ar clenched in his mouth. The role of the MC wasn’t just a career-mak­ing moment; here it serves as an orga­niz­ing image for Grey’s life: his desire to over­come the seedy vaude­ville world rep­re­sent­ed by his father, his strug­gle with his sex­u­al­i­ty, the dark side of show­biz, and the price of success.

In the ear­ly 1950s, soci­ol­o­gist Her­bert Gans wrote of Grey’s father, Mick­ey Katz, that he had moved away from his ortho­dox ori­gins to assume the pecu­liar mar­gin­al­i­ty called Ying­lish.” There is some­thing arrest­ing about the idea of pecu­liar mar­gin­al­i­ty” that echoes through the work of father and son alike. If ever there were an icon­ic Broad­way char­ac­ter who embod­ied a pecu­liar mar­gin­al­i­ty, it was Grey’s Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies. Indeed, one of the high­lights of the book is Grey’s recount­ing of how he cre­at­ed the char­ac­ter based on one of the denizens of the world of seedy night­clubs Grey so des­per­ate­ly tried to escape. But there’s much more to Grey than one role, and read­ers of Mas­ter of Cer­e­monies is rich­ly reward­ed by the sto­ry of his fas­ci­nat­ing life.

Relat­ed Content:

Rokhl Kafris­sen is a grad­u­ate of two schools named after Jew­ish Supreme Court jus­tices. She is a prac­tic­ing attor­ney in New York City as well as work­ing on her first book: The Myth of the Yid­dish Atlantis: Dynam­ic Yid­dishkayt for the New Millenium.

Discussion Questions