Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Bil­ly Rose

  • Review
By – March 11, 2019

A straight-talk­ing tough guy who suf­fered no fools, Bil­ly Rose was a leg­endary Broad­way impre­sario dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The son of an ambi­tious, con­trol­ling moth­er (who set a high bar for her short son”) and an inef­fec­tu­al, unem­ployed father, Rose inter­nal­ized his mother’s hopes and expec­ta­tions to reach the pin­na­cle of show­biz suc­cess. Mark Cohen’s biog­ra­phy chron­i­cles this extra­or­di­nary man’s life with wit, insight, and rich his­tor­i­cal context.

Rose attend­ed New York’s High School of Com­merce, where he excelled at short­hand. His ear­ly achieve­ments — and a healthy dose of chutz­pah — paved the way for lat­er suc­cess­es: as a pop­u­lar song­writer (“Me and My Shad­ow” remains his most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the Amer­i­can song­book), a Man­hat­tan night­club own­er, a Broad­way pro­duc­er, a fair­grounds impre­sario (start­ing in Fort Worth, of all places), a syn­di­cat­ed news­pa­per colum­nist, a the­ater own­er (New York’s lav­ish Ziegfeld), a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire, a world-class art col­lec­tor, a phil­an­thropist and clan­des­tine advo­cate for Jews, and a wom­an­iz­er (his four wives includ­ed famed Jew­ish come­di­an Fan­ny Brice and Olympic swim­mer Eleanor Holm). Not bad for a self-described sob” (son of a bitch) who nev­er stood taller than five feet, two inches.

Cohen por­trays Rose as a man of intel­li­gence, elec­tric vital­i­ty, and crude charm. Rose’s first wife, Fan­ny Brice, who used his mate­r­i­al in her rou­tines, said he had a sev­en-track mind.” Jim­my Durante believed Rose could talk any­one into any­thing.” Cohen’s biog­ra­phy is nar­rat­ed at a clip that match­es the fre­net­ic ener­gy of its subject.

Cohen explains with insight and intel­li­gence how Rose nav­i­gat­ed the treach­er­ous waters of being a suc­cess­ful Jew­ish Amer­i­can in a time of ris­ing anti­semitism. Rose mas­ter­ful­ly pro­mot­ed his Amer­i­can suc­cess sto­ry to beget more finan­cial suc­cess while down­play­ing his involve­ment in Jew­ish caus­es to avoid being accused of encour­ag­ing Amer­i­can inter­ven­tion in Europe and the Mid­dle East. Far from aban­don­ing Judaism, Rose envi­sioned him­self as a leader behind the scenes.

Cohen’s prodi­gious research reveals that Rose took mea­sures to assist Jews in need — acts that he min­i­mized or even con­cealed dur­ing his life­time. Rose saved the life of at least one East­ern Euro­pean Jew flee­ing the Nazis, and helped raise mil­lions for post – World War II refugees. He also ardent­ly sup­port­ed the cre­ation of Israel. His most endur­ing lega­cy remains the Bil­ly Rose Sculp­ture Gar­den at the Israel Nation­al Muse­um in Jerusalem — a reflec­tion of both his show­man­ship and his refined taste in art.

In Not Bad for Delancey Street, Bil­ly Rose emerges as a cul­tur­al war­rior who knew how to enter­tain the mass­es, and as a cham­pi­on of Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity and Zion­ism. Cohen man­ages to cap­ture Rose’s life both con­cise­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly — no easy feat.

Sharon Rosen Leib is a free­lance jour­nal­ist. Her work has appeared in the Los Ange­les TimesThe Times of IsraelThe For­ward, and on NPR.

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