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 Times, The Times of Israel, The Forward, and on NPR.