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Monica Lewis Interview: Golden Age Songstress Recalls Her Days as "America's Singing Sweetheart"

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Image attributed to Alan Mercer

Monica Lewis

Hollywood Through My Eyes is the intimate portrait of “America’s Singing Sweetheart,” Monica Lewis. The book chronicles her rise from Depression-era Chicago through to the grit and glamour of New York City’s nightclub scene and live broadcasting to Lewis’ life with the top MCA/Universal executive and producer Jennings Lang.

Born May 5, 1922, Lewis was the youngest of three children born to musical parents. Her sister Bobbe established herself as an accomplished concert pianist while her brother Marlo eventually created and produced Ed Sullivan’s landmark television show Toast of the Town (later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show).

“You find racism everywhere. You find it today. Look at this wonderful young man who is our president and his beautiful family. You still have people who think there is something not quite American or God knows what they think, but it’s disgusting. I love those people. I love the pictures of their daughters. I’m proud as an American that we have a black president. That shows we do what we say, not just talk about it.”

Along a route that took Lewis to famed music venues, on air programs and movie studios – and from New York to Los Angeles and back again – she paused for (and sometimes steered clear of) romances with Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Herman Wouk, Sidney Sheldon, Kirk Douglas, Richard Rodgers and Milton Berle. The versatile artist’s appearances on television included Ed Sullivan’s very first broadcast in 1948 and variety shows hosted by the likes of Bob Hope, Danny Thomas and the comedy duo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, with whom she appeared at New York’s famous Copacabana nightclub.

In 1950, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios signed Lewis to an exclusive multimedia contract. She was given singing, dancing and romantic roles in Inside Straight, The Strip, Excuse My Dust and performed in the Marge and Gower Champion musical Everything I Have is Yours. Lewis was also the advertising world’s favorite face, and her commercial work culminated with the fourteen year run as the tuneful voice of Chiquita Banana.

Lewis married Lang in 1956, and the couple raised three children: Michael, Robert and Rocky. She became a supporting player in some of her husband’s successful movies for Universal including Charley Varrick, Airport ’77 and the Top 100 box office hit Earthquake. The actress also appeared in countless television shows including Night Gallery, Ironside, Falcon Crest and Remington Steele. Following Lang’s stroke in 1983, Lewis made a triumphant 1987 comeback as a melodist at Hollywood’s famous Cinegrill.

At nearly 91, Monica Lewis is proof that a great voice, a vivacious spirit and a compelling personal story can survive the ages.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Monica, you basically retired from acting in the 1980s.

Monica Lewis: Pretty much, yeah. However, I made a recording when I was seventy five (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There you go (laughs). Tell me a little about your childhood.

Monica Lewis: I was born in Chicago in 1922, and then the family moved to New York when I was eleven in about 1933. New York became a growing up place for me. Up until the time I was eleven, I was the baby. I was the baby in the family. My mom was an opera singer and my dad was a composer, conductor and fabulous pianist. My big sister and brother were also very talented. My sister got scholarships to Northwestern University for music and piano, and my brother got scholarships at Chicago University for violin. He could pick up any instrument and play it.

I was a surprise baby for my mother. She had kids that were seven and eight years old, was going back to the Opera and got pregnant with me. I never felt that I could compete with them. They all were so good. I did a lot of cartwheels and acrobatics and gravitated toward jazz, which was fine. That worked for me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your book is very entertaining.

Monica Lewis: Thanks.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that you were almost not born, and your mom felt guilty about that for a long time. Did that result in her being overprotective of you?

Monica Lewis: Yes. But that’s okay. I loved it. She paid a lot of attention to me (laughs). I said, “Mama, watch me.” She watched. We had a very loving family.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You obviously inherited your singing voice from her. What character traits did you inherit from both parents?

Monica Lewis: Well, I’m kind of an overbearing mom, but she was never overbearing. Mama was protective, and I think that I’m like that in some respects, too. But you have to be very careful not to let it show, you know? I’m happy when my kids are happy. It’s a huge part of my life. I got the musical stuff from both my mother and father, and from both, I got that the happiest you are is when you are doing good for someone else. That stuck with me my whole life. I think it’s absolutely true.

You get up in the morning and worry about this and that, but when you do something, and you know it made someone’s life easier or happier or helped them solve a problem, you feel very rewarded … much more than a trophy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was interesting that when you got that first job at $50 a week, you pooled the money with the rest of the family in order to pay living expenses. Do you think families pulled together more in the 40s and 50s to survive more than they do today?

Monica Lewis: I think probably that’s true because I couldn’t wait to contribute. I was watching this from the time I was a little kid because we were broke. I watched the big kids come in and lay their money on the table. It was something I couldn’t wait to be able to do, to be able to get out there and get a job and put my money on the table (laughs). I think we all had very strong bonds. If you’re lucky enough to have a loving family, it makes up for so much, and you must appreciate it all the time.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were chosen to sing for Benny Goodman out of 300 kids. That must’ve been a great feeling.

Monica Lewis: That was wild. I got down there and everybody was nervous. Everybody had very high heels on and was dressed in their best and had sheet music with them. Benny was so interesting because he was very polite to them. He let them sing four or eight bars. If he didn’t like it, he’d say, “Thank you very much.” Then they were excused.

If he liked someone, he’d let them sing sixteen bars. Benny let me sing the whole song. Then he said, “Hey kid, can you come back tonight at 7:30? You’ll be on national air.” I replied, “Yes sir.” I ran home and got my mom, got the dress from my sister’s best friend and came back with the whole family that night and became Benny Goodman’s girl singer. That’s what they called us, “girl singers.” Isn’t that funny?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes (laughs).

Monica Lewis: Now everybody’s a diva (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Young girls were also just supposed to take the sexual harassment from bosses and keep quiet about it. You had an incident with Sherman Billingsley.

Monica Lewis: Well, I had a big brother and a dad. They would call for me even when I was working at the Stork Club, which is where I met Billingsley. He ran the place. All of the celebrities went there, and I sang with this little Spanish combo and played the claves. He didn’t want me to sing too loud because he didn’t want the celebrities to be overshadowed or like me too much not to order drinks.

Billingsley was a pain in the neck. I was allowed three orange juices a night, and they allowed the band to have a drink, but I was underage. I would go into the little junky dressing room and put my hair into a ponytail, put flats back on, and my daddy or brother would be waiting outside to take me home.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Acting as your own private bodyguards.

Monica Lewis: Yeah, exactly. But I learned. I learned how to take care of myself. When I went on tour and played in different cities, I had to learn how to take care of myself and know what I was doing. I learned that pretty young.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Describe the racial tension going on in the entertainment industry in the 40s.

Monica Lewis: It never was a part of my life because as soon as I could afford it, I had my own piano player. He was Ellis Larkin who was black. We traveled to places together. My family was so avant-garde. They were so ahead of everything because my dad’s first scholarship pupil was a little black kid who played magnificent piano. We just never had racism in our home. I was aware of it though.

Harry Belafonte was a great friend of mine once I got to be a young lady. We talked about it a lot, but then he got a show. It was the beginning of the breakthrough. It was the beginning. Big stars were black. Actually Marge and Gower Champion and I were in Houston. This was much later in the 50s when I was appearing at a hotel there. Belafonte and Marge and Gower Champion were supposed to appear at a certain special club. They would not accept Harry in the hotel.

I had a friend who belonged to this very elite club, but they weren’t anti-black, so we made arrangements for Harry to stay in this posh place because he couldn’t get into the regular hotel. I was so furious. I got on the phone and threw my weight around because I was in that position at that time and with my friend whose dad was a member of the club. We got Harry a beautiful suite and sort of said, “Up yours,” to the hotel.

You find racism everywhere. You find it today. Look at this wonderful young man who is our president and his beautiful family. You still have people who think there is something not quite American or God knows what they think, but it’s disgusting. I love those people. I love the pictures of their daughters. I’m proud as an American that we have a black president. That shows we do what we say, not just talk about it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Deana Martin (Dean’s daughter) told me that in Las Vegas, Sammy Davis Jr. was not allowed to stay or eat in the hotel where he was performing.

Monica Lewis: I know it happened to Dorothy Dandridge. I don’t know about Sammy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think that Frank Sinatra resolved that situation (laughs).

Monica Lewis: Yes. Frank would just get the mob to buy the hotel back from the other mob (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Which brings me to my next question, do you think you are the only female who has ever turned down the romantic advances of Sinatra?

Monica Lewis: Probably. He was a doll. I listen to his music all the time. I’ve got Sirius radio, and there’s a station called Sirius Sinatra that his daughters run. It’s so beautiful. Frank remained a friend over the years.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever know that famous actress from Alabama, Tallulah Bankhead?

Monica Lewis: Just when I was playing in Chicago. I went to a party at Dave Garroway’s house. Garroway was then the host of NBC’s Today. Mike Wallace was at the party, and he was engaged to Buffy Cobb who was his second wife I think. At any rate, Tallulah was at the party, and I met her that night. She was a little tipsy because she kept following me around the whole night at the party no matter where I was going, whether I was walking to speak to someone or what. She was right behind me.

I was impressed with Tallulah, of course, as a big talent, but I had heard about her reputation and started heading for the hills because … it didn’t bother me that she was a lesbian. It just bothered me that she was following me (laughs). I just didn’t want to be hampered with having to explain to her, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I was there trying to meet other people and say hello to everybody and be free. Funny situation.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes (laughs). You starred on the very first Ed Sullivan Show. Some people say he made it big by having no personality. Why was he successful?

Monica Lewis: My brother, Marlo Lewis, created and produced the show. I had introduced Ed to my brother who put him on the map. We were pioneers in television really early. Marlo said, “If you get great talent and put on a fast moving, happy variety show, and you have a guy who can’t sing, dance or tell a joke, but he’s pleasant, the people will respond. They’ll think that he’s just like them, just an everyday guy.”

First, it was called Toast of the Town, and then it finally turned into The Ed Sullivan Show. But there was great talent through the years on that show even though Ed’s tastes ran mostly to sports figures and dog acts. My brother was an artist, and they had great opera singers on the show. They had The Beatles and they introduced Elvis. It ran the gamut from really classy performers to whatever was the trend. All he had to do was get out there and try to say their names right.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that Diana Ross said Ed could never remember The Supremes, so he always called them “the girls.”

Monica Lewis: That’s funny (laughs). I always liked Diana Ross. I loved the film about Billie Holiday with Billy Dee Williams. She was marvelous in that film. Then after that, I thought the scripts were not as strong as she should’ve had in some of the later pictures. She always looked terrific, and she did a good job, but I thought she was really great in the first film.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you remained in contact with Jerry Lewis throughout the years?

Monica Lewis: Just by accident running into him at a benefit or show or somebody’s party. When I was married to Jennings, we lived diagonally across the street from Dean and Jeanne, and we saw them a lot. We not only saw them accidentally at the same parties we attended, but we saw them as friends. We’d run back and forth from his house to my house because we both had projection rooms. We were just together a lot and worked together on many of the Democratic fundraisers.

Dean sang for me in my garden to help me raise money. It was a nice, close association. Dean started failing very badly when his son, Dino, was killed in the airplane. I think Dean was never the same. He was just crushed. He loved all his other children, but he just seemed to withdraw. It was very sad.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He seemed to decline health wise also.

Monica Lewis: I think he might’ve had a touch of Alzheimer’s onset coming on because he sort of didn’t recognize people. Dean had a man who worked for him who would take him every night to this Italian restaurant and then take him home. Sometimes he’d ask me, “Who is that person over there waving at me?” That can happen to anybody, but I just had a feeling that he really would’ve been just as happy not knowing. He was such a sweet guy, a sweet, generous, lovely man.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You describe Kirk Douglas as hot. Was it the dimple in the chin that was sexy?

Monica Lewis: He always had a tremendous amount of personality and was very bright even as a young person. He may not have had the cum laude degrees from universities … don’t think so because he was working in a restaurant. But he was always really curious, a cut above and fun. We had a good time.

I’m living now at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retreat. Kirk has donated so much money to what they call “Harry’s Haven,” which is a portion of our acreage dedicated to the Alzheimer’s wing. It’s private, and he just gave 20 million dollars back in November to keep it going. Kirk has been very philanthropic, very wonderful … he and his wife both. I sent a little note over to where he was going to say a few words to the people over there, and he sent me back a lovely note. This was only a few months ago.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How old is Kirk now?

Monica Lewis: My God, he must be 97! He has had the stroke and doesn’t speak so well, but he writes. His brain is good, but there are these impairments that come with a stroke. I know all about it because my husband had a stroke that impaired this guy who was larger than life and vital and could sell you ice in the winter. After the stroke, he couldn’t speak so you could understand him and his right side was paralyzed. Strokes are murder. They’re awful.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you been healthy all these years?

Monica Lewis: I’ve been okay. I’ve had aches and pains. I fell, and after I fell, I got myself a walker. I really can walk without it, and I can do my dancing exercises holding on to the ballet bar just with one hand because I got kind of terrified. I think it’s more in my head. I’m sort of afraid to be left all by myself somewhere without the walker. I really don’t use it the way most people do. I don’t bend over. I just push it along like a baby carriage, but I like knowing I’ve got it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s understandable. I found it interesting that Ronald Reagan was a Democrat when the two of you dated.

Monica Lewis: He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild, and you know actors. They’re almost all Democrats (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When did Reagan change his party affiliation?

Monica Lewis: He switched when he got involved with Nancy. She converted him, and he became president twice (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He did indeed. Why didn’t you marry him?

Monica Lewis: Because I wasn’t truly in love with him. I really liked him a lot. We had a great time. But I had met somebody else who was an Irish writer, and I knew if I got interested in someone else, it could mean only that I wasn’t really in love with Ronnie, so I broke it off.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were fascinated with writers and authors and men with a great deal of intelligence. What was Jennings Lang’s occupation when you met him?

Monica Lewis: Jennings was the youngest person in New York to graduate from the Bar. You were supposed to be twenty-one, and he was almost twenty-one. So he started out being a lawyer, but it was Depression time, and he came out here to LA from New York with another guy in a borrowed car, which they dumped when they got here. Jennings got a job for $17 a week sweeping up in a Thrifty drugstore. He looked around the town and saw possibilities of representation, saved up some money and opened a little office with one desk and one phone and became an agent. After a while, every other agency in town wanted him to be their vice president.

Jennings did pretty well with that, and then he created Revue Productions, which was the beginning of television for Universal Pictures. He created the long form of television where you got a show that was more than a half hour. You got a made for television movie. Every show ran at least one hour. He became a producer and very often did write a basic premise for an idea he had for a show or picture. He was a brilliant guy and loved writers as much as I did. Jennings’ best friends were very talented guys like Billy Wilder who was a great director and Julius J. Epstein who wrote Casablanca. I used to laugh myself sick when they got together. They were so funny. It was a wonderful marriage. I was married forty years and would still be married if he hadn’t died. He was a really great guy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You had parts in several films he produced like the Airport movies and Earthquake.

Monica Lewis: I was in Earthquake, Airport ’77 and Airport ’79. I had small parts.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there television or film stars that compare to the Clark Gables and the Kirk Douglases of the Golden Age of Hollywood?

Monica Lewis: We have an awful lot of good actors, and then the ones who are predominantly big stars would be Clooney, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. There are many good actors. The promotion is different these days. The mystery is not there, but that was done by press people. They created and protected everything in the olden days and made up stories about people.

I think that Julia Roberts was very good when she did Erin Brockovich. She was terrific in that. I think Angelina Jolie is a very big presence. I like some things Nicole Kidman has done. Meryl Streep is the best actress in America.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I totally agree.

Monica Lewis: I don’t think anyone compares to her ability and technique. She can make you laugh and she can make you cry. She did that scene in The Devil Wears Prada with no makeup when she described the breakup of her marriage, and everybody cried. She’s terrific.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Hollywood studios covered up homosexuality back then, but was it open among the actors?

Monica Lewis: If you knew them. If you knew Rock Hudson past just meeting him at a cocktail party … if you were friends, you knew. People were very protective, though, because it was not something people accepted easily then. I mean, the public, you know? They would’ve been very disappointed.

All of the women were in love with Rock Hudson, then they find out he’s in love with a guy, and they say, “Oh God, I’m not going to his movies! He broke my heart.” So they protected each other. But it wasn’t us actors that had to do the protecting so much. It was the way the press handled it, and the press handled it very carefully. Every studio had these monolithic great big press departments that kept everything looking sanitized.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure that happens today. Someone won’t see a film because the lead actor is openly homosexual.

Monica Lewis: Did you read in the newspaper something about the country of Uganda in Africa? If you’re found being a homosexual, you are put to death. I saw it and couldn’t believe what I was reading. My God. I’m sure everybody has a friend or family member who is gay. Of course, those of us who are liberated and liberal minded think differently. It doesn’t even occur to us. Mainly, we don’t care, and secondly, it’s your business. You’ve just been living with it so long that you’re always in shock when you find somebody who’s shocked.

I had this experience with Burton Miller, a fashion designer and my best friend. He was my child’s godfather, and he was gay. His mother knew, but his father never knew. His father offered me a million dollars to marry his son because he’d heard rumors, and he wanted to kill them. Of course, I couldn’t do that, and I made up a lie. I said that I was in love with someone else. When I told Burton that his dad offered me a million dollars if we would get married, he started laughing and said, “Why didn’t you take it? We could go all around Europe and buy clothes!” But his father couldn’t ever be told that Burton was gay. Isn’t that weird? That was in the 50s. Do you want to know something really cute?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely!

Monica Lewis: Of all the things I’ve done which have been so much, everybody remembers me as the Chiquita Banana. They all say, “Oh you sang, I’m Chiquita Banana …” Yes, that was me. That’s the funniest thing. I keep forgetting about it, but it’s all over You Tube. It’s hysterical, but it was a good gig. It lasted fourteen years and paid my rent for a long time (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You know, if you put Chiquita Banana on your resume, it may result in voiceover offers.

Monica Lewis: I would love to do some of those things. I’ve got to think about that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Please tell me the secret to living a long life.

Monica Lewis: Luck. Genetics and luck. Well, I never abused myself. It’s not like I was ever into drugs or any of that stuff. But I was a social drinker. I’d never turn down a nice drink at a party or dinner, but I had no problem. I could take it or leave it.

When Jennings got sick, I didn’t drink for thirteen years because I was afraid that if he called me, I couldn’t be the slightest bit impaired. I felt that I needed to be at my most alert all the time. I don’t know. I’m lucky I think. I’ve outlived all my doctors. I’m only going to very young doctors now. I feel it’s better. Their hands don’t shake (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Funny (laughs). When you look back, do you have any regrets?

Monica Lewis: No. I think I only regret that you can’t hang on to all the memories, and I have many good ones. The people I’ve loved in my life are all gone except for one niece, one nephew and my two sons and their families. Getting old is not so easy because you don’t spend your time very much, if you’re healthy, worrying about where you went wrong or this or that. Timing has a lot to do with it. You didn’t control everything.

I think the best thing is to just try to make each day count and try to continue to stay invested in every bit of information you can accumulate even if you forget some of it. I watch the news, I watch commentators, I read papers and I’m on Facebook. I started with 40 people on the Monica Lewis fan page when I launched my book, and I’m close to 4,000 now. I spend a lot of time working on that. I had to learn how to use the computer. I’ve kept my mind busy. If you learn something all the time, it helps because it keeps your mind fresh. I’ve had setbacks. I had some bad stuff going with one eye, but they fixed it. You have the things that happen with age, but they’re not life threatening at this point.

I’m in pretty good shape. I just knock on wood on that one. I’m not afraid of being sick. I just don’t want anything to do with that prolonged illness kind of stuff. My kids know. Everyone knows how I feel about that. I’ve had too much of a good life and good fun to have the end come with those lingering, horrible things I’ve witnessed with some of my friends. It’s just too horrible and too hard. Why would you want it?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Monica, I wish you many more years of good health. It has been an honor and a pleasure.

Monica Lewis: Well, it sure hasn’t been typical. It has been different because most of them want to know what I did on this picture and when I sang that song, you know? You and I talked as friends, and I enjoyed it a lot. Enjoy life, and make every moment count.

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