The Many Sides of Eddie Cantor: Five Anecdotes

The Many Sides of Eddie Cantor…

Eddie Cantor making his trademark pop-eyed expressionEddie making his trademark pop-eyed expression

According to writer H.L. Mencken, Eddie Cantor’s work in the 1930s did more to pull America out of the Great Depression than all government measures combined. He was appropriately nicknamed the Apostle of Pep. More than a decade before the Depression struck, audiences could not help but smile and laugh watching Eddie energetically sing, clap his hands, bounce about, and give a knowing roll of his trademark pop-eyes as he crooned such unforgettable songs as “If You Knew Susie” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” He was best known as Florenz Ziegfeld’s greatest musical comedian, but he went on to great fame in film and on the radio. Ziegfeld considered him a “son”— which meant a great deal to Eddie given his hardscrabble upbringing, Below are five anecdotes that show the many sides of the great Ziegfeld star.


A teenaged Eddie Cantor, circa 1910A teenaged Eddie, circa 1910

1) Eddie was raised by his grandma, Esther Kanter, who came from Russia to help sustain the family after his father, Mechal, a fiddler, failed to find work. Eddie’s mother died of pneumonia when he was only two years old; his father abandoned his young son after his wife’s death, leaving Esther to raise him. Esther would tell Eddie he was an orphan, but when Eddie had children of his own, he told his son-in-law that the worst thing a man could do was desert his children; his vehemence in this statement suggests that he knew the truth about his father. Perhaps Eddie’s own experience made him the devoted family man he was. He remained married to the same woman, Ida, for forty-eight years (until her death in 1962) and had five daughters.


Eddie Cantor, Ida, and their five daughters, circa 1938Eddie, Ida, and their five daughters, circa 1938

2) Eddie never finished eighth grade, but because of his talent at recitation was asked to recite at numerous promotion ceremonies. He became a working man at the age of twelve, first as a guerrilla to guard against strike breakers and next as a spokesman for various politicians. “I spoke for and against everybody,” Eddie stated. He earned more money honing his skills as a comedian, making funny faces at passerby and holding out his hat after they laughed. Eddie knew the only kind of employment truly for him was as a comedian. He tried his luck on amateur night at local theaters, calling himself an “Impersonator and Polish Dialectician.”


Eddie Cantor on a promotion campaign for the March of Dimes, circa 1945Eddie on a promotion campaign for the March of Dimes, circa 1945

3) Eddie worked exhaustively to relieve the suffering of Jews overseas, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to send refugee children to Palestine. While he set up trust funds to keep his children and wife comfortable after his death, Eddie asserted that he did not want to die a rich man and wanted to give away as much money to help others as possible while he was alive. “I’ll do anything in this world to help kids,” Eddie stated. He came to be seen as a leader in the Jewish American community; he even wore a yellow star sewn on his jacket in sympathy with European Jews for the entirety of the war. He devoted much of his time raising money for the expansion of the Surprise Lake Camp for boys that had been so integral to his childhood and for wounded World War II veterans in army hospitals. Perhaps Eddie’s most famous charitable work was the March of Times, an organization he created with President Roosevelt, who had become a personal friend, to cure infantile paralysis.


Eddie Cantor and Ida in their older years, circa 1948Eddie and Ida in their older years, circa 1948

4) The philanthropic and always funny Eddie did have a dark side. His tireless work still kept him from home to the extent that, in her toddlerhood, when his daughter Marjorie opened the door to him she did not recognize him and called to Ida, “That man is here again!” His daughters remember Eddie as being best with them when they were younger. As they matured, they communicated less well, inevitably arguing over “politics, the latest styles, marriage, children, and the changing tastes in entertainment.” Eddie’s relationship with his wife, Ida, grew more distant as well. Ida was often called long suffering; she virtually raised the girls herself and had to cope with rumors of Eddie’s infidelities on the road and the judgments he expressed at home. He allegedly warned his daughters and wife to watch their weights if they wanted to remain healthy, yet he would bring home boxes of chocolate to them after each tour of his shows. He argued that his feelings would not change for Ida even “if she weighed 300 pounds. Ida is a permanent thing.”


Eddie Cantor and his most famous discovery, Deanna Durbin, circa 1935Eddie and his most famous discovery, Deanna Durbin, circa 1935

5) In film and on radio, Eddie discovered many well-known personalities including Dinah Shore. He also gave Deanna Durbin and Eddie Fisher their starts in the business and tried to get a young Ginger Rogers into a Ziegfeld show when she was a struggling actress on Broadway. Comedian Joan Davis was another star he helped to make a success


Outspoken about his beliefs and disbeliefs, Eddie gained some enemies, but he gained more friends who saw him as a leader in the community. Eddie never appreciated the breadth of his accomplishments. His jokes were self-deprecating; he thought of himself as the little fellow on and off the stage and screen. For over forty years, Eddie proved to be a big fellow, tirelessly blending comedy with his staples of work, family, and faith.


–Sara and Cynthia Brideson for Classic Movie Hub

Sara and Cynthia Brideson are avid classic movie fans, and twin authors of Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer and Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965. They also are currently working on comprehensive biographies of Gene Kelly and Margaret Sullavan. You can follow them on twitter at @saraandcynthia or like them on Facebook at Cynthia and Sara Brideson.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cynthia’s and Sara’s books, please click through to amazon via the below links:


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