excerp from The Jolson Nobody Knew
Cosmopolitan, Jan. 1951
by Harry Akst (song writer, pianist, accompanist, and close friend)
Last June, soon after the North Korean Communists crossed the Thirty-Eighth Parallel, Al wired President Harry Truman saying he had had the distinction of being the first entertainer to go overseas in World War II and would like to be the first to go to Korea. I didn’t know about this wire until four weeks later, when Al still hadn’t heard from the President and couldn’t conceal his vexation. Finally a wire came from the then Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, apologizing for the delay and going on to say the USO had been deactivated – there were no funds.
Al slapped the telegram. .”Funds? I got funds.”
I tried to change the subject.
He said, “Are you coming along, Harry?”
I shook my head. “Not me, Al. I don’t want to go.”
He looked at me for a moment. “All right, I’ll get somebody else.”
“Okay by me.”
I didn’t tell him, but my reason for not wanting to make the trip to was that I didn’t want him to go. I felt he wouldn’t go if I didn’t. I didn’t think he could stand the trip. Not that he seemed ill, but he was too old ‑ sixty‑four. And I had been with him in ’43 on the historic USO tour through South America, Africa, and the Near East, and I had seen the price he had paid ‑ malaria, and later on the loss of part of a lung.
The next day I got a call from Abe Lastfogel, head of the William Morris Agency. “Harry, I wish you would go to Korea if you can see you clear. What I mean is, Jolson would like you to go to Korea. He wants you to be with him.”
“If he wants me so badly,” I said, “why didn’t he give me a pitch? Couldn’t he have asked me as though he really wanted me?”
But I could have answered that one myself. Al Jolson never could ask anyone for anything. Never, in all the years I knew him, did I hear him say: “I am Al Jolson. I want you to do so and so for me.” He hadn’t been able to get himself to ask even his mother and father for a favor.
“Why are you that way, Al?”‑ I’d say. “Why?”
He’d shrug. “Because you’re beautiful.”
And now Abe Lastfogel was saying, “It would be good for Al if you went along, Harry, because frankly if you don’t go I don’t think he’ll be able to go ‑ and you know how much this means to him.”
That sold me. I called Erle, and told her to tell Al he could count on me. “But I wish he weren’t going, honey,” I said.
“I’ve tried, too, Harry, but it’s no use.”
We left Los Angeles on a balmy evening in early September. Al and Erle and their little adopted son, .Asa, Jr., picked me up in the car on the way to the airport. Al, was wearing his usual dashing Jolson version of I the GI uniform ‑ an old white ski cap, a hunting jacket from Abercrombie & Fitch given to him by his good friend, Nathan Kramer, and a pair of high boots from the second act of “Hold On To Your Hats.” He kept joking about the clause in our Army travel orders stipulating that we were not to accept any outside engagements. “Whadda they think – we’re gonna play Loew’s Pusan?”
“Daddy’s going to okyo‑okyo,” little Asa said’.
Erle whispered to me; “Take good care of my boy.”
I squeezed her hand, “He’ll be taking care of me.”
Then we boarded the big Stratocruiser, and were on our way.
We flew all night to Honolulu. Halfway to Wake Island on the next day’s hop, Al turned to me suddenly and said, “Harry, why didn’t you want to go. to Korea?”
“Well,” I said, “since it’s obvious that we’re on our way there, and nothing but an accident can stop us, I might as well tell you. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want you to go.”
He I gave me a look, and then he gave the guy sitting next to him a look, and I’ll never, know whether that look meant: “Is he crazy?” or, “Wasn’t that thoughtful of him?” or what. Because we never spoke of the incident again. But the man sitting next to him said, “Maybe Harry had something there, Al.” It was Carl “Toohen” Spaatz, the retired Air force general, headed for the Far East as a war reporter for Newsweek.
The Boeing Stratocruiser bearing Al to Tokyo came down with a case engine trouble at Wake, and we had to spend the night on the island in a damp, drafty Quonset hut, lying in the upper berths of double‑decker beds because the place was still infested with rats from the days of Japanese occupation. Spaatz, the old war dog, slept like a baby. But Jolson and I just wrestled with sleeping pills. When morning finally came, we both had miserable colds and hacking coughs.
We coughed our way into Tokyo on September eighth and went directly to the Imperial Hotel. Al. didn’t even take time to unpack. “Where’s the nearest hospital?” he asked in a hoarse voice.
At the Army dispensary, three blocks away, a young Army medic peered down the famous throat. Then he turned to the doctor beside him and whispered, “This man can’t sing.”
“Listen, son” ‑ Jolson had overheard him ‑ “I gotta sing.”
So they shoved him into a cabinet, draped a Turkish towel over his head, and for thirty minutes Al sat there in inhaling mentholated steam. During the next few days, he just about lived in that cabinet.
Our first show was in the courtyard of a Tokyo Army hospital. Jolie wasn’t sure he was going to be able to go through with it. He stood there at the piano looking out at the men on the lawns and balconies ‑ Korean casualties, mostly ambulatory cases, guys from back home. He had a severe bronchial infection, but what the hell was that compared to what these kids had? I knew what was going on in Al’s mind.
“Why don’t you tell ’em a few stories first,” I said, “and try to save your voice?”
He told them a joke. Then another, and another. They were laughing now, and Al was taking heart. He turned to me. “If I can talk, I can sing. Let’s go.”
He went into “Swanee,” and made it. Then “April Showers,” warming up. Then “Mammy” -‑ “Sonny Boy” ‑ You couldn’t stop him. For forty minutes, he was on, and he was fine and they loved him. But when it was over, he had to hurry back to the dispensary for the choking mentholated steam.
“Where’s the next show, Harry?”
“Three‑sixty‑first Station Hospital.”
“Let’s try one more.”
We tried one more. He made it.
“Let’s try another.”
A song, a cough, the gasp of steam, and another song.
All in all, Al Jolson tried forty‑two performances, his entire Far East itinerary.