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Jerry Lewis, the most magnificent “magnificent bastard”… RIP

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Well, now my heart is broken. Jerry Lewis is dead.

In my youth, I volunteered at the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and I had occasion to watch him at work during those many hours. I wrote about that, here:

He was loud, impatient, and boorish in exactly the way one can be loud, impatient and boorish over one’s passions. He was also focused, capable of quiet one-on-one and selfless listening – a strange hybrid, part narcissist, part servant. For the brief time I saw him, he was a ball of energy, and quite simply all for those suffering from neuromuscular diseases.

I’ve never forgotten it. I came away thinking that Lewis was “a right bastard,” in the sense that he would not allow anyone or anything to divert the energy he meant for “his people.” A “right bastard” in the way people with vision can be single-minded, stubborn, difficult, magnificent bastards.

Lewis sat last year for an interview with Hollywood Reporter staffmember Andy Lewis (no relation) and it was fabulous and memorable. Many called the resulting video “cringeworthy” and “awkward” but I saw it as Vintage Lewis, and loved all 7 minutes.

At 90, Jerry Lewis is fully in his wits, and clearly a man who, once he has decided someone is a fool, does not suffer gladly.

The younger Lewis makes the great mistake of asking the older a series of “yes, no” questions, too many about his age, not enough about his new movie, and for seven minutes Jerry glares at him like a geriatric Sidney L. Pythias and spits out one indignant monosyllabic answer after another. His contempt is brutal. It’s bruising. Some might even call it contemptible. And yet …

And yet there is something beautifully honest and human going on there. In a media-savvy era—where everyone knows enough to say the right things and go along to get along—Jerry Lewis is having none of it, and in this he is giving us an authentic representation of himself as someone who was never interested in coloring between the lines. He’s annoyed and he’s not going to play nice.

Jerry Lewis was not a “nice” man. He was ambitious; he was innovative (in invented the video assist tool that allowed filmmakers to view their cuts as soon as they were shot, and wrote what film directors from Spielberg to Scorcese have called “the definitive book on film directing“). He was, like most people, a complex mass of dark and light, of joy and misery, of kindness and spite. He could be high-handed and dismissive, and he could be grateful. Once, a Vegas highroller presented him with a gift, a necklace that included a mezuzah, and he clutched it to his chest and wept.

As I wrote a few years ago:

He’s no saint, of course. His career has had ups and downs and many of the downs were of his own making. He has a huge ego and lots of public faults – but he is also famously generous. When Stan Laurel died, Lewis paid for his funeral and settled all his debts. He is also a man of his age and era. Having outlived so many of his contemporaries, Lewis has offended this generation with his opinions, as when (apparently ignorant of the likes of Lucielle Ball, Carole Lombard, Madeline Kahn, Judy Holliday and many others) he suggested a few years back that women were not funny.

Perhaps he just doesn’t give a damn about offending people and figures everyone is entitled to their opinion.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard what inspired his commitment to MDA, but my sense of him, when I saw him, was that regardless of what Lewis-the – egocentric-entertainer does or covets, the MDA Jerry Lewis is a mensch and his work with that organization a half-century long mitzvah, a good deed for which he seeks no reward.

That’s no small thing, and not a bad epitaph.

I’ll close as I did last year, writing on that “cringe-worthy” interview:

“You’ve had a long and distinguished career,” Andy Lewis says, “is there a moment [when you were happiest or most creative]?” and Jerry Lewis answers, “When my partner was alive.”

Dean Martin died in 1995, and the legendary Martin & Lewis partnership ended in 1956 to Jerry’s everlasting pain, as he detailed in his book, Dean and Me: A Love Story, yet the force of his love and esteem for Martin keeps him from simply snarling another “no” in the camera’s direction. Instead, he honors his true feelings, and yes, that is intimate. That tells us a great deal about a man who has outlived most of his contemporaries, and has publicly carried the pain of rejection, and has inflicted real measures of it upon others. In just that brief answer, you get the reminder that we each carry our share of sorrow amid our complex lunacies.

Speaking of complex lunacy, here is a story about Jerry Lewis: His name came up during a class in college, and the instructor—a stickler to the lesson plan—broke away from it to praise him: “Let me tell you about Jerry Lewis. My brother has muscular dystrophy. One year he wrote a fan letter to Lewis and in it mentioned in passing that his dog had died. Next thing we know, we get a phone call from Lewis’s office asking if my brother could meet him at the airport. We did, and here comes Jerry Lewis, and he’s carrying a puppy that he puts into my brother’s lap. He was between flights and he spent nearly a half-hour with my brother and the rest of us, just talking—letting my brother know he mattered. You cannot say a bad word to me about this man.”

No saint, by any means, except perhaps in the small ways that we are all able to be saints for each other—just now and again, amid all of our sins—because we are all of us so flawed, and so fascinating.

I had a crush on him, my whole life, even when I saw him snarling and live, because I had also seen him him kneeling before kids in wheelchairs, away from the prying eyes of others, and making them feel seen, and known and loved, and they would smile. I saw him walk away, tears in his eyes, and then bark at someone to get him a milkshake.

You cannot say a bad word to me about this man.

Public Domain
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-at-Large at Aleteia and the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You. ​
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