worthy of an Oscar

Oscar Levant (1906-1972) was a concert pianist, composer, actor, comedian, radio personality, television host, and bestselling author.

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In 1932 Oscar married Barbara Wooddell, a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. Walter Winchell wrote in his newspaper column, “Barbara, who is lovely and nice, is marrying Oscar Levant, who isn’t.” Oscar and Barbara were divorced less than nine months after getting married. Oscar said later that, “Besides incompatibility, we hated each other.”

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In 1939 when Oscar married the movie actress June Gale, Walter Winchell wrote, “Oscar Levant, who knows most of the answers, explained that June Gale married him for his beauty, when everybody knows she married him for his theatre passes.”

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In 1938, after an article in the New York Post declared Oscar to be “the wag of Broadway”, and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen devoted a New York Journal piece to “Town Wit – Oscar Levant”, the producers of a new radio show called “Information, Please!” hired Oscar to appear as a guest. The response to Oscar’s spontaneous wit during this program that challenged “experts” to answer questions sent in by listeners was so phenomenal that he was immediately hired to be one of the show’s four regulars.

In 1940 Oscar began to perform in what were called “concerts with comments”, where he preceeded and followed his piano pieces with humorous comments often made at his own expense.  In 1947 Oscar was invited to perform for President Harry Truman in the White House. His recital was attended by eight justices of the Supreme Court, various cabinet officers, congressmen, and senators, and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson. As the Levants were leaving the White House after the recital Oscar turned to his wife and said, “Now I guess we owe them a dinner.”

Harry Truman aged 13 found here

In 1944 Oscar received a draft notice from the army. One of the army’s examiners asked him, “Do you think you can kill?” Oscar replied, “I don’t know about strangers, but friends, yes.” He was sent back to civilian life. 

His caustic repartee occasionally got him into hot water: one television offering, Oscar Levant’s Words About Music, was yanked off the air in 1956 when he commented on a certain starlet’s conversion to Judaism and marriage to a well-known playwright: “Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.”

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Among the things that Oscar had a phobia about were any mention of the word “death”, or any word associated with death such as “funeral”, “coffin”, etc.; the numbers 13 and 411 (the hospital room number his mother was in when she died); lemons (which reminded him of the lemon he was awarded in his youth for being the worst dancer at a party); cats (a bad omen); dread of the word “luck” in any connotation, especially when being wished “good luck”; a hatred of the name Sarah (his sister–in–law’s name); and blackbirds (which filled him with terror because they were funereal–looking).

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In July, 1965, Oscar Levant published a volume of random memories titled “The Memoirs of an Amnesiac”. Four weeks after its release it appeared on The New York Times bestseller list. While promoting his book on The Merv Griffin television show, he was asked what he would do if he had his life to live over again. Oscar responded, “I’d talk my parents out of it.”

Some of his more well known quips…..

Of Elizabeth Taylor: “Always a bride, never a bridesmaid.”

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Of Perry Como: “Perry Como’s voice actually comes out of his eyelids.”

Of Debbie Reynolds: “She’s as wistful as an iron foundry.”

Of Grace Kelly: “She just married the first prince who asked her.”

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Of Doris Day: “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”

Of Richard Nixon: “He swings a big mouth and carries a little stick.”

Of Zsa Zsa Gabor: “Zsa Zsa Gabor has learned the secret of perpetual middle age.”

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“Someone once asked me where I lived and I said, ‘On the periphery ‘.”

“I paid thousands of dollars to psychiatrists to forget my childhood.”

“My psychiatrist once said to me, ‘Maybe life isn’t for everyone’.”

“I was thrown out of one mental hospital because I depressed the patients.”

“There is a fine line between genius and insanity, and I have erased that line.”

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43 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. ‘Barbara, who is lovely and nice . . . ‘
    Creepy and spooky, too? 😉

    • Ha ha… trust you to notice that

  2. With all that wit he must have been exhausting to have around, but I do like (and will use) the periphery quote!

  3. And I love the picture of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

    • Stunning photo, yes. She looks genuinely happy there.

  4. Interesting. I have never heard of this guy. I am a bit weak on mid-20th century pop-culture, but I should know the name. Nice item.

    • He was outside my radar too

  5. Read Harpo Marx’s autobiography Harpo Speaks, or any of Groucho’s collected correspondence. They have much to say about Levant, and it mainly concerns him being a freeloader.

    • Harpo Speaks is not available on Kindle. It’ll have to wait for my next trip to the library

  6. (see above)

    In 1944 Oscar received a draft notice from the army. One of the army’s examiners asked him, “Do you think you can kill?” Oscar replied, “I don’t know about strangers, but friends, yes.” He was sent back to civilian life.

    Too bad that excuse is no longer relevant!

    One more before I go (yeah, not my blog;I should butt-out) does anyone else see him as a [pale] Oscar Wilde?

    • That was my first thought. Brilliant wit. Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward were better but this Oscar was in the same league.

      • I loved that line. It doesn’t work these days because they would want to meet my friends first….and then they would agree.

  7. My friend has read both “The Memoirs of an Amnesiac” and “The Unimportance of Being Oscar.”

    Hats off to anyone who can come up with quips the way Oscar can.

    • Neither of which are available on Kindle 😦

  8. here’s to bringing back the art of the quip. shall we start a “Quip Art” movement?

  9. Bwilliant wit – but obviously an emotional quipple.

  10. I palmed the Memoirs Of An Amnesiac off my father as soon as he was finished reading the first paperback edition.The passage I will never remember involved a visit to Polly Adler’s (the famous upscale bordello) in which, though most of the party’s appetites were modest and quickly satisfied, one gentleman, Max but I forget which famous Max, was “all over the place” and as his friends sipped their drinks in the parlor, leaned over the banister and called out to Mrs. Adler: “Pray Madam what is my fucking bill?”

    • Oops, I meant to write “always remember.” It is early here.

  11. He was asked what he would do if he had his life to live over again. Oscar responded, “I’d talk my parents out of it.” I do rather agree. I’ve been trying to make sense of this bizarre world for 64 years and it still seems like an incomprehensible madhouse.

  12. A fine gentleman if i do say so myself, and that last bit about genius and insanity, spot on.

  13. He had some good quips.

  14. Re Lavant: “…always quick for a bright response laced with acid.” – John Kieran

  15. Some of the wittiest people are the loneliest.

  16. That draft board quote is hilarious!
    I don’t think I’ve seen that photo of Marilyn before… lovely…

  17. Wow I didn’t know he was behind so many great quotes like the one about Doris Day!

  18. Chuckle, chuckle. He seems to have recovered from his Ziegfiled folly with good humour. Great quips.

  19. Yes, those quotes are surely worth an Oscar but if he had to live his life over again he really should get job. On second thought, maybe not.

  20. Truly worthy of Oscar indeed. I like the bit on Marilyn. Good one.

  21. I love humour with a piano – Victor Borge was brilliant …

    • OY! There is a lot of punctuation there. It should be phonetic.

      • Sorry pst pst pst I love humour with a piano swish Victor Borge was brilliant pst pst pst

  22. Any ace that can generate quips like that is definitely worthy of an oscar.

  23. Sounds like the perfect man, except for the cat phobia.

  24. oo, I love him. All the best people are mad.

  25. An imminently quotable man!

    • You’re about to quote him are you?

      The King

      • You’re a very naughty boy Your Majesty

  26. isn’t it nice to know we kind of have a modern day oscar in larry david.

  27. Oh for one tenth of that wit…

  28. Love those quotes, nursemyra

  29. […] I was reminded of Victor Borge when I read this post over at Nurse Myra’s. […]

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