The Book of the Week is “The Good, the Bad, and Me, In My Anecdotage” by Eli Wallach, published in 2005.
Wallach was an actor of stage and screen. In many ways, he lived in a bygone era. Born in December 1915, he grew up in a Jewish family among mostly Italians, in a few different working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Horse-drawn wagons sold fruit, milk and ice. The horses’ manure was sold as fertilizer. The Italians put on puppet shows, and had parades honoring Jesus and the saints, with floats, refreshments, and a band playing the national anthem. A marching band would play at funerals.
The value of money was quite high in the early twentieth century. If pennies were run over by the streetcar, they could be filed down to take on the structure of nickels, which could be used in pay phones. In 1932, Wallach began to attend the University of Texas as an out-of-state student for $30 a year. He roomed at a boardinghouse for $40 a month, including meals. His second year there, however, the school raised its tuition to $100 a year. Even so, the dean helped students find work so they could afford their educations.
In 1936, Wallach got free tuition at City College of New York when he took classes toward his master’s degree in teaching, at his older brother’s behest. He got a scholarship to Neighborhood Playhouse, an acting school, also in Manhattan. There, famous instructors taught Method acting. In the 1940’s, open-air double-decker buses that graced Greenwich Village, charged five cents. Wallach shared a one-room furnished apartment on lower Fifth Avenue for which he paid $35 a month. Maid service was included.
However, in 1956, the author hired a press agent for himself and actress-wife for $125 a week. That was a steep price. Ed Sullivan reported in his column that Wallach and his wife had lost their yacht in a sea storm– a line planted by the agent in the New York Daily News. The agent was let go.
Growing up, Wallach never met any black people. He heard about them in Harlem, but had never been there. While in college in Texas, he worked as an usher at a theater in Austin. He escorted blacks to their seats, which were relegated to the (nosebleed section) balcony only.
During Wallach’s fabulous career, in 1961, he acted in an absurdist play written by Eugene Ionesco, called Rhinoceros. It was about how herd mentality turned people into rhinoceroses when they conformed to State authority. For more information about the plot, see the following:
When Wallach acted in a film in Italy in the late 1950’s, he found that some people disagreed with him on how to portray their characters. He wrote, “It had always seemed to me that calling it the Method was incorrect; each country, each society, each theater, and each actor devises his own method.” Such is true of life at large.
Read the book to learn more about Wallach’s life.