William "Billy" Rose (September 6, 1899 – February 10, 1966) was an American impresario, theatrical showman and lyricist. He is credited with many famous songs, notably "Me and My Shadow" (1927), "Without A Song" (1929), "It Happened in Monterey" (1930) and "It's Only a Paper Moon" (1933). For decades preceding and immediately after the Second World War Billy Rose was a major force in entertainment, with shows, such as Jumbo (1935), Billy Rose's Aquacade, and Carmen Jones (1943), his Diamond Horseshoe nightclub, and the Ziegfeld Theatre influencing the careers of many stars. Billy Rose was inducted as a member of theSongwriter's Hall of Fame. After divorcing comedian Fanny Brice, he married Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm.
Life and work
William Samuel Rosenberg (later Billy Rose) was born to a Jewish family in New York City. He attended Public School 44, where he was the 50-yard dash champion. While in high school, Billy studied shorthand under John Robert Gregg, the inventor of the Gregg System for shorthand notation. He won a dictation contest using Gregg notation, taking over 150 words per minute, and writing forward or backward with either hand.
An anecdote credited to a verbal history by Rose himself illuminates his resourcefulness as a young man. Shortly before his competition, Rose told of an injury to his preferred writing hand, which impinged upon his ability to hold a pen with stability. His competitive results hinged upon this sore point: hand strength allowed him the stamina necessary to sustain his remarkable writing speed, understood to be his singular competitive advantage. Rose solved the problem with characteristic celerity. He drove the shaft of his pen through a raw potato, which he could grip easily in his injured hand, and proceeded to win the contest. It is specifically on the recommendation of this competitive victory that he was hired by Bernard Baruch and, in the vernacular of the present day, 'networked' his way to a greater career.
Billy Rose began his career as a stenographic clerk to Bernard Baruch of the War Industries Board during World War I, and became head of the clerical staff. Later he became a lyricist. In this role, he is best known as the credited writer or co-writer of the lyrics to "Me and My Shadow", "Great Day" (with Edward Eliscu), "Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight" (with Marty Bloom), "I Found a Million Dollar Baby" (withMort Dixon) and "It's Only a Paper Moon" (with E. Y. Harburg).
Most of Rose's lyrical credits were collaborations. Biographer Earl Conrad said, "Nobody clearly knew what he wrote or didn't write.... Publishers tend to credit him with writing the songs known to bear his name as a lyricist.... But tales rumble on...that Billy could feed and toss in a remark and monkey around, but that others did most of the writing." Lyricists might have been willing to tolerate a Rose credit grab because Rose was very successful at promoting "his" songs.
He went on to become a Broadway producer, and a theatre/nightclub owner. In June 1934, he opened The Billy Rose Music Hall at 52nd and Broadway in New York with the firstBenny Goodman Orchestra. He produced Jumbo, starring Jimmy Durante, at the New York Hippodrome Theatre. For the Fort Worth Frontier Days fair (1936–37), he constructed the huge elaborate dinner theatre Casa Mañana which featured stripper Sally Rand and the world's largest revolving stage. He presented a show at the Great Lakes Exposition inCleveland, Ohio in 1937.
Rose was diminutive in stature. When he attended a show, his practice was to book four seats: one for himself, one for his date, and the two in front of those so he would have an unobstructed view.
In 1929, he married famed performer Fanny Brice. They remained married until 1938.
In 1938, he opened Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, a nightclub in New York City's Times Square in the basement of the Paramount Hotel. It initially opened with a version of his Fort Worth show. The Diamond Horseshoe operated under that name until 1951.
At the 1939 New York World's Fair, Billy Rose's Aquacade starred Olympian Eleanor Holm in what the fair program called "a brilliant girl show of spectacular size and content". Future MGM star Esther Williams and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller were both Aquacade headliners. Rose began an affair with the then-married Holm, who left her husband for Rose. The couple married in 1939.
Following the 1939 World's Fair, Rose asked John Murray Anderson, who had staged the Aquacade, to recommend a choreographer for a new show at the Horseshoe. Anderson recommended Gene Kelly, then performing in William Saroyan's One for the Money. Rose objected that he wanted someone who could choreograph "tits and asses", not "soft-soap from a crazy Armenian" (Yudkoff, 2001). However, after seeing Kelly's performance, he gave Kelly the job, an important step in Kelly's career.
Billy Rose's mausoleum in Westchester Hills Cemetery
In 1943, he produced Carmen Jones with an all-black cast. An adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen, the story was transplanted to World War II America by lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. It was an instant hit. The New York Telegraph called it "far and away the best show in New York"; The New York Times said it was "beautifully done ... just call it wonderful." The New York Herald Tribune said that Oscar Hammerstein II "must be considered one of the greatest librettists of our day" and that Carmen Jones was "a masterly tour de force". It was made into a motion picture in 1954, for which Dorothy Dandridge received an Academy Award nomination.
In 1946 Rose's memoir "Wine, Women and Words", dedicated to Rose's early patron Bernard M. Baruch, was published in New York by Simon and Schuster. The book was illustrated, including the cover of the numbered and signed first edition of 1500 copies, by Salvador Dalí whom Rose met while producing events at the 1939 World's Fair.
Following the publication of "Wine, Women and Words" Rose appeared on the cover of Time on June 2, 1947.
Rose and Holm divorced in 1954. On July 2, 1956, he married showgirl Joyce Matthews, and they divorced July 23, 1959. They then remarried on December 29, 1961, only to divorce again on February 10, 1964, exactly two years before he died. Matthews went on to marry and divorce comedian Milton Berle, also twice, while Rose married Doris Vidor later in 1964. Vidor was the widow of film director Charles Vidor.
Billy Rose founded the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. His legendary pragmatism is illustrated by a seeming minor event at the sculpture garden opening ceremony, which Rose attended personally. When asked by one of the many distinguished guests what, in the event of war, Rose would have Israel do with these artworks, many of which were modern, steel abstracts, Rose unsmilingly replied, "Melt them down for bullets."
Rose died in 1966 in New York City, aged 66. At the time of his death, his fortune was estimated at about $42 million, which he left entirely to a foundation named after him, disowning both of his sisters. He is interred at Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
From 1949 until 1955, Rose was the owner-operator of the Ziegfeld Theatre. During that time, the theater housed four musicals and five plays. From 1959 until his death in 1966, he was also the owner-operator of the Billy Rose Theater. During that time the theater housed four plays, one musical, one revue, three ballets, and twenty-nine concert performances. After his death, the theater retained its name, and remained in the ownership of his estate until 1978, when it was renamed. Today it is the Nederlander Theater.
Rose was featured in the film Funny Lady, a sequel to Funny Girl, which is about Ziegfeld comedienne Fanny Brice. In it, he is played by James Caan.