Comedian Jerry Lewis pours out his brotherly love for crooner Dean Martin in a 352-paged letter. Lewis' memoir Dean and Me follows the comic duo's first meeting; how they teamed up; advanced through stage, radio, film and television; broke up; and reunited (sort of).
I'm late to the party since this book was published six years ago, but what an exciting read! The tone of it is alternately wistful, belligerent, cocksure, and regretful.
“Whatever we do, I‘m the kid and you‘re the big brother. I‘m the busboy, you‘re the captain. You‘re the organ-grinder, I‘m the monkey. You‘re the playboy, I‘m the putz. Follow?”That’s Lewis planning with Martin for their first official nightclub act together in the mid-1940s. The big brother-kid brother formula is what lifted these two performers to prominence in show business. Lewis makes it clear that their relationship off-stage had this same dynamic.
An only child, with showbiz parents who were rarely in his daily life, lonely Lewis, basically "adopted" an older sibling when he lied to his mob-connected employer - who was looking for a song and comedy act at Atlantic City's 500 Café - that he and Martin could perform a spot to please the customers. Martin was not in on this arrangement; he merely thought he'd been hired to sing as always. Once he found out the actual arrangement, he went along with it. The two had that same relationship from then on - Jerry initiating a deal for the two of them, and a sanguine Martin going along for the ride.
After a decade of this agreement, Martin finally had enough of not controlling his own life. Lewis blames the new life in Hollywood, not being around each other as frequently as they had in the nightclub circuit. Lewis also blames a new batch of friends for instigating Martin’s famous strike for independence. Perhaps so. Or perhaps Martin was just ready to do something else and didn't know how to say it except in loud, hurtful tones (telling Lewis near the end of their professional partnership that the little guy was nothing but a dollar sign to him).
The memoir runs back and forth through the timeline [the 1940s through to Martin’s death in the 1990s], sharing poignant and hilarious anecdotes - how Lewis admired the man nine years his senior to the point of wearing Martin’s brand of aftershave (with hilarious results); how Jerry and Dean almost missed a nightclub show because they couldn't refuse playing golf with notorious mobster Willie Moretti; how they were routinely (and happily) mobbed by fans; how disgusted they were with each other during filming of their last movie together, Pardners. Lewis also includes a couple of brief and completely gratuitous stories about Marylin Monroe.
Yet with all the detail, there's much held back. Martin's upbringing is a murky remembrance of generics about strict Italian parents in a small factory town in Ohio who taught their children never to be vulnerable or trust anyone. This would explain the dark-haired singer's penchant for rarely showing his feelings. Because Martin was so tight-lipped, Lewis can in some spots produce only his assumptions.
Lewis’ own parents make an appearance in the book about twice - once to explain why they were not around during his childhood (they traveled the vaudeville circuits) and once when Lewis the elder screamed into his son’s oxygen tent at the hospital about how Jerry’s incapacitated state is hurting Jerry’s mother.
Martin's and Lewis’ respective wives remain shadowy figures as well, mere outlines. This is a shame because you want to know how these ladies met and chose two very quirky and talented guys (the book begins after they are both married with children). It's also rather repugnant that the wives are pushed in the background of the book while their famous husbands boast of their very public infidelities with a practiced shrug. Of all of Lewis' faults, this was not one that I expected, certainly not one I thought he'd brag about having. Thankfully he doesn't go into much detail on this score, and only lists the names of two (very famous) liaison partners.
Jerry Lewis ( and co-author James Kaplan) tells his side of the Martin and Lewis story with great sincerity and vulnerability. Just when you think, " He's just playing up his Pierrot routine again to get the reader's sympathy," he sucker punches you with another story of longing, regret, lost opportunities, and lost friendship and you feel like a heel for doubting him. Although Lewis has played the sad clown all of his adult life, this time it is not a gimmick, it’s real.