"If I was born tomorrow and
God said to me, 'What do you want to be?' I'd say a saloon keeper."
The rise and fall of
Bernard "Toots" Shor is one of those only-in-New York stories and could have
only happened in the early-mid 1900s.
He lived a majestic,
fascinating, often tragic life that was thousands of miles removed from his
hard childhood in South Philadelphia - figuratively, of course, not
literally. Yet, he almost never allowed the hurt to show, instead he
was quick with a laugh and always willing to go to any length for one of the
many, many people he considered his friend.
Toots Shor was the kind of
natural, down-to-earth guy who felt completely comfortable describing
meeting with the Pope by saying, "We sat around and talked. Geez, he's
a hell of a guy."
He was smart man who would not disclose how
many books he had read, because it was bad for his image for people to think
he was smarter than them - which he often was. He was the kind of man
who could call Frank Sinatra on a whim and say, "Hey, Dago, get down here,"
and Sinatra would come.
Mostly, he was the most
legendary restaurateur of the golden age of Manhattan - a man who counted
amongst his many regulars movie stars, athletes, politicians, mobsters and
even the occasional visiting President.
He was a wonderful host but
a horrible businessman, which meant that when Shor fell he would fall hard.
Still, for one brief, shining period of about 20 years, he was a real-life
Runyonesque character and the master of ceremonies of the place to
see and be seen in the entire world.
Shor was one of those
gregarious guys who could befriend anyone he chose to (though he openly
acknowledged that if he didn't like you, you were shut out), get people from
all walks of life together and made each feel equally special. He was
liked by movie stars and athletes precisely because he didn't fawn over
them. He was good friends with Gleason and Sinatra, sharing alcohol
and boozy stories - though he had no patience for someone who could not hold
their liquor. Mostly, he was a surprisingly caring and intuitive man,
believing that a bartender must also be a psychiatrist.
However, he could
occasionally be too brusque. He lost his longtime friendship with
baseball star Joe DiMaggio when he referred to DiMaggio's wife Marilyn
Monroe as a whore. The fact that DiMaggio and Monroe were fighting
(over her infamous skirt scene in the movie The Seven-Year Itch) and
that Shor was just trying to be sympathetic and one of the guys for the
sensitive athlete didn't matter, DiMaggio never spoke to him again.
In many ways, he was also a
very guarded and private man. He was obviously a caring family man who
loved his wife and daughters, though he would spend about sixteen hours a
day at the restaurant. His daughter Kerry says that it was just like
if she had a father who was a doctor. When he was there for the family
he was doting, though would not always open up, even to them. In an interview with
Kerry, it comes out that she only learned the stories of his parents' tragic deaths (Shor's mother was hit by a car when he was
fifteen, his father committed suicide five years later) by reading about it
in a book on her father.
Like so many other symbols
of bygone eras, eventually time, mores and circumstances passed him by.
Toots never quite got the sixties: the hippies, the war, the cultural
revolution and the changing face of crime. The world became a more
serious place, and Toots Shor's restaurant became a nearly empty-shrine to a
world which no longer existed.
Still, Shor tried to hold
on, eventually succumbing to cancer in the mid-1980s, a broken, alcoholic
and nearly destitute man.
Yet Toots, which was
made by Shor's granddaughter, does not dwell on the hard final days of his
life - though she does not shy from it either. She shows the warts and
tragic parts of her grandfather's life, but she mostly celebrates the high
times. There were many of those.
A friend of mine, a
struggling playwright who made a living at the time as a bartender, often
told me about fifteen years ago that he would love to do a play on the life
and times of Toots Shor, which he felt made for a truly fascinating and
dramatic story. Sadly, that play never came to be, but after seeing
Toots, I can't agree with him more.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: November 27, 2008.