Danny & Sylvia
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Their Split & Reconciliation
Ironically Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, but didn't realize it until years later. According to Sylvia: “We had gone to the same high school and lived diagonally across the street from each other but never met during those years." (November 6, 1945) Though the two had never officially met during their teenage years, Sylvia had obviously seen the young Danny. During Danny's teenage years, he had a variety of odd jobs, none of which ever seemed to work out. One of those jobs was working for a dentist named Dr. Samuel Fine, whom he later discovered was Sylvia's father. In a December 3, 1967 article, Sylvia explained, “The first time I brought Danny home, my father yelled, ‘Hey, aren’t you the kid who used my drilling machine all over our woodwork?’ He was. My father always hired a kid in the neighborhood to answer the phone when everybody was out, and Danny has an inquisitive nature." Once Danny's actions had been discovered, he was fired on the spot. But Sylvia recalled: “I first saw Danny when he was fourteen, working in my father’s dental office in Brooklyn. I remember how he used to sprint through the office and never noticed me. I had a crush on him, but he never knew it. I thought he was hilarious the first time I ever saw him, and I haven’t changed my opinion yet.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 68)
It wasn't until the spring of 1939 that the two officially met. At this point, Danny was desperately looking for any work he could find. He met up with Nat Lichtman, whom he knew from working in the "borscht circuit." Lichtman said he was on the way to see Max Liebman, who was casting for a new show, "Sunday Night Revue", and invited Danny along. It was there that Danny saw Sylvia seated at the piano. She looked familiar but Danny couldn't place her. Sylvia said, "I know you, but I bet you don't remember me." (The Danny Kaye Story pg 66-67) Sylvia explained it like this in a November 6, 1945 article: "The director of a little theater group called me up to ask for some lyrics," Sylvia said. "I’m the lazy type and had never written them down. I had to go there and play the numbers in person. Star of the show was Danny . . . at that show we were introduced.” In another article, Sylvia described that first meeting: “When I saw Danny first I didn’t like him one bit—his clothes, his demeanor—but I did recognize an amazing talent and versatility." (March 3, 1942) The "Sunday Night Revue" closed after one night. Max Liebman urged both Danny and Sylvia to join “his "Straw Hat Revue" at Camp Tamiment in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvannia.” Both agreed. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 69)
Kurt Singer describes it like this in The Danny Kaye Story: "The two young artists spent the hours rehearsing, planning, creating, composing, singing and laughing." As the months passed, the two developed a friendship. Sylvia said, “Very often we talked of marriage, first tentatively and half joking, then more and more seriously. Sometimes I agreed with Danny that we should wait until he was professionally secure and we had some money in his pockets, but in my own heart I really didn’t feel that money mattered because we were in love.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 70) "Straw Hat Revue" became a success and in the fall it went to Broadway for a ten-week engagement. It was in "Straw Hat Revue" that "Anatole of Paris" was first featured. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 71) After the production was over, Sylvia went back home, and Danny took off for Florida. "But he had not been there long before he telephoned Sylvia 'I never missed anyone so much in my life. Come down.'" (March 3, 1942) Another article describes it like this: "Above the background static she heard quite plainly—'Come on down here and marry me.' Sylvia wasn’t being rushed by anybody. By letter she advised Mr. Kaye to stay out of the sun. But true love will always bulldoze a way. A month later, by one of those unbelievable seventh-reel coincidences, Sylvia found herself in Miami, convalescing from an illness. They married." (May 31, 1951)
The Danny Kaye Story adds in some missing details from the May 31, 1951. Singer explains, “Startled by his own suggestion, [Danny] slammed the receiver on the hook before Sylvia had an opportunity to answer him.” Sylvia wrote back with a long warm letter telling Danny that she considered them engaged but asked for time for her and her family, as her family didn’t approve of an elopement. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 72) Things changed suddenly, however. Sylvia came down with a bad case of bronchitis, and her doctor, interestingly enough, advised her to head down to Florida for some warmth and sunshine. Sylvia said, “So, for three days in Florida, I just sat on that uncomfortable edge of indecision—and thought. Finally I concluded that if I asked my parents, there would be objections, discussions and arguments. I didn’t want all those complications, so we eloped and were secretly married.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 72) In a November 6, 1945 article she explained, "I came down and we were married in Fort Lauderdale by a justice of the peace. We had to wait while he finished his dinner. There was an old dog in the parlor who snored while he slept. But it’s still romantic.” In People Magazine's October 1, 1979 edition she mentioned: "I was afraid to tell my family I was marrying an actor, so we eloped,"
In one particular article, Danny and Sylvia told the journalist about their arrival home to Brooklyn, when Sylvia took Danny to meet her family. "[Danny] had let his hair grow long because he thought he looked funnier for his stage parts that way. 'My family took one look at him,' said Sylvia, 'and thought I had lost my mind.' 'Her father,' said Danny, 'recognized me as the boy who had worked in his dental office and thought his daughter was making a terrible mistake.' (March 26, 1944) To satisfy their parents, Danny and Sylvia were remarried in a synagogue on February 22, 1940. (Jewish Women's Archives, The Danny Kaye Story pg 73) At the reception, Sylvia’s father drew the couple aside and asked Sylvia where she had met Danny. She told the truth...that she had formally met him at the Sunday Night Revue. Her father asked her if she knew that Danny had worked for him running errands. In The Danny Kaye Story, Danny explained the response like this: “‘Yes, Dad,’ said Sylvia shyly, ‘and I think I loved him then.’ I could have just hugged her for that statement.” (pg 73)
Back home, the couple had now to search for work. “Marriage made only one change in Danny Kaye’s professional life: he worked harder than ever. ‘I don’t ever want Sylvia to go back to giving piano lessons and I don’t want her in the soup again. I simply have to find a job.’” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 74) "[...] Sylvia persuaded Danny to try night club work—from which he had shied, helped him get a contract, wrote some of his sketches and accompanied him at the club 'La Martinique.'" (March 3, 1942) With what little money they had, Danny bought a new tuxedo and went on for his first performance. However, the customers at the first show were not amused. They were "used to a more refined style of entertainment," as one article put it. "Danny was so unnerved by his cool reception that he sought out the manager and asked to be released from his contract." (October 20, 1958) The Danny Kaye Story said that Danny "pleaded to be released from his contract, immediately and before the next show." (pg 76) Another article described it like this: "For Danny this was the final flop that bruised his soul; he sought the easy way out and asked the management to release him." Sylvia was not so easily knocked down. Sylvia, along with the club's publicity manager, Eddie Dukoff (who later became Danny's manager), gave Danny a pep talk. "They talked at him," the May 31, 1951 article states. The owner of the club refused and explained that the next audience would be different, too much money had already been spent, and there was no one to replace Danny before the next show. Singer describes it likes this: "The next hour in Danny's dressing room was like the corner of a boxing ring when the favorite has been knocked down in the previous round." The three of them--the owner, Eddie Dukoff, and Sylvia--convinced him to give the next show a try. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 76)
"He was singing one of the numbers Sylvia had written for him—'Anatole of Paris'—when he suddenly, unaccountably, started ad-libbing, improvising his now-famous inconsequential gibberish, while his wife, at the piano, struggled to keep up with him. Danny Kaye, as we know him today, was born." (October 20, 1958) Things started improving greatly after that. Moss Hart happened to be in the audience during one of those performances and ended up writing a part for Danny in "Lady in the Dark." (The Broadway production where he first performed the show-stopping "Tschiakowsky.")
As is often the case, there is always something about each individual that ends up changing once a couple is married. "When Mrs. Kaye first met Danny," one article states, "he was just a teeny weeny little bit 'flash.' His hair grew long, and when he walked across a room he seemed to dance. His suit was pinched at the waist and the ties he wore were bow-shaped and only an iota quieter than a fire alarm. Mrs. Kaye likes medium-length hair-do’s for men and loose-fitting suits and sober ties. And nowadays so does Danny. His off-stage neckties are narrow, plain, and usually of knitted silk, and his gait is that of an eager athlete. And in deference to Danny’s views on feminine adornment, Sylvia wears neither veils nor earrings." (May 31, 1951) Another article states, "[Danny] admits that when he first met her his way of dressing was, to say the least, 'arty.'" (October 20, 1958) “Now we’re similar in many ways. I don’t know who rubbed off what on whom,” Sylvia said in a May 8, 1959 article.
In the early forties, Danny and Sylvia moved to Hollywood with Danny's first movie, "Up in Arms," premiering in 1944. On December 17, 1946, Sylvia gave birth to a daughter, Dena, Danny and Sylvia's only child.
The Split & Reconciliation
It is well-known that early in their marriage, Danny and Sylvia had a temporary split, which occurred around in September 1947. Gottfried’s book has its own negative view, one that gives way to the rumors that floated around Hollywood. Kurt Singer’s book, The Danny Kaye Story, brings their split and reconciliation into a whole new light, one that is more understandable and positive. Since Gottfried’s book is so well-known and Singer’s is quite rare, I’d like to share Singer’s version of the split with you in the following biographical summary, in hopes that you, too, will have a new view of Danny and his wife.
After Up in Arms, while Danny was shooting to fame in Hollywood, “Sylvia remained in the dark, unpopular among his colleagues and unapplauded for her role in Danny’s life.” Her music had done wonders for Danny, helping to springboard him into fame. But Sylvia discovered that when others were overly nice to her, they usually wanted something from Danny. All the attention was for Danny with Sylvia left in the dark and forgotten. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 124) Obviously that would be hard on anybody, especially when Sylvia had put so much hard work into helping Danny with his career. “While Sylvia adored the man of her choice, she was still not happy with her own career. She was a woman hanging on the rim of a flying saucer.” Singer explains that out of courtesy people called her “Miss Fine.” It was, after all, her professional name – Sylvia Fine. But she desired to be recognized as Mrs. Kaye, Danny’s wife not just his song writer. While she did want to have a recognized career, she also wanted to be recognized as his wife. “[Danny’s] adventures in celluloid had put his feet on the ground and, in many ways, he was now more secure than Sylvia, who was secretly competing with him.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 125)
One of Sylvia’s statements about this early time of their life was: “I had a bundle of complexes on my hands.” While Danny said, “I had my problems with Sylvia. Hollywood does not like the wives of actors.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 126)
After the success of Wonder Man, Danny was still not happy. “He wished—how he wished!—he could make his co-workers accept Sylvia.” (The Danny Kaye Show pg 128) In 1945, when Danny started his radio show, Sylvia's same antics and attitudes were not popular among the radio staff. "The unfriendly atmosphere toward his wife made Danny terribly unhappy." (pg 135) Kurt Singer quotes one person whom he considered one of the “few perceptive people” aware of the problems beneath the surface in Danny and Sylvia’s life. S. Z. Sakall said, “Danny and Sylvia have troubles. Hollywood is a difficult place. Danny is such a nice kid, and she is a strong woman—too strong. People think he is clay in her hands, but it is only because she loves him, wants so much for him, that she never gives him a chance to do things on his own. I think he has a guilty feeling toward her for all she does. She pushes too hard. I fear there is trouble ahead.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 128)
There was trouble ahead, and Danny knew it. He was worried. He had sensed a change in their marriage since their arrival in Hollywood. They were arguing more. Finally Danny had enough of the constant whispers about his success and career not being possible without Sylvia. “His ego was hurt. For the past seven years he had been asked to bow in her direction and certainly under her direction. It was too much for even the best husband to take.” Singer explains that an uneasiness came over Danny. He realized that all the attention was on him, which, Singer explains, “led to unhappy pressures of guilt.” So Danny gave in. “He told Hollywood reporters, ‘Sylvia has a Fine head on my shoulders.’” Ever since that line was spoken it has stuck and it's been repeated many times. But from the feel of Singer’s book, it is clear that the statement was not necessarily said with the best of intentions. Danny certainly was grateful for all that Sylvia had done for him, and he respected her and her talent very much. But Danny wanted things to be seen as "his art, his know-how." (The Danny Kaye Story pg 130) He also later regretted making the statement, "I'm a wife-made man," which he had said in answer to a reporter's question on his success. It had been said during a time in their lives when the conflict was greatest. "He felt pangs of remorse for his brashness and lack of good taste." (pg 131) In an October 1979 People magazine article, Sylvia said, "People said I was the head on his shoulders. He didn't like that, and I didn't. (October 1979)
There seems to have been a lot that led to the split. Danny’s sudden fame, leaving Sylvia’s hard work and contributions somewhat forgotten. Sylvia’s “untempered frankness, her aggressive behavior on the set, her unwanted discussions with Mr. Goldwyn, and her occasional impolite attitude toward directors, technicians and stagehands.” (pg 129) Danny also often felt that Sylvia was his mother more than his wife.
There was a brief time of contentment in the home with the birth of their daughter, Dena, in December 1946. Danny had been quite excited at the prospect of fatherhood, and went into it full-force. He made funny faces, helped with the bath, changing diapers, and making formula. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 140) Singer explains that Danny realized their marriage had not been fixed; the problems still existed. It "had lost its deepest meaning," said Singer. "Danny was in revolt again, torn again between the guilt of ingratitude and the knowledge that marriage could not be based on constant feeling of obligation." Sylvia "tried to analyze his changed behavior, for he had closed a door between them and retreated into a kind of hostile politeness." (pg 143) The inevitable eventually occurred. The couple split in September 1947.
Danny: "About my split-up with Sylvia, I can only say no outside influence caused the separation. In the course of becoming successful professionally, our marriage relationships got a little lost." (pg 145)
Sylvia: "Danny and I talked things over for a week, so I cannot say he walked out on me in a sudden mood. The trouble seemed to snowball into something definite. I love Danny, and I always will. But he is nervous and unhappy. It is difficult for him with the baby in the house. Danny loves the baby and he is proud of her. She has his hands. But he is so nervous and tired that her crying worries him. I'm still hoping for a reconciliation." (pg 146)
Later in life, Sylvia did realize her mistakes. She admitted that she used to control Danny, even from the piano. If she thought Danny was singing a song too hard, she would “change the octave so it was higher and lighter, and without really knowing it, his sensitive ears would detect the difference and he would ease up and become lighter too.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 129) She also had failed to realize "that no one can ever possess another, especially a personality as mercurial as her husband's." (pg 143)
During the split, Danny--along with his accompanist, Sammy Prager, and his manager, Eddie Dukoff--took off for Danny's appearance in London. Though England had been a tough place for other American performers, Danny became a sensation! "A man with new self-confidence was on his way to the United States. He had confirmation of his ability, believed in his performances and felt in his soul that he had matured. Danny went home--home to Sylvia and home to Dena." (The Danny Kaye Story pg 160) During Danny's absence, Sylvia told Singer that she had had time to think, as well. "I had to learn the hard way to conquer some of my faults. I had to learn that marriage is a woman's job. I am not different from other women. Babying? Trying hard? Never again. I still hold tight to my husband--but with open fingers." (pg 160) They were back together in 1948 after Danny's London appearance, and remained married until Danny's death on March 3, 1987.
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Martin Gottfried's book leaves the unfortunate impression that there was hardly any love in their marriage or that it was merely a business arrangement. While he doesn't come right out and say that, one is left with a lot of negative impressions. There will always be talk and rumors; there certainly was in regards to Danny and Sylvia's relationship. But Kurt Singer's book brought their marriage into a whole new light. I believe that there was clearly a love and respect between them. Obviously without the two of them together, our world of entertainment would have been much different. What would they have been...without each other...
This picture is a screencap from On The Riviera (1951) Special Features: A Portrait of Danny Kaye.
No copyright infringement is intended.
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