DAVID FREEDMAN: Captain of Comedy

by S.E.M. Jacobi and edited by David Noel Freedman
Originally published for the reading of MENDEL, INC. on June 2, 2004 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre

"No. I don't like it at all, at least not for David's biography ...(because) it does not capture the complexity of David Freedman's character, nor the richness of his life."
December, 2004, when asked about this article's title.

David Freedman was born on 26 April 1898, in Botosani, Romania—the first child, and only son born to Sara and Israel Freedman. Israel, a political refugee, immigrated with his young family to the United States in 1900, where four years later, David’s sister Sophie became the first Freedman born in the new country.

A precocious child, David surely remembered his native city when he entered the New York City public school system. Perhaps Moldavian folk tales were an element of the bond between father and son; no doubt, stories from their ancestral homeland were. Like Solomon’s father, David was well beloved. Konrad Bercovici, the prominent author, witnessed the close relationship between son and father. Bercovici met them at their home—a tenement house on the Lower East Side—arriving when the seven-year-old was playing chess with Israel, who was a fine player. David won.

The prodigy and his Father were virtually inseparable. Playwright Montague Glass considered them “twins born twenty years apart.” During the moments they did not share, Israel wrote for the Jewish Daily Forward, becoming a well-known figure on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, especially at the Café Royale. David, after a stellar performance at De Witt Clinton High School, matriculated to the City College of New York, graduating in 1918. Not only was he the first in his family to complete a formal education beyond high school, he stood out from his peers by winning medals in History and Oratory, and a highly coveted Phi Beta Kappa key.

Even before proving his academic prowess, a charming young woman recognized David’s potential and accepted his proposal. Beatrice (nee Rebecca Goodman), a fellow New Yorker, was born in the city on 27 September 1899. Her parents had fled from Kishinev, Russia—well in advance of the troubles there in 1904. She managed to get through high school before teaming up with David. The union of their lives was celebrated in September 1918. Within five years, three sons joined them: Benedict (1919), Noel (1922), and Toby (1924). A decade later their only daughter would arrive.

Beatrice engineered a home environment that accommodated David’s endeavors. His involvement in their domestic affairs was limited, however, a rule promulgated by both parents, who themselves were fluent in Yiddish, was that the only language allowed to be spoken in their home was the language that in time became the tool of David’s trade: English. David tried his hand at a number of jobs to support the growing assembly, arranged largely through the intervention of his father. He was employed for a time as Editor of the Paper Box Leader, a trade journal for cardboard-making businesses, but after a disastrous experience related to the flooding of a cardboard-filled warehouse, David segued into the human services arena. As the new decade roared in, he rolled up his sleeves, becoming the new Superintendent of the Israel Orphan Asylum, in lower Manhattan.

The fact that most Jewish orphans were cared for within the community was a problem. When benefactors and potential parents visited the children and inspected the premises, David regularly pressed his three boys into service to pad the number of children under supervision. On one occasion, the arrival of important guests was timed to coincide with the departure of children from a nearby school. The homeward path of the students had been diverted through the backyard of the orphanage, creating the intended effect: the VIPs were impressed with the number and diversity of the orphans. A major achievement during the Freedman’s tenure was the inauguration of the annual fashion show and parade, an event in which the actual orphans starred. The production resulted in the appearance of the asylum’s name on the payee line of many personal and public entity’s checks.

Perhaps the fundraiser also raised David’s awareness of his calling to the entertainment industry. Ultimately, neither parent found life at Israel Orphan Asylum suitable or satisfying, especially considering the needs of their growing family. All along, David had been writing. He was a writer. It was a calling that emerged early in and persisted throughout his life. By age twenty-one, he had published the first of the Mendel Marantz stories, in a popular journal, the PICTORIAL REVIEW. Subsequently, he gathered the stories to form his first book, MENDEL MARANTZ (1925). Over a million copies of the novel were sold in Russia, though no rubles found their way back to the author of the pirated translation.

From 1924 on, David was a self-employed writer. He created countless sketches for musicals and had shows on Broadway almost every year from 1926 through 1937. His first play, MENDEL, INC., debuted in 1929. When radio replaced vaudeville, David, by then a popular, versatile writer, pre-empted the territory. He was prolific, creating hundreds of entertainment programs, as many as six a week for several years. In time, Freedman’s skills were again sought for the next new entertainment medium—this time, the big screen.

David also wrote about industry insiders, including Broadway’s greatest showman, Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932), with whom he had associated over the years. ZIEGFELD: THE GREAT GLORIFIER (1934), written by David (with Eddie Cantor), was used for the movie, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1945).


Similarly, PHANTOM FAME (1931), confessions of the flamboyant, innovative New York promoter, Harry Reichenbach (1882-1931), as told to David Freedman, became the basis for the movie THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (1932). David’s first biography, the autobiography of Eddie Cantor (1892-1964), MY LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS (1928), became a best seller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

A comprehensive biography of David Freedman is yet to be written. When it is, it will reveal how, as he had done with the orphanage, so he had with the orphan. Cantor, with his “Banjo” eyes and energetic persona, had the promise of becoming a great comedian even when he was being raised by his grandmother on the Lower East Side. With songs on the charts since 1917, Cantor was not unknown when he teamed-up with David, yet until then, he lacked sufficient material.

When plans for what became the world’s tallest building for over forty years were still on the drawing board, David’s material cemented Cantor’s forty-year career in the entertainment world. Like the Empire State Building, Cantor was catapulted to heights previously unknown—his career in the public eye and ear ran from vaudeville to radio, and beyond. His ratings and New York’s buildings went up even after stock prices collapsed. Freedman and Cantor responded to the economic catastrophe, rallying to increase the gross national production of laughter.

Some of their fabrications, such as CAUGHT SHORT! A SAGA OF WAILING WALL STREET (1929), are still available at bookstores around the world. This and similar booklets released by the fledgling firm, Simon & Schuster, with Cantor’s name on the cover (written in collaboration with David), sold remarkably well. Customers paid a buck and received the booklet, some of which may have come with a penny change in the cover. If so, an original would now fetch a pretty penny. Either way, in their day, they were worth more than gold.


CAUGHT SHORT!, an amusing portrayal of an investor caught short, thus losing everything except his sense of humor, has been described as having truly captured “the Humor required for the times.” The book kept readers chuckling at Cantor’s investment failures, and perhaps even their own. Throughout the era, writing flowed from David into the idle hands and ears of the nation. In 1931, YOO-HOO PROSPERITY: THE EDDIE CANTOR FIVE-YEAR PLAN was released. This irreverent look at causes of the depression offered humorous solutions for putting the country back on track. H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), the most prominent newspaperman, book reviewer, and political commentator of his day, asserted that these books did more to pull America out of the Depression than all government measures combined. Doubtless, the praise also extended to “The Eddie Cantor Radio Show.” This phenomenal hour-long Sunday evening series, sponsored by Chase and Sanborn from 1931 to 1934, established Cantor as a leading comedian and David as “king of the gag writers.”

            Before the show’s debut, during the first five months of 1931, David and Beatrice moved out West, so that David could work on PALMY DAYS.



This Hollywood blockbuster can still be seen on late-late night TV. Samuel Goldwyn recognized talent when he read it. In the ensuing years, he negotiated with David to become the principal screenwriter for the Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood. They agreed to the final terms near the end of 1936.

David Freedman 1889-1936

Prior to making that deal, when people were still singing, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” David had moved his growing family and thriving business on up to a triplex apartment in the Beresford, which is prominently situated on Central Park West. Cantor had already moved into similar digs at the San Remo. Completed in September of 1929, the Beresford is a masterpiece of architect Emery Roth. Andrew Alpern, in, “Luxury Apartment Buildings in Manhattan, An Illustrated History,” describes it as “a stone symphony.” The Beresford and the San Remo (also by Roth) are two of the most spectacular apartment buildings on the Upper West Side. Each has its merits and advocates. Italian Renaissance in design, the Beresford is only 22 stories tall, yet has a more commanding presence than the San Remo because of the Beresford’s scale. Amusingly, the motto inscribed above the Beresford’s brass elevator doors is Fronta Nulla Fides (Place No Trust in Appearances).


In contrast, the Italian Baroque San Remo, being the tallest, has the highest visibility and a better location.


The two buildings are like their two residents. Each man has his merits and advocates. Both were beneficiaries of a rich Jewish heritage, born to impoverished Eastern-European immigrants, and raised in New York. Freedman was a Renaissance man; Cantor, ostentatious. David appreciated the paradoxical relationship between perception and reality, routinely playing with and exploiting incongruities between the two—in his writing, in his late night performances at Lindy’s (held exclusively for industry insiders), and in his personal life. In contrast, his client enjoyed high public visibility and to date, a more prominent location in history books.

       David moved to a tower of the Beresford to expand his thriving business concerns. As J. Fred MacDonald explains, “With the ascendancy of broadcast humor, gag writers became a critical factor” because, “radio devoured jokes at a tremendous rate. Comedians were, understandably, heavily dependent upon their writers to furnish new and better jokes for each program... In 1934, Variety reported that several popular comedians had already exhausted the material it had taken them up to twenty years to accumulate.” David’s material was in high demand; he supplied scripts for such virtuosi of the dial as Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Fanny Brice. Workers in his "Joke Factory" needed space to assemble the scripts. Located on the third floor of the enormous penthouse, the enterprise gave Herman Wouk, now a Pulitzer Prize winner, one of his first writing jobs. It is this eminent novelist who dubbed David “czar.” In a memoir by Wouk’s colleague, Emmy winner

David is portrayed in terms of U.S. royalty: as the captain of comedy writing.

       David, the entrepreneur, neglected the short story—much to his father’s chagrin. Israel knew his son had the potential to become one of the country’s best short story writers; he was disappointed that his son’s contributions to an ephemeral medium left little opportunity for his literary talents to blossom. He also missed his company. From the 1920s on, David had little time to share with anyone.  Israel, on the other hand, took time to enjoy the various forms and shapes of nature. While vacationing in the Catskills early in 1934, as a guest of the Flagler Hotel, a heart attack ended his life. His passing at age 55 shocked the family, especially David. More than ever, he doubted his work even as he immersed himself deeper into it. Isa Ariel Freedman, conceived and named as a remembrance of her Grandfather, joined the family later that year.

       The daughter, whom David affectionately called “Princess” (she is now known as Laurie Hayden), entered the world as Cantor fled from Freedman’s kingdom. Cantor, with a smile that had become fixed in the American psyche, had found a new sponsor: Pepsodent. He negotiated a bittersweet deal, becoming the world’s highest paid radio star, while cutting the length of his show in half and allegedly erasing all memories of his agreement with David from his mind in their entirety. Cantor contended that he never made such an agreement and in the ensuing imbroglio, made off with David’s chief assistant, Phillip Rapp, leaving David on the brink of debacle.

       When news of the split became public, it was lamented by a local columnist as comparable to the fast friends of Greek fame, Damon and Pythias having a falling out—as if the mutual loyalty between David and Saul’s son Jonathan had been put asunder. Once again the public was deceived. According to Auerbach, the relationship between Freedman and Cantor was like that between tamer and lion: “It is the beast the crowd watches and applauds; yet the trainer has the superior intelligence. Minus his guidance, the animal, unable to jump through hoops, would be merely an anonymous jungle creature. Yet the galling fact remains: the trainer owes his livelihood to the beast.

       David pulled triumph from the lion’s mouth. Distance from Cantor was a blessing. David had always had more than one client; after the split, he collaborated with many distinguished performers, in a number of key productions in the familiar trinity of stage, screen, and radio. He wrote many, if not most, of the sketches for THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1934 and LIFE BEGINS AT 8:40, in which leading stars appeared, including Fannie Brice, Bert Lahr, Bea Lillie, et al. As his successes multiplied, he hired more and more workers. After many hit shows on Broadway, including THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1936 and THE SHOW IS ON, David, in the last phase of negotiations with Goldwyn, looked forward to moving with his family to Hollywood and the good life, even as plans for new musicals and plays in the East ensued.

       Before that could happen, the very morn after David and Goldwyn had agreed on the final terms, the ruptured relationship with Cantor signified a disaster for David and his family. In 1935, framing the matter as a test case for writers, David had filed suit against Cantor for breach of contract. On Monday, December 7, 1936, the first day of the trial, David suffered a massive heart attack as he gave his testimony. By morning he was dead, leaving Beatrice, his partner of 18 years, and their four children, who ranged in age from just under 17 to just under 2 years.

       Freedman also left behind countless fans, most of whom did not know his name. Time will soon tell if the Captain of Comedy’s passing was too untimely for his work to be properly remembered.  It is unlikely that contemporary audiences would appreciate most of his writing (though his jokes about the market still ring true), because it typically played on the peculiarities and sensitivities of his era.

       David’s stories, however, have a timeless quality. As the years passed, the family honored his memory with the posthumous publication of THE INTELLECTUAL LOVER (1940), a collection of David’s beautifully written short stories that were originally published individually between 1922 and 1928. It is the first book that David’s son, UCSD professor David Noel Freedman had a hand in making; in fact Noel was the instigator. Since his father’s death 68 years ago, Dr. Freedman, a resident of La Jolla and one of the world’s preeminent scholars of the Hebrew Bible, has edited and/or authored 330 serious books. Recently, when asked about his father’s work, the son remarked, “I want to make sure that this stuff survives. Performances are important, but history, that is what I’m good at. That is what books are for, to preserve our stories.”

David Noel Freedman: Bookmaker

Of the countless pieces his father wrote between 1920 and 1936, MENDEL, INC. (1929), is the only fully realized play. A product of the beginning of David’s extraordinary and sadly, brief career, it already embodies and expresses the mature man, the deep-thinking humorist/ playwright. This classic comedy about an immigrant Jewish family living in the uncertain times of 1929 of the Lower East Side reveals wisdom beyond its author’s years. The work demonstrates how an indomitable wit can keep certain hopes for the future alive and well beyond the limits of one’s own time and place.

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Select Anthology

Year(s) Published
The Intellectual Lover: and Other Stories
Ziegfeld: the Great Glorifier
Your Next President! (with Eddie Cantor)
Phantom Fame: The Anatomy of Ballyhoo
Yoo-Hoo Prosperity! The Eddie Cantor Five-year Plan (with Eddie Cantor)
Between the Acts (with Eddie Cantor)
A Book Full of Laughs (with Eddie Cantor)
Caught Short! a Saga of Wailing Wall Street (with Eddie Cantor)
My Life Is in Your Hands (with Eddie Cantor)
Mendel Marantz
1940 and 1986


1928 and 2000
1925 and 1986
Year(s) Produced
The Show is On
White Horse Inn
Ziegfeld Follies of 1936
Life Begins at 8:40
Ziegfeld Follies of 1934
Forward March
Crazy Quilt
Sweet and Low
Mendel, Inc.
Musical, Revue
Musical, Comedy
Musical, Revue
Musical, Revue
Musical, Revue
Musical, Revue
Musical, Revue
Musical, Revue
Play, Comedy
1929 and 2004
Year Released
Ziegfeld Follies
The Half Naked Truth
The Heart of New York
Palmy Days
Warner Bros.
Goldwyn/United Artists

The Freedmans thank the many organizations and individuals who helped promote and stage the 2004 reading of Mendel, Inc., especially:

The Annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival
The Center For Jewish Culture and Creativity
Friends of the Judaic Studies Program
Ken Jewish Community
North Coast Repertory Theatre
San Diego Agency for Jewish Education
San Diego Jewish Journal
Patricia Morris Buckley
Julia Carson
David Ellenstein
David Miano
Todd Salovey and his daughter, Leah
Copyright 2004-2009 By  S.E.M. Jacobi.
All Rights Reserved