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The dramatic life Joel Grey, ‘Master of Ceremonies’

Master of Ceremonies

By Joel Grey

Flatiron Books

256 pages, $27.99

By Ben Siegel

Self-reflection has long been a part of actor Joel Grey’s life.

As a child, he watched as his father, variety performer Mickey Katz, satirized their Jewish heritage to roaring applause. At 9 years old, Grey joined the act on the road. “The Borscht Capades” was a hit, and Grey, who didn’t know a lick of Yiddish but who learned each bit by rote, was a breakout star. After a couple of years, he was scooped up by Eddie Cantor, who put him in the “Colgate Comedy Hour,” touring nightclubs nationwide. The prodigal son of a Jewish clown.

As a young boy, his bones rattled at the chatter about Jews’ oppression in Europe; his soul shrank when his mother, a bawdy dame named Grace, casually discredited among dinner talk the homosexual lifestyle. She didn’t know her son was questioning his sexuality at the time, nor that he was fooling around with the teenage elevator operator in their posh Cleveland apartment building. Little Joel was fearful in equal measure of both his mother’s and the Nazis’ contempt for his very identity, though his love for her was unshakable.

But the tentpole to Grey’s lifelong self-gazing was the role that made him famous, the Emcee in John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff’s groundbreaking 1966 musical, “Cabaret,” based on the Berlin stories of writer Christopher Isherwood. Clad in a tuxedo, with slicked-back hair, a vaudevillian’s rosy face and a swinging cane, the Emcee lured audiences of the seedy Kit Kat Klub into the German abyss, where debauchery and decadence distracted them from the decaying rise of Nazism above ground. The role was built to entice and arrest patrons – the original “shock and awe” – for their unwilling complicity in this masterful sleight-of-hand. Secrets and lies, with plenty of rouge.

Hovering above the stage was a large mirror, angled downward at the audience, reflecting first their frivolity, then confusion, then disgust, and ultimately, shame.

It is a narrative arc that Grey revisits throughout his life, and which he recounts in a new memoir, “Master of Ceremonies,” written with Rebecca Paley. It includes all the emotional milestones that dot a star performer’s pathology: a sweet tooth for attention, the seduction of ego, the condemning of ordinary people, parental abandonment, debilitating self-doubt, delusion of praise, and, deep down, a lonely, fossilized heart for home and hearth. One always wants to go home.

Grey expectedly, and understandably, weaves his mother’s bitter disapproval of his admitted homosexuality through many of his stories. Some underline his failures; some taint his successes. All are mere projections of what she might have or would have said.

Goldie “Grace” Katz, née Epstein, saw her son win the 1967 Tony Award for “Cabaret” (in the ceremony’s television debut), the 1973 Academy Award for the same role in Bob Fosse’s spectacular film adaptation, and the births of Grey’s children, James Katz and the actress Jennifer Grey. He was a successful son by any measure, but was nevertheless shamed for the parts of himself he could not, though would learn to, hide. When, at age 16, Grey told his parents of an affair with a man, his mother recoiled, sniping back: “Don’t ever touch me again. You disgust me.” Thus began a life of portrayals.

Grey married actress Jo Wilder in 1958, and alternately loved and hated the experience. Grey speaks of her with much adoration and respect, though is barely diplomatic when recalling his disapproval of her wanting to work. He would take care of his wife, and they would raise a family, live in a perfect home; that would be their lives, and he would make sure it was a success. This would not be, of course, though they often came close. (Oprah’s sound bite about being able to have it all, just not at the same time, comes to mind.)

But not all of their heartache was a byproduct of denial. The couple became pregnant in their first year of marriage. Six months into her pregnancy, Wilder went into premature labor, and gave birth to son Jeremy. He weighed just more than 1 pound. At the doctor’s insistence – a strange insistence – Grey flew back to an out-of-town gig while his wife and son recuperated; all signs pointed up. But a couple of days later, the phone call knocked on the hotel room door. The passing of their son nearly broke each in half, and only further decayed an already-tense union. In the following months and years, the two traded insignificant grudges and unwilling compromises.

I’ll give Grey credit for this: he takes every opportunity to praise his wife, owning up to his missteps, claiming many times that his marriage was, despite the reason for its demise, the best time of his life. But he also fails to take complete ownership of her somehow shocked response to his eventual coming out. This is not an indictment of Grey, not by a long shot. The unfair trappings of this increasingly more familiar marriage tale create two victims, if not more. For the first many years of Grey’s life it was patently illegal to be a practicing homosexual, and in most households even more sinful to have thought about it. Even I, a gay male of 33 years, can understand and respect the historical context for Grey’s fight, which thankfully and still crazily contradicts the freedoms my generation can now call a reality. So my reservation about Grey’s storytelling is not about the story, but in its telling.

Writing a memoir in the onset of one’s twilight should be an unapologetic exercise. It should be a 360-degree confession of one’s finally realized truth, or the recognition that the truth had previously been mistaken for something more manageable. It’s impossible to know how much work Grey has done on his path to personal actualization; he deserves the benefit of our doubt.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling, reading this eloquently written and descriptive confessional, that some of Grey’s work remains unfinished. Fair enough, the man’s still breathing. Despite its polished prose, this feels like a first draft: therapeutic but without perspective. Infrequent enough is an objective perspective. Grey plays victim more often than he may realize, more often than he may be able to justify. It’s not enough to be distasteful, in all fairness, though it is enough to feel regret for his circumstances, and to understand the atrocities the world around him – the world we are all a part of – permitted.

Given Grey’s revolving penchant for self-examination, the mirrors held up to his life time and time again, it’s easy to hope that he takes another stab at it. A string of photography books has brought him more layers of artistic praise. Continued roles on stage and screen keep his lips pursed and cheeks aglow. With “Master of Ceremonies,” the mirror has been polished. Here’s hoping it remains clean enough for another hard look.

Ben Siegel is a News contributing critic.