From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

The First Media Fundraiser

In 1932, in 1936, in 1940 and in 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president of the United States, and throughout those years “birthday balls” in his honor were held in major cities across the country to raise money for research into poliomyelitis, a disease that had left the man crippled. At that time, scientists of the day knew little about the virus and could do little to help afflicted adults and children. There was a desperate need for a safe, effective vaccine, as well as for funds to construct a hospital and therapy center in Warm Springs, Georgia.

At these lavish affairs, contributors paid handsomely for the privilege of mingling with the celebrities of the day, Hollywood personalities like Jean Harlow, Jeanette MacDonald, Frederic March and many others, but the proceeds were never enough. Then, as time went on, and FDR’s political positions led to controversy, criticism of his political positions began to spill over onto the foundation. His name was no longer the great asset it had once been, and the planning committees became desperate for ideas. At one of their meetings, Eddie Cantor was present, invited perhaps because of his known admiration for FDR and his reputation as a great fundraiser for charity.

Like Roosevelt, Eddie was a January baby, but unlike the president, he did not come from power and privilege. He was not a graduate of Groton or Harvard; in fact, he had barely finished grammar school. Like many of the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants crowded into the East Side of New York City, Eddie was a child of the slums.

Born Itzak Iskowitz, Eddie never knew his parents. When he was a year old, his mother died giving birth to a stillborn child, and a year later, his father succumbed to pneumonia. Then, his Grandma Esther took on the job of raising the two-year-old. Her basement flat on Henry Street became his home, and she ordered him around in Polish and Russian and Yiddish. Toiling long hours to keep bread on the table and a roof over their heads, she peddled notions, lugging her heavy basket up the endless flights of tenement stairs. She worked as a matchmaker; she cooked and cleaned and mended for other people, and she did her best to watch over this skinny kid who spent his time playing hooky from school, hanging around pool halls, snitching fruit from pushcarts and singing for pennies on street corners. But somehow she managed to scrape together a dollar and a half to pay the rabbi to teach him Hebrew, and every Friday evening, she and the boy sat down together for a Shabbos meal prepared with love.

She wanted Eddie to have an education, and when he turned six, she dragged him off to Public School 136. When asked for a name, poor Grandma, who spoke no English, stuttered her own—Kantrowitz. The registrar put down what she thought she heard—Kantor. The “Eddie” came later when a sweet dark-haired girl name Ida Tobias, who became his wife, didn’t think that Itzak was American enough.

But Eddie’s talent for singing and dancing took him from the street corners to neighborhood theater amateur hours, then to jobs as a singing waiter and finally into vaudeville. By the time he was twenty, he was starring in the famed Zeigfield Follies on Broadway, and then moved on to Hollywood. But even with his hectic schedule and his devotion to his wife and five daughters, he was never too busy to work for charitable causes.

“Eddie,” said President Roosevelt, “do you think that we could we get a million people to give us a dollar apiece?”

Eddie shook his head. “Times are hard, Mr. President, and a dollar is a lot of money, but most people can still give you ten cents. Let me broadcast on my radio show, and I can get ten million dimes quicker than one million dollars. We can ask the American people to send them directly to your office.” Then he added, “We’ll call it the March of Dimes.”

When Cantor’s suggestion was put to the administrative White House staff, there were negative reactions. However, the president was adamant, and Eddie put his appeal on the air.

The first response was a complete disappointment— $17.50—and the staff was too embarrassed to issue a statement to the press. However, the next morning, a postal truck delivered twenty-three sacks of mail, creating chaos in the White House office. The high total for a normal day was about 5,000 letters, but secretaries were now dealing with 150,000 by the end of the first week. Dimes came in every possible form, glued to cards, baked in cakes, pasted into collages, etc., and in four months amounted to a total of 2,680,000 coins—the first March of Dimes.

Eddie had always been a fundraiser. In 1917, when America entered World War I, Eddie was selling Liberty Bonds and entertaining the troops. When the war ended, he continued to visit veterans’ hospitals. Then, in the 1930s, as the horrible news of happenings in Germany began to filter back to the United States, Eddie Cantor went into action. At one gathering in the Grand Ballroom of the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, over one thousand women gathered to listen to the little man at the microphone. To all of them, the voice and the face of one of the most popular comedians of the era were familiar, but he had not come to entertain. That night, he had come to make a plea for funds to rescue Europe’s Jewish children from the Nazi terror. He opened by saying, “The message I give to you I want you to take home to your husband. If your husband believes in insurance, tell him that if we fail those on the other side, God knows what will happen here. They are waiting for us, these anti-Semitic groups here and all over the world, to see whether or not we fail here. I have had organizations threaten me, threaten my family, call up the people for whom I work.

They intend to annihilate our people and I know that we must unite for our own survival.” Then he continued, “There is no reason on earth why every woman in this room cannot give $360 within the next year to take a child out of Germany. If every woman in this room would take out one child, you can save a thousand children. Will you help me, please?” There was applause and one woman called out, “How about a song, Eddie?”

“Make it $500, and I’ll sing all night.”

There was applause; there were donations. Then the little man was on his way to make the same plea at gatherings in twenty other cities in the United States and then on to Europe. He met with anyone who would make a contribution to the immigration program of Youth Aliyah. As Hitler moved across Europe, Eddie stepped up his schedule.

When Eddie was warned that he was doing too much, he cut his workload to do benefits. “No one is too busy to help children,” he would say, and the youngsters appreciated his efforts. In 1938, the children of a cooperative village near Hedera, in what was then Palestine, presented him with a proclamation naming their new home Kibbutz Aryeh (their translation of Eddie) in his honor. They were evidently unaware that they could have used his Hebrew name, Itzak, which means “one who smiles.”

At a time when most Americans were silent, Eddie spoke out against native Nazi sympathizers, men like Father Coughlin, the radio evangelist, and industrialist Henry Ford I. He even accused certain U.S. State Department officials of being Nazi sympathizers, maintaining that he could not ignore history even if it cost his job. The result was that he was blacklisted for three years, until his friend Jack Benny arranged to have him rehired.

During World War II, Eddie was at it again, selling U.S. Treasury Bonds, aiding in Red Cross blood drives and performing in military and naval hospitals and on the front lines. After the war, he turned his attention to the new State of Israel, raising over sixty million dollars in various bond drives.

On September 10, 1952, as Eddie was preparing his first TV show of the season, he was stricken with a heart attack. Hospitalized for six weeks, he received letters from servicemen and ex-servicemen wishing him well. And there were donations given in his name to the many causes he supported. Even at that time, he remarked, “It’s hard to worry about your health when you’re worried about the State of Israel.”

Today many think of media fundraisers in terms of Jerry Lewis and his muscular dystrophy campaign or Marlo Thomas and her pleas for St. Jude’s, or any of the many others that air on TV and radio. They aren’t old enough to remember the little guy who started it all.

Miriam Biskin

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