See his Twenty Years on Broadway (1924, repr. 1971).
George M. Cohan.
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He completed a family act called The Four Cohans, which included his father Jeremiah "Jere" Cohan (1848–1917), mother Helen "Nellie" Costigan Cohan (1854–1928), and sister Josephine "Josie" Cohan Niblo (1874–1916). Josie, who died of heart disease at a young age, was married to Fred Niblo Sr. (1874–1948), an important director of silent films, including Ben Hur (1925), and a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Their son, Fred Niblo Jr. (1903–1973) was an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter.
By his teens, Cohan became well-known as one of the stage's best male dancers, and he also started writing original skits and songs for the family act in both vaudeville and minstrel shows. Soon he was writing professionally, selling his first songs to a national publisher in 1893. Cohan had his first big Broadway hit in 1904 with the show Little Johnny Jones, which introduced his tunes "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy".
Cohan became one of the leading Tin Pan Alley songwriters, publishing upwards of 1500 original songs, noted for their catchy melodies and clever lyrics. His other major hit songs included "You're a Grand Old Flag", "The Warmest Baby In The Bunch", "Life's A Funny Proposition After All", "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune", "You Won't Do Any Business If You Haven't Got A Band", "Mary's a Grand Old Name", "The Small Town Gal", "I'm Mighty Glad I'm Living, That's All", "That Haunting Melody", and the popular war song, "Over There".
In 1925, Cohan published his autobiography, Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There.
He earned acclaim as a serious actor in Eugene O'Neill's only comedy Ah, Wilderness! (1933), and in the role of a song-and dance President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Rodgers and Hart's musical, I'd Rather Be Right (1937).
His final play, The Return of the Vagabond (1940) featured Celeste Holm in the cast; she was either 21 or 23 years old at the time.
In 1940, Judy Garland played the title role in a film version of his 1922 musical, Little Nellie Kelly. Cohan's mystery play, Seven Keys to Baldpate, was first filmed in 1916 and has been remade seven times, most recently as House of Long Shadows (1983), starring Vincent Price.
In 1942, a musical biopic of Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was released, and James Cagney's performance in the title role earned the Best Actor Academy Award. The film was privately screened for Cohan as he battled the last stages of abdominal cancer.
His 1920 play The Meanest Man in the World was filmed with Jack Benny in 1943.
He died of cancer at the age of 64 on November 5, 1942, at his New York City home, 993 Fifth Avenue, directly across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a large funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York on Fifth Avenue, Cohan was interred at the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery, in a private family mausoleum he had erected a quarter-century earlier for his sister and parents.
More than three decades before Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, Cohan used dance not merely as razzle-dazzle but to advance the plot. The engaging books of his musicals supported the scores that yielded so many popular songs. As a storyteller, Cohan's main characters were "average Joes and Janes".
Characters like Johnny Jones and Nellie Kelly appealed to a whole new audience. He wrote for every American, instead of highbrow Americans. (see book by Thomas S. Hischak, Boy Loses Girl (ISBN 0-8108-4440-0).
In 1914, he became one of the founding members of ASCAP. In 1919, he unsuccessfully opposed a historic strike by Actors' Equity Association, for which many in the theatrical professions never forgave him. Cohan opposed the strike because in addition to being an actor in his productions, he was also the producer of the musical that set the terms and conditions of the actors's employment. During the strike, he donated $100,000 to finance the Actors' Retirement Fund in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. After Actors' Equity was recognized, Cohan refused to join the union as an actor which hampered his ability to be in his own productions. After 1919, Cohan had to seek a waiver from Equity to act in any theatrical productions.
Cohan wrote numerous other Broadway musicals and straight plays, in addition to contributing material to shows written by others — more than 50 in all. Cohan shows included Forty-five Minutes from Broadway (1905), George Washington, Jr. (1906), The Talk of New York and The Honeymooners (1907), Fifty Miles from Boston and The Yankee Prince (1908), Broadway Jones (1912), Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913), The Cohan Revue of 1918 (co-written with Irving Berlin), The Tavern (1920), The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly (1923, featuring a 13-year-old Ruby Keeler among the chorus girls), The Song and Dance Man (1923), American Born (1925), The Baby Cyclone (1927, one of Spencer Tracy's early breaks), Elmer the Great (1928, co-written with Ring Lardner), and Pigeons and People (1933). At this point in his life it is often said that he walked in and out of retirement.
Cohan is arguably the most honored American entertainer. On June 29, 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented him with The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor for his contributions to World War I morale, in particular the songs "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Over There". The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is not the military Medal of Honor presented by the President in the name of Congress.
In 1959, at the behest of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a $100,000 bronze statue of Cohan was dedicated in Times Square, at Broadway and 46th Street in Manhattan. The 8-foot bronze remains the only statue of an actor on Broadway.He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and into the American Folklore Hall of Fame in 2003.
The United States Postal Service issued a 15-cent commemorative stamp honoring Cohan on the anniversary of his centenary, July 3, 1978. The stamp, one of the long-running Performing Arts Series of the USPS, depicts both the older Cohan and his younger self as a dancer, along with the tag line "Yankee Doodle Dandy". It was designed by Jim Sharpe.
Many of these honors were accepted posthumously by Cohan's large family.
In 1999, Regimental Band of the United States Merchant Marine Academy was instrumental in helping the local community and Park District of Great Neck, NY save his former residence, which was slated for demolition. Helen Ronkin Lafaso and Ms. Mary Ronkin Ross, the grandchildren of Mr. Cohan, formally thanked the band for their support and gave the band the honor to be called, "George M. Cohan's Own" for "now and in the future." Thus, the Regimental Band became the first Federal Academy Band with an officially bestowed title. The USMMA Regimental Band now owns the rights to all of George M Cohan's music. The bulk of George M. Cohan's music is in the Public Domain, as are all compositions created in the U.S. before 1923.
From 1899 to 1907 Cohan was married to Ethel Levey (1881–1955), a musical comedy actress who bore him a daughter, Georgette Cohan Souther Rowse (1900–1988).
He married again in 1907 to Agnes Mary Nolan (1883–1972), who had been a dancer in his early shows; they remained married until his death. They had two daughters (Mary and Helen) and a son (George, Jr.).
Mary Cohan Ronkin (1909–1983) had a brief career as a cabaret singer in the 1930s, and later composed a score for her father's non-musical play The Tavern, and in 1968 supervised musical and lyric revisions for the Broadway play George M!.
In the 1950s, George Jr. reinterpreted his father's songs on recordings, in a nightclub act, and in television appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle shows. George Jr.'s only child, Michaela Marie Cohan (1943–1999), was the last descendant named Cohan. She graduated with a theater degree from Marywood College, Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1965.
From 1966 to 1968, she served in a civilian Special Services unit in Vietnam and Korea. In 1996, she stood in for her ailing father at the ceremony marking her grandfather's induction into the Musical Theatre Hall of Fame, at New York University.