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Forever Young

Milton Berle was television's first superstar and remains one of America's top comedians.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

(continued from page 3)

"Mind you, all this happened before I smoked my first cigar," insisted Berle.

The show also coincided with his first sexual experience.

Berle had not quite reached bar mitzvah age when he lost his virginity to one of the grown-up Florodoras. It happened one Saturday after the matinee. The baby sextette was relegated to a dressing room on the top floor of the theater. The women had dressing rooms on the floor below.

While Mama waited for him by the stage door, Berle finished dressing and descended the stairs to the second floor, where the door to the women's dressing room was open. Noticing a half-naked Florodora beauty alone in front of her dressing table, Berle stopped and stole a peek. Noticing the 12-year-old voyeur, who was quite tall and handsome for his age, admiring her, the woman invited him in. But instead of reprimanding him, she was amused and put her hand inside his trousers.

"Why, you're quite a man," she complimented him.

Berle wasn't sure what she meant. "I think the whole thing took two seconds," he recalled, with a laugh. "One second her hand was undoing my fly and, the next thing I knew, I was inside her. It was over very quickly."

While we were on the subject of women, I asked Berle what his wives had thought about his cigar smoking.

"If they had objected, they wouldn't have been my wives," he retorted. "Actually, they've all been very supportive. So have my girlfriends. I once had a brief fling with Marilyn Monroe, before she became a star. After we broke up, we wound up working together in a film in 1959, Let's Make Love, with Yves Montand. One day Marilyn told me that she liked the aroma of the cigar I was smoking--I think it was a Cohiba. So I bought her a box of small cigars. I told her they were better for her than those lousy cigarettes she smoked. She never told me whether she smoked the cigars, but at least I tried. I'm a proselytizer when it comes to weaning people off cigarettes and touting them onto cigars, which don't hurt you, unless you inhale them. But let me tell you about my first wife, Joyce Mathews."

Berle met Joyce in 1940 when he was playing the Bowery, a nightclub in Detroit. By then he'd become a success in cabarets such as the Chez Paree in Chicago and the Copa in New York, and in what was left of vaudeville. He'd even headlined at the Palace and was commanding a salary of at least $10,000 a week. He was the featured comic at the Bowery when legendary agent Louis Shurr (who later represented Bob Hope) sat down at a ringside table with a gorgeous blond named Joyce Mathews in a white ermine coat.

Joyce was in town working in the road-tour tryout of an Al Jolson musical called Hold Onto Your Hats. She was one of the two featured showgirls in the cast; the other was model Jinx Falkenberg. Berle couldn't take his eyes off Joyce, and, after the show, he sat down at Shurr's table to be introduced to the beauty. He and Joyce hit it off from the start and spent the rest of the evening exchanging small talk and looking dreamily into one another's eyes.

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