Chapter One: New York City Boy
The story of Burt Lancaster begins with the idea of America, with the belief that you can journey to another place and become another person. His ancestors crossed to England from France in the Norman invasion of 1066 and took the name de Lancastre. Most likely concocted from the Roman word castra
(legionary camp) and the river Lune whose name may come from the Gaelic slan
(healthy, salubrious), Lancaster came to mean simply one who comes from Lancaster, the county town of Lancashire. Blond hair and blue eyes would persist over a millennium as a characteristic of Norman or Teutonic origin, showing up in odd places like Sicily. The coats of arms of several Lancaster families feature golden lions but at least one has a leopard, rampant.
His immediate ancestors left England for Ireland, easily accessible across the Irish Sea. Later, eager publicists would claim that he was a descendant of John of Gaunt and his father would tell a tale of lost House of Lancaster fortunes confiscated by Oliver Cromwell, but Lancaster dismissed such stories. Not much would survive of his Irishness except two instinctive responses: a reverence for the single human singing voice and a belief that the declamatory persuasion of live drama, theater, could change the world.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Lancasters and the Roberts family, his mother's Belfast people -- working-class Northern Irish Protestants -- were poor and trapped by the island's limitations. His paternal grandfather James emigrated to New York in the mid-1860s, more than a decade after the Great Famine, part of the human migration to America that provided labor for the vast technological changes that swept the country after the Civil War. James had two key advantages as an Irish Protestant: he was educated enough to read and he was a skilled worker, a cooper, having served a five-to-six-year apprenticeship before landing in America. He settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at 40 Essex Street. In the twisting streets and dark brick buildings lived harness makers, peddlers, grocers, bakers, carpenters, and barbers, Germans from Hesse-Darmstadt and Bavaria, Russians, Austrians, and thousands of Irish -- one of the most horrific concentrations of tenement-jammed humanity in the world.
By 1880 the next great wave of immigration filled New York's Tenth Ward around Essex Street with Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and starvation. James married Susannah Murray, another Irish immigrant five years his senior, and they had five children, including James Henry (Jim), Burt's father, born December 6, 1876. James Sr. moved the family uptown to 619 First Avenue between East Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Streets. Perched on the edge of the island next to the East River, just south of today's Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the Lancasters settled amid a new mix of midtown working-class neighbors -- butchers, machinists, florists, and varnishers.
Up the East Coast in the busy seaport town of Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1880, four-year-old Elizabeth "Lizzie" Roberts, Lancaster's mother, was living at 194 Main Street and developing the dominating traits of the firstborn. In addition to her father, James, 35, and her mother, Jennie Smith Roberts, 28, plus baby brother, George, the house was filled with members of the extended Roberts family. Her parents had emigrated from Belfast around 1875; Lizzie was born in Norwalk on May 13, 1876. James was a shoemaker and the family lived surrounded by neighbors -- carriage makers and hat trimmers -- whose skills catered to a refined clientele.
The family proudly claimed to be related to Frederick Sleigh Roberts, the British field marshal who was later named the 1st Earl Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford. The last person to hold the title of commander in chief of the British Army, Earl Roberts was from 1857 until his death in 1914 an outstanding combat leader in famous imperial battles from India to Afghanistan and, at the end of the century, South Africa. The elderly mustachioed man staring out of the John Singer Sargent portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London has the look of Burt Lancaster: the strong, well-shaped head, the straight chiseled nose, and what Laurence Olivier would describe as Lancaster's "steely-steady" eyes.
The Roberts family left Norwalk for Manhattan shortly after 1880, probably sailing the usual route down through the notorious whirlpools of Hell Gate on the East River. They were part of a land rush to the southeast section of the neighborhood of Harlem, an area that would become one of the most densely populated and volatile in New York City. For the first half of the nineteenth century, the flat plain, later to be called East Harlem, was a bucolic area of farms sloping down to the Harlem River on its northeastern border and loosely bounded by Ninety-sixth and 125th Streets, with the mansions and museums facing Central Park on the west. By the 1860s, the "Harlem Flats" was the site of breweries spewing malt and brew odors into the air, slaughter houses, coal yards, junkyards, and saw mills clustered along the river frontage. Isolated clusters of small four-story brownstones, built to house the workers, popped up like mushrooms in the middle of the fields that filled in the empty grid of future cross-streets. Irish shanty towns lined the water.
The rapacious northward growth of the city that followed the construction of the Second and Third Avenue elevated railway lines in 1878 and 1880 further engulfed the area with Irish and German immigrants. Speculators threw up row upon row of unregulated tenements with as many as four hundred people crammed into structures designed to house fifty. The New York Central railroad track ran aboveground up Park Avenue from Ninety-seventh Street, the dark stone viaduct further slicing up the neighborhood.
By the turn of the century four out of five New Yorkers were immigrants or the children of immigrants, with East Harlem absorbing each wave of newcomers. Rag peddlers trolled through the neighborhood's trash-filled yards and dead animals floated in flooded cellars. By 1904 there were over one hundred saloons in a forty-block area. From this rattling rhythm of immigrant change, poverty, and backbreaking labor was bred Lancaster's energy and taste for work. The tone of the slum was set: working-class immigrant, the lowest rentals. Years later he would remember crossing the de facto border of Ninety-sixth Street, sauntering down Fifth and Park Avenues to look at the rich people.
In 1900 James Roberts -- a widower now, with two more children, Minnie and Stephen -- rented an apartment at 2068 Second Avenue, near the corner of 106th Street in the shadow of the El. Lizzie, twenty-four, took on the responsibilities of mother of the family. Four years later, James bought what his grandson would call a "very poor little house," a narrow four-story brownstone down the street at 209 East 106th Street between Second and Third Avenues, built around 1880 on the north side of the street. The house had been divided into three rental floors, with a moving business on the ground floor. As one of the periodic broad streets that broke up the narrow Manhattan grid, 106th, even with the superstructures of the two Els marking both ends of the block, was less confined and claustrophobic than other nearby streets. The light was stronger and brighter all day long. A very young Walter Winchell and his parents briefly lived up the street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.
The Roberts family took over the second-floor apartment, a classic coldwater railroad flat with windows only in the front and back. Lancaster would describe it as "long, dreary, one room after the other" with a toilet out in the hall and a coal stove in the kitchen providing the only heat in winter. The big bay window protruding from the front facade was a perfect vantage point from which to view the busy street. The family derived additional income from the tenants, $16 a month per family by the 1920s. A landowner in the slums, no matter how shabby the house, was somebody.
Shortly after settling into the new house, Lizzie met a handsome, talented young man who looks in photographs like the lean and cunning James Joyce. Jim Lancaster had moved uptown and become fairly well known in the area for using his Irish tenor voice to win prizes on amateur nights at the local theaters with a song-and-dance routine called "The Broadway Swell and the Bowery Bum." According to various accounts, he played an old guitar, the ukelele, the accordion, and the harmonica. To Lizzie's take-charge assumption of authority, he was gentle. Both were remembered by their children as being in their youthful primes two of the best-looking people on the East Side, Lizzie attracting wolf whistles well into middle-age. Neither would ever have much inclination for daydreaming about life's impractical possibilities. They were married on August 8, 1908, and Jim moved in with his new wife's family. Over thirty at the time of her marriage, Lizzie lost no time in having three children over the next four years: Jennie Dorothea (Jane), James Robert (Jim) Jr., and William Henry (Willie).
In 1913 -- a year that would be remembered for several firsts, including the founding by Jesse Lasky of a motion picture company later called Paramount Pictures, and the opening of the tallest "skyscraper" of the new Manhattan skyline, the sixty-story Woolworth Building -- Jim took a job as a postal clerk at the brand-new McKim, Mead and White-designed General Post Office. Not only was he working in a salaried white-collar position in an edifice which took up two full blocks between West Thirty-first and Thirty-third Streets, he got to wear a uniform. He may as well have been working on Wall Street.
On November 2, Lizzie, age thirty-seven, gave birth at home to her third son, Burton Stephen. A crowd of friends and neighbors gathered outside in the street cheered at the news shouted down from the bay window. The baby was named for Lizzie's brother, Stephen, and the attending physician, Burton Thom. Though Thom was a well-loved doctor in the neighborhood, known for his generosity and stiff white collars, mothers did not usually name a child for the doctor unless he had done something extraordinary, such as save the life of the baby -- or the mother.
The young Burton became acquainted with death early. On April 28, 1918, Florence, Lizzie's last child, barely a year old, died at Willow Park Hospital of diphtheria, a victim of one of the epidemics that frequently ravaged the slums. Four-year-old Burton was back to being the baby of the family. Four months later, Dr. Thom was called to the house on the night of August 12 to confirm James Roberts's sudden death of apoplexy at the age of seventy-two. Lizzie buried her father, the last direct link with Ireland, next to her daughter at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Roberts's will divided an estate of about $1,800 into four equal parts among George, Stephen, Minnie, and Lizzie's four children, each of whom were to receive their share of the estate upon turning twenty-one. (The house was legally the property of the two sons; each would sell his share to Lizzie, who would own the house outright by 1927.) That $112 plus interest was waiting for him was another indication to Burton -- like his blond hair, blue eyes, Anglo name, property-owning parents, and Protestant faith -- that he was different from the poorer, foreign people he lived among. But to his uncles George, now a stockbroker living in upper Manhattan, and Stephen, a manager of Gents Furnishing living north of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, East Harlem was a place you left. This consciousness of being a holdover in the old neighborhood produced in the boy a jumpy belligerence. He was never sure just where he fit in.
As he approached the age of seven, the raggedy, dissonant city that defined him was growing up too. The U.S. census of 1920 confirmed that for the first time America was an urban nation, with New York elevated to a new status as capital not only of the postwar country but of the world. When mass immigration was stopped in 1924, only one million of New York's six million residents were white, native-born Protestants, and only a handful of these lived in East Harlem.
Arbiter of all that was new and fresh and dangerous, the city was the nexus of popular entertainment during the 1920s. Led by the vaudeville revue, a slick mannered pose was elevated to iconic status. The city sort of ran itself; Prohibition was a joke. The "City on a Still" sobriquet mocked not only the civic ideals of the previous generation but the decade's compulsion, as Frederick Lewis Allen would write, to use the Bible to "point the lessons of business and of business to point the lessons of the Bible." Sinclair Lewis's hustling evangelist Elmer Gantry personified the overlap in his 1927 novel of the same name, which earned Lewis in 1930 the first Nobel Prize for literature awarded to an American. By the end of the decade, Walter Winchell and Mark Hellinger were creating in their enormously popular newspaper columns the idea of the urban wiseguy on whom nothing -- scandal, pathos, politicians, showgirls, cops, criminals -- was lost.
Growing up in this Manhattan was like growing up in imperial Rome. You were marked for life as someone unique, elite, ready for anything the planet might dish out. East Harlem, however, existed on the fringe of the whirl and light. When Washington politicians went on about America's universal postwar prosperity, Fiorello La Guardia, the neighborhood's contrary Twentieth District congressman from 1923 to 1933, leapt to his feet and yelled, "Not in East Harlem!"
Though Eastern European Jews remained a significant presence in the neighborhood east of Third Avenue -- Burton's first childhood pals were Jewish -- immigrant Italians from Naples, Calabria, Sicily, and Salerno now dominated the quarter. Burton, who would play the Sicilian Prince of Salina in The Leopard
and would truly regret that he did not get the part of Don Corleone in The Godfather,
may as well have, he often recalled, grown up Italian. East Harlem's Little Italy was not only three times more populous than the downtown section, it was the largest concentration of Italians in the country. More than three-quarters of them unskilled, almost half illiterate, these Italians were refugees of la miseria,
the perpetual poverty and disease that centuries of mezzogiorno
peasants in the south of Italy had accepted as their destiny. Entire Italian villages occupied a given block making the East Harlem street grid a patchwork of the southern Italian boot. Slowly making his way along 106th Street, the 1920 U.S. census taker got so tired of writing "Italy" as the place of birth after each name, that the word became an illegible scrawl. The Sicilian Black Hand, a precursor to the Mafia, thrived just south of the Lancasters on Second Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets; the greatest concentration of the city's Neapolitan organ grinders lived on 106th and 108th Streets. From 107th to 116th Streets the pushcart vendors and hawkers at the First Avenue market offered oils, cheese, sea urchins, olives, bread, garlic, macaroni hung on racks to dry -- the smell of minestrone, espresso, cigar smoke like a rich ether come all the way from Palermo.
The house on 106th Street had been further subdivided during the wartime housing shortage with the result that five families, thirty-seven people, now lived in the building. All, except for the seven Lancasters, were Italians. On the top floor, the Marsalise family with eight children and a grandfather squeezed into little more than two rooms. Outside was the clatter of the Els, all night long, sirens shrieking, trucks roaring down Third Avenue, the clop of horses' hooves on cobblestones, the reek of the toilets out in the hall, the stench of the East River at low tide. No secrets, no phony attitudes, no pretensions. The density enveloped Burton with the raw sustenance of a womb.
Burton's father was what the family called a "fun father," with a family trip to the great amusement parks of Steeplechase and Luna Park at Coney Island a rare treat. The usual routine was for Jim to arrive home after a day's work at the post office, change into overalls, and patch plaster, paint, fix the plumbing, or repair the roof of the house. He was a fine mason with fingers so calloused he could pick a piece of coal from the fire with his bare hands. Burton's job was to bring tea and sandwiches to a busy father who seemed to work all the time.
Like thousands of other hardworking East Harlem dwellers, Jim's favorite relaxation was to sit on the front stoop on a summer's night and sing. The Victorola was new, most music was still self-made, and the poignant sound of the human voice, needing no money or position or influence to be beautiful, was revered by both Italians and Irish as a divine gift. Jim sang tunes like "Kathleen Mavourneen," popularized by the ardent tenor John McCormack, and sometimes little Burton, with his wavy pompadour hair and boy soprano voice, would join in with his party piece, "My Wild Irish Rose." One evening Jim stopped singing and let his son continue solo for the gathered crowd. The applause was a revelation. Later, his famous speaking voice would always have an Irish, cocky, romantic lilt -- with an Ulster edge.
Once a five-foot-nine-inch beauty, Lizzie after five children weighed 250 pounds, and she had a terrifying temper. Her bulk loomed large in the dark, narrow rooms of the flat and her extremism, like a genetic wild card, was inherited by her youngest son. "Mother beat the hell out of us," he would recall, once specifying that he "got the strap." "She'd have wild outbursts, then cuddle us and overcompensate for the lickings." He admitted that if he was a "terror," she was "more of a terror. I was always in mortal fear of her." Under threat of punishment, he developed a tactic of beaming his blue eyes up at her, throwing his arms around her neck, and saying, "Mother, dear, you don't love me anymore!" Lizzie would relent to the "utter disgust," as father Jim later described it, of his two other sons, "no charm boys" they. When she came at him with a switch, Burton broke into "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."
The exchange of music for mercy created a profound emotional response in the little boy. All his life music had the power to take him back to that primary connection with his mother, back to the inchoate center where the rages began, and bring calm, even when he, who would have an exceptional memory, could no longer recall any clear image of her. Together they listened to Lily Pons and Guisseppe de Luca on the radio and to her collection of McCormack records. She took him to the Metropolitan Opera house on Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street to sing in the children's chorus or stand in the family circle for $1.10. The old building overflowed with props and costumes, with extra sets placed out on the sidewalk. The backstage bustle and onstage drama were an exaggerated version of the peaks and valleys of life he saw every day on the streets of East Harlem, an art form he would love with a religious intensity. "Burt always lived his life as if it were an opera," recalled a friend, one of many who made the same analogy. Jim, home from the post office, would often trip over Burton, sprawled out on the sitting room floor, his head stuck all the way under the Victrola, his legs twitching to the music.
With the fanatic self-consciousness of the displaced ethnic, Lizzie insisted that her children distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi by scrupulous honesty. Coming out of the local Corn Exchange Bank one day, Burton saw a twenty-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk. Instead of grabbing it and taking off, he decided to cover the bill with his foot and wait twenty minutes to see if anyone came. When an elderly Jewish neighbor appeared, obviously distressed, and asked if he had seen a twenty-dollar bill, Burton reluctantly handed it over and cursed himself all the way home. More than sixty years after the fact he would recall in detail on the Donahue
television show, hosted by Phil Donahue, when his mother, furious, made him return five cents in incorrect change to the local grocery store. An old man by then, as he acted out the story he stood poised, ready to dodge a blow.
With a strong dose of noblesse oblige, Lizzie showed by example that the Lancasters had an obligation to give to those less fortunate, which covered just about everyone in the neighborhood. The word on the street was that Mrs. Lancaster, after chewing you out for being a bum, would feed you and send you on your way. Burton watched these transactions, listened as his mother purposely simplified her speech to "Second Avenue English," had black neighbors in to tea, and shared what little they had. The actions became what he would call his "Bible." "You are your own slum area," she admonished him. "You can make it as mean or as meaningful as you wish."
Burton looked up to his older brother Jim, a natural leader and athlete who was nicknamed "Dutch" in the neighborhood for his bright blond hair. But Burton did not hesitate to hit his brother over the head with a baseball bat when Jim said the ball was out of bounds and Burton, "Little Dutch," said it wasn't. The bulwark of older siblings produced in him an obliviousness to the more boring demands of family life such as coming home on time. He was always getting lost, especially at the annual Coney Island clambake for the city's postal workers. When Willie finally found him among the packed bodies on the beach at the end of the day, he complained to his father, "Aw, Dad, all I ever do around here is retrieve Burt!"
Neighborhood fights were like a huge game with the playing board marked off by the corners, alleys, and doorways of New York City. "If you want to know about love," said Lizzie, "stay in the house. If you want to know about life, go out in the streets." Groups of boys banded together by block, which usually meant by ethnic group. Every day of his life, Burton would recall, he had a fight. His short height made him an unseen target for the automobile that was taking over the city streets, chugging through swarms of game-playing children. He was hit eight times, once by a taxicab that knocked him thirty feet in the air. His five lower teeth were bashed in when he went through a windshield. He broke his nose after falling two stories from a fire escape. With his pal Tony "Moby Dick" Iovieno, he swam off an old gravel barge at the end of 104th Street, dodging floating chunks of human excrement and water rats to cross the East River a quarter mile to Wards Island. The boys tested their balance teetering along the tops of the fences that divided buildings like the Lancasters' that had backyards, leaping off to raid the candy store or snatch apples from a pushcart. Burton developed a total lack of -- or willed command over -- physical fear.
On Saturday mornings the next-door cleaners would let him deliver clothes for tips, which provided enough money for the movies. He had a paper route and set up a shoeshine business one summer in front of Macy's department store on Broadway and Thirty-fourth Street. In an unguarded moment, he summed up his youth as "the cold" -- there were never quite enough clothes to keep warm in the winter -- "and the scrounging for jobs." He remembered his childhood as running, running to stay warm, always in trouble for something, singing at the top of his lungs to get out of trouble, always a little hungry, and his mother -- "half her life," he remembered -- hanging out the bay window calling for him: "Burton!"
If his life lessons had been learned solely on the streets, his future might have been limited to what was waiting for many of his slum pals -- the boxing ring, the rackets, or the slammer. Luckily, a remarkable group of New York City institutions was ready to offer him an alternative.
Lancaster would credit Union Settlement House on East 104th Street as the single most important influence, after his mother, on his childhood and youth. An experiment in making the Christian Kingdom of God -- the "City of the Light" -- manifest in the slums, Union was founded in 1895 by a group of alumni from the Protestant Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Underwritten by contributors like Mrs. J.D. Rockefeller Jr. and Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, it was created to serve the as yet unnamed area devoid of civil services north of East Ninety-sixth Street. One of at least fifty settlement houses set up around the country by 1895, Union was based on the activist charity work of Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago. "Hail the glorious Golden City,/Pictured by the seers of old!"
went one settlement house hymn of the time. "Only righteous men and women/Dwell within its gleaming walls/Wrong is banished from its border/Justice reigns supreme o'er all/We are the builders of that city . . . All our lives are building stones. . . ."
At their best such experiments in the "social gospel" tapped into the ardent hope that America might be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of a heavenly kingdom for all people, a place where racism and class conflict wither in the glorious light of justice. Union's "special gift," as Janet Murray, widow of former Settlement House director Clyde Murray, described it, was to have settlement workers "literally go down, 'settle,' and live in crowded immigrant communities as neighbors," and then help the residents put pressure on the city and federal governments to make changes. The movement was a training ground for the progressive era of the first two decades of the twentieth century, often described as a golden age of American politics. While Union quickly shed any religious affiliation as inappropriate for its mission in a Jewish/Catholic neighborhood, its ethos remained religious in its insistence that the American experiment have an applied meaning.
Happily unaware of all this idealistic freight, Burton trooped down a couple of blocks to the settlement house almost every day to have fun. It was his home away from home, buzzing with boxing matches and other sporting events, and classes in painting, drama, English, hygiene, sewing, and dancing. Countless clubs taught the rules of parliamentary procedure: changing the world began with meetings. A large gym with an indoor track around the perimeter took up the entire top floor. "All this belonged to us," Lancaster would recall, "the local kids."
On Sundays the Lancaster family attended the Union-affiliated Church of the Son of Man, a Protestant island at 227 East 104th Street. Called "the church in a house" because it was indistinguishable from any other building in the neighborhood, the small, plain church was deliberately austere, stripped down to the essentials of the Christian mission. "Isn't it more satisfying to touch a few lives deep down at their roots," asked the pastor, Harris Ely Adriance, in one of his sermons, "than a larger number who 'hit the trail' and then forget what it's all about?"
Burton was one of those so touched. The names of Adriance and his assistant, David Morrison, turn up, again and again, in interviews throughout the actor's life. The two men were like emissaries from another planet, pointing the way to a different kind of life. Though Adriance, a skilled preacher, was constantly wooed by "[t]he rich Fifth Avenue churches," Burton would remember he turned down all offers in order to stay with them. A literate, intent man, slim with a small face, big eyes, receding hair, and a large forehead, his central message was St. Paul's plea for a noble life. "Lives that tell," he exhorted from the pulpit in the tiny wainscotted church room, "are those that are thus spread out to the full octave" of justice and fairness. One Sunday, Burton watched the pastor stop his sermon to welcome and seat a black woman who stepped into his church for the first time. "Not to be blinded, not to be controlled by prejudice, not to be warped, not to be unreasonable, these are the things," the preacher insisted, "for the spiritual man to battle for." Planted like a seed in the head of young Burton, these ideas would grow.
David Morrison was an exotic character born in Punjab to English missionary parents. He was also an artist who taught drawing classes at the settlement house and at the private Allen-Stephenson School on East Seventy-eighth Street. Using his drawings to illustrate Bible lessons, he gave children's sermons which in fact taught the children about art, how to see what they saw. Burton watched and listened, taking in Morrison's lesson that art, supposedly an elitist preserve, was a natural expression of life.
Most of the time, however, Burton was what his Sunday-school teacher, Carrie Nester -- like Lizzie, a stalwart of the church -- remembered as just another "snuffle-nosed little boy." He was the star of the children's choir until he was fifteen, his pure soprano voice revered even more than a tenor's. He had his first acting role as a shepherd (some accounts say angel) at the age of three in the church's annual Christmas pageant. Bundled into a burlap sack, he had no words to speak, but halfway through the production, when the angels, sheep, and shepherds usually get restless, Burton, center stage in front of the altar, discovered a wad of chewing gum on the bottom of his shoe. He sat down and started to work at pulling it off. "After much exasperated pulling," his father would remember, "he snarled at the top of his little voice, 'How'd this damn gum get on my shoe?' " A roar of laughter burst from the audience, who had been watching this bit of distracting business intently. "Mrs. Lancaster," her husband recalled, "was not amused" and whisked Burton off the stage.
Adriance got the eleven-year-old Burton to try out for his first proper acting role in 1924, the lead in a settlement-house production of Three Pills in a Bottle.
Participation in the one-act play by Rachel Field earned him credits toward two weeks at Union's Nathan Hale summer camp across the Hudson River on the shores of Lake Stahahe in the Palisades Interstate Park. A popular sentimental work performed all over the country by amateur theatrical groups of the time, the play featured a poor crippled boy in a wheelchair -- Burton's part -- who gives away three magic pills to the imagined disembodied souls of three people more needy than himself. He sees a reality no one else sees and shows the other characters the better way -- motifs that would mark many of Lancaster's film roles all the way to his last, Field of Dreams.
If Adriance saw the experience as a vehicle to give the child a different idea of himself, Burton mainly remembered his hair. The director told him it stood straight up as if he had been "suddenly frightened." His tousled mop was already a signature.
When, on the strength of his performance, scouts from a brand-new theater company offered him a scholarship, he was brought into contact with the New York avant-garde theatrical ferment of the early 1920s, what Ann Douglas has called "the peak of American theatrical production . . . the decade's and city's most striking and deepest-rooted characteristic." Evolving away from the fin-de-siècle tradition of stylized gestures and histrionic emotings codified by Francois Delsarte into a method of matching voice with gesture to indicate emotion, a new American style of acting developed in the workshop ambience of the settlement house -- the natural environment for what Harold Clurman would call "a sense of the theater in relation to society." These amateur productions showcased some of the more innovative theater work in New York. Jimmy Cagney gave credit to the Lenox East settlement house for his first acting part and a young Lee Strasberg performed and directed at the Chrystie Street settlement house.
This local experimentation was given a quantum shove forward by the 1923 visit to New York of Konstantin Stanislavsky and his Moscow Art Theater, hailed as "the most celebrated theater in Europe." The Soviet ensemble demonstrated not only the organic integrity of a repertory troupe in which no one was a star, but also presented what one reviewer called "the fresh vision of the Russian soul." The fact that no one attending the performances in Al Jolson's big "music hall" at the corner of Fifty-ninth Street and Seventh Avenue understood a word, except the ecstatic Russian immigrants from the Lower East Side who mobbed the director during the intermissions, only added to the mystique. Audiences embraced an acting Alexander Woolcott called "true and vivid and telling" in which the actor found an emotion within himself and then gave expression to it onstage. So soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, a communal humanity seemed to surge across the footlights bringing Americans a blast of the faraway economic and spiritual devastation of postwar Europe. It was an early, potent exposure to the allure of the Soviet experiment.
Immediately after the tour, Stanislavsky's former Moscow stage manager Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, also from the Moscow theater, formed the American Laboratory ("Lab") Theater on East Fifty-eighth Street as both a repertory troupe and a training school for actors in the Russian method. One of their first pupils was Lee Strasberg; Stella Adler also joined the company and Harold Clurman met her when he took courses in directing from Boleslavsky. These three, with Cheryl Crawford, would found the Group Theater, "America's first true theatrical collective," in 1931. The Lab immediately offered a few tuition-free scholarships for its three-year program to "promising students," the requirements being a strong coordinated body that Boleslavsky likened to the actor's "violin," a voice as free as possible from diction handicaps, and an ability to do hard, concentrated work. When Lab representatives climbed the stairs of the Lancaster apartment to offer the young star of Three Pills in a Bottle
the company's first scholarship, Burton bolted out onto the fire escape. He persuaded his mother to say he was not interested. He got bored playing the same role night after night and was only doing it to earn camp credits. And it was too "sissy."
Lancaster, the star who was supposed never to have had an acting lesson, was in fact involved in play after play at Union and other settlement houses directed by new disciples of Boleslavsky. ("Hey, you heard?" Basil Natoli, a childhood pal, remembered asking the local gang on the street corner. "Burt's in a play tonight. Wanna go?") He would express contempt for the famously exclusive Actors Studio "Method" style that Strasberg evolved from Stanislavsky, the Lab, and the Group Theater. Later reaction against the Method would claim that it ignored movement, one of Lancaster's most distinctive characteristics, and that it detached itself from Stanislavsky's original insistence that drama connect to the outer world, to its time: "Above all," wrote Boleslavsky, "do not forget your fellow men. Be sensitive to every change in the manifestation of their existence. Answer that change always with a new and higher level of your own Rhythm. This is the secret of existence, perseverance and activity. This is what the world really is." It was no wonder that Lancaster later claimed that when he hid on the fire escape he was running away from his destiny: Boleslavsky's rhythm was a secular expression of the social gospel.
The Lab's theater opened for its first season in 1925 without him, presenting The Sea Woman's Cloak
by Princess Troubetzkoy. Playing the part of a fisherman in the play was Harold Adolph Hecht, an ambitious, idealistic Jewish actor, born in 1907 in Yorkville, a product of a Bronx settlement house who remained a regular member of the Lab for the rest of the decade. A quarter century later he would watch Lancaster, a complete unknown, on the stage in New York and realize he was seeing his future.
Burton had no intention of playing dour Russian peasants when he could dream of emulating Douglas Fairbanks. In 1920 he saw The Mark of Zorro
at the local Atlas Theater and became hooked on the brave, insouciant loveliness of the man often considered the first great male movie star. He kept going back to the theater, entering when it opened at 11 a.m. and staying through every show, skipping lunch and dinner until Willie was sent to drag him home. Sitting in the dark movie house filled with raucous kids, the little boy watched the glorious man on the screen and memorized his every move. From the title frame announcing the theme of "oppression" from which "a champion arises," the boy absorbed the image of a graceful hero doing battle against the bad guys, armed with little besides a big toothy grin and an agile body. "Are your pulses dead?
" demands Fairbanks, exhorting the reluctant caballeros
to action. Burton was already primed to thrill to the hero's exclamation in the last title shot: "Justice for All!" This was the star in charge.
The most seductive element was what the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov most admired in Fairbanks: a physical expressiveness that emphasized the rhetoric of movement over feeling, a kind of updated Delsarte. The watching eye in the audience followed the body on the screen because the way it moved told a story. When the short, pudgy Burton got home and began imitating his new idol, jumping off, on, and over every piece of furniture in the apartment, he was only practicing to be a movie star, to tell stories with his body.
There were even more brave tales behind the fanciful Herts & Tallant-designed facade of the Aguilar Free Library a few blocks away on 110th Street. One of the earliest Manhattan circulating libraries, it became Burton's other home-away-from-home by the time he was twelve, a safe place because the gangs never went there, a perfect incubator for romantic dreams. By fourteen he claimed to have read the whole library: Lang's Fairy Tales
, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Kant, Bertrand Russell, Spinoza, the brothers Grimm. He liked their words even if he did not understand them and imagined himself a character in every book he read. At home, when Lizzie came in to say goodnight after the gas was turned off, Burton would "give her a big loving kiss," recalled his father, and pretend to snuggle down just long enough to be sure the door was shut. Then he would take the flashlight from under the pillow where he hid it and read a Frank Merriwell adventure under the covers. Jefferey Farnol's 1910 "long novel of the open road," The Broad Highway,
was a particular favorite and provided yet another potent archetype: the scholarly aristocrat, adept with his fists, who takes to the road to find adventure with highwaymen, gypsies, and beautiful ladies in distress.
A more current hero/model was his supposed relative. Burton often read "Lord Roberts," the poem Rudyard Kipling wrote in honor of the commander when he died in 1914 while visiting British troops in France: "Clean, simple, valiant, well-beloved/Flawless in faith and fame/Whom neither ease nor honors moved/An hair's-breadth from his aim." Part of the man Burton grew up to be would want to be like Roberts, especially the flawless part, especially the aim.
The discovery of movies, books, and poems was fortuitous. He had started to have run-ins with the local police that could have taken a dangerous turn. Lizzie knew when to distrust cops, however. One night at 2 a.m., when her son ran home from a movie theater followed by a policeman, she threw the cop down the stairs. His mother stuck up for Burton, even against the law -- another chapter and verse of his "Bible."
His hungry mind loved the idea of school, if not its onerous reality. He entered P.S. 21 on 102nd Street in February 1920, and graduated from P.S. 83 on 110th Street on June 30, 1926 -- at age twelve, the smallest boy in the class. He raced through his homework at the last minute, cramming for tests the night before. His omnivorous reading and the fact that, unlike most of the neighborhood boys, he was continuing on to high school, left him open to taunts of being a sissy -- a short
Then, just after he turned thirteen, he began to shoot up in height, continuing to grow over the next several years until he reached his adult height of six feet one inch, taller than either of his brothers. He also discovered he was an athlete. His body was coordinated and muscular; it moved well, responded to training. Like his star athlete brother, he excelled in basketball. No one had ever expected Burton, the bookish little scrapper, to be tall. Now he could hold his own, not have to battle his way through life as a short guy. The change was also frightening. People looked at his size and his emerging beauty with a different set of expectations. For the rest of his life, the body armor nature gave him like a surprise bonus would encase the wary child within.
In September 1926 he branched out from the self-contained world of the slum to the diverse, challenging universe of one of the great public schools of the era. Lizzie not only insisted he follow his brothers on to high school, but she chose the most academically demanding of the three best schools open to a New York City eighth grader of the time. Unlike Jim, who was attending Stuyvesant High School or Willie at Commerce High School and Jane at Hunter High, Burton went to De Witt Clinton High School for boys on Tenth Avenue between Fifty-eighth and Fifty-ninth Streets. In the midst of the railroads, rumbling trucks, market wagons, and penny-pretzel men of Hell's Kitchen, Clinton's motto was -- and is -- nihil sine labore
: nothing without work.
The massive Dutch Colonial-style structure built just up from the eastern bank of the Hudson River was a response to the huge growth in public school enrollment since the Civil War and an expression of the same burst of national and civic pride and social activism that had inspired the creation of Union Settlement. Reportedly the largest high school in the country at the time of its opening in 1906, by 1926 Clinton had six thousand students, all boys. Hollywood press reports later claimed that Lancaster had little education, but in fact a Clinton diploma was an achievement to be proud of. James Baldwin, Richard Avedon, George Cukor, Richard Rodgers, Daniel Schorr, Thomas "Fats" Waller, Lionel Trilling, Countee Cullen, and Paddy Chayefsky are among its distinguished alumni. A laboratory for the progressive educational philosophy of John Dewey, the school prepared young men to be fully engaged in the world, skeptical of the status quo, ready for change through social interdependence. "We [are] young iconoclasts," bragged a yearbook commentary, "with blood and gall and salt burning within our spindly frames."
His course schedule was demanding. Four years each of English, French, physical training, and elocution -- plus several terms of history, chemistry, hygiene, Spanish, biology, algebra, geometry, economics, and, perhaps at the suggestion of David Morrison from Union, two years of drawing -- refined the self-taught jumble of romance, history, and philosophy in his head. His grades bounced around, ranging from 65 to 90; the more studious or active classmates' memories of him are vague. His instinctive defensiveness may have made him feel second-best in the midst of so many brainy adolescents and he never liked being second-best anywhere. During his free periods he built up his spindly frame in the gym on the parallel bars. Morris Meislik, Class of '29, remembers practicing gymnastic moves with him: "He was a strong kid . . . already pretty good at it."
In the spring of 1929 the school moved to a brand-new, collegiate-looking edifice in the middle of a green field just south of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Burton rode the El for a nickel, passing Yankee Stadium twice each day, and finally made his appearance in the yearbook in his senior year of 1929-30. At a scrawny 140 pounds (his voice had changed only a year before) and "so damn weak I couldn't even chin myself," he had come into his own as a fast-running ballplayer. He was a forward on the "brilliant" varsity basketball team of that season, and in their first game he scored twelve points -- "like fifty points nowadays," he recalled in 1978, claiming he had earned a mention in the New York Times.
Graduating from Clinton in June 1930 at the age of sixteen, he faced his future without the person who had been his driving force. On November 29, 1929 -- one month to the day after "Black Tuesday" saw the inflated stock wealth of millions drown in a sea of ticker tape -- Lizzie Lancaster died. Ill with what the death certificate recorded as "chronic intestinal nephritis," the immediate cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. Her body was laid out on a table in the apartment for the wake, a sight Lancaster never forgot and spoke of rarely and then only to family. She was buried at Cypress Hills on December 2, the third person Burton had seen die in his home. Jane took on the duties of the mother of the family, as Lizzie had done more than thirty years before.
His mother was the wall against which Burton had flung himself, secure in the knowledge that it would not give way. There had not been time for him to come to terms with where her overwhelming personality stopped and his as yet unformed character began. She had defined love for him as something absolute, violent, passionate, and loyal, and now she was gone. The hole she left behind in his mind and heart would never be filled.
One of the first things Burton -- now called Burt -- did after his mother's death, his father remembered, was throw away his comb. From now on he just ran his fingers through his unruly hair and let it go at that.
Excerpted from Burt Lancaster by Kate Buford. Copyright © 2000 by Kate Buford. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.