In his book “Telethons” the disability historian Paul Longmore observed that in the late twentieth century, “nearly everyone who talked about telethons—whether they were defenders or critics, including most disability rights activists—focused on the MDA Telethon and its host, comedian Jerry Lewis. That was not surprising. In the intensely competitive arena of televised charity solicitation, the MDA’s became the most successful and praised of the programs, as well as the most scorned. In 1989 National Public Radio’s Scott Simon described it as “the largest, single-day, private fundraising effort in the world, an extravaganza of entertainment, and fundraising sensation.”
The scorn came from the growing disability rights movement which saw Jerry Lewis as a pitchman for pity and whose language “about” disability presented children as hostages to illness without seeing disablement as merely one factor among many that constitute a life. Now that Jerry Lewis has passed away, as we think about his long and remarkable career, it’s altogether proper to reflect on the damage he did to real disabled people. The harm wasn’t just his—the charity industry in the United States came of age through a combination of forces, a new mass media, first film, then broadcasting houses, direct mail appeals, and a post-war cult of nearly instant celebrity, the likes of which hadn’t been seen much before World War II.
In fact, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had become famous overnight. They went from performing in second string nightclubs to the famed Copacabana within weeks, and then to Hollywood. Martin was a lounge singer from Steubenville, Ohio, a town of blast furnaces along the Ohio River. Lewis was a skinny, peripatetic, wisecracking Jewish kid from Newark, New Jersey, whose parents were minor vaudevillians and he longed to be on a stage, any stage. The war was over. America was still young. Anyone could be anything. Martin and Lewis were overnight sensations. Not since the Great Caruso crossed the Atlantic to sing opera in New York had we seen such a meteoric rise from poverty to stardom.
Jerry Lewis had grown up in a town of crippled kids—the nation was a country of crippled kids. Newark was a polio city. In his novel “Nemesis” Philip Roth describes Polio-Newark circa 1940 as a city where “a paralytic disease…left a youngster permanently disabled and deformed or unable to breathe outside a cylindrical metal respirator tank known as an iron lung—or that could lead from paralysis of the respiratory muscles to death…”
As a teenager attending the movies Lewis would invariably have seen the infamous “short” starring Raymond Massey as “The Crippler”—the sinister, looming shadow of polio who lurks at the edge of the schoolyard to capture innocent children. “Please, Mister! Let me go!” they’d cry. Then: “Oh, I can’t move!” The theater lights would go up. Ushers came around to collect donations for the March of Dimes, the charitable organization co-founded by the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation’s most famous polio survivor.
Lewis saw disability as most Americans of his time did—as an implacable thief, a menacing, unnameable dread. When Martin and Lewis began in showbiz the disabled were not generally out in public. Polio victims were kept out of sight. Any disabling condition was understood as a dreadful thing. But fighting “The Crippler” meant displaying children. Roth writes:
“During the annual fund drive, America’s young donated their dimes at school to help in the fight against the disease, they dropped their dimes into collection cans passed around by ushers in movie theaters, and posters announcing “You Can Help, Too!” and “Help Fight Polio!” appeared on the walls of stores and offices and in the corridors of schools across the country, posters of children in wheelchairs—a pretty little girl wearing leg braces shyly sucking her thumb, a clean-cut little boy with leg braces heroically smiling with hope—posters that made the possibility of getting the disease seem all the more frighteningly real to otherwise healthy children.”
Paul Longmore describes the post-war emergence of televised charity programming:
“The telethon was invented just after World War II by private health charities as a tool to tap into the emerging mass medium of broadcast television. “Telethon” is a portmanteau word combining “television” and “marathon.” The first “television marathon” aired in April 1949 on behalf of the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Transmitted by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to twelve cities in the eastern United States and hosted by TV’s first major star, comedian Milton Berle, it was a broadcast sensation.”
A broadcast sensation indeed. Americans wanted to be generous to those in need and following the war people had disposable income for the first time in years. Helping the ill was understood to be unambiguously good, even a national trait.
This is how Jerry Lewis got his start with the Muscular Dystrophy telethon. His first was in 1956. HIs last came in 2010. What Lewis “got” about disability came from his formative years. He was being charitable. He didn’t want to hear from contrarians who felt there was more to disability than kids on crutches and cures. By 1981 the nation’s views about disability were growing more sophisticated. Longmore relates how Evan Kemp, a man with a neuromuscular condition, a Republican, and a civil rights attorney, and whose parents had helped to found the MDA, wrote in the New York Times that the telethon’s pity approach to fundraising” “bolstered social prejudice against people with disabilities.” Longmore writes:
“He (Kemp) accused it of dealing in stereotypes that only served to hinder their independence and alienate them from the rest of society. In addition, claimed Kemp, the telethon reinforced “the public’s tendency to equate handicap with total ‘hopelessness,’ ” thereby intensifying “the awkward embarrassment” of interpersonal interactions, as well as strengthening public fears and buttressing social barriers. Kemp called on the telethon to instead depict the countless examples of independent disabled people who worked, raised families, and actively participated in community life. This new message, he concluded, would “be a service to the disabled and to the country.”
Lewis didn’t respond kindly to his critics. He said famously on CBS “Sunday Morning” in response to hearing disability rights advocates had accused him of marketing televised pity: “Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!”
He also said: “It just kills me to think about these people getting publicity. These people are leeches. They all glommed on to being Jerry-bashers. What did they have before that? They’re disabled people who are so bitter at the bad hand they’ve been dealt that they have to take down somebody who’s doing good. There’s 19 of them, but these people can hurt what I have built for 45 years. There’s a million and a half people who depend on what I do!”I’ve raised one billion three hundred million dollars. These 19 people don’t want me to do that. They want me to stop now? Fuck them. Do it in caps. FUCK THEM.”
In Jerry Lewis’s case, thinking charitably and the charitable entertainment industry weren’t necessarily compatible. Defenders of Lewis, notably columnist Bob Greene, tried to assemble some scruples. Greene wrote: “Regardless of what you think of Lewis’ tactics and style, the one undisputed fact is that, for a few days at the end of each summer, he manages to make millions of people think about others less fortunate than themselves. You may be appalled at how he does it. … But you can’t stop thinking about what he wants you to think about… .”
In other words, “don’t shoot the messenger.”
The problem was—and is—that the disabled were not obstructive. The critics of Mr. Lewis asked for greater sophistication and nuance from his telethons. Jerry Lewis treated them with contempt.
Jerry wanted to call his poster children “Jerry’s Kids” and that was pretty much that. In his groundbreaking memoir “Miracle Boy Grows Up” Ben Mattlin writes about being an MDA “poster child” and points out how demeaned he felt, for even a kid knows when he’s being employed as a symbol, and a pejorative one at that:
“On a fall Saturday afternoon Mom takes me to a studio downtown—a large, mostly empty windowless space. At the back, under very bright lights, a quiet girl a few years older than I am stands awkwardly with the aid of crutches. She has short, dark hair and wears a short green pinafore dress that exposes leg braces. Mom says she’s the outgoing model. I should speak to her for tips about what it’s like to be a poster child.
I watch silently. The girl doesn’t do much, just stands there as a camera clicks. Then a stout man in a dull tan suit waves for Mom to bring me over. I’m parked in my wheelchair next to the girl. An even fatter man in shirtsleeves starts snapping photos of the two of us. Am I supposed to do something? Besides squint at the bright light, that is. After a while, we’re told we’re done. I wonder, is this what it means to be a poster child?”
The trouble is, that’s exactly what it meant.