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The Wicked Wit of the West: One of the Funniest and Most Poignant Books of the Year About Life and Death

March 6, 2009

Pam Vetter of the American Chronicle reviews Wicked Wit:

The Wicked Wit of the West: One of the Funniest and Most Poignant Books of the Year About Life and Death

Pam Vetter

"The Wicked Wit of the West" is definitively the best read of the year as you find yourself re-reading excerpts over and over again. Author Hank Rosenfeld is giving the world a gift by sharing this story in Irving Brecher's own words.

Imagine pursuing Brecher, a screenwriter from the Golden Age of Hollywood, for an interview and then the relationship blossoms into an opportunity. That is exactly what happened for Rosenfeld.

While Brecher wasn't sold on the book idea immediately, his family loved the concept. His wife, Norma, had been encouraging him to do it for years. Brecher wanted the memoir to be different than a tawdry exercise of Hollywood self-absorption and he found a way to share his true voice through Rosenfeld. More memoirs should involve the actual subject because what results in this book is a page-turning work of art. Instead of painting in broad strokes, this memoir is more an exercise in fine-detailed pencil drawings that make you laugh and remember how it used to be in Hollywood. With perfect timing, "The Wicked Wit of the West" showcases one original story after another. Stories you've never heard before. It took Rosenfeld six years to record his conversations with Brecher. As a result, he collected a portion of cinematic history.

Born in 1914, Brecher had dreams like every other kid. He wanted to be a journalist but found success and rewards in being a comedy writer when Milton Berle hired him to write jokes. Over the years, Brecher amassed many credits in radio, film and television. His credits are an uplifting walk through film history with two Marx Brothers' films, a punch up of dialogue in "The Wizard of Oz," a shared Oscar nomination for "Meet Me in St. Louis," and screenwriting credits for "Shadow of the Thin Man," "Bye Bye Birdie," and "The Life of Riley," among others.

Brecher's incredible memory into his 90s exposes a time in history when a career was built on talent rather than a single headline or a retouched photo. It never seems like name dropping when Brecher mentions the people who used to sit at his table at the private Hillcrest Country Club: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, George Burns, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Lou Holtz, Milton Berle and the Ritz Brothers. As one-liners flow from his lips, it reminds readers that Brecher was no slouch himself. He made comedians look good with tight one-liners that made the audience think and made the audience laugh.

Throughout the book, Brecher weaves a reality about enjoying life, experiencing the highs and lows of the studio system and ultimately facing death. While there are hilarious bits on nearly every page, Brecher also acknowledges that many of his contemporaries are dead as he has attended far too many funerals. He describes himself as "the last man standing" after the Hillcrest table of famous friends had passed away. He thought it would be nice to hold funerals before someone died so the guest of honor could enjoy the event.

In an interesting review of a farewell, Brecher shares the story of Milton Berle's funeral, as he resented that he was not asked to speak at the service. He felt it was because he didn't have a big enough name, but you sense his loss of Berle, a man whom he greatly respected. With a streak of ongoing honesty, Brecher also talks about the death of Bob Hope and his dealings with the comedian. This section reads with a mix of hilarity and hostility reflecting on the way he was treated.

When you live into your 90s, you experience a lot of death and it becomes part of life. Brecher describes finding his first wife, Eve, "with that beautiful smile, asleep forever." Who can describe a passing better than this? No one. Brecher delivers on so many levels in this book, you find yourself wanting a sequel. Even when he jokes about death, it's poignant. In true form, he read famous obituaries and was proud when his films were mentioned. When he read the obituary for Susan Marx, the wife of Harpo Marx, he pointedly told Rosenfeld, "Listen, kid, come on over and let me give these stories to you before I croak."

While you never feel rushed in reading, time is ticking throughout this book and you realize how important it is to document every story from Brecher's memory.

There are little extras throughout as well, including detailed payments he received for jokes, good reviews of his films, a 1940 typed letter from Groucho Marx, and photos of Brecher with celebrities. The story about Al Jolson is a mouth dropper. The details of celebrity affairs are shocking. The ditty on Jackie Gleason and the capping of his teeth is hysterical. Behind the scenes, the reader gains personal insight from Groucho Marx about quiz shows and "You Bet Your Life." The way Brecher tricked Judy Garland into performing in "Meet Me in St. Louis" is an absolute hoot! Clearly, studio stars only wanted to hear what they needed to hear and Brecher knew it. And, finally, Brecher reveals how Ann-Margret was really discovered. The last few chapters are rife with banter and you may find yourself shedding a few tears.

When I read the introduction to this book, I was a little wary at the use of various fonts to represent different voices. Alas, my worry was for naught. The reader easily embraces the typesetting and it works beautifully.

Great thanks goes to writer Rosenfeld for making the time to follow Brecher all over town, documenting what otherwise would have been lost.

Simply put: "The Wicked Wit of the West" is a must-read book. In fact, it's so wonderful you're not going to want to share it with your friends when you're done reading it. Tell them to buy their own copies. It's a keeper that you will want on your bookshelf so you can re-read it on a rainy day for a pick-me-up. If an official, unedited recording of the Brecher-Rosenfeld conversations is ever released, this writer will be first in line to buy the audio.

The publication of this book begs the question: how many other amazing life stories are going untold at the Motion Picture home? Probably, far too many.

In 2001, his obituary ran in print prematurely. Sadly, Irving Brecher died in November 2008 at the age of 94 and never saw the official release of this book. But, I bet it was one helluva funeral.

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Wicked Wit of the West

Wicked Wit of the West

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