Originally published July 15, 1950
The average man or woman with a physical peculiarity finds it a little embarrassing, and members of the acting profession regard a slightly prognathous jaw or thick ankles as nothing short of a calamity. But for the past 27 years one entertainer has gloried in his ugliness. That man, of course, is Jimmy Durante, who has frequently boasted, “Dere’s a million good-lookin’ guys, but I’m a novelty!” Durante is the proud possessor of an ugly, oversized nose. He is short, almost entirely bald, recessive-chinned, weasel-eyed, and sloping-headed.
He is also barely literate. I first met Durante about five years ago on a train traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago. We got into a heated argument over the correct pronunciation of Minneapolis. Durante claimed it was “Minneanapolis.” He claimed I had “Minneanapolis” mixed up with “Inneapolis,” the latter being a well-known city in Inneana.
What Jimmy does to words shouldn’t happen to a thesaurus. He says “ cazzmaclismic” for cataclysmic, “catastroscope” for catastrophe, and “exubilant” for exuberant .
Asked by his press agent if he cared to take a trip to his old Bowery haunts as a stunt for a magazine layout, Jimmy sighed, smiled gently, and said, “Sure. I got a real neuralgia for da old place.”
Upon being asked if he ever did any reading, he replied, “Sure, I read. I read ally time. I read books, see, but strictly nonfriction.”
He can’t speak grammatically no matter how hard he tries, and he insists that all his malapropisms are pulled off in good faith.
A few weeks ago, somebody explained to him what a split infinitive was. He drank in the information with relish and mulled over it. Finally, he chortled, “I don’t split ’em. When I goes to woik on an infinitive, I break it up in little pieces.”
For all that, Jimmy is an extremely peaceable and shy soul, and a devout Roman Catholic.
His letters to friends are filled with such phrases as, “with the help of God,” “God rest his soul,” and “may God bless you.”
When an acquaintance once asked him why he gave away so many ten-dollar bills to cadgers waiting outside the stage door of a theater he was playing, Durante looked off into space. Then he replied, very softly and slowly, “Yuh gotta be good. That’s what we’re put on earth for — to be good.”
—“The Great Schnozzola” by Maurice Zolotow, July 15, 1950
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