The Jean Carroll Story as Told by her Granddaughter Susan Chatzky
When you think of some of the most famous women in comedy, what names come to mind? Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Ali Wong, Amy Schumer, Margaret Cho…the list goes on and on. But what if I told you there’s one woman who helped pave the way for them, and chances are you may not have heard her name before? Jean Carroll was one of the first female comedians who was able to “break through” the male-dominated world of comedy. Her life and story is a fascinating one–and even helped inspire the hit show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
I had the chance to speak about Carroll and her lasting legacy with her granddaughter and Briarcliff Manor resident, Susan Chatzky.
Jean Carroll was born Celine (Sadie) Zeigman in Paris in 1911. Her family soon emigrated to the US, settling in the Bronx. Unfortunately, her home life was far from perfect. Her father suffered from alcoholism and abused her mother. Carroll resolved that she would be the one to save her mother and never be indebted to a man. At the age of 12, she began singing and dancing on the Vaudeville circuit as a way to earn money and support her family. Because she essentially became the “breadwinner” of the family, Carroll was able to force her father to move out of the house, making sure her mother and siblings no longer had to put up with any of his abuse.
Chatzky has fond memories of Carroll, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 98. “When you spoke with her, she would tell you that the minute she was told she couldn’t do something she would say ‘well that’s ridiculous’ and wasn’t going to stand for it. She just found certain things unacceptable and behaved as if everyone else did as well until she got her way.” Her foray into Vaudeville was all to support and protect her family. “She realized they would have to eat and pay rent, so she made sure the bills were paid.”
On the Variety circuit Carroll was a part of various “Man/Woman” acts in which the duo would exchange comedic banter between song and dance numbers. Eventually Carroll met Buddy Howe and the two formed an act before getting married. When Howe was drafted in World War II, Carroll continued performing on her own. Even when Howe came back, he encouraged her to have her own act and became her manager. Howe would go on to form his own talent agency, running what would eventually become ICM. As Chatzky remarks, “It was good for him that she was doing well–she was one of his first clients. Her talent created the opportunity for him.”
Carroll’s comedy style and delivery was certainly revolutionary for the time. Most female comics would create dowdy characters, making themselves the joke. Chatzky says, “That’s how women were allowed to take up space in a male-dominated world–and Carroll was not having that.” She was the first “beautiful” comedian in the sense that she went for full glam–makeup, ballgowns, shoes and more, rather than feel the need to hide behind a caricature.
Carroll’s style of comedy and her appearance helped inspire the creators of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel! One of the writers was a fan of Carroll’s and was inspired by the way she spoke and the outfits she wore. Chatzky says, “The show created an aesthetic based on those women (Carroll, Rivers, Tomlin)–they are beautiful and that is who they are. They’re not making themselves the joke.”
After many years of performing in nightclubs and theaters around the country, Carroll made her debut on The Ed Sullivan Show (then known as Toast of the Town) in 1948. She would go on to appear on the show more than 20 times. This led to her own TV series that ran for one season in 1953–The Jean Carroll Show also known as Take it from Me.
Chatzky sees Carroll as a trailblazer, but not just in the field of comedy and entertainment. “I think it’s wonderful she opened things up in entertainment for women. The fact she was a woman who early on was pro-Israel, pro-choice, a Democrat–she fought for women to be equal and independent before it was the norm to fight for these things. She had a platform and a voice because of who she was and wasn’t afraid to use it.”
Carroll also made it a point to take care of her extended family. She wanted to make sure her grandchildren, nieces and nephews all had opportunities that she didn’t have such as finishing high school and attending college. She built a home in the Catskills and made sure it was big enough for everyone to visit and have a place to stay. Carroll made sure everyone was well-provided. She also never stopped learning–even taking college courses in Spanish and computer science when she was in her 80’s, just for fun. As Chatzky states, “She said, ‘I need to learn how to use a computer and Spanish is the language of our future.’”
As for Chatzky, she makes her home in Briarcliff Manor and is married to Deputy Mayor Peter Chatzky. She is currently on the Executive Board for the Center for Safety and Change in Rockland County, helping women and children faced with domestic abuse move into new homes She is also a rape crisis counselor and helps foster kittens for the SPCA. Some of Chatzky’s favorite things about Briarcliff Manor is its great location and proximity to the river, its trains, parks and library.
“We have so much to offer here,” she says. Reflecting on Carroll’s legacy, she tells a story of Henny Youngman famously stealing a joke from Carroll. “She went nuts–she talked to the press about it and wouldn’t stand for it. At the time, you don’t see your mother or grandmother as cool when they’re doing something like that, but I’m so glad she didn’t let it go.”
Carroll paved the way for many and stood her ground at a time when that wasn’t always the norm–and we can all be a little bit thankful for that.