The Korean Adventure
by Martin Abramson, from “The Real Al Jolson,” 1950
A living legend is entitled to sit back on his haunches but as long as people wanted to hear Al Jolson, nothing could keep him away from the center of the stage. He passed his 67th birthday working on plans for a third picture biography and for a leap into the newest entertainment medium, television.
Then, suddenly, his country became embroiled in another war. Jolie shelved all his own plans and wired Washington asking permission to go to Korea. On September 17th, 1950, a dispatch from 8th Army Headquarters, Korea, announced that “Al Jolson, the first top-flight entertainer to reach the war-front, landed here today by plane from Los Angeles.” Jolie had paid his own way over.
Teamed with his old confrere Harry Akst, the lean, smiling Jolson drove himself without letup through 44 shows in 16 days. Even though he had only one lung, his voice and personality had lost none of its boundless animation. He traveled by helicopter to various sections of the front. Once, when his pilot got lost and said nervously, “We may be over enemy lines,” Jolie cheerfully told him that “nothing can happen because Crosby gave me a tip on a nag that’s still running and I can’t reach the finish line before he does.”
When Jolson returned to Hollywood and to his wife and the two children they adopted, he seemed apparently none the worse for wear. He expounded gaily to reporters about his meeting with General MacArthur and his family, displayed the gold medallion the General had given him and talked warmly about “the boys.”
“What a job they’re doing!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got to look up my income tax and see if I paid enough. And after a while, I’m going back to Korea and do some more shows.”
To George Jessel and Jack Benny, however, Jolson confided the truth. The dust and dirt of the Korean front had settled in his right lung and he was close to exhaustion. On October 17th, 1950, he had the first twinge of a heart attack and was warned by his Los Angeles doctor, Dr. Raymond J. Spritzler, to take a long rest.
“Okay, doc, I promise to rest,” Jolie said. “I just want to clear up a few things first.”
In his hotel room in San Franciso a week later, while being examined by a heart specialist after showing symptoms, he said “You know, Truman only had one hour with MacArthur and I had two.” He died that night.