excerp from The Jolson Nobody Knew
Cosmopolitan, Jan. 1951
by Harry Akst (song writer, pianist, accompanist, and close friend)
We had lunch with General MacArthur and his wife the day before taking off for home. It had started out as an invitation to tea with Mrs. MacArthur, extended to us a few days after our arrival in Japan. But now that Inchon was secured, the general had time for a few pleasures, and he didn’t want to miss meeting Jolie. And so a telephone call had come through from MacArthur’s aide, Colonel Sidney Hoff, telling us of the switch in plans.
Al was excited. In a way, this was compensation for everything he had been through. In the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, Al met a newspaper correspondent he knew and told him we were going to lunch with MacArthur.
The reporter sneered. “Don’t get so excited. I’ll tell you just what’s going to happen: When you get there, you’ll meet a lot of newspaper people; the general will do all the talking; you’ll do all the listening; and you’ll be given the bum’s rush out of there inside of an hour.”
Al just grunted.
When we pulled up in front of the old embassy, Mrs. MacArthur came out to greet us. She led us into the huge living room and made us feel right at home. There is a warm glow about her, and a simple graciousness that is completely winning. Al loved her Southern accent.
“I hear it all the time,” he told her. “Y’see, my wife is a Little Rock girl.”
Young Arthur MacArthur came in with his governess. He had seen both Jolson pictures.
“Which song do you like?” Al asked.
“Sonny Boy,” he said.
There was a big shiny concert grand in the room. What a relief after the Purple Cow! Halfway through the song, Al stopped. General MacArthur had walked into the living room.
Mrs. MacArthur ran to greet him, and they went into an embrace that lasted fully a half minute. Then came hellos and handshaking all around. At first we didn’t know what to call MacArthur, but his wife gave us the clue by addressing him as “General.” He in turn said “Mr; Jolson,” until Jolie said, “Call me Al.” MacArthur was dressed in his usual debonair informal, open‑collar manner, but however informal he seemed, he was an impressive figure. You could not help feeling you were in the presence of greatness.
The general apologized for barging in in the middle of a song.
“That’s all right,” Al said. “Do you have any special songs you like ‑ any favorites of mine?”
“All your songs are favorites of mine, Al.”
Jolie didn’t need any urging. This was his meat and drink. “This isn’t the largest audience I’ve had,” he said, but it’s certainly the most select.”
The general, Mrs. MacArthur, young Arthur, his governess, and a black cocker spaniel.
I went back to the concert grand, and Al leaned against the polished mahogany. For the next twenty minutes he gave one of the great performances of his lifetime.
The spell was broken by the Japanese butler, who appeared in the entrance and bowed from the waist to indicate that luncheon was ready.
Young Arthur ran to the piano and played a few bars of boogie woogie, and good too; then he went off to his studies with the governess. The four of us went into the dining room.
The general asked Al, “How do you like Japan and the Japanese people?”
Al replied, “I haven’t seen much of the country, but what I have seen has certainly impressed me. I think within twenty years the Japanese will be ready for the kind of democracy we have in the United States.”
It won’t take years,” General MacArthur said. “They are ready for it now. The only thing retarding it is the way some of our occupationnaires and some of the Japanese who have been to America and returned here are spoiling the people.”
Later, Al complimented Mrs. MacArthur on the dress she was wearing. She told him that a Mrs. Levy at Magnin’s San Francisco ‑ a woman she had never met ‑ had her measurements and sent along the latest frocks to her from time. “If ever you’re in San Francisco, Al, and you think of it, run in and say hello to Mrs. Levy and thank her for me.”
At four o’clock our hostess got up, and we knew that luncheon was over. It had lasted for two hours, but it had seemed like fifteen minutes to us.
Back at the Imperial Hotel, Al went roaming through the lobby looking for a certain newspaper correspondent, but he couldn’t find him. “If anybody ever tells me anything bad about MacArthur again,” Al seethed, “I’ll punch him right in the nose.”
That afternoon, we went on a last minute shopping tour, and Al bought two beautiful strings of pearls, one for Erle and one for my wife. Later in the evening, we were sitting in the’ cocktail lounge of the hotel when a special MP came up to the table with two large envelopes, one for Al and one for me. Al opened his like a kid on Christmas morning. Proudly he showed me the autographed etching of General MacArthur, with the inscription: “To Al Jolson with gratitude and admiration. Douglas MacArthur, Japan 1950 .” Then he drew out a little jewel box and found inside a medallion: To Al Jolson from Special Services in appreciation of entertainment of armed forces personnel ‑ Far East Command,” and on the other side, our entire itinerary. In my stocking, I found the same treasures.
That night, Brigadier General Paul. B. Kelly tendered a surprise dinner for us at which a group of geisha girls amazed Al by singing “April Showers,” “Dinah,” and “You Are My Sunshine.” The next morning we took, off from Haneda Airport for the United States.
I was relieved to know that we were headed for home. Every hour that we got closer to California, I felt better about Al. “How do I look, Harry?” he kept asking me. And I would say, “A couple of days in the sun, Al, that’s all you need. Palm Springs will do it.” He looked awful, but I had to con him. He was far more exhausted than he suspected. When we got to Honolulu, weariness didn’t stop him from calling the head man at Tripler Hospital there and insisting on doing an impromptu show for American casualties on twenty minutes’ notice.
We landed at Los Angeles Airport the night of September twenty-third. While newsreel cameras ground and flash bulbs popped, Al dropped to his knees and kissed the soil, and he wasn’t fooling. A reporter asked him how it felt to be back in the United States. “Every time I come home from these trips,” Al said, “I always look up my last income-tax return to make sure I paid enough.”
He turned to me. “Talk to you Harry.” “Right, Al.” I watched him go off with Erle. He had someone to come back to this time.