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The Secret Tortured Life of Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye was a popular American actor, singer, comedian, dancer, musician, and cook who starred in 17 films. His death shed light on some secrets despite his popularity.

After Danny Kaye appeared in the popular film adaptation of James Thurber’s, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, magazine features about him became almost cliché. But, some of these articles actually dealt with the many secrets, idiosyncrasies, and disturbing chapters of Kaye’s life and character.

Robert McElwaine is the resident playwright who created the TACT theater’s celebration of Kaye’s life, Danny and Sylvia. He was Danny’s long-time publicist back in his Hollywood days and the years that followed. Robert refused to turn a profit from the musical and refused to include damaging details of Kaye’s career. However, he did pass along an unnerving collection of facts, incidents, and insights that he had compiled during the three-plus decades that he served as Kaye’s employee, friend, mentor, and confidant.

Here are a few details that Robert was able to shed light on about Kaye’s life and career.

Danny Was Colorblind

For public and private appearances, Danny developed a uniform of sorts. This made it easier for him to coordinate his wardrobe. His uniform comprised of tan-colored pants, a white shirt, and a black neck-tie with a brown tweed sports jacket.

If you opened up his closet, you’d find over a dozen identical jackets and trousers. He also preferred that Robert wore the same uniform whenever they traveled in each other’s company. Occasionally they would accidentally get each other’s jackets switched but that just the price that they had to pay for consistently. And besides, whenever that would happen, at least it provided a good laugh.

Even though they were essentially the same height – just shy of six feet – Danny’s arms were significantly longer than Roberts. His lanky appendages were so disproportionately long that the sleeves of his jackets would completely envelop Robert’s hands.

This is why Danny developed his unique arm movement and poses. He’d often have his arms extended above the waist. If he didn’t, he would come across as somewhat ape-like.

Danny Abusive Childhood

Kaye had a very difficult childhood. Both of his dad and brothers beat him ridiculously. He learned quickly that the only way he could stop the abuse was by making his oppressors laugh, and just like that, he developed this extraordinary range of entertainment skills for survival’s sake.

Danny’s performing persona was actually very much so a form of a defensive mechanism. While he often came across as warm, jovial, and confident, in reality, he was full of fear and very insecure. That’s why he would perform compulsively – even before an audience of just one – because it was his way of living the life that he always wanted. One where he felt safe, secure, and loved.

Danny’s story isn’t unique either. Dysfunctional families, according to child-star advocate Paul Peterson, often create the very same talents that elevate them to stardom as well as the emotional problems that eventually destroy them.

Danny Lived With Overwhelming Depression

Kaye was under an immense amount of psychiatric oversight and received constant treatment for the majority of his life. At the peak of his career, a world-renowned psychotherapist lived with the Kayes, so that Danny could fit his intensive treatment regimen into his busy schedule. And he needs to devote three hours a day to his therapeutic sessions.

Danny’s interest in psychotherapy was first piqued when he co-starred in the musical that turned him into a star, Lady in the Dark, Moss Hart’s tale about a troubled woman’s use of psychotherapy to discover the root cause of her unhappiness.

Danny would have these bouts of almost unbearable depression and intense loneliness. On one occasion, Robert reported that Kaye called him up after 1 AM and told him that he needed to meet him immediately at the airport. After flying to Havana, the two went from club to club. There, Danny danced with a dozen beautiful women but still managed to make it back to the home in the morning. According to Robert, Danny barely said a word to him the entire time they were there.

Danny Kaye’s Sexuality Was Called Into Question

Ever since his role in, Lady in the Dark, as a flamboyant goofball who was petrified of women, this stereotype persisted. Robert believed that Kaye’s wife, Sylvia, partly devised this carefully engineered role to serve her insecurities. She was a short, simple woman who felt that she would be competing with all of the other Hollywood ladies if her husband was depicted as more masculine.

Kaye played the role brilliantly despite of the manipulation by people around him. Off-screen, he was far from shy and resembled his on-screen personality very little. He had many affairs including serious relationships with stars like Eve Arden, Princess Margaret, and Shirley Maclaine. Danny Kaye’s wife learned of these, but she believed that their artistic and professional interdependence would always bring Danny back to her. And to be fair, she was right.

Danny Kaye Supposedly Played On Both Sides Of The Field

According to a biography written about Sir Laurence Olivier, he and Kaye allegedly had a long-term homosexual affair. No sources are named to back up this assertion. The Kaye family dealt with the controversy by simply ignoring it. But, Kaye could be one of many celebrities who were secretly homosexual.

Robert on the other hand disputes these claims. According to him, while Danny was with Olivier, he never saw anything that would seem to indicate that the two were involved intimately. Robert said that many of the characterizations made of some of those instances were outrageously distorted in the book.

Robert and Danny shared countless hotel rooms together whenever they were on the road. He reported seeing him with innumerable women but never once did he see his dear friend with a man. That doesn’t mean that Danny never dipped his toes into those waters. If he did, there is no way to definitively prove it.

Danny Could Master Anything He Wanted To

Robert described his friend’s uncanny ability to accomplish this feat as being somewhat ‘freakish’. He was a grade-school drop-out but he still somehow managed to become a pilot. At the time of his death, he got his license to fly every civilian aircraft.

At one point he became obsessed with Chinese cuisine. He worked hard and eventually became recognized as the best non-Asian Chinese chef in the world. Likewise, Danny started conducting orchestras as a joke, but without even bothering to learn to read music. He later mastered the art of conducting at a professional level.

Once he became fascinated by human anatomy and medicine, he developed a knowledge of the heart and other organs that rivaled that of career physicians. Danny was also a gifted athlete and a natural sportsman.

After being recruited to replace Donald O’Connor in White Christmas, the script couldn’t be revised in time to cut down on the role’s dancing requirements. So Danny quickly got to work and learned all of the choreography planned for O’Connor. The end result was a stunning performance even though he had no formal dance training before landing the part.

After doing that film, Danny decided that he wanted to do more movies with Bing Crosby. He had a personal meeting with Crosby to discuss that prospect. Crosby responded by saying that he already had another high-profile comedian friend – Bob Hope – and didn’t need another.

Kaye Was Great At Faking Foreign Languages

Despite only speaking English, Danny was quite talented at feigning foreign tongues. He could do a mean faux-french, Russian, German, and Italian. In fact, he was so good at what he did, he often managed to fool native speakers of the languages he was imitating.

Robert recalled that on several occasions, Danny would have extended conversations with Germans, French, and Italians where they spoke their language while he spoke his unique brand of authentic-sounding gibberish. Each time he would do it, the native speakers would be so confused that Danny spoke a ‘dialect’ of their language that they couldn’t understand.

Danny Made A Fool Of Himself On Broadway

After breaking his leg while starring in Two by Two on Broadway, Danny’s behavior became disgraceful. At first, he agreed to stay in the show as a favor to Richard Rodgers whose life savings was completely invested in the production.

But since Danny was confined to a wheelchair, he no longer had his biggest strength – his physicality. He dealt with this insecurity on stage by ad-libbing, dropping out of character, and playing mid-performance pranks on members of the cast.

He alienated himself from the entire Broadway community with his selfish shenanigans. For the first time in his life, he didn’t feel in control while he was performing and he simply didn’t know how to cope with that fact. The day that Rodgers informed with that the production had broken even, Danny abruptly quit, and Two by Two was subsequently closed.

Danny Kaye’s Death and Legacy

Danny Kaye’s cause of death was heart failure on March 3, 1987, at the age of 76. The heart attack was brought on by internal bleeding and complications of hepatitis C. Kaye had a quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1983 and contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion.

His ashes were interred in the foundation of a bench in Kensico Cemetary in Valhalla, New York. The Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York was opened in 1988.

Danny’s legacy has dimmed over time. His most prolific works and accomplishment exist today only as faint memories in the minds of an aging population. Much of his TV work has not aged very well either, but some of his films like White Christmas and The Court Jester have become some of the greatest comedies of all time.

In 1988, Danny was posthumously inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

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