I’m delighted to learn that the long-awaited documentary, Jimmy Van Heusen …Swingin’ With Frank & Bing, is finally airing on PBS stations this month. (Check your local listings for further details.) This is an excellent film by Jim Burns, a Syracuse-born producer-director who long lamented the absence of his fellow countryman from the general discussion of the great contributors to the classic American songbook. You’ll learn a lot about Van Heusen that you didn’t know, and you’ll also get to hear nearly all of his classic songs.
One can only imagine that James Van Heusen (1913-1990) frequented the Playboy clubs in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, although, alas, there’s no concrete documentation of exactly when and, as yet, no photographic evidence of Van Heusen posing with bunnies. Yet the story of the songwriter, who was born Chester Babcock in 1913 (there were all kinds of big centennial concerts last year) is particularly germane to the Playboy experience: he was, in fact, one of the original playboys. Van Heusen was a single man for most of his life, and he lived and embodied the Playboy dream for decades even before Hugh Hefner thought to capture that ideal in magazine format. He was the original high-rolling, hard-living skirt chasing swinging bachelor; when Frank Sinatra played that character in his movies like The Tender Trap or Come Blow Your Horn, he was unabashedly modeling that role on his close friend Van Heusen. Famously, Sinatra also began emulating Van Heusen in his personal life as well. (Van Heusen’s lyricist-partner Sammy Cahn said in a much-quoted quip, “The trouble with Sinatra is that he thinks he’s Van Heusen.”) Van Heusen’s songs, like his title tune from “The Tender Trap,” helped define an era – while “Come Fly With Me” heralded the beginning of the age of the Jet Set.
You’ll see tons of rare footage in the new documentary, but there’s precious little of the Man himself. Van Heusen was hardly a recluse, but he somehow managed to be absent whenever a TV or movie camera was turned on. Considering that this is the man who wrote more hit songs for more hit movies than anyone, the irony is obvious. Unlike his hero, George Gershwin, who loved to play in public, and unlike Sammy Cahn, he didn’t enjoy being in the spotlight: he much preferred to hear Sinatra sing his songs than to sing them himself. Jim Burns did manage to unearth an interview from the early 1960s that is virtually the only known footage of Van Heusen talking on camera, and that in itself is rather miraculous.
In March 1960, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen appeared on Playboy’s Penthouse – so far this is the only known footage of the two of them appearing together as a team. Jim declined to include any of it in of the documentary because Van Heusen is so reticent to perform that even though he happily accompanies Sammy – and looks very dapper in his tuxedo – the composer doesn’t speak so much as one word. He doesn’t even open his mouth to sing along as part of the chorus on “High Hopes!” This was shortly before the Academy Awards – Sammy explains that they’re hiding out from Hollywood – when they were just about to receive the Oscar, in fact, for “High Hopes.”
Sammy doesn’t have the voice of a Sinatra or of Frank D’Rone, the Chicago based crooner who joins them on the show, but he was a natural born entertainer some, including Sammy himself, would say “ham,” as non-kosher as that was. Sammy loved writing “special lyrics,” as he called them, and they’re especially funny here, as when he sings “Be my love / For no one else can stand my singing” and has D’Rone sing ‘I’ll walk alone / For to tell you the truth, I read ‘Playboy.'” One wishes Van Heusen would have sung something, but it’s a very entertaining 12-minute segment just the same. Alas, this show hasn’t yet been released on home video. Write your Playboy representative at once!
On another occasion, a longtime friend of Van Heusen’s had the opportunity to be in the kitchen of the composer’s bachelor apartment. He reported that the refrigerator contained nothing but empty, chilled martini glasses. You can’t get more Playboy than that.