by PETER BESAS
VARIETY’s legendary editor-in-chief Abel Green was born in New York City on June 3, 1900. The details of his early association with VARIETY are fuzzy, but he worked for Sime on and off for 15 years, occasionally flying the coop to join other publications. One source averred that he was a college drop-out.
The first time his sig, Abel, appears as a film reviewer in the paper was in the May 30, 1919 issue. By the Jan. 7, 1925 issue his star was clearly rising, for Sime let him pen a column in the music section headed “Abel’s Comment”. That column was followed in later years by others titled “Disc Review”, “Around New York” and “Radio Rambles.”
The story of how Abel Green became editor-in-chief replacing Sime became a famous part of VARIETY lore. One day in 1931, when Sime returned to the office after an absence, he stepped up to the “throne” where his rolltop desk, typewriter and phone were located, and remained standing pensively beside his brown upholstered swivel chair. Abel Green was standing next to him. Pointing at his own chair, Sime turned to Abel and, in what must be one of the most extraordinary delegations of editorship in a major newspaper on record, simply said, “From now on, you sit there, Abel.” Sime moved to a desk in the middle of the editorial room, under the stairs.
There are a myriad stories about Abel Green, about how he knew everybody who was anyone in show business, about how cheap and opportunistic he was, about his freeloading, but also about his talents as a writer and an editor, about his dedication to the job, about his personality, and about how he kept alive the basic integrity of the paper in the way Sime would have wanted, how, in fact, together with Harold Erichs, he prevented the paper from folding during its darkest days in the 1930’s.
We have dozens of photos of Abel, lent to us by Syd Silverman. Most of those show him flashing his big smile in legendary New York nightclubs, such as the Stork, El Morocco, or at at Grossinger’s. He is in the company of Walter Winchell, and Irving Berlin, and Liz Taylor, and Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny and even Cantinflas. Among his bosom friends were Groucho Marx, Joe Laurie, Jr., Sophie Tucker, Maurice Chevalier and other luminaries of the vaude era.
Abel’s special brand of journalism did not translate easily into other literary forms. He never tried his hand at fiction. However, in 1951 he teamed up with his longtime vaude buddy, Joe Laurie, Jr. to publish a 514-page tome called Show Biz: From Vaude to Video (“video” at that time meant television).
Abel and his wife Grace lived in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park, with a terrace on it, where their little dog exercised. They had no children. Like Sime, when the day’s work at 46th Street was over, Abel would sally forth to catch a show, or film, or an act. Also like Sime, he sported a bow-tie all his life, prompting one ex staffer, Lyle Stuart, to pen a novel entitled God Wears a Bow-Tie which used Abel as a not altogether complimentary model.
Frank Segers (Sege) remembered: “Abel was a terrific leader. I can vividly remember him at the printing plant each Tuesday. He read every single proof. And, ‘Ah, I don’t like this’ and ‘Ah, what does this mean?’ A really basic, earthy journalist editor, in the best sense . . . He cared about the product. As far as I know, he did not play politics. He liked certain members of the staff more than others but he didn’t play the kind of politics that’s going on today. Abel was a superb editor. In the office, you’d sometimes get a note on green paper from Abel, ‘Why we no have?’ and a clipping. And you had to explain why you didn’t have that story for VARIETY.”
Abel was especially famous for his adeptness at writing clever and catchy headlines, which required a special talent. Commented George Gilbert (Gilb): “Abel wrote the best headlines. Not only could he come up with a jazzy head, but he wrote ’em rapidly and they (would) fit. Writing a VARIETY headline wasn’t easy, since the style called for a ‘step-off’ similar to the New York Times heads. To combine the right step-off with a punchy description of a story was an art. And Abel was a master in accomplishing this.” It was Abel who wrote the famous STICKS NIX HICK PIX headline in 1935.
On May 10, 1973, when Abel Green was chatting with the doorman of his apartment, he was struck down by a heart attack. He was 72 and had served 52 years on the show biz beat. “The bankers are all there is now,” he had told a reporter shortly before his death. “It’s a big business now, not show business.” The obit in the New York Times was written by an ex mugg, Vince Canby.