‘AN INTIMATE BIOGRAPHY’ is how the author introduces this story about her brother, Billy Rose. Indeed, this narrative is filled with first-hand accounts and the direct voices of many who knew this fascinating man.
Rose lead a very remarkable personal life and successful business careers that included the creation of the incredibly successful “Aquacade,” a 10-year marriage to ‘32 Olympic backstroke champion, Eleanor Holm and a list of friends (and those lost) that made up much of New York city ‘society.’
Born William S. Rosenberg in September 1899, Rose grew up very poor in various locations in New York City including Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a child via his Mama’s instructions, he learned to find food at neighbor’s dinner tables when food was scarce at home.
At 14, Billy began winning high school contests in Gregg shorthand and typing. The next year he won the Metro City Championships in New York and then the national championships. He might have won the world’s had he not gone ‘professional’ doing demonstrations for John Robert Gregg, the inventor himself.
During WWI, Billy created a job for himself and friends whom he had competed against, as the head stenographer and staff for the famed financier, Bernard Baruch who served as the chairman of the War Industries Board, advising President Wilson and playing a major role in industrializing America towards the war effort. Bernard Baruch would become a life long confidant and advisor of Billy’s for many wise years.
Billy would go on and become successful in nine headline-making lives. Three months after his death, a quote in the May ‘66 Reader’s Digest stated, “ Billy Rose was an American legend, a man who had been an outstanding success in seven varied careers — shorthand expert, songwriter, night club operator, Broadway producer, impresario of World’s Fairs, newspaper columnist, and Wall Street investor who left an estate estimate at $30 million.”
Billy himself believed that his sculpture art collecting and philanthropic endeavors, towards the subsequent creation of the Billy Rose Art Garden in Jerusalem, an eighth career. The article missed this as well as missed Billy’s net worth by about 25 percent. It was closer to $40 million.
Reader’s Digest also did not mentioned Billy’s ninth, albeit, failed career. Marriage. In fact, Billy was married on five occasions to four different women including the Broadway actress Fanny Brice and swimmer Holm. He often said, “Maybe I ain’t cut out to be a husband, but I’m a sucker for the best two-dollar buy in town — a marriage license.”
Of his wives, it was Eleanor Holm with whom Billy would later say, he spent the best 12 years of his life. They met while Billy was preparing his first “Aquacade” on Lake Erie at the Cleveland Fair of 1937. Billy would go on to re-create an even grander “Aquacade” at the ‘39-40 World’s Fair in New York. Eleanor starred in these shows with the great Johnny Weissmuller in ‘37 and ‘39. In 194,0 Buster Crabbe was her stage and swim partner in New York while Weissmuller would travel to San Francisco and star in another production of Billy Rose’ “Aquacade” at the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island. Weissmuller ‘s co-star was the newly discovered Esther Williams.
“Aquacade” is defined in the dictionary as “as elaborately staged water spectacle consisting of exhibitions of Swimming and diving, acrobatics, and group evolutions, with musical accompaniment.”
The legacy of these four summers worth of ‘Aquacades” continues to today. The late 1940’s through the mid 1960’s were the ‘hey days’ of many other aquacade, aqua follies and water show productions. Today, the fantastic Las Vegas water shows of “O” and “Le Reve” are destination productions and are modern day hybrid masterpieces of the template left by Billy Rose.
More on Billy Rose: ‘Billy Rose: Manhattan Primitive’ by Earl Conrad Paperback Library, New York 1968 ‘Wine, Women and Words’ by Billy Rose Illustrated by Salvador Dali Simon & Schuster, NY 1946-48