A Look into the Life of Victoria Jolson
Former Rockette, Legendary Singer and Socialite
By Krista Martinelli
She accomplished many great things on her own and had three significant love stories with some of Hollywood’s greats. She was briefly married to Al Jolson’s son, then to TV producer David Levy and then had a long-term relationship with comic Red Buttons. As a former Rockette, classically trained singer and model, Victoria Jolson is happy to be out of the limelight now and living in South Florida. She wrote an autobiography, titled “Beneath the Laughter.”
“The title of the book just came to me, like a lightning bolt,” says Jolson. “It began as a book really focused on the comedians – Red Buttons, Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle, thus the laughter.” One of Victoria’s best friends was Phyllis Diller and another great friend was Milton Berle.
She took a break from college at the University of Alabama in 1965 to become one of the Rockettes in NYC. “But you’re never just a Rockette for one year. I had my first dance lesson at 3 years old, performed up until my teens, and had performed many years of dance leading up to it.” Jolson was the youngest in the dance troupe and the only one from the South. “I became the mascot Rockette,” she writes, thanking the older girls for taking her under their wings.
Jolson was an accomplished singer. She sang at Carnegie Hall. She sang for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. At the pinnacle of her singing career, she sang at the National Theatre in London. Founded by Laurence Olivier, the National Theatre is “where everything great debuted,” says Jolson. President Jimmy Carter sent her a bouquet of flowers that evening. What was notable was that Jolson was the only American to ever perform there. “And Albert Finney drove me home,” recalls Jolson.
I asked Jolson during which period she was the happiest whether it was with Al Jolson Junior, with TV producer David Levy or later with Red Buttons. “Every one of them was happy in different way,” she says. She had her daughter Kate with Al. She then raised Kate with David and they worked to get her to ballet, tennis and piano lessons. David Levy was the Creator of The Addams Family, the President of Programming at NBC, and Executive Director of the Caucus for Producers, Writers’ and Directors and held many more roles throughout the years.
She continues, “With Red, it was very glamorous – it was glamour on steroids. Plus it was very funny!” Red and Victoria sort of “lived his life,” according to Victoria. They never married, and they were best friends. They had previously run together as a foursome, with Red’s wife Alicia and Victoria’s husband David. Both spouses passed away within months of each other. Not knowing what else to do, Victoria brought a cake over to Red. He had let his hair go white, which Victoria reacted to instantly, pleading with him to fix it. They had been friends for 25 years. “Red had many different groups of friends – everyone would invite him. I was in awe,” she says. Thanks to Red, Victoria hobnobbed with Bill Clinton, Milton Berle, Liza Minelli and many others. It was old Hollywood, and every moment of it was exciting.
Jolson comes across as a genuinely happy person. I asked her about how she faces the more challenging times in life. “You’ll find difficult times are in everything you do. I like to say, ‘The higher you go, the lower you have to go.’ You find it in everything – just like you find joy in everything.”
She is truly a Southern girl with her roots in Alabama. “I believe that being from the South is a mindset. There’s a gentility and an elegance about the South, which matched up very well with my time in London,” says Jolson. She had three strong women role models in Anniston, Alabama – the first was Zenobia King Hill, her dance instructor, who was President of Dance Masters of America. It was Zenobia who arranged for Jolson to privately audition for the Rockettes. She was a strong positive force in Jolson’s life. The second was Macy Harwell, head of the modeling in Anniston, Alabama. “I got signed because of her. I got to do lots of commercials. So much fun! The pay was amazing.” My mother was the third strong role model. “She was one of the only women I knew who actually worked in the 50’s by choice. She was a great mother to my sister and me.”
Being a fan of these three comedians, I wanted to know what they were really like. I asked Victoria about Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle and Red Buttons. “Phyllis was one of my closest friends. She was a devoted mother, loved her children. Also, she was a concert level pianist, a brilliant pianist. She performed with the Symphony of the Americas. She performed with Maestro James Brooks-Bruzzese, who has been putting on performances at the Broward Center for 30 years. Phyllis was a serious woman with a very, very funny side.”
And Milton Berle? “He was wonderful. He loved his wife and when she died, I felt so sorry for him. I fixed him up with my mother. He took one look at her and said, ‘Hello mama, come to Papa.’ He was so funny and a terrific friend. “
And Red Buttons? “At home, Red was as serious as the next person. He had insomnia from being in show business all those years – with vaudeville, Broadway, burlesque. He would be energized from doing a show and stay up all night afterwards. Due to the insomnia, he became an avid reader of very serious books, substantial books. He was also a great actor. He won an academy award for Sayonara.” Jolson writes about how Red would write his comic material on notecards on the way to events, not speaking a word on the way. Then he was able to transform and bring the whole house down with laughter.
Another area that Jolson was thrown into was the world of professional tennis. Jolson’s daughter Kate was on the Beverly Hills High School tennis team. She was getting noticed for her excellent form and competitiveness. “Any mother of a top athlete will tell you that these kids really work. She would finish school and she would be on the court as many as 8 hours a day. She loved it – she was never miserable. It was her favorite thing to do.” Kate earned a top university scholarship to the school of her choice, UCLA. She was also offered scholarships to about 40 of the top schools in the country. Princeton, Columbia, U. of Alabama, Vanderbilt and others. “My job was to book the coaches. I booked the tournaments.” There was a lot of coordinating to do. Kate’s best friend was Maria Sharapova. Maria was 10 years old when Kate, a few years older, met her. They practiced together under “the greatest coach in the history of tennis Robert Lansdorp,” according to Jolson. Kate and Maria hit together for a long time, up until Maria won Wimbledon.
Since then, Kate was a reporter for Fox 17 News Nashville. Although she loved it, she gave up the stressful world of news reporting and became a devoted mother of two. Today she’s a tennis coach at San Diego Jewish Academy, coaching men’s and women’s teams.
While Kate lives in San Diego, Victoria lives in South Florida. Originally, Victoria left Beverly Hills and came to Florida when her daughter Kate got a job here. Red had passed away. But the real reason Victoria stayed in Florida was Burt Reynolds. “I was in Burt Reynolds’ Master Class – we met every Friday night, approximately ten of us. It was the most wonderful time. Everybody had been on Broadway or been in show business.” As an aside, Jolson says that Burt Reynolds read her book twice and loved it.
Today the break-neck pace of life has slowed down a bit for Jolson. But she’s still very active and very happy to have two grandchildren (in San Diego) Stephanie and Aaron. She’s working on a second book.
Jolson explains that her family are the only ones left to carry on the Jolson name. So they decided to create the Al Jolson Humanitarian Award in 2014 to keep his name alive. The winners have been: Connie Francis, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, Burt Reynolds and Quincy Jones. https://jolson.org/man/left/memorials/humanitarian/award.html There’s an Al Jolson Society, also working to keep his legacy alive. “We visited Al Jolson’s tomb, and it’s the largest tomb you’ll ever see. Bigger than Grant’s tomb.” Recently a street in front of Winter Garden Park in NYC was re-named Al Jolson Way. Another way he is commemorated – Jolson has his own stamp. “Jolson made people happy,” says Victoria Jolson. “In a way that no one else could.”
Book: Beneath the Laughter by Victoria Jolson.