Book review: Master of Ceremonies, by Joel Grey, with Rebecca Paley

Grey Master of CeremoniesGrey, Joel with Rebecca Paley. Master of Ceremonies. Flatiron Books, 2016. 256p. HC. $27.99. ISBN 978-1250057235.

In this outstanding memoir, the Tony- and Academy Award-winning actor shares his eventful life on the stage and beyond, as he also candidly describes his journey through decades of hiding his sexual orientation, even while achieving long-dreamed-of personal and professional success.
Joel Katz was Cleveland-born in 1932, the son of Mickey Katz, a Jewish actor/comedian/musician who achieved some fame on the “Borscht” circuit. Young Joel loved to perform as well, and became a reasonably successful nightclub song-and-dance man as an adult, though he longed to be on a theatre stage, particularly Broadway.

In 1966, Grey won the role of his lifetime- the profane “Emcee” in the original New York production of Cabaret. For his performance, he would win both a Tony Award and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for recreating his character in the 1972 film version. His subsequent stage work would include roles in George M!, the 1996 revival of Chicago, and 2003’s Wicked, among others, plus numerous television appearances.

As Grey worked his way up to stardom, he also lived covertly with his sexual orientation. He knew he was gay, or perhaps bisexual, from an early age, having affairs with both men and women as a teenager and into adulthood. But the 1950s and subsequent eras demanded secrecy, and since Grey had always wanted to be a family man, in 1958, he married actress Jo Wilder, who he describes here as “the true love of my life.”

Their marriage lasted nearly 25 years and produced two children, but the relationship shattered in the early 1980s when Grey fully revealed his sexual past to Wilder for the first time. Their divorce devastated him, but it eventually enabled Grey to explore new LGBT-related artistic possibilities, including a leading role in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart on Broadway in 1985. Today, at age 83, after publicly coming out in 2015, Grey concludes, “I’m still singing (in the same key), still dancing (but slower), and, finally, getting a bit of my heart’s desire.”
This is probably one of the finest memoirs I will read this year. Grey’s prose is keenly descriptive, witty, and poignant, its deep quality matching his other undeniable talents. It is highly recommended for all LGBT, biography, and performing arts collections.

And to Joel Grey, I say—“Willkommen” to the world of authorship!

Cathy Ritchie
Acquisitions/Selection Services
Dallas (TX) Public Library

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