For all my (self-) vaunted dedication to popular culture, I had no idea who Jill Corey, pictured above, was. When I glanced at the New York Times obituary feature about her last month, it didn’t ring enough of a bell for me to read it. But I left the section lying around for some reason, and finally read it last night. Her life is a story filled with ethics enlightenment about life, luck, and priorities.
On Nov. 9, 1953, when she was only 17, Norma Jean Speranza of Avonmore, Westmoreland County, a coal miner’s daughter just like Loretta Lynn, was featured in a Life Magazine cover story called “Small Town Girl Gets New Name And a New Career.” She became a true overnight sensation, recording hundreds of songs for Columbia Records, including “Love Me to Pieces,” “I Love My Baby,” “Let It Be Me” (which the Everly Brothers covered memorably) and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” the featured single on her career-defining album, “Sometimes I’m Happy, Sometimes I’m Blue.” Corey, it is fair to say, had one of those rare female voices that are instantly appealing, like Judy Garland and Karen Carpenter. Listen…
Those low notes!
Critics and audiences loved her. Silver Screen magazine said she had a “voice as lovely as a glass slipper, and a personality to match,” and that was typical. Corey was a regular on the television variety programs “Robert Q’s Matinee” (1950–1956) “The Dave Garroway Show” (1953–1954), the 1958–1959 version of the iconic “Your Hit Parade,” and on Johnny Carson’s CBS comedy-variety show before he took over “Tonight.” She also had her own syndicated radio and television shows. In 1958 she starred in a feature-length musical film, “Senior Prom” (co-produced by Moe Howard!)
So why doesn’t (almost) anyone remember her today?
In 1961, she married Don Hoak. He’s remembered now more than Corey is thanks to “City Slickers”: in a scene on a dude ranch, the one woman in the group complains to Billy Crystal and his two friends that she doesn’t understand men’s obsession with baseball. Who cares who played third base for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, she asks hypothetically, and the words are barely out of her mouth before the three guys blurt out, “Don Hoak!”
Corey stopped performing and recording to raise a family; she and Hoak had a daughter. He dropped dead of a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 41 while chasing a thief who had stolen his brother’s car. Unexpectedly, Jill Corey had to return to singing. But her moment had passed. She was no longer famous or in demand, and popular music, the culture and public tastes had moved at supersonic speed in the eight years between 1961 and 1969. Once seemingly everywhere in magazines, TV and the radio and seemingly headed to a long career, she was back to being an unknown. When she died in May at the age of 85, few noticed.
1. In a discussion in the comments on another post, mentioning actress Deanna Durbin, a reader talked about how those with a gift, like a beautiful voice or artistic talent, have an obligation to use it for the enjoyment and benefit of humanity. I have struggled with this idea almost my whole life, and I still don’t know what to think about it. Gifted or not, we have the right to live our own lives, and to hold the gifted in thrall to an ethical obligation to sacrifice their own needs for the public’s benefit seems excessively strict. On the other hand, civilization advances substantially through the contributions of the extraordinary and remarkable. On the other hand, the extraordinary and remarkable are usually bad partners, parents, friends, and too often, bad human beings.
2. The Jill Corey saga teaches that when success comes too easily, it can obscure the reality of how lucky one has been, leading to naive decisions. Many talented singers labor for years to be noticed. Corey was helped by a local DJ to record a tape of her singing unaccompanied except for the sound of a train passing by the studio. The disk jockey sent the tape to bandleader Mitch Miller, whom he knew, and Miller invited Jill to audition in person. He even sent a plane ticket. By the end of her first day in New York City, she had a new name, a record deal, auditions with television show hosts and the promise of a Life magazine cover. But her belief that she could just pick up where she left off was tragically naive. “I’d arrived a star and done it all,” Corey told a reviewer in 1972, “so I didn’t know how to knock on doors, but what else could I do? Since I was 4, all I’ve ever done is sing. When you have talent, and they won’t let you do your thing, it’s very crushing; especially when you’re used to the red carpet.”
3. When Corey quit to be Don Hoak’s stay-at-home wife, she gave up a much larger income: Hoak was making less than $30,000 a year. She was a victim of the biases of the age, but she was raised in a religious, conservative family, and wives weren’t supposed to work in 1961. Of course, if she wanted to be a mom and wife without the disruption of a recording career, that was a valid choice. Today she would have options.
4. Corey also never learned to be assertive and to take control of her destiny and career. Right before Don Hoak persuaded her to marry him, in 1961, she was offered the role of Lucille Ball’s sister in the new stage musical “Wildcat.” She told her agent that she wanted to do it, but he dissuaded her, pointing out that a concert booking would give her $3,000 a week, while Broadway paid $250. Agents making bad decisions for their clients because of their own financial interests is a persistent ethics problem, but there was no way for the unschooled, inexperienced young singer to learn that. She never got another Broadway offer, but her agent got his 10%.
5. The cruelty of the Hollywood culture also affected her career. Cast as the singing ingénue in the 1958 campus romance film “Senior Prom,” Jill decided during shooting to wear a little pearl on a gold chain that her father had given her. When the producer told her to take it off, she refused. (Where was her agent at that crucial moment?) She was cut out of most of the movie’s publicity activities for defying the producer, and Hollywood, like Broadway, never called again.
The biggest lesson of Jill Corey’s mercurial rise to stardom and fall into anonymity is the oldest one: Fame is fleeting, and depending on it to last is a delusion. As Shelley wrote (and who’s Shelley?)
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
You were great, Jill.
From now on, I’ll remember.