Murray Burnett was shaken by what he witnessed in Europe during the summer of 1938, so when the high school English teacher and aspiring writer returned home to New York in early September, he felt compelled to write a play about his fellow Jews forced to flee Nazi terror. He was also convinced that a cafe like the one he had visited in France, where refugees gathered and an African-American piano player entertained, would be the perfect setting for the action. But he lacked a key character: His cafe had no owner.
During the summer of 1940, Burnett and his co-writer, Joan Alison, invented Rick Blaine. Without Rick there would have been no “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” and without “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” there would have been no Humphrey Bogart saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” And, without Rick we would be living in an even more benighted world than our current one, because it would be a world without the movie “Casablanca.” So thank goodness for Billy Rose.
Billy who? Let me explain.
Burnett and Alison sold “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” their unpublished and unproduced play, to Warner Bro.[ on December 28, 1941, and in less than a year the Hollywood studio turned it into “Casablanca,” which opened on November 26, 1942. In “The Making of Casablanca,” Aljean Harmetz emphasizes that “much of the raw material of ‘Casablanca’ can be found in the three acts of ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s.’” And in “We’ll Always Have Casablanca,” Noah Isenberg says that the play supplied much of the movie’s dialogue and scenes and nearly all its characters, including Rick, “the cynical saloon keeper.” So who was Rick based on? Was there, in the New York of 1938–40, a cynical nightclub owner whose toughness was joined by a concern for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression? The answer to that one is easy: Billy Rose. Rose was the real Rick Blaine, and Rose’s Casa Mañana was the real Rick’s Café Américain.
The son of impoverished Jewish immigrants, Rose was born as Samuel Wolf Rosenberg on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1899. He was smart, scrappy and short, and as a teen he already had made a name for himself as the city’s shorthand champ. In the 1920s he made a good living writing such songs as “Tonight You Belong to Me” and “Me and My Shadow,” and in 1929 he married comedian Fanny Brice. In 1934 he created New York’s greatest and largest post-Prohibition nightclubs, Casino de Paree and Billy Rose’s Music Hall, and in 1935 the clubs’ success led to his next production, Rose’s “Jumbo,” an immense circus musical performed in New York’s mammoth Hippodrome, the only space big enough for the dozens of animals and hundreds of actors, singers, human cannonball acts, trapeze artists, acrobats and clowns enacting a love story featuring the wonderful Rodgers and Hart songs “My Romance” and “Little Girl Blue.” “Jumbo” made Rose famous and landed him a $100,000 job producing a 1936 centennial celebration for the state of Texas. In 1937 the Texas gig brought him to Cleveland for the Great Lakes Expo, where he created Billy Rose’s Aquacade, his first synchronized swimming show.
Rose returned to New York in 1937, and in January 1938 he opened the nightclub Casa Mañana. In December he opened Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. They were the two most successful clubs in the city, but they were almost a Rose sideline, because he was also preparing his Billy Rose Aquacade for New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. All of which means that when Burnett returned to New York in the fall of 1938 dreaming about a play set in a cafe-nightclub, Rose would have been a natural object of his fascination. There is strong evidence that he was fascinated.
“I’m in a racket. I’m not supposed to have any friends.” “Guys who make speeches are phonies.” “The trouble with showmen is that there are too many geniuses and not enough showmen. I sell ballyhoo, not genius.”
Those are some of the Rose wisecracks that New York’s many newspapers quoted. In 1939, columnist Earl Wilson wrote that Rose’s talk was characterized by a “friendly but snappy here’s-the-dope manner.” The least familiarity with Rick’s quotes betrays the influence of that manner.
There are more parallels. Rick’s Café Américain was named for its owner, just like Rose’s Casa Mañana. Both places were filled with European refugees, as was Casa Mañana. In January 1939, Rose produced the Refugee Revue there, which The New York Times reviewed. There is even a hint that the revue influenced the scene in “Casablanca” created by Burnett and Alison in which the French patrons of Rick’s cafe sing their national anthem to drown out the Germans singing theirs. In Rose’s production, when the refugee performers sang or played music written by Jews, such as Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” an actor portraying a buffoonish German yelled out, “Verboten!” meaning “forbidden.”
Rick never drank with customers. Rose never drank. It was a point made in many articles about him, including a July 1939 feature in Fortune, and the idea of Rick as a publicly abstemious bar owner was almost certainly suggested by Rose’s example. It even seems that Rose’s look influenced the creation of Rick. A 1939 Times profile notes that Rose’s “heavy-lidded eyes droop…. In repose he appears almost lethargic, but usually he is intensely alert.” Burnett and Alison’s stage direction calls for Rick to nod “almost imperceptibly” in order to give Sam the okay to play “La Marseillaise.”
Finally, there is one parallel too striking to be explained by coincidence. In a key scene in “Casablanca,” suggested in the original play, Rick breaks down over the feelings summoned by the song “As Time Goes By,” which he shared with his lost love, Ilsa. Burnett almost certainly got the idea of using a song to reveal Rick’s hidden emotions from the Times profile of Rose. It asserts: “Hard as nails in a business deal, he is a sentimentalist at heart. An old song will raise a lump in his throat.”
And what about the ending of “Casablanca,” in which Rick arranges for Ilsa and Lazlo to escape the Nazis? Well, in 1939, Rose secretly rescued an Austrian Jewish refugee from Nazi Europe. He paid for the visa that allowed the refugee to enter Cuba. Burnett could not have known that, but it seems his study of Rose paid off. He knew what Rose would do, and he had Rick do it.
Mark Cohen is the author of “Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose” (Brandeis University Press).