John T. Ordeman

Two Portraits by E. E. Cummings: Jimmy Savo in Poem and Painting

[Spring 6 (1997): 49-54]

"Burlesque appeals to me," wrote E. E. Cummings; "I’ve seen in the past thirty years of my proletarian life, a lot of burlesque shows (and I hope to see a lot more)." [1] Burlesque in the first half of this century was not merely a parade of strippers and a chorus line of 20—Girls—20; and it was not the girls that drew young Cummings to the Howard Atheneum in Boston: "Less extraordinary than the Howard’s filth was the ugliness of the girls—but not [end page 49] much less . . . they’d make your eyes wince." [2] It was the burlesque comedians’ bawdy skits and comic dances and songs that drew Cummings to the Old Howard and subsequently to the National Winter Gardens in New York.

Jimmy Savo
Photographer unknown 

The top banana at the "gaudy and tawdry" Winter Garden, a man Cummings referred to as "one of the two very great actors in America," was the "super-Semitic, black-derbied, misfit-clothed, keen-eyed but ever-imposed-upon" [3] Jack Shargel, who was also the subject of a Cummings ink drawing, a fine example of Cummings’ talent as a draughtsman and a caricaturist.

Jack Shargel Ink drawing by E. E. Cummings

Jimmy Savo, Ink drawing by Al Hirschfield
Charlie Chaplin, who began his career on the stages of British music halls and American vaudeville theaters, was Cummings’ nominee as the other great actor in America. Chaplin was also caricaturized by the artist in an ink sketch that is certainly Cummings’ most well-known and most accomplished drawing.

A third stage comic admired by Cummings, though not placed by him in the class with Shargel and Chaplin, was Jimmy Savo, whom he portrayed both in his poem "so little he is" and in an oil painting, "Jimmy Savo Performing" (shown later).

Savo, an Italian-American born in New York City in 1896, advertised his talents at the age of 14 in Variety, claiming he could "juggle everything from a feather to an automobile." [4] Subsequently he was featured in vaudeville, [end page 50] in revues, on Broadway stages, and in Hollywood films as a dancer, singer, mime, and comic actor.

A review of "Once in a Blue Moon," a 1936 Hollywood movie, described the performance of "that exquisite and adorable clown Jimmy Savo" as "lovely, fragile and infinitely touching." [5] "The gleaming eyes, the shiny, bulging cheeks, the cheerful mouth, the battered derby, the clerical collar still represent the apotheosis of Jimmy," wrote Brooks Atkinson in a review [end page 51] of Savo’s 1940 one-man show, Mum’s the Word. [6] Burton Rascoe, reviewing the 1943 Broadway comedy What’s Up, wrote that Savo had "the appeal of one’s idea of a leprechaun . . . but also has an extraordinary sense of wacky satire in pantomime." Rascoe also wrote, "I’ve heard it said that Charlie Chaplin once stated that Mr. Savo is the greatest pantomime artist living." [7] If Chaplin actually made such a statement, he was perhaps being overly modest and generous; but certainly Cummings was not alone in is appreciation of the multifaceted comic genius of Jimmy Savo.

Although Savo was a popular and critically acclaimed performer in the decades between the two World Wars, it may well be that he will be best remembered as the subject of the poem in which Cummings described the "(childlost / so;ul / )foundclown"

so little he is
ness be

comes ex
Ly expand:grO


Is poet iS
)foundclown a

-live a
& j &


   A                                                                                 [end page 52]


(Complete 471)

Of Cummings’ poem, Charles Norman wrote, "It is only rarely that he is concerned with the typographical image; an example is the portrait poem, ‘so little he is,’ about Jimmy Savo, whose fluttering hands strewed the stage with bits of paper in gestures extremely birdlike—hence its ending." [8]

The poem is a brief impression of Savo on stage, a little man who grows in stature through his artistry. A lostchild clown, innocent and vulnerable, he is a poet, he is a bird, he is alive. Elsewhere Cummings wrote, "‘art,’ if it means anything, means TO BE INTENSELY ALIVE." [9]

The radically different appearance of this poem may bewilder and confuse a reader not familiar with Cummings’ poetry. The poet’s intention, however, was not to baffle the reader but to communicate visually as well as verbally. This poem defies reading aloud. Much of its effect would be lost in the reading, for the appeal is greater to the eye than to the ear. It is what Cummings called a "poem-picture" and can perhaps be termed "visual poetry." 

Jimmy Savo 
Oil on canvas board, 10" X 8" 
painting by E. E. Cummings

[end page 53]

"so little he is," like its subject, is full of little tricks and surprises. Words are split into syllables to create new words that make meaningful suggestions. "Expertly" is written "ex / -pert- / Ly" to introduce "pert"; "being" and "becomes" are combined into "be / (ing) / comes." These devices and the typographical arrangement noted by Norman are effective in a poem that expresses the author’s delight in the comedian’s performance, for Cummings has flattered Savo by employing literary equivalents of the comic’s characteristic mannerisms. Cummings, after all, was also a "foundclown alive."

The 8 by 10-inch oil portrait, "Jimmy Savo Performing," is also a lively impression; it is painted with broad, rapid strokes with a range of vibrant colors. Cummings conveys the comic nature of Savo’s dance by the wiggly, indistinct lines of his floppy trousers and oversized jacket. The paint is thin in places; in others, there is a thick impasto; everywhere there is quick motion, gaiety, freedom, surprise, and exuberance. Clearly the artist and his subject were kindred spirits. I hope that Jimmy Savo knew and enjoyed Cummings’ poetry as much as the poet / painter enjoyed Savo’s comic turns.

—Cheriton, Virginia

1 E. E. Cummings, "Burlesque, I Love It!" Stage, March, 1936. Reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany, George Firmage, ed. New York: Argophile Press, 1958, p. 91.  Also reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, George J. Firmage, ed. New York: October House, 1965, p. 292.  

2 Ibid., p. 91.

3 E. E. Cummings, "You Aren’t Mad, Am I?" Vanity Fair, December, 1925. Reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany, George Firmage, ed. New York: Argophile Press, 1958, p. 67. Also reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, George J. Firmage, ed. New York: October House, 1965, p. 128. 

4 Ibid., p. 67.

5 B.R.C., "Once in a Blue Moon," New York Times, December 2, 1936, p. 35.

6 Brooks Atkinson, "Jimmy Savo Puts On a One-Man Pantomime Show," New York Times, December 6, 1940, p. 28.

7 Burton Rascoe. "What’s Up, with Savo, Is First-Rate Fun," New York World-Telegram, November 12, 1943.

8 Charles Norman, The Magic-Maker: E. E. Cummings, New York: Macmillan, 1958, p. 157.

9 Cummings, "You Aren’t Mad, Am I?" op. cit., p. 69. Also reprinted in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, George J. Firmage, ed. New York: October House, 1965, p. 130. [end page 54]

Jimmy Savo  (American Vaudeville Museum)
A 1926 review of Jimmy Savo (and Harpo Marx) by Gilbert Seldes (The New Republic)
Back to: Issue #6 Contents   Spring Contents page

Places, People, and Publications


Spring home page