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Battles of Morval and Thiepval Ridge

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 250th installment in the series. 

September 25-28, 1916: Battles of Morval and Thiepval Ridge 

Following the qualified British victory at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette from September 15-22, 1916, which saw the first use of tanks on the battlefield (to decidedly mixed effect), British Expeditionary Force commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig remained determined to break through the German lines at the Somme, leading to yet another bloody offensive in late September – actually two linked attacks at Morval and Thiepval Ridge. 

Morval 

The first phase of the tandem assault was the Battle of Morval, from September 25-28, 1916, when the British Fourth Army attacked German defenders entrenched around the villages of Morval and Lesbouefs east of Flers, which like dozens of other places across the Somme battlefield would soon be villages in name only (top, British troops advance towards Morval; below, a British soldier avails himself of an abandoned bed in the ruins of Morval).

The attack at Morval wasn’t intended to deliver the breakthrough blow but merely to even up the lines by capturing objectives left unattained during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, as well as tie down German forces in preparation for the main attack by the Reserve Army (later Fifth Army), set to begin the following day at Thiepval Ridge, about seven miles to the west. Thus Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson set relatively modest goals, including capturing the German first-line trenches and the villages named above. To the south, the French Sixth Army under General Emile Fayolle would make a simultaneous attack on German positions around the villages of Sailly and Combles. 

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Because the objectives were limited, British gunners were able to concentrate most of their fire on the German front-line trench and artillery positions, aided by close aerial observation by the Royal Flying Corps’ airborne spotters. For their part the German defenders, forced back repeatedly by successive Allied assaults, still hadn’t had a chance to build the sort of impressive dugouts that sheltered their troops from British artillery fire on July 1, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. 

The furious bombardment unleashed by the British on the evening of September 24 tore up the German trenches, clearing the way for an advance by British infantry and tanks beginning at 12:35 p.m. on September 25 (this time, instead of trying to deploy the tanks in the front ranks of the assault troops as they had at Flers-Courcelette, the armored vehicles were assigned a support role, moving up with the second wave and focusing on German strongholds still holding out after the initial attack; below, British troops in reserve trenches).

Aided by a creeping artillery barrage scouring the battlefield in front of them, attackers from the Guards, 5th, 6th, and 56th Divisions surged forwards in the face of heavy machine gun fire to seize Morval and Lesbouefs; although the Allies failed to capture Combles in the initial assault, their advance elsewhere left the Germans clinging to a long, narrow salient, an untenable position from which they voluntarily withdrew to safer positions on September 26 (below, a British soldier escorts a German prisoner).

Thiepval Ridge

That same morning the British Reserve Army under General Hubert Gough launched the main attack in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, which lasted from September 26-28, 1916. With fresh divisions coming into the line, Haig and Gough sought to deliver a knockout blow to the German Second Army, which they believed was demoralized and near collapse. The contest would naturally focus on Thiepval Ridge, a strong defensive position occupied by the Germans north of the village of the same name, including several formidable strongpoints, the “Schwaben Redoubt,” “Stuff Redoubt,” and “Zollern Redoubt.” After the capture of the ridge, the British generals imagined another attack around Beaumont-Hamel, bringing them one step closer to achieving the original objectives of the Somme offensive. 

Following a thunderous three-day bombardment beginning September 23, shortly after noon on September 26 on the Reserve Army’s right two British and two Canadian divisions poured from their trenches near Courcelette towards the German lines including Zollern Redoubt and another heavily fortified position at Mouquet Farm, from which the German defenders laid down withering machine gun fire. The attackers were left further exposed when two tanks, assigned to help take the strong points, ended up trapped in shell craters instead. 

In the center the British 18th Division met with more success in its attack on the village of Thiepval itself, although they were still subjected to devastating machine gun fire from the ruins of the village and the Schwaben Redoubt on the ridge behind it, as Australian Lieutenant Adrian Consett Stephen recalled: 

Sometimes a wave of men would dip and disappear into a trench only to emerge on the other side in perfect line again. Now they are into Thiepval! No, the line suddenly telescopes into a bunch and the bunch scurries to right or left, trying to evade a machine-gun in front, and then with a plunge the first wave, broken now into little groups, vanished amidst the ruined houses.

Like their peers on the right British troops in the center had high hopes for tanks in the assault on Thiepval, but once again the experimental weapons often failed to live up to these expectations. Stephen recalled one distinctly uninspiring performance: “At this stage a tank crawled on to the scene can crept laboriously, like a great slug, towards Thiepval. It disappeared among the ruins, puffing smoke. Subsequently it caught fire.” 

Nonetheless the British forged ahead, aided by continuous shelling, to capture Thiepval village and the neighboring Thiepval Chateau by the end of the day – but that night found themselves on the receiving end of a blistering counter-bombardment by German artillery, which precisely targeted the former German trenches. With the arrival of relief troops overnight the British returned to the attack the next morning, and finally penetrated the fortress-like Schwaben Redoubt on September 28 – but another week of savage fighting would be required before the redoubt finally fell under total British control on October 5.  

Scenes of Horror (and Beauty) 

By this time the Somme battlefield was a wasteland filled with scenes awful beyond description. In September 1916 R. Derby Holmes, American volunteering as a junior officer in the British Army, left the following description in his diary:

The dead here were enough to give you the horrors. I had never seen so many before and never saw so many afterwards in one place. They were all over the place, both Germans and our own men. And in all states of mutilation and decomposition. There were arms and legs sticking out of the trench sides. You could tell their nationality by the uniforms… And their dead lay in the trenches and outside and hanging over the edges… We would cover them up or turn them over… The stench here was appalling. That frightful, sickening smell that strikes one in the face like something tangible. Ugh! I immediately grew dizzy and faint and had a mad desire to run. I think if I hadn't been a non-com with a certain small amount of responsibility to live up to, I should have gone crazy. 

Another soldier fighting in the British Army, Coningsby Dawson, painted a similar picture in a letter home dated September 19, 1916: 

A modern battlefield is the abomination of abominations. Imagine a vast stretch of dead country, pitted with shell-holes as though it had been mutilated with small-pox. There's not a leaf or a blade of grass in sight. Every house has either been leveled or is in ruins. No bird sings. Nothing stirs. The only live sound is at night--the scurry of rats. You enter a kind of ditch, called a trench; it leads on to another and another in an unjoyful maze… From the sides feet stick out, and arms and faces--the dead of previous encounters. “One of our chaps,” you say casually, recognising him by his boots or khaki, or “Poor blighter—a Hun!” One can afford to forget enmity in the presence of the dead. It is horribly difficult sometimes to distinguish between the living and the slaughtered--they both lie so silently in their little kennels in the earthen bank. 

The enemy’s experience was no different – indeed the Germans suffered around 130,000 casualties on the Somme in the month of September 1916 alone, including killed, wounded, and prisoners, and ordinary German soldiers suffered the additional trials of falling under repeated British bombardments during the incremental offensives. Describing one such shelling, during the Battle of Guillemont on August 23, the German memoirist Ernst Junger recalled the condition of men subjected to shelling with high explosives for hours on end as they sheltered in a ruined farmhouse: 

Ahead of us rumbled and thundered artillery fire of a volume we had never dreamed of; a thousand quivering lightnings bathed the western horizon in a sea of flame… In the course of the afternoon, the bombing swelled to such a pitch that all that was left was the feeling of a kind of oceanic roar, in which individual sounds were completely subordinated… Throughout, we sat in our basement, on silk-upholstered armchairs round a table, with our heads in our hands, counting the seconds between explosions… From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron… Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. 

Later Junger’s platoon found itself occupying shattered trenches that had already played host to hundreds of their comrades – and still did:

The churned-up field was gruesome. In among the living defenders lay the dead. When we dug foxholes, we realized that they were stacked in layers. One company after another, pressed together in the drumfire, had been mown down, then the bodies had been buried under showers of earth sent up by shells, and then the relief company had taken their predecessors’ place. And now it was our turn. 

As so many soldiers had discovered to their horror, in addition to threatening their own lives the relentless shelling and sniper fire prevented them from burying corpses even just a few feet away, forcing them to resort to much less effective coverings: 

The defile and the land behind was strewn with German dead, the field ahead with British. Arms and legs and heads stuck out of the slopes; in front of our holes were severed limbs and bodies, some of which had had coats or tarpaulins thrown over them, to save us the sight of the disfigured faces. In spite of the heat, no one thought of covering the bodies with earth. 

At the same time, amidst the scenes of horror there could still be moments of transcendent beauty – including instances ironically springing from the fighting itself. Thus Clifford Wells, an officer in the Canadian Army, wrote home detailing one vignette in a letter dated September 28, 1916: 

There was a heavy bombardment on at the time, and the sight was so wonderful that I halted my party for a quarter of an hour to watch the show. All around us gun flashes were lighting up the sky, the sound of the guns merging into one uninterrupted roar. Overhead a couple of searchlights were searching the clouds for hostile aircraft. In the distance, we could see the shells bursting over the trenches, the shrapnel shells bursting in the air with a red flash, the high explosives bursting on the ground with a whiter light. Flares by the score were being shot into the air all along the line, some of them, white, some red, some green. It was a sight which no words can adequately describe. 

Rasputin’s Power Grows

On September 21, 1916, the French ambassador to Petrograd, Maurice Paleologue, recorded a disturbing conversation with two very prominent acquaintances, who expressed their fears for the future, centering on the increasingly dysfunctional Tsarist regime, now obviously hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Russians: 

I dined this evening at the Donon restaurant with Kokovtsov and Putilov. The ex-President of the Council and the millionaire banker outbid each other with lugubrious forebodings. Kokovtsov said: “We're heading for revolution.” Putilov added: “We're heading for anarchy.” To explain himself, he continued: “The Russian is not a revolutionary; he’s an anarchist. There's a world of difference. The revolutionary means to reconstruct; the anarchist thinks only of destroying.” 

Unbeknownst to them yet another blow against was about to fall, further undermining what little administrative competence the regime had left. On September 25, 1916, the Tsarina Alexandra – egged on, as always, by the sinister holy man Rasputin – convinced her husband Tsar Nicholas II to appoint Alexander Proptopopov, previous deputy speaker of the Imperial Duma, as interior minister (a role previously occupied by Boris Stürmer, another Rasputin familiar now serving as prime minister).

Coming not long after War Minister Polivanov was replaced by Shuvaev and Sturmer replaced Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov – both at Rasputin’s behest – Protopopov was another disastrous cabinet appointment, who despite liberal leanings evinced earlier in his career showed himself to have a harsh reactionary streak of the kind that delighted the Tsarina and Rasputin. He was also rumored to have secret pro-German sympathies (again like the empress and the Siberian holy man), fueling fears that he would push for a separate peace with the Central Powers. In his diary entry on October 3 Paleologue pointed to Protopopov’s enigmatic meetings with German industrialists in Sweden while returning from a tour of the Western Allies – not to mention some of the bizarre “qualifications” that won the Tsarina’s admiration: 

… during a short stay in Stockholm on his way back he had a strange conversation with a German agent, Warburg, and though the affair remains somewhat obscure, there is no doubt that he spoke in favour of peace. When he returned to Petrograd he made common cause with Sturmer and Rasputin, who immediately put him in touch with the Empress. He was soon taken into favour and at once initiated into the secret conclaves at Tsarskoïe-Selo. He was entitled to a place there on the strength of his proficiency in the occult sciences, principally spiritualism, the highest and most doubtful of them all. I also know for certain that he once had an infectious disease which has left him with nervous disorders [i.e., syphilis], and that recently the preliminary symptoms of general paralysis have been observed in him. So the internal policy of the empire is in good hands! 

A day later, Paleologue shared his growing sense of despair with his diary: “Everyone looked very downcast, and indeed one would have to be blind not to see the portents of disaster which are gathering on the horizon.” It didn’t take a diplomat, or prophet, to see that the Romanov Dynasty was steering Russia towards disaster. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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14 Not-So-Dirty Facts About Dirty Dancing
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Released on August 21, 1987, no one—not even stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey—could have predicted the phenomenon that Dirty Dancing would turn into. Today, 30 years later, we’re still talking about the dance-musical-romance’s sensual choreography, its oldies soundtrack, and not putting Baby in a corner. Here are some not-so-dirty facts about the iconic movie, which grossed nearly $215 million worldwide.

1. PATRICK SWAYZE BELIEVED DIRTY DANCING ENDURED BECAUSE OF ITS HEART.

In an interview with AFI, Swayze explained why he thought Dirty Dancing has stuck around for so long. “It’s got so much heart, to me,” he said. “It’s not about the sensuality; it’s really about people trying to find themselves—this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things. On a certain level, it’s really about the fabulous, funky little Jewish girl getting the guy because [of] what she’s got in her heart.”

2. THE FILM GAVE NEWMAN HIS FIRST BIG MOVIE ROLE.

Before starring as Stan, the resort’s social director, Wayne Knight had small roles in a few TV movies, including an uncredited role in the nuclear holocaust drama The Day After. Dirty Dancing showcased his talents, which in 1992 led him to be cast as Newman on Seinfeld.

3. BILL MEDLEY THOUGHT HE WAS BEING HIRED TO RECORD A SONG FOR A “BAD PORNO.”

Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes sang the vocals to the Oscar-winning song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Medley told Songfacts that Dirty Dancing music supervisor Jimmy Ienner called him and mentioned he was gathering music for the movie. “It sounds like a bad porno movie,” Medley said. Medley’s wife was expecting a baby, so he turned the song down. A few months later Ienner convinced him to do the song, even though Medley didn’t think the movie would be popular.

“We just went in to work together, to sing together, and little did we know it was going to be the biggest movie of the year. Just unbelievable,” Medley said. The song ended up selling more than 500,000 copies, and Medley ended up titling his own memoir The Time of My Life. (Note: The film was actually the 11th highest grossing film of the year; Three Men and a Baby took the top spot for 1987.)

4. PAUL FEIG STARRED IN A DIRTY DANCING TV SHOW SPINOFF.

Dirty Dancing the TV series lasted for only 11 episodes beginning in the fall of 1988, but it gave us then-unknown actors Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks and director of Bridesmaids) and Melora Hardin (Jan Levinson of The Office). Hardin played Baby but her last name on the show was Kellerman because her dad was Max Kellerman, not Dr. Houseman. CBS even used “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” for the show’s opening credits.

5. A DIRTY DANCING REALITY SHOW AIRED OVERSEAS.

For two seasons between 2007 and 2008, the UK’s Living network aired a reality show called Dirty Dancing: The Time of Your Life, in which groups of dancers competed for a year-long contract with Bloc, a Los Angeles-based dance agency. The series took place at Virginia’s Mountain Lake Lodge, where much of the original movie was filmed. Couples danced in front of three judges, including Miranda Garrison, who played Vivian Pressman in the movie and was also an assistant choreographer on the film.

6. MOUNTAIN LAKE LODGE REGULARLY HOSTS DIRTY DANCING WEEKENDS.

The Pembroke, Virginia resort where many of the Kellerman’s scenes were filmed hosts regular Dirty Dancing­-themed weekends a year. Dinners, a sock hop, a screening of the movie, a watermelon toss, group dance lessons, and a Dirty Dancing scavenger hunt are just some of the many activities on the agenda.

7. ELEANOR BERGSTEIN WROTE ANOTHER DANCE MOVIE AFTER DIRTY DANCING.

Bergstein wrote the script to Dirty Dancing, and in 1995 she had the opportunity to direct as well. She wrote and directed Let It Be Me, starring Jennifer Beals and Campbell Scott. To this day, she hasn’t written or directed any other movies, but she did adapt Dirty Dancing into a successful stage show.

8. ACCORDING TO BERGSTEIN, EASTERN EUROPE WATCHES A LOT OF DIRTY DANCING.

In a 2006 interview with The Guardian, Bergstein talked about the movie’s popularity with people in the former Eastern Bloc. “And in Russia, it’s policy in the battered women’s shelters, when a woman comes in for help. First, they wash and dress her wounds, then they give her soup. Then they sit her down and show her Dirty Dancing. When the Berlin Wall came down, there were all these pictures of kids wearing Dirty Dancing T-shirts; they were saying, ‘We want to have what they have in the West! We want Dirty Dancing!'”

9. PENNY BRIEFLY TRANSFORMED INTO A POP STAR IN THE LATE 1980s.

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Cynthia Rhodes made a name for herself as dancer Tina Tech in 1983’s Flashdance and starred as John Travolta’s dance partner/love interest in Staying Alive that same year. But it was her role as Johnny Castle’s dancing partner, Penny, that garnered her the most notice. A couple of years after Dirty Dancing, she married singer Richard Marx (they’ve since divorced), and she briefly filled in as the lead singer of L.A. pop group Animotion, known for their hits “Room to Move” and “Obsession.”

10. JENNIFER GREY PLAYED A VERSION OF HERSELF ON THE SITCOM IT’S LIKE, YOU KNOW...

The short-lived ABC sitcom (1999-2000) featured Grey as a member of a Seinfeld-like gang, except the show swapped out New York City for Los Angeles. She allowed herself to be self-deprecating, even poking fun at her nose job and her Dirty Dancing celebrity. Arthur (Chris Eigeman) meets “Jennifer Grey” and goes, “Oh, like the actress. Dirty Dancing. You spell it the same way as her?” “I am Jennifer Grey,” she responds, then she does a dance to prove it. “You look different,” he says. “Nose job!” She blurts. “Just one?” he retorts. (She had two of them.)

11. GREY WAS SHOCKED TO BE A PART OF THE MOVIE CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

During a scene in the 2012 rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love., Ryan Gosling uses the famous Dirty Dancing lift to woo Emma Stone into bed with him. As she watched the movie, Grey got an unexpected surprise. “I’m such a fan of Ryan Gosling and all of a sudden he’s saying my name [in the movie],” she told Yahoo!. “I’m just in the theater with my husband and I look at him like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Gosling just said my name. What’s going on?’ I was so scared. I was like, ‘Oh, no. What are they about to do?’ All of a sudden there I was, part of their movie.”

12. BORSCHT BELT RESORTS LIKE KELLERMAN’S ARE DISAPPEARING.

The area in the Catskills and upstate New York where many resorts like Kellerman’s were located is referred to as the Borscht Belt, because of the area’s popularity with Jewish-American families from the 1920s to the 1980s, with the height of their popularity being in the 1950s and ’60s. Comedians such as Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld got their starts at these resorts. Since the 1990s, hundreds of these resorts have shuttered.

13. TWO FILMMAKERS PRODUCED A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE RESORT THAT SUPPOSEDLY INSPIRED KELLERMAN’S.  

For over 100 years, the Monticello, New York-based Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club welcomed Jewish-American families every summer. Wilt Chamberlain worked there as a bellhop, and according to Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg, the husband-and-wife filmmakers behind Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort, it’s also part of the inspiration behind Dirty Dancing.

“Perhaps Hollywood had taken sort of what was true for the Catskills and was using it for their own purposes, but ... [Hollywood] was just copying what was already here,” Rosenberg told ABC News. One of the last bastions of the Catskills’ Borscht Belt, Kutsher’s closed in 2013 and was sold to a billionaire who plans on replacing the resort with a $250 million yoga and wellness center. At least the doc acts as a relic to the halcyon days of dancing and escapism.

14. A DIRTY DANCING REMAKE WAS RELEASED EARLIER THIS YEAR.

Talk of a Dirty Dancing remake had been floating around Hollywood for a few years, and earlier this year it finally came to fruition. The film, which starred Abigail Breslin as Baby, was not met with great reviews. "Somehow, this earnest, anodyne remake has managed to surgically extract the magic—leaving the story and signature lines intact while suctioning out all the subtlety, charm, and lead chemistry that defined the iconic 1987 original," wrote Entertainment Weekly of the remake.

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The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.

DINO'S LODGE

In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.

JERRY'S

In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

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When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.

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