“You must remember this. A kiss is still a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh…” Most people know those lyrics from the classic movie Casablanca, but they never would have heard them at all if a kid from Island Pond, Vt., raised in Westbrook, Maine, and renamed Rudy Vallee, hadn’t made them famous in 1931.
His parents named him Hubert Prior Vallee when he was born on July 28, 1901. He kept the Vallee, but swapped out Hubert to become Rudy. He chose the name for Rudy Wiedoeft, one of the most popular saxophone players of his era. His career took him through several eras, from a crooning teen idol in the ’20s to a character actor on a campy television series in the 1960s.
Vallee grew up in Westbrook, where his father worked as a pharmacist. He had a mix of French Canadian–Irish good looks, and he took up the drums and later the saxophone. After an aborted attempt to enlist in the Navy during World War I – he was sent home because he was only 15 – Vallee went on to college at the University of Maine. He then transferred to Yale.
While at Yale, he supported himself as a saxophonist and bandleader, and turned professional when he formed ‘Rudy Vallée and the Connecticut Yankees’ after graduation.
Gradually, he began taking on more of the responsibilities for singing. Vallee was not typical of the singers of the day. Without microphones, a singer had to have a powerful voice. Even the megaphones that singers used couldn’t really propel a weak voice to the back of many halls.
A National Menace
But microphone technology was advancing rapidly between 1916 and 1926. It offered hope for crooners like Vallee, who had a soft, sweet tenor voice that the girls loved. Soon he was on his way to becoming one of the first full-fledged superstars in the country. Women swooned when he would show his face in public and a crowd followed him everywhere. Watching his popularity, jokers said his effect on women made him a national menace.
He signed a recording contract in 1928, and would be in demand for the next 50 years. His appeal grew exponentially as he mastered every medium. Radio, television, recording and movies, where he launched his career with the Vagabond Lover in 1929. The theme from that film would be his signature song throughout his career. (Watch him sing it here.)
Vallee had countless hits with Brother Can You Spare a Dime; Vieni, Vieni; Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries and more. His 1931 recording of As Time Goes By was probably his biggest hit. It was popular when he released it, but it got a new lease on life in 1943 when it was featured in the movie Casablanca. While he didn’t perform the movie version, it was re-released at the time of the film and gained a whole new, and larger, audience.
Few Friends, Lots of Wives
Vallee’s personal life was as outsized as his professional. Vallee loved being a heartthrob, and played it to the hilt. He claimed to have slept with more than 145 women, and he married four of them. He was a tyrant to work with, starting fistfights with people who annoyed him. Very few of the people who worked for him could stand him, and he had few friends in the entertainment industry.
In 1961, he finally took his talents to Broadway. He conquered the Great White Way in the hit musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He appeared with Robert Morse — who later played Bertram Cooper in the series Mad Men. Vallee also played Lord Marmaduke Ffogg in the show Batman.
Vallee’s career slowed as he entered his seventies and he succumbed to cancer in 1986. Throughout his life, he said his New England background and Yale education always hampered him, though he doubted he would have succeeded without them. He was well-spoken and never accepted by the industry, despite his successes. “When I retire,” he predicted, “Variety will say, ‘I told you it wouldn’t last’.”
He was tight with money, posted signs at his house directing people not to throw cigarette butts on the ground and take only one napkin at dinner. And he was quick to correct someone’s grammar or argue their point of view, qualities he saw as virtuous, not obnoxious. But he also said it was wrong to characterize him as simply a Yankee.
“Right alongside of the Maine Yankee …is all the French hedonistic quality of enjoying life…liking beautiful women in satin gowns, and high French heels, and long beautiful nails, …and all the things that go with the French side of me,” he told an interviewer. “I’m not one person, I’m many people.”
A bit of Vallee always remained in Maine, however. Though he lived in California, he maintained a property at Kezar Lake. And the Maine University fight song, the Stein Song, is one of his original compositions.
This story was updated in 2021.