by Mary Bahl, January 2008
When iconic actor James Cagney died in 1986, his estate specified that he be eulogized here at St. Francis de Sales, not at the more well known St. Patrick’s Cathedral midtown or a church further upstate near the farmhouse he had retired to. He held the church dear to his heart. He was confirmed here, and spent his youthful Sundays as an altar boy here. He was born in 1899 in the East Village, but his family moved to Yorkville when he was almost 2, eventually settling on East 96th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. He was a well known Irish/Norwegian neighborhood boy, learning Yiddish from the Jewish immigrants on his block. This language helped him as he broke into the predominately Jewish Vaudeville theatre, at one point even playing a chorus girl so he could make money to help support his family. Movie icon Al Jolson saw him onstage and recommended him to Warner Brothers Studios. He made over 70 films, including the crime classic, “The Public Enemy” in 1931. In that film, he famously rubbed a grapefruit in his female costar Mae Clarke’s face to the chagrin of early feminists. He is credited with uttering the immortal film quotes, “You dirty rat!” (“Taxi!”, 1932) and “Top of the world, ma!” in 1949’s “White Heat” (inspiring the famous line, “I’m king of the world!” in 1997’s“Titanic”).
Cagney was the go-to-guy for tough gangster roles until he showed off his song and dance skills as composer George M. Cohan in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Cohen wrote the patriotic songs “Over There” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag”. Due to this role, Cagney would be forever thought of as a symbol of American ideals and optimism. The role won him his only Oscar (the first ever awarded for a musical role) and made him immortal in the film world. He credited street boxing in his Yorkville neighborhood for inspiring his dancing rhythms onscreen. Other milestone roles were as actor Lon Chaney in “Man of 1000 Faces” and his last film role, “Ragtime” (1981).
On set, he would often lead the cast members of his films in group prayer. An accomplished painter and poet, he was one of the founders and a President of the Screen Actor’s Guild. He was reportedly the first actor ever to receive a percentage of the box office, a practice common today. He even held a black belt in Judo and was married to the same woman for 64 years, until his death. They adopted two children. He was immortalized as #8 of the 50 Greatest Screen Legends of All Time by The American Film Institute in 1974.
James Cagney’s pallbearers here at St. Francis de Sales in 1986 included legendary boxer Floyd Patterson, esteemed dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Screen Actors’ Guild Co-Founder Ralph Bellamy and “Ragtime” director Milos Forman. His eulogy was delivered by former President Ronald Reagan, who had awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest honor a U.S. civilian can receive) less than two years before. The U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in Cagney’s honor in 1999. James Cagney was only 5’5” tall but he was a cinema giant, and proud to call St. Francis de Sales his neighborhood church.