Cagney in Westchester

Cagney in Westchester

By Tony Czarnecki, from the Spring 2024 issue (Volume 100, Number 2) of The Westchester Historian.

Scenes from three of James Cagney’s most memorable movies were filmed in Westchester County and, following his death in 1986 at the age of 86, he was laid to rest at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne within the town of Mount Pleasant. His connections to Westchester County are significant but not widely known.

In the Beginning…

James Cagney at age 14 in 1913.
James Cagney at age 14 in 1913. Hulton Archive.

America’s Yankee Doodle Dandy was born into a hardscrabble life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side of New York on the eve of the 20th century in 1899, the second of seven children born to Carolyn (Nelson) and James Francis Cagney Sr. At the time, Robert A. Van Wyck was serving as the first mayor to take office after the consolidation of New York City in 1898, which united all five boroughs. The family’s Irish surname had been Americanized from O’Caigne. The oldest child, Harry, was born in 1898. After James, who was called Jimmy by his family, followed Eddie in 1902, Bill in 1904 and Jeanne in 1918. Two other children died in infancy. When Jimmy was two, the Cagney family moved uptown to East 79th Street near First Avenue in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. They moved again when Jimmy was ten to East 96th Street, where the family became attached to St. Francis de Sales Church. The Cagneys later resided at two other flats along East 78th Street in Manhattan.

Jimmy’s father was a bartender and an amateur boxer. According to Cagney, “Pop’s gentle waywardness was thoroughly engrained. He had the charm of an Irish minstrel; he did everything to the tune of laughter—but he was totally deficient in a sense of responsibility to the family.”1 Although challenged by his father’s alcoholism, Cagney admitted that, “We had the advantage of an awful lot of love in our family.”2 Jimmy also recalled the foundation of his later career in the entertainment industry, “We were a musical family, the piano always on the go, and all of us invariably fooling around with a tune.”3 James Cagney graduated from P.S. 158 in 1913 and completed studies at the all-boys Stuyvesant High School in 1918. His neighborhood refuge was the Lenox Hill Settlement House on East 69th Street, where he painted scenery for the drama society, learned his first dance steps, and acted in a play. When his brother Harry was taken ill, Jimmy and his brothers worked together as book custodians at the New York Public Library and later as waiters at Tiffin’s Tea Room on 114th Street in Manhattan. In 1917 James Cagney had his first exposure to show business working as a bellhop (and later as a doorman) at the Friars Club, a private social club for entertainers. His tips included free passes to Broadway shows, which opened up a whole new world to the scrappy teenager.

Doug Warren, a Cagney biographer, revealed that Jimmy was also focused on developing his baseball skills during his adolescent years: “He became so absorbed in baseball, and became so good at it, that for a time he had no doubt at all that he would become a major-league star. Being small and wiry, he chose catching as his position and played it well.”4

Columbia University

After graduation from Stuyvesant High School, Cagney worked briefly in an architect’s office. Because he had an interest in drawing since childhood, he was soon recruited to join the Student Army Training Corps at Columbia University during World War I, because they had a need for persons with artistic skills in their camouflage unit. In his 1976 memoir, Jimmy recounted, “At one fell swoop I became art student, soldier, and college boy.”5 While at Columbia, he was notified that his father had been taken to Metropolitan Hospital (during the influenza epidemic) where he died suddenly at the age of 42 on October 10, 1918—just one month short of the armistice that ended World War I. Cagney was compelled to leave his studies at Columbia but received an honorable discharge. Supporting their mother and their new baby sister became the first priority of the Cagney brothers.

First Visit To Westchester

James Cagney’s first visit to Westchester County took place in 1919, following the end of World War I. As a respite from juggling several jobs, Cagney played baseball on Sundays with a neighborhood team in Yorkville on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As told by Cagney, “For much needed recreation, I played baseball with a team sporting the glamorous moniker of the Yorkville Nut Club, a title that described at least a few of its members.”6 This recreational outlet led to Cagney’s first trip to Westchester County and his first exposure to the state prison where he would later perform as an actor in two of his most memorable movies. 

The Mutual Welfare League’s inmate baseball team at Sing Sing, circa 1918.
The Mutual Welfare League’s inmate baseball team at Sing Sing, circa 1918. Warden William Moyer is seated at center; “bat boy” Fred Dorner, Jr., son of Sing Sing Principal Keeper Fred Dorner, is seat at bottom left. Courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society Museum.

According to Cagney, “My favorite baseball memory is of the time when the prisoners’ association at Sing Sing—the Mutual Welfare League—invited our ball team to play” on the prison grounds in Ossining.7 The collaborator on his autobiography revealed that, “Jimmy made sure he was on hand for this, because he knew they had a good team, with several solid [former] minor leaguers on the prison roster. He didn’t know, however, that his visit to Sing Sing would play old home week at Yorkville.”8

According to a detailed history of baseball published in 1990, “Baseball made its debut at Sing Sing in mid-July 1914…. [Warden Thomas] McCormick ordered wash lines torn down, trees rooted out, and a baseball diamond installed. Some of his friends raised $150.00 for equipment…a baseball game took place every Sunday, with all inmates allowed to attend.”9 Games were organized under the auspices of the “Mutual Welfare League” at Sing Sing, which had been created by reform-minded Warden Thomas Mott Osborne as part of an experimental honor system with limited self-government that rewarded good behavior with commissary purchases, entertainment events, and athletic competitions with invited outside teams.

Doug Warren retold Cagney’s 1919 experience at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining in his 1983 book: 

James Cagney (top row, second from left) and the Yorkville Nut Club tam that played the inmate baseball team in 1919 at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining.
James Cagney (top row, second from left) and the Yorkville Nut Club tam that played the inmate baseball team in 1919 at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining. Yorkville: Stoop to Nuts” posting by Thomas Pryor, September 26, 2015.

When they arrived on the field, Jimmy heard a voice say, “Hello, Red.” Jimmy had been admonished, along with the other team members, not to engage in conversation with the inmates, so he ignored the greeting. A moment later: “What’s wrong, Red, getting’ stuck up?” Jimmy turned to see his old [childhood] friend “Bootah” [Peter Heslin]. During furtive exchanges, Jimmy learned how “Bootah” had ended up at Sing Sing. He and another boy, also a friend of Jimmy’s, had been sentenced to five to ten years for wounding a cop in a stickup. Later, with the game in progress, Jimmy heard the spectators cheering on the next batter. When he stepped into the batter’s box, Jimmy said, “Are you Jack Lafferty?” “That’s me,” said the con. Lafferty had been a friend of Jimmy’s father…It was Cagney senior, in fact, who had helped Lafferty get his sentence reduced to twenty years after killing the man whose car he was in the process of stealing…. The elder Cagney had called on his friends at Tammany Hall on behalf of Lafferty…. Lafferty had been a regular at Cagney’s saloon…At a later inning, another of Jimmy’s former friends asked if he still went to the Eastside Club. Then another spoke of old times. In all, Jimmy had fleeting reunions with a half-dozen guys from the streets. Almost every member of the Nut Club team knew at least one person behind bars. It was a Yorkville class re-union.10

The end result was a predictable loss for the Yorkville Nut Club. According to Cagney, “They beat the tar out of us.”11

Eight years later, Cagney learned about the fate of his neighborhood friend who had been a prisoner at the time of the Sing Sing baseball game. Peter “Bootah” Heslin (aka Robert O’Neil) had arrived at Sing Sing on March 4, 1919, on a robbery charge but was later paroled in 1922.12  On November 4, 1926, he was returned to Sing Sing Prison after conviction on a charge of murder in the first degree, having killed New York City Police Officer Charles Reilly during a holdup of five men at the North Italian Club on East 105th Street in Manhattan. In his 1976 memoir, Cagney revealed that, “I will always remember July 21, 1927, a night some years after that Sing Sing ball game, because that night Jack Dempsey fought Jack Starkey; it was the night I was playing in a Broadway show, and it was the night that ‘Bootah’ died in the electric chair.13 Heslin was only 28 years of age.14

Baseball games at Sing Sing Prison helped to inspire a popular song in the 1920s entitled “Eleven More Months and Ten More Days” by Arthur Fields and Fred Hall:

Sing Sing Prison in Ossining.
Sing Sing Prison in Ossining.
Now we play baseball once a week
And you should see the score.
Ev’ry player steals a base – 
They’ve stolen things before.
There’s lots of folks would like to come
And see us when we play,
But they’ve built a wall around the place
To keep the crowd away.15

In his autobiography, Cagney reflected on his own alternate fate, in contrast to his childhood friends on the Sing Sing baseball team:

A question people have asked me through the years is why the Cagney boys didn’t get involved with guns and crime the way my old Sing Sing pals did. The answer is simple: there wasn’t a chance. We had a mother to answer to. If any of us got out of line, she just belted us….We loved her profoundly, and our driving force was to do what she wanted because we knew how much it meant to her…We loved the great staunchness of her, and at times we four brothers together would impulsively put our arms around her, hold her, and hug her. She’d look to us, her nose would get red, and she’d start to cry. She just couldn’t take all that love.16

James Cagney would return to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining twice during the 1930s for the filming of some unforgettable scenes in two of his most memorable movies. Ironically, during his movie career, he would portray characters similar to those he met on the baseball diamond at Sing Sing Prison in 1919. The state prison complex would be familiar territory to him when he returned to Ossining in the early days of his career as a movie actor.

Hello to Hollywood

James Cagney and Joan Blondell starred in Sinner’s Holiday, their first movie, in 1930.
James Cagney and Joan Blondell starred in Sinner’s Holiday, their first movie, in 1930. Warner Brothers.

James Cagney’s movie career coincided with the “Golden Age of Hollywood” (1920s-1960s) when filmmaking in America was concentrated in the output of five major studio giants that were based in California: MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, RKO, and Warner Brothers. In 1920, James Cagney, who was a gifted dancer, responded to a casting call for a “chorus boy” part in Pitter Patter, a new Broadway show at the Longacre Theatre. He got the part. There he met his future wife, Frances Willard Vernon, who coached him on dancing routines. She was a native of Des Moines, Iowa, and they married in 1922. For ten years (1920-1929) they played the vaudeville circuit—sometimes together. Cagney’s wife, nicknamed “Billie” as a variation of her middle name, then withdrew from her stage career just after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. According to Cagney, “the show business thing with her was never very strong. She loved it at the beginning, but when she saw some of the sordidness of it, she backed away.”17 In contrast, Cagney landed a new role in Penny Arcade, which closed after only three weeks on Broadway. But he later celebrated this production because “it became my clear path to a high road” in the movie industry.18 Warner Brothers bought the story, renamed it Sinner’s Holiday, cast Cagney with his Broadway co-star actress Joan Blondell and signed Cagney to an initial three-week contract to film the movie in California. In his 31-year career in the movies. James Cagney would eventually star in 60 full-length movies before he retired in 1961.

Cagney would ultimately sign several multi-year contracts with Warner Brothers, but he had a somewhat contentious relationship with the movie studio and its executives—especially Jack Warner—because actors, at the time, had no authority to select their roles. One observer recounted that, “through the years, Cagney and Jack Warner continued to work together and fight dramatically. The pattern was fight, reconcile and make another movie.”19

The Warner Brothers Gym at Sing Sing Prison was built in 1934.
The Warner Brothers Gym at Sing Sing Prison was built in 1934. Courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society Museum.

During the 1930s, Sing Sing Prison in Ossining became a frequent filming location for Warner Brothers. Significantly, they provided the construction funds for the building of a modern prison gymnasium at Sing Sing in 1934 as a gesture of thanks for the cooperation of the prison administration. A plaque on the outside of the building reads: “THIS GYMNASIUM PRESENTED TO THE MUTUAL WELFARE LEAGUE BY HARRY M. WARNER IN MEMORY OF LEWIS J. WARNER: 1934.” Harry M. Warner served as president of Warner Brothers. His son Lewis had died suddenly of pneumonia at age 22 in 1931.

James Cagney began to be typecast by Warner Brothers, starting with The Public Enemy in 1931. The film was so popular that one theatre in Times Square ran it 24 hours a day during its initial release. Film historian James Neibaur declared that, “The Public Enemy is the film that made James Cagney a top star.”20 Warner Brothers decided to send the new star of its gangster movies to prison. Cagney would soon revisit the prison complex in Westchester County where his baseball team had lost an exhibition game in 1919.

Return to Ossining

While still under contract with Warner Brothers, Cagney would return twice to Westchester County to film scenes at Sing Sing Prison for two memorable movies: Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Each Dawn I Die (1939). Angels with Dirty Faces was perhaps Cagney’s greatest “gangster” role. He shared billing with his longtime friend, actor Pat O’Brien, in addition to Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, and the popular “Dead End Kids”—six “wise guy” teenagers. Cagney based his performance of the main character on a neighborhood acquaintance in Yorkville: 

The character I played in the picture, Rocky Sullivan, was in part modeled on a fella I used to see when I was a kid. He was a hophead and a pimp…He worked out of a Hungarian rathskeller on First Avenue between Seventy-seventh and Seventy-eighth streets…All day long he would stand on that corner, hitch up his trousers, twist his neck and move his necktie, lift his shoulders, snap his fingers, then bring his hands together in a soft smack. His invariable greeting was “Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?” The capacity for observation is something every actor must have to some degree, so I recalled this fella and his mannerisms, and gave them to Rocky Sullivan just to bring some modicum of difference to this roughneck. I did that gesturing maybe six times in the picture…and the impressionists are still doing me doing him.21

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) starred James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) starred James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan. Warner Brothers.

Pat O’Brien played the role of a priest who was desperately trying to undermine the admiration that the “Dead End Kids” had for Rocky Sullivan, who is condemned to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison. Father Jerry pleads with Rocky to feign cowardice as he is being led to his electrocution, in order to discourage the teenagers from following in his footsteps. Sing Sing Prison allowed Warner Brothers filming access to their correctional facility for many of the prison scenes, but denied them access to the execution chamber. As a result, the final scene was actually filmed at Stage 18 on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California, “The art department copied the famous chair at Sing Sing, but it was never photographed, only its shadow being seen…. The death cell scene between Cagney and O’Brien was the longest take—twelve uninterrupted minutes—that either actor ever made in their career. They did it without mistake, and on the first take.”22

The last scene in Angels with Dirty Faces was memorable because it purposely left the audience guessing about the true feelings of its main character before execution. Cagney was coy in his 1976 memoir:

The ending of Angels with Dirty Faces has prompted a continually asked question over the years: did Rocky turn yellow as he walked to the electric chair, or did he just pretend to? The execution scene is this…I am being led along the last mile when suddenly, without any warning, I go into a seizure of fear, twisting and turning in the clutch of the guards as I try to prevent them from leading me into the death chamber….I think in looking at the film it is virtually impossible to say which course Rocky took—which is just the way I wanted it. I played it with deliberate ambiguity so that the spectator can take his choice. It seems to me it works out fine in either case. You have to decide.23

James Cagney’s dynamic performance in Angels with Dirty Faces earned him his first Academy Award nomination, which was noteworthy. The winner that year, however, was Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. This movie helped to temporarily typecast Cagney in “gangster” roles, which he later lamented, “It was this picture and others like it, of course, that guaranteed me a tough-guy image, an image that I am bound to say has sometimes proved mighty wearisome to me off the screen.”24 The nexus between his upbringing and his acting, however, cannot be minimized, according to film historian Richard Schickel:

The join between the screen character and his personal history is seamless—more so than that of any actor one can readily recall…. Cagney knew first hand, either from personal experience or from the experiences of the young men with whom he had grown up: their family lives, their struggles to establish themselves in a world where they lacked social and economic credentials, where their only weapons were energy, wit and a certain rough charm.25

Encore At Sing Sing Prison

Building on the success of Angels with Dirty Faces, James Cagney returned to Sing Sing Prison the next year to film scenes for Each Dawn I Die,produced again by WarnerBrothers. His co-stars included George Raft, Jane Bryan, and George Bancroft. The story is based on a novel by Jerome Odlum, and the plot involves a crusading investigative reporter on the trail of a corrupt district attorney who is framed for fatally stabbing a police informant. In prison, the reporter befriends a famous gangster. The plot twist has the crooked district attorney elected governor, so he now controls the state parole board. In this prison-related movie, Cagney switches roles and does not play a lawbreaker but a journalist who is framed and becomes a prisoner in the fictitious “Rocky Point Prison.” For this movie, the filming locations were both the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank, California, and Sing Sing Prison in Ossining. 

Following this 1939 movie, Warner Brothers returned to Sing Sing Prison for other feature films, but without James Cagney as the lead actor. Following the “gangster” movies of his early acting career, James Cagney fought for other challenging roles to showcase his talents. Biographer Ellen Matney noted:

The man who was labeled a gangster actor played boxers, cowboys, men in the military, a wrongly jailed dentist…and a long list of others. He played the wounded, the hopeful and the betrayed equally convincingly. At a time when actors were typecast and imprisoned by the studio, James Cagney managed to avoid incarceration.26

According to British actor Jude Law, “James Cagney is where modern screen acting began.”27

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Perhaps the most renowned movie associated with James Cagney was Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), the biopic on the life of composer and entertainer George M. Cohan, for which Cagney won the Academy Award for Best Actor. It is noteworthy that filming began on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and while President Franklin D. Roosevelt was addressing the U.S. Congress requesting a declaration of war. On the movie set, Cagney invited the actors and crew to pause for a prayer before filming began. It was a somber day for the country and at Warner Brothers Studios. Yankee Doodle Dandy became somewhat of a family project when Jimmy’s sister, Jeanne, was cast as George M. Cohan’s sister and his brother, Bill, was designated as the movie’s associate producer.

Often overlooked in this movie is a famous song popularized by Cagney that has a direct connection to Westchester County. This film contains scenes from Cohan’s 1906 Broadway musical entitled Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway, which is set in New Rochelle. The title song refers to the 45-minute train ride from New Rochelle to Broadway:

The New Rochelle Train Depot portrayed in George M. Cohan’s Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906).
The New Rochelle Train Depot portrayed in George M. Cohan’s Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906). New York Public Library.
Only forty-five minutes from Broadway
Think of the changes it brings;
For the short time it takes
What a difference it makes
In the ways of the people and things.28

It was Cagney who brought Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway back to life, reaching a wider national audience in movie theaters when he sang it in Yankee Doodle Dandy, 35 years after the original musical closed on Broadway after only 90 performances.

Cohan would often travel to New Rochelle by train to visit his friend T. Harold Forbes, who often bragged about his “town” to Cohan. The Broadway play was produced by Marc Klaw (Klaw & Erlanger) of New Rochelle. However, when George M. Cohan’s play first premiered in 1906, the residents of New Rochelle were offended because the lyrics satirized their town as having no urban sophistication—without restaurants and being populated by farmers who had “whiskers like hay.” Local merchants urged residents to boycott the play because it was “libelous.” 

The slights of 1906 were eventually overlooked by New Rochelle. Over time, New Rochelle came to embrace the title song because it brought fame to their growing community. James Cagney’s spirited delivery of this popular song, along with patriotic numbers like Yankee Doodle Dandy and You’re a Grand Old Flag during World War II was uplifting to moviegoers. 

The “song and dance man” George M. Cohan shared a similar style with Cagney. According to Cagney biographer John McCabe, “Singing Cohan’s songs was a joy for Jim. His confident, tonally uncertain baritone resembled Cohan’s confident, totally uncertain tenor in that both men recognized their vocal limitations and relied a great deal on ‘talking’ their songs.”29

At the time that filming ended on Yankee Doodle Dandy, George M. Cohan was dying of cancer. According to an account in Cagney’s authorized biography, “Cohan was given a private screening a short time before his death and he was deeply moved.”30 Yankee Doodle Dandy premiered in New York City on May 29, 1942, as a war bond benefit for the U.S. Treasury Department, raising $4,750,000 in war bonds. The film was a huge success and in 1943 was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three: Best Sound, Nathan Levinson; Best Musical Scoring, Heinz Roemheld and Ray Heindorf; and Best Actor, James Cagney. Cagney’s award was announced by film star Gary Cooper, the previous year’s Best Actor.

Cagney’s portrayal in Yankee Doodle Dandy would bring him international fame. Russian-born ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov was among Cagney’s many admirers in the entertainment world, and they later became friends. In the mid-1950s he stood in line for hours in his homeland to see Cagney in a movie.31 One biographer observed that, 

When watching both Baryshnikov and Cagney dance, there was one obvious similarity. They both achieved incredible height with their jumps. Both men could fly. ‘Cagneyesque’ was a term used to describe Baryshnikov’s dancing.32

Measured against all of his performances in the movies, “Yankee Doodle Dandy was Cagney’s personal favorite and signature role.”33  It was his 40th featured role in a movie.

A Life Off-Camera

Following the success of Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and established Cagney Productions with his brother and financial manager, Bill. He volunteered his services to the United Service Organizations (USO), made tours to military bases overseas, and organized war bond rallies during World War II. According to one biographer, “Jimmy worked harder than he had ever worked in his life, giving several shows a day and then visiting hospital wards, where he happily drew charcoal caricatures of the patients on their casts.”34 Organized in 1933, the Screen Actors Guild challenged the restrictive multi-year contracts with the Hollywood-based studios, whose actors were not able to choose their movie roles. A later antitrust ruling by the United States Supreme Court permitted actors to negotiate the terms of their employment on film projects. Cagney eventually returned to Warner Brothers and starred in 21 additional movies from 1943 to 1961.

The Cagney family: James and Frances Cagney with daughter Cathleen and son James.
The Cagney family: James and Frances Cagney with daughter Cathleen and son James. Find a Grave / Cathleen Cagney Thomas.

During his lifetime, James Cagney shunned fame and publicity. He and his wife initially bought a home in Beverly Hills, California, to live in close proximity to the movie studios. The Cagneys then decided to surround themselves with farmland to live a simpler life. In 1936, they purchased a 100-acre farm on Martha’s Vineyard in Chilmark, Massachusetts, which functioned as a summer residence. The property had an 18th century farmhouse, a guest house, studio, and barn. That same year, Cagney made headlines when he donated money for the legal defense of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train in Alabama. They were eventually cleared when their accusers recanted their story. This case helped to inspire the popular novel and movie To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1940 the Cagneys adopted a baby boy, James Francis Cagney III, and in 1941 they adopted a baby girl, Cathleen Frances Cagney. 

In 1955 the Cagneys purchased a 120-acre working farm in Stanfordville, Dutchess County, New York for $100,000 and named it “Verney Farm,” combining elements of his last name and his wife’s maiden name. It was later expanded to 711 acres, where Cagney bred Scottish Highland cattle and Morgan horses. On the grounds, he designed and built a seven-room home just above a six-acre lake, which resembled an Irish stone cottage. It would later become their retirement home. A separate one-room studio on the property allowed Cagney to pursue his interests in painting, poetry, and music.

Over the years, James Cagney had developed a passion for farming and soil conservation. To honor his keen interest in these endeavors, Rollins College in Florida awarded him an honorary degree in 1955, the same year that the Cagneys had settled on their working farm in Dutchess County, New York. His citation read, “Mr. Cagney has combined those qualities of character and creative living which could lead our country to a great future…he personifies the best traditions of American life as well as…the American Theatre.”35 He surprised the graduates, the faculty, and the press by delivering a thoughtful commencement address on “Conservation and Its Meaning to Humanity.” The teenager, who had once earned a place at Columbia University, now boasted an honorary college degree.

Cagney’s feelings about fame and his attachment to working the land might best be summarized by his own poetry:

If God is the ideal quite unattainable
And Nature’s fierce logic is most unassailable;
If we observe with great care the human condition
As we hurry in haste down the road to perdition,
One phrase looms large on mankind’s scroll:
All is ephemera – except soil and soul.36

During the winter months, the Cagneys resided at their home in Beverly Hills, California. During the summer months, they began to divide their time between Martha’s Vineyard and “Verney Farm” in Dutchess County—both within commuting distance from his native New York City. According to one Cagney biographer, 

He never officially retired, he just kept turning down roles. Cagney preferred the peaceful private life on the farm to the glitter of Hollywood…. He did not know how to deal with adulation.”37

Retirement Honors

During the 20-year period when James Cagney “paused” his acting career after 30 years in the movies, he received several significant honors that celebrated his extraordinary performances in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures. In 1960 he received a permanent star on the famous “Hollywood Walk of Fame.” In 1974 he was awarded the American Film Institute’s prestigious “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles during a tribute gala that was hosted by Frank Sinatra. The sold-out five-hour event was later edited down to a 90-minute TV special for a national audience. Many of Cagney’s former co-stars and an array of Hollywood celebrities were in attendance. Actor/director Orson Welles declared that, “Cagney, in my view, is maybe the greatest actor who has ever appeared in front of a camera.”38

Six years later in 1980, James Cagney was named a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors with Leonard Bernstein, Agnes DeMille, Lynn Fontanne, and Leontyne Price. His tribute segment was introduced by his longtime friend, actor Pat O’Brien with special appearances by ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and actor John Travolta. This gala event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., attended by President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, concluded with a rousing rendition of Yankee Doodle Dandy. The evening finale generated a standing ovation for the “song and dance man” from the Upper East Side of New York.

Ragtime in Mount Kisco

Ragtime, an award-winning work of historical fiction by New Rochelle author E. L. Doctorow, was published in 1975. The novel centers on a wealthy family living in New Rochelle in 1906, but the story also involves a real-life murder at Madison Square Garden and a fictitious siege of the Morgan Library in New York City by a Black ragtime musician.  E.L. Doctorow subsequently sold the movie rights to his novel to Paramount Pictures. Academy award-winning director Milos Forman, an acquaintance of James Cagney, was hired as director. As it turns out, Cagney had a personal connection to the story. According to biographer John McCabe, “Jim had read the book. He had bought it because he had once known a prominent character in this mix of documentary and fiction, Evelyn Nesbit.”39 The real-life Evelyn Nesbit (1884-1967) was a prominent actress, model, and socialite in New York City.

Director Milos Forman was a neighbor of the Cagneys who lived in Connecticut near their Dutchess County farm. At a dinner party, he reached out to Cagney to join his cast and the famous actor was encouraged to do so by his wife and his doctor. Cagney later recounted his decision to “pause” his 21-year retirement:

I surprised everyone by agreeing to play a role in that film, which Milos Forman was directing, because I had already read E. L. Doctorow’s novel. There were only two roles I could have played, and the one I liked was the police commissioner, Rhinelander Waldo. At the turn of the century such a job commanded respect and prestige. It was a very high honor to be named commissioner of police, and so they thought I could do it. I had had a stroke by that time, but the doctor said that work would be good for me, and that doing nothing would encourage my batteries to go down….So I agreed to do it….The rest is history.40

The filming of Ragtime began in Mount Kisco on August 18, 1980. On that day, reporter Patricia A. Gormley, writing for the Mount Kisco Patent Trader, provided the community with a detailed insider’s perspective on the backstory to this movie project:

The August doldrums are expected to lift today as more than 100 actors, cameramen, makeup artists, technicians, property people and a caravan of others arrive here to film segments of Ragtime. Although filmmakers and their agents have tried to maintain a “low profile” since the March [1980] approval by the Village Board for the filming that will necessitate traffic stoppage, everyone even vaguely associated with the project here is beginning to itch with curiosity about the start of shooting….

The stately Victorian, remodeled in recent years by Sandra Grant, was selected out of more than 1,000 possible sites for the home of the family which is central to the plot of the film Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow of New Rochelle…because the film is a period piece (1906), the house interior has been professionally decorated by an artistic director…Filmmakers have lived up to their promise to be a “first class” operation and they have faithfully restored most rooms in the house to classic Victorian standards.…41

According to Westchester Magazine, Paramount Pictures made $40,000 worth of improvements to the Carpenter House in Mount Kisco and paid $20,000 to rent the property during the filming of Ragtime.42

The next day, the Patent Trader published a progress report about the first day of filming:

The first day of shooting Ragtime went well, with filmmakers content and village officials more relaxed about Route 133 traffic stops. Filmmakers took advantage of the fair weather and shot exterior scenes and “long shots” of the [Carpenter] House and grounds…The only excitement on the set Monday was the repeated screams of the family’s maid who, in the film, discovers a castaway black baby in the garden. The tie-in with the plot is that the family central to Ragtime’s action is a solid, middle-class American family with the larger, political and social events of their 1906 era.43

On the third day of filming Ragtime, excitement heightened when movie legend James Cagney appeared in Mount Kisco. According to a first-hand account in the Patent Trader

Public Enemy No. 1 was public charmer No. 1 as 81-year-old veteran star James Cagney paid a surprise visit to the set of Ragtime in Mount Kisco…. Cagney was a little shaky on his legs, but as quick-witted as ever as he accepted greetings and a kiss from a small gathering of fans who followed him during the three-hour afternoon visit. When asked how he liked the idea of playing a high-class police commissioner in Ragtime after 50 years in films as the small-time crook. Cagney said, “It’s about time I joined the good guys.”44

Dale Koch, staff writer for The Reporter Dispatch, took notice that: 

The 81-year-old star has not appeared in a movie for 20 years, but his smile has lost none of its appeal and his name still attracted crowds of children, village employees, and other citizens who watched him on the front lawn of the gray-and-white Victorian home between Kisco Avenue and Sands Street…. Cagney’s hair is white and he wears spectacles and a small white mustache, but the square face and sturdy build are familiar.45

James Cagney in character as New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo with director Milos Forman during the filming of Ragtime.
James Cagney in character as New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo with director Milos Forman during the filming of Ragtime. Paramount Pictures.

Two weeks later, the film crew returned to Westchester County and headed to the historic 1787 Court House in nearby Bedford, which was transformed into the headquarters of the New Rochelle Police Department for an outdoor scene in the movie. Following the filming work in Westchester County, the cast and crew of Ragtime headed overseas. Because the J.P. Morgan Library in Manhattan denied permission to Paramount Pictures to film the “siege scene” on their premises, Paramount was forced to recreate both the library and the rooftop nightclub at Madison Square Garden on the grounds of Shepperton Studios in the suburban countryside just outside London. James Cagney and his longtime friend and Ragtime co-star Pat O’Brien and their wives happily obliged by sailing to Europe on the RMS Queen Elizabeth II for the final phase of filming in Great Britain. Their stay included attendance at a “command performance” variety show at the London Palladium on November 17, 1980, honoring Queen Mother Elizabeth on the occasion of her 80th birthday. Performers included Lillian Gish, Rowan Atkinson, Sheena Easton, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, Victor Borge, Mary Martin, Aretha Franklin, and Danny Kaye.

On the various movie sets of Ragtime, James Cagney experienced something new in his long and storied acting career—reverence. Film historian Richard Schickel recounted, “The Ragtime cast and crew were ever solicitous, ever respectful; whenever he appeared on the set, he was greeted with applause.”46

Ragtime premiered the following year on November 20, 1981. Variety declared that, “The page-turning joys of E. L. Doctorow’s bestselling Ragtime, which dizzily and entertainingly charted a kaleidoscopic vision of a turn-of-century America in the midst of intense social change, have been realized almost completely in Milos Forman’s superbly crafted screen adaptation.”47  And The New York Times observed that: “James Cagney came out of a 21-year-long retirement to play Police Commissioner Waldo in the movie Ragtime and the world has responded by going Cagney-crazy.”48

Cagney Celebrated

The premiere of Ragtime in November 1981 was cause for celebration, and James Cagney was center stage for that celebration. On October 21st, he was invited to throw out the first ball at a World Series game at Yankee Stadium—the first entertainer to do so. On November 17th, Mayor Edward Koch presented the Manhattan native with a gold-plated key to New York City. On November 18th, Cagney was feted at a black-tie movie release party held at Luchow’s Restaurant in Manhattan. 

Although Cagney had long valued his privacy and shunned the celebrity life, the event at Yankee Stadium was the highlight of his return to the movies. According to biographer John McCabe:

The honor that moved him the most occurred in 1981, when George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees asked Jim to throw out the first ball for…the World Series. Jim said, “As I look back at it now, I’d rather have been a New York Yankee, a New York Giant, or a Brooklyn Dodger than win three Oscars. Mind you, I’m proud of the little guy [his 1943 Academy Award], but to be a professional ballplayer? I think that’s every American boy’s dream, and I wasn’t exempt from it. To think that I was in Yankee Stadium itself… throwing out a ball to start a game—a World Series game! Dreams don’t get better than that.”49

The former catcher for the Yorkville Nut Club baseball team had travelled a “long and winding road” from that 1919 friendly game at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining to a World Series game at Yankee Stadium in 1981.

Three years later in 1984, President Ronald Reagan presented Cagney with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at a White House ceremony. Other recipients included Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The two posthumous recipients that year were baseball superstar Jackie Robinson and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The Presidential citation honoring James Cagney noted that, “As a giant in the world of entertainment, James Cagney has left his mark not only on the film industry but on the hearts of all his fellow Americans…James Cagney’s professional and personal life has brought great credit to him and left unforgettable memories with millions who have followed his career.”50 Forty-six years earlier, Cagney and Reagan had starred together in Boy Meets Girl, a 1938 Warner Brothers movie.

The Final Curtain

James Cagney’s 86th and last birthday party was held at the Hotel Carlyle in Manhattan on July 17th, 1985. TV star Jackie Gleason, who attended the festivities, declared that, “I don’t think I can leave here until Cagney does a dance on the table!”51 Eight months later, Cagney had a serious heart attack and was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan for testing and treatment. The doctors sadly informed his wife that he had about two weeks to live and recommended that he remain at the hospital. Her response was emphatic: “Oh no. He’s going home where he wants to be.”18 

James Francis Cagney died of cardiac arrest at his farmhouse in Stanfordville, on Easter Sunday, March 30, 1986, at the age of 86. His obituary in The New York Times conferred a new title on Cagney, “the Master of Pugnacious Grace.”52 President Ronald Reagan issued a heartfelt tribute from his ranch in California: 

Nancy and I have lost a dear friend of many years today, and America has lost one of her finest artists….Jimmy burst upon our movie screen with an energy and a talent we have never seen before and we will never see again. He was the best of whatever he did – a hero, a villain, a comic, or a dancer…Jimmy was the classic American success story, lifting himself by determination and hard work out of poverty to national acclaim. I believe the entire Nation loved Jimmy Cagney, and I think he must have loved us too, because he always gave us his very best. We will miss Jimmy, but we know he has found eternal rest and peace in God’s arms. Goodbye, dear friend.53

On April 1, 1986 a solemn funeral service for America’s beloved movie legend was held at St. Francis de Sales Church on 96th Street in Manhattan—the Roman Catholic parish of his childhood. His pallbearers included actor Ralph Bellamy, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, and Ragtime director Milos Forman. Among those in attendance were his wife, “Billie,” their daughter, Cathleen, and the Cagney’s friend and caregiver, Marge Zimmerman. Two of Cagney’s three brothers, his sister, and his son had all predeceased him. When Cagney’s wife was asked to sum up her husband in a single word, her response was unequivocal, “The word is goodness. Just plain goodness. That’s the heart of Jim Cagney.”54

The Reverend John Catoir told the congregation of 400 mourners, which included Governor Mario Cuomo, Mayor Edward Koch, and Cardinal John O’Connor, that Jimmy Cagney was “a natural born song and dance man” who was “unspoiled by fame and fortune.”55  Outside, hundreds of fans broke into applause when Cagney’s flower-draped mahogany casket emerged from the hour-long funeral mass. Cagney biographer John McCabe observed that, “Cagney became for many Americans the person they think they are.”56

Burial crypt of James Cagney at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne.
Burial crypt of James Cagney at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne. Photo by Anthony Czarnecki.

James Francis Cagney was laid to rest at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne—located within the Town of Mount Pleasant in Westchester County. Fans and admirers throughout the New York metropolitan area and beyond often decorate Cagney’s crypt with patriotic bunting or small American flags to honor America’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. After all, Jimmy Cagney’s final resting place in Hawthorne is only 65 minutes from Broadway!

POSTSCRIPT: Frances Willard “Billie” (Vernon) Cagney died in 1994 at age 95. Two years before her death, she authorized an auction of her husband’s prized possessions and memorabilia by William Doyle Galleries in New York City in order to share them with his many fans. His 1943 Academy Award for Yankee Doodle Dandy sold for $141,250, his Presidential Medal of Freedom sold for $51,750, his tap shoes sold for $6,900 and his baseball uniform used in an exhibition game at Sing Sing Prison in 1919 sold for $2,875. On the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1999, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring James Cagney as a “Legend of Hollywood.”

  1. James Cagney, Cagney by Cagney (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1976), 5-6. []
  2. Ibid., 11. []
  3. Ibid., 5. []
  4. Doug Warren and James Cagney, James Cagney: The Authorized Biography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), 21. []
  5. Ibid., 23. []
  6. Ibid., 22. []
  7. Ibid., 24. []
  8. Warren and Cagney, James Cagney: The Authorized Biography, 32. []
  9. Dorothy Seymour Mills and Harold Seymour, Baseball: The People’s Game (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 406-407. []
  10. Warren and Cagney, James Cagney: The Authorized Biography, 33. []
  11. Bill Angelos, Conversations with Cagney (Albany, Ga.: Bear Manor Media, 2009), 38. []
  12. Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939. []
  13. Warren and Cagney, Cagney by Cagney, p. 25. []
  14. “Policeman’s Slayer Pays Death Penalty,” The New York Times, July 22, 1927, 2. []
  15. Mills and Seymour, Baseball: The People’s Game, pp. 438-439. []
  16. Cagney, Cagney by Cagney, 25. []
  17. Ibid., 37. []
  18. Ibid. [] []
  19. Ellen Matney, The Essence of Cagney (Bloomington, Ill.: Archway Publishing, 2021), 287. []
  20. James L. Neibaur, James Cagney Films of the 1930s (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2014), 16. []
  21. Cagney, Cagney by Cagney, 74. []
  22. John McCabe, Cagney, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 165. []
  23. Cagney, Cagney by Cagney, 75-76. []
  24. Ibid., 76. []
  25. Richard Schickel, James Cagney: A Celebration, (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1985) 25. []
  26. Matney, The Essence of Cagney, 13. []
  27. Schickel, James Cagney: A Celebration, 23. []
  28. “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway,” Musicals101.com, The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre. https://www.musicals101.com/lycohan2.htm []
  29. McCabe, Cagney, 203. []
  30. Warren and Cagney, James Cagney: The Authorized Biography, 144. []
  31. Matney, The Essence of Cagney, 165. []
  32. Ibid., 171. []
  33. Ibid., 189. []
  34. Warren and Cagney, James Cagney: The Authorized Biography, 160. []
  35. Department of Archives and Special Collections, Olin Library, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. []
  36. Paul Gallagher, “Jimmy Cagney’s Poetry: From Bad to Verse,” Dangerous Minds online newsletter, April 3, 2015.  https://dangerousminds.net/comments/jimmy_cagney_poetry_from_bad_to_verse []
  37. Matney, The Essence of Cagney, 17-19. []
  38. BBC interview with Orson Welles by Michael Parkinson, 1974. []
  39. McCabe, Cagney, 361. []
  40. Gregory Speck, “From Tough Guy to Dandy: James Cagney,” worldandi.com, June 1986: Volume 1, 319.  https://www.worldandi.com/from-tough-guy-to-dandy-james-cagney/  This was James Cagney’s last interview, which he gave to magazine writer Gregory Speck at his Manhattan hotel suite while visiting New York City just a few weeks before his death on March 30, 1986. []
  41. Patricia A. Gormley, “Mount Kisco Ragtime Filming Begins Today,” Patent Trader, Mount Kisco, N.Y., August 18, 1980, 1. []
  42. Tom Schreck, “The History of Brandreth’s Anti-Aging Pill, Mount Kisco’s Ragtime Mansion, and Local Lustron Houses,” WESTCHESTER Magazine, February 3, 2015. []
  43. Patricia A. Gormley, “Ragtime Causes Few Traffic Intermissions,” Patent Trader, Mount Kisco, N.Y., August 19, 1980, 1.  []
  44. Patricia A. Gormley, “Cagney Pays a Friendly Visit to Ragtime,Patent Trader, Mount Kisco, N.Y., August 20, 1980, 1. []
  45. Dale Koch, “Cagney Draws Crowds in Mount Kisco,” The Reporter Dispatch, White Plains, N.Y., August 20, 1980, Section A, 1 and 16. []
  46. Schickel, James Cagney: A Celebration, p. 11. []
  47. “Ragtime,” Variety, December 31, 1980. []
  48. Chris Chase, “Cagney, 82, is Embarrassed Anew at Being a Star,” The New York Times November 17, 1981, Section C, 11. []
  49. McCabe, Cagney, 365. []
  50. Presidential Medal of Freedom Citation: James Cagney (1984), Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Simi Valley, Cal. []
  51. McCabe, Cagney, 379. []
  52. Peter B. Flint, “James Cagney is Dead at 86; Master of Pugnacious Grace,” The New York Times, March 31, 1986, 1. []
  53. “Statement on the Death of Actor James Cagney,” March 30, 1986. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Simi Valley, Cal. []
  54. McCabe, Cagney, 385. []
  55. “Hundreds Mourn Cagney at His Final Curtain Call,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1986. []
  56. McCabe, Cagney, 386. []