Becoming a Beautiful Clown

Jeanne Swanner Robertson (1943 – 2021)

Professor Joe Goldblatt

In Cole Porter’s popular song “Be a Clown” the actor Gene Kelly sings

Be A Clown, Be A Clown,
All The World Loves A Clown.
Act A Fool, Play The Calf,
And You’ll Always Have The Last Laugh.

Jeanne Swanner Robertson, a beautifully statuesque and natural clown brought her southern charm and contagious humour spun from home truths to audiences all over the world for nearly fifty years and that is why her sudden death this week leaves those who knew and loved her, feeling the last thing a clown would wish, incredibly sad.

Jeanne grew up in the deep south of the United States and was a popular beauty queen and then an internationally loved professional speaker. She served as president of the USA based National Speakers Association and during her long career received every award and accolade that her industry could possibly bestow.

I first met Jeanne in the 1980’s when I served with her on the board of the National Speakers Association and I then followed her expanding career for the next four decades. Jeanne and I also shared a mutual friend who worshipped for many years in her church. Ralph Kerns was a professional actor who became a professor of theatre at my alma mater and when he retired he returned to Jeanne’s hometown to teach at her alma mater, Elon University. Ralph regularly updated me on Jeanne’s career highlights and from time to time he would send me video clips of her hilarious speeches often with an enthusiastic comment such as “Isn’t she amazing?”.

Indeed she was. One of her most popular speeches involved inviting men from her audience to participate in a beauty pageant, similar to the pageants she first competed in and then later judged. The meticulous timing of every line, gesture, rise of her eyebrow, turn of her lips, and finally huge smile enthralled the audience as the men on the stage laughed with her and the audience rejoiced in the laughter created by grown men having fun on stage.

During my career I have had the privilege of working with numerous comedians and humourists. The difference between a comedian and a humourist, in my mind, is that comedy is about jokes and humour is usually about stories that not only create laughter but also add the additional benefit of providing a bit of wisdom or further insights into the nature of what it is to be human. Jeanne Robertson was a master at linking humour to wisdom and then illuminating the universal aspects of human life through her unique storytelling ability.

Many of the comedians I have known and worked with, including Red Skelton, Henny Youngman, and others were indeed comic geniuses whose timing and ability to create signature funny lines such as Youngman’s “Take my wife. Please!” delighted audiences with their rapid fire and lighting quick cavalcade of jokes. However, only a very few could also draw from their humour the next level of artistic achievement which is the total illumination of the human spirit.

During the first half of the American twentieth century the classic American humourist was Will Rogers who would poke fun at politicians and celebrities and then while smiling observe “I never met a man I did’t like.” Among the female monologuists at this same time in in the USA was the diseuse, Ruth Draper. She slyly reminded her audiences that “The trouble with success … is that it takes all of your time.”

Later in the same century along came regional humourists such as John Henry Faulk of Austin, Texas and my personal favourite, the Cajun humorist Justin Wilson. Wilson grew up in the southern Louisiana region known as Acadiana and hosted a popular television cooking show. Among his many quips was his definition of his mother’s improvisational cajun cooking skills when he said in his thick cajun accent “She’d cook a dish and we’d go ‘Mama, w’ats this here, hanh?’ and she’d say, ‘Children, that’s a mus’ go. It mus’ go down yo’ troat”!

Jeanne Robertson was in many ways the crystilazation of her many predecessors in that she seamlessly combined homespun stories, humour that generated raucous laughter and the always important and rarely achieved by others, deep wisdom that only a sensitive daughter of the south, a devoted wife, and a caring and proud mother could divine from many years of a well lived life.

Jeanne Robertson, due to her physical height and ambition, was also a talented athlete . She once wrote “Failure is a disappointment but not a defeat.” As I mourn the loss of this great clown I am also aware that my disappointment in losing her talent will never be a defeat because her powerful legacy shall continue for many generations to come.

Tonight, as I raise my glass to the woman who once elegantly and proudly wore the crown of Miss North Carolina in the the Miss America pageant, I am toasting a great clown whose easy laughter, created through many years of hard work, will ring in the ears and live in the hearts of people such as myself and others all over the world for a long time to come.

After all, Jeanne told me and many others, “The first rule of success is to show up.” I am so grateful that she showed up time after time in my lifetime with her warm smile, great compassion, good natured humour and now through her immortal wisdom. As Cole Porter wrote, this clown has indeed “had the last laugh” and as a result of her remarkable talent and generosity of spirit our happy memories encourage us to smile even more brightly in the future.

Here is one of my favourite Jeanne Robertson stories.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland and is a former member of the Board of Governors of the National Speakers Association. To learn more about his work visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

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