Jack Earle/Jake Erlich was one of the world’s tallest men during his time. A rather small infant, his height began to develop when, at around age seven, his feet started to grow. And grow. Soon he would need new shoes every few weeks. His mother accused him, lovingly but with some dread, of growing an inch in height every night in his sleep.
Born in 1906, Jake was the son of Jewish immigrants living in the US. His parents were
simple, hardworking people who believed in the American dream. But they feared that their ever-growing son might not be able to participate in that dream. By the time he was ten, he was over six feet (eventually he would stand nearly eight feet tall) and had been pronounced a “monster” by a family doctor. Specialists were unable to offer any cure for his increasing height. Though he never expected any special treatment, he was barely able to use ordinary furniture and was an object of stares and catcalls wherever he went. Intelligent and artistically talented, Jake was frustrated and terrified, as portrayed in this fascinating “true-life novel” lovingly crafted by his nephew, Andrew Erlich, PhD.
What saved Jake from life as a depressed, self-conscious curiosity hiding himself from the taunts and attentions of strangers? The answer was, ironically, comedy. Recruited on sight by a silent film producer, Jake appeared in as many as 100 slapstick films. His disability became a reliable source of income; according to family lore, his earnings once bankrolled his parents’ return to Europe to try to persuade other family members to leave Germany before the Nazis took over. It was in films that Jake garnered his stage name, Jack Earle, and his cowboy persona
(complete with ten-gallon hat to increase the impression of his towering size). He incorporated sharpshooting into his circus act when he joined the sideshow with Ringling Brothers along with many world-renowned “special people.” He accepted the term “freak” once he joined in the camaraderie of the circus world.
During Jack/Jake’s public career, he proved taller than one famous giant, Big Jim Tarver, and shorter than the still-acknowledged tallest man of all times, Robert Wadlow. Arguably, Jack Earle could have soared above all the rest had he not had treatment for a brain tumor after a movie stunt went awry; but it’s also likely that without that treatment, he would have died at a younger age, as most outsized people do if their condition is not treated (Wadlow died at age 22, whereas Jake lived to be 46).
The author has brought together family memories, beginning with his own; Jake died when Andrew was three, but tales of his exploits and photos highlighting his fame were woven through the boy’s childhood. He has carefully devised a very readable, colorful, introspective account of how his uncle might have felt -- as a famous sideshow entertainer, a sensitive modern artist who painted scenes from circus life and took evocative photographs (both are reproduced on glossy pages in the book), and a guy trying to sort out his feelings for a pint-sized vamp with a gargantuan ego.
Though the “real” Jack Earle might not necessarily agree with his nephew’s take on things, he’d probably be pleased to see that after many years, he is finally being given some of the recognition he deserves, and not just for being very,