She grew up on Fifth Avenue, frolicking with A-list stars. Now she lives on the streets of Northeast Philly, scraping by one day at a time, certain that famed funnyman Jerry Lewis is her father.
Suzan Minoret is the antithesis of the rags to riches story. Short on money and equally short on her famous father’s show business clout, she and a longtime traveling companion spend their days foraging for subsistence and their nights sheltering in storage units or 24-hour laundromats—at least until an unsympathetic manager shows up and kicks them to the curb.
It would appear a calamitous downfall for a woman who in her formative years shared playdates with Liza Minelli and hotel scion Francesca Hilton. She learned to speak fluent French alongside Lauren Bacall’s daughter, Leslie Bogart, at an elite Manhattan secondary school, and then made her public debut at the annual International Debutante Ball.
In 2008, there was hope for a better life. She came to Philadelphia at the invitation of a Cherry Hill, N.J.-based celebrity agent who had been trying to publish and publicize her autobiography, which they planned to call Jerry’s Kid. He put her up in a home in the Northeast. There were TV appearances, an interview with Howard Stern, and even a reunion with her half-brother, the former pop star, Gary Lewis.
In pictures: The life of Jerry Lewis’ alleged daughter
But that fell apart and for most of the last eight years, Suzan, 64, has been homeless, wandering the streets around Roosevelt Boulevard, occasionally spending the night in a cardboard shack, holding out hope that one day Jerry Lewis will acknowledge her as his daughter.
“I’m not happy with where I am. There’s nothing about my situation to be happy about,” she divulged over coffee and breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin’ Donuts on Cottman Avenue. “I wish somebody could get to my father to let him know what my situation is. Maybe he doesn’t have all the facts.”
The fact is, Lewis has never denied publicly that Suzan is his biological daughter. Nor has he confirmed it. Lewis did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
When I met Suzan, she showed me a scrapbook of her life, with photographs of her long-gone celebrity friends, remembrances of her international travels, a telling photograph of her posing with an old Jerry Lewis record album.
The facial resemblance between father and would-be daughter is striking and clearly backs her story. And so does DNA testing conducted in 2008.
As Suzan tells it, her mother, Lynn Dixon, was a successful fashion model who wed and had a son in the mid-1940s. That marriage crumbled quickly, and Dixon soon met 23-year-old Jerry Lewis. At the time, the man who one day would be an international celebrity was just getting started in show business, teaming with Dean Martin and making radio and early TV appearances.
Milton Berle introduced Dixon to Jerry one night after a Martin and Lewis performance at the legendary Copacabana club. Though Jerry was married with a young son, he couldn’t ignore his attraction to Dixon.
Their three-year affair became an engagement when Jerry gave Dixon a ring, Suzan said. But Jerry couldn’t get a divorce—his wife, Patti Palmer, was Catholic.
Suzan was born on Feb. 3, 1952. Jerry was on the road at the time promoting his soon-to-be released film, Sailor Beware, so he convinced Berle to visit Dixon in the hospital on his behalf, Suzan said. Two years later, Dixon married prominent Big Apple restaurateur and nightclub owner Hy Uchitel, who—along with his brother Maurice—was also known for his alleged associations with some of the country’s biggest organized crime figures.
The Uchitel name still resonates in New York’s social circles. Maurice’s granddaughter Rachel Uchitel is the shapely nightclub hostess who famously lost her fiance in the World Trade Center attack then years later gained notoriety as one of Tiger Woods’ love interests and as a reality TV personality.
As a youngster, Suzan and her parents lived in the hotel above their French restaurant, Voisin, at 63rd Street and Park Avenue in the heart of upscale Midtown. (James Bond fans will remember the restaurant from Ian Fleming’s novel, Diamonds Are Forever.)
Each day brought Suzan into the company of real-life icons from the entertainment, business and political worlds.
“Liza Minelli and her sister, Lorna Luft, came up to my room and we played with our dolls while their mother, Judy Garland, was having lunch with my mother in the restaurant,” Suzan recalled. “Zsa Zsa Gabor’s daughter, Francesca, came, too. Leslie Bogart [daughter of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall] was in my class in French school. I had them all to my birthday parties.
“My mother would find time to have lunch with Ethel Merman and dinner with Pat Nixon.”
John F. Kennedy also was an enthusiastic patron.
“When he was in New York, he had to go there,” Suzan said. “He made the Secret Service set everything up the day before and when he came he made them walk all the way down Park Avenue from 76th Street to 63rd Street following him.”
Suzan’s scrapbook is filled with photos from that period of her life. There’s an image of her as a 9-year-old chatting with actress and pin-up model Jayne Mansfield. There’s another shot of a 16-year-old Suzan and film star Jane Russell exchanging embraces. Yet another photo depicts a teenage Suzan posing with pop idols Davy Jones and Peter Tork at the height of The Monkees’ popularity.
Suzan’s own palpable charisma leaps from the photos, too. Her long dark hair, big brown eyes, broad smile and dimpled chin seem to blend the best qualities of both her biological parents. These days, she still has a broad smile and that pronounced chin—a Jerry Lewis trademark—although her hair is graying and her overall appearance is of a stereotypical bag lady.
When I met her near Cottman and the Boulevard, she wore layer upon layer of old flannel shirts, sweat tops and insulated jackets, as well as a faded blue winter scarf and gray cap. She carried three or four oversized duffel bags to tote her other personal effects.
Like those celebrities whom Suzan once knew so well, Jerry Lewis was a frequent, though irregular, presence in her childhood. As Suzan’s mother kept the true identity of her daughter’s biological father a secret from Hy, she nonetheless found ways to reunite father and daughter. When Suzan was 2, Jerry and Lynn enrolled her in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When the Uchitels vacationed in Miami Beach, they stayed at the posh Fontainebleau hotel. So did Jerry—that’s where he filmed perhaps his most famous movie, The Bellboy, in 1960.
“When I was little, we’d have a cabana around the pool and he’d get the one next to ours so he could be near us. He’d play with me in the sand, all of that,” Suzan said. “He’d be silly. He say something like, ‘Let’s play ball,’ and then he’d fall all over the place.”
Back in New York, they’d arrange discreet meetings periodically and often cross paths by pure chance. After all, they socialized in the same circles. Publicly, meanwhile, Jerry led a happily married life: By 1964, he and Palmer had six sons including one adopted—but no daughters.
“He was very affectionate. He gave me gifts, dolls. And I loved dolls,” Suzan said. “He wanted a daughter but he could never tell anyone he already had one.”
Suzan’s scrapbook also contains news clippings from Suzan’s own flirtation with stardom. At 17, she wore a white gown, pearls and a tiara and mixed with the daughters of princes, politicians and industrialists at the 1969 International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf Astoria.
A year later, Suzan married Frenchman Francois Minoret. Their union commanded a four-paragraph article on the society pages of The New York Times, but it was ill-fated. The couple had sons in 1971 and ’79. But by the mid-’80s, the relationship had fallen to pieces amid the pressure of what Suzan described as her husband’s meddling yet aloof family. She became anorexic while agonizing over her family troubles; her in-laws tried to commit her to a mental hospital.
“They wanted to sedate me for five days,” she said. “But I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I wasn’t going.”
In the meantime, her mother had divorced Uchitel, married a film producer and moved to California. Uchitel moved to Miami Beach and had become deathly ill. He would die months after Suzan fled back to the United States, leaving her marriage and French-born sons behind.
It’s been a recurring theme in her life: companionship then abandonment, optimism then disaster, hope then desperation.
Suzan settled in South Florida and worked as a receptionist and restaurant hostess. Her widowed mother eventually joined her in the Sunshine State. The divorced Suzan met a new beau and after a lengthy engagement married for a second time. But a car accident in 1996 again thrust her life into disarray.
She told me that she suffered a severe concussion and whiplash in the head-on collision. Although she was not hospitalized overnight, she claimed that the injuries resulted in “partial brain damage” affecting her short-term memory. The episode rendered her unable to hold a job. Her new husband left her within weeks.
Suzan credits her companion, David Susskin, whom she calls her step-brother, with caring for her through that difficult time. The two met years ago when Suzan’s mother became engaged to Susskin’s father. Their parents never married, but Suzan and Susskin became inseparable as de facto siblings and life partners.
“I almost died. He saved my life and got me back to normal. He took care of me,” Suzan said.
Susskin worked several jobs to support them both, until he, too, became disabled in a traffic crash. Another motorist rear-ended his vehicle at 100 miles per hour, he said.
Suzan survived for a while on the proceeds from a legal settlement from her accident, as well as financial support from her mother, who died in 2004. With her own sons living overseas and out of touch, Suzan found herself alone again, but she vowed to look after Susskin just as he had taken care of her. They decided to try to track down Jerry Lewis, whom Suzan hadn’t seen or spoken with in some 25 years.
“I started wanting to reach my father even though I was trying to give him some space with his new family,” Suzan said. “But I waited too long and now it’s hard for me to even get in contact with him.”
Lewis had finally divorced his first wife in 1980 and married SanDee Pitnick three years later. They adopted a girl, Danielle Sara Lewis, in 1992. Suzan figured she’d try to reach Jerry through his eldest son, her half-brother, Gary.
In the years that Suzan was mastering Alouette and enchanting the New York glitterati, Gary Lewis parlayed his name and his drumkit into pop music stardom. The Lewis family lived in Los Angeles and that’s where Gary Lewis and the Playboys took off. Their first single, This Diamond Ring, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 list and launched a string of seven consecutive Top 10 records in 1965 and ’66.
By the mid-2000s, Gary was touring again with a new version of The Playboys. Suzan turned up at one of his shows in Florida and introduced herself as his sister. The encounter was brief.
Gary didn’t show it, but he was intrigued by the possibility that his long lost sister was alive and well, according to longtime family friend Rick Saphire, who was working for both Gary and Jerry Lewis at the time. Gary Lewis did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Suzan found Saphire’s phone number on the internet, called him and asked him to help her reconnect with the Lewises. Saphire, who as a child performed a comedic magic act on The Tonight Show with Jerry Lewis as guest host, now owns and operates a magic shop—it’s called The Magic Shop—on Marlton Pike in Cherry Hill.
In 2007, Saphire booked Gary for several personal appearances in Florida and Suzan asked to meet her half-brother.
“She seemed like a great girl and I liked her,” Saphire told me in an interview at his shop. “I didn’t buy her story, that she was disabled and couldn’t work. [But] I asked Gary if he was willing to meet Suzan. He said yes, but he wanted it kept informal.”
That one casual encounter in a South Florida hotel room left no doubt in Gary’s mind of their common bloodlines.
“Gary said, ‘I know it’s my sister,’” Saphire said.
Meanwhile, Saphire—ever the promoter—recognized a great opportunity. Suzan told him she wanted to write a book. He figured any buzz he could generate around the project would be good publicity for Gary.
Saphire moved Suzan and Susskin into a relative’s home in Northeast Philly and orchestrated a media blitz. In 2009, she appeared alongside Gary on Howard Stern’s radio show and the Inside Edition entertainment news magazine, which commissioned DNA testing.
“I think everybody deserves to know where they came from and who they are. And just looking at her, I believe what she’s saying,” Gary told Inside Edition.
Based on Gary and Suzan’s genetic samples, the DNA lab concluded that chances are 88.77 percent that they have the same father.
“That’s good enough for me,” Gary said on the program.
But for Suzan, that knowledge didn’t amount to a one-way ticket back to Fifth Avenue or to her elderly father’s lavish Las Vegas retirement home. Though Saphire and his wife Sheila spent countless hours interviewing her and crafting a manuscript, Suzan’s day-to-day lifestyle conflicted with her host family’s. They also disagreed over the direction of the project. After a year-and-a-half, the partnership disintegrated, leaving Suzan and Susskin back on the street.
Today, they survive mostly on Social Security disability checks.
Despite their circumstances, Suzan said she manages to maintain minimum living standards. They don’t panhandle and won’t sleep in the woods, as many homeless do, because she can’t stand the mud. They’ve bedded down in cars at times, in self-storage units and in all-night laundromats. Occasionally, they will find temporary lodging with a friend, as they did for a few weeks over the recent holidays. But that’s rare and never seems to last.
When there’s no shelter available, they set up for the night outdoors behind a strip mall or office building, using exterior walls and cardboard to shield them from the elements. They apply Vaseline on their faces to protect their skin.
In recent months, they have been spending a lot of time in the area of Grant Avenue and the Boulevard, and have become familiar to employees of a nearby Walmart. A local patrol cop, Officer Mark Mazzoni, said he saw Suzan in the store a couple of times pushing her belongings in a shopping cart. Nobody complained about her and she didn’t seem in immediate distress, so Mazzoni let her go about her business.
Saphire thinks Suzan’s personal story still has legs.
“It was nowhere near to running its course,” he said. “We were just getting started. The sad thing is this isn’t how it had to be.”