Clinical Psychologist, Renowned Author, and Motivational Speaker

The Long Shadows: The Story of Jake Erlich

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Jacob Reuben Erlich lived an exceptional life; all the more so given his status as one of the world’s tallest men, towering above his contemporaries at an astonishing 8 foot 6.

As a teenager, Jake was discovered during a visit to California, where he became a denizen of 1920s Hollywood and starred in some 50 silent films. He then spent 14 years touring with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a sideshow performer. Later still, he would earn renown as a painter, poet, photographer and sculptor whose works can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of Natural History in New York. As if this were not enough, he was also an accomplished dancer, musician, vaudeville entertainer, expert marksman, and the key witness for a landmark libel case that set new professional standards for medical research.

The Long Shadows: The Story of Jake Erlich is the inspiring story of the man best known as Jack Earle, who would overcome crippling shyness, depression, temporary blindness and the physical challenges of a giant’s frame to earn widespread acclaim for his intelligence, kindness and multi-faceted artistry.

Jake’s story is lovingly portrayed by his nephew, Dr. Andy Erlich, who turned three on the day his uncle died of kidney failure at age 46.

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Drawing on ten years of research culled from family lore, newspaper archives, historical documents and the recorded recollections of Jake’s contemporaries, Andy weaves a fascinating bio-fictional account of a remarkable man and the cast of colorful characters who knew him. These include artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, pint-sized film star Baby Peggy, noted producer and Universal Studios president Carl Laemmle and many, many more.

Along the way, we learn a great deal about courage, character, and one man’s unique perspective on a broad sweep of history that encompassed the Great Depression, the immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century Texas, life in the circus, the modern art movement and the domestic anti-Semitism that accompanied the run-up to World War II.

Among the highlights:

  • Born in 1906 to Jewish immigrants who settled in El Paso, Jake is a premature three-and-a-half pound infant who begins to grow rapidly at age seven, towering seven feet by the time he finishes sixth grade. By age 19, he has reached 8 foot 6 and wears size 26-1/2 shoes.
  • To ease his spiraling depression, Jake’s father takes him on a trip to California, where he is discovered by talent scouts and offered a contract with a major Hollywood studio. Soon after, the teenager finds himself starring in silent film comedies with such luminaries of the time as Baby Peggy.
  • Jake subsequently joins the Ringling Brothers Circus, where he elevates himself from self-proclaimed sideshow freak to performer, demonstrating his exceptional skills as a marksman with a pair of ivory-handled, .44 caliber Colt Peacemaker pistols.
  • During his 14 years with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Jake forges an enduring friendship with a family of four “little people” known as The Dancing Dolls. He also has a complicated relationship with the bewitching Lya Graf, known as one of the smallest women in the world. Tragically, Lya will be murdered by the Nazis when she returns to Germany, igniting Jake’s lifelong opposition to fascism and the domestic Eugenics movement.
  • Jake’s artistic talents are discovered by a wealthy New York socialite who introduces him to artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. With their help, Jake secures his first one-man show at the Delphic Gallery in New York, where Diego Rivera also exhibited his paintings
  • Jake finds a creative outlet for his lifelong struggle with depression, turning his pain into poetry with the 1952 publication of his book of poems, The Long Shadows, which inspired Andy to use the same title for his moving true-life novel about his beloved uncle.

The Long Shadows: The Story of Jake Erlich includes numerous photographs of Jake and his milieu, images of his striking artworks and memorabilia from his diverse careers as film star, circus performer, artist and poet. It is an evocative and touching real-life novel that provides a fascinating glimpse of a bygone era through the unique perspective of a sensitive soul in a larger than life body.

Rave Reviews for The Long Shadows: The Story of Jake Erlich

“In the early 1920s, when I was the three- year -old child star ‘Baby Peggy,’ the hero of this book was cast as the villain in many of my two-reel comedies. Despite his fearsome persona (and the fact that he stood over eight feet tall), Jake did not frighten me. Instead, we established a warm professional friendship. Later, when I moved to another studio, I was upset to learn that Jake had become a sideshow circus ‘freak.’ I sadly envisioned my gentle giant trapped inside that cruelly demeaning existence. Then, six decades later, I was astounded to learn the miraculous ways Jake had changed his fate from his nephew, author Andy Erlich. Reading his story has been an inspirational journey for me, as it will be for every other reader, especially those who, until now, had believed a handicap as great as Jake’s could never be overcome. But as this fascinating book reveals, he was a uniquely courageous soul who proved to be a giant in more ways than one.”

— Diana Serra Cary, author/film historian and former child star, “Baby Peggy”

“A giant has lived among us, and Andrew Erlich has captured his heart and soul in his memorable novel of the life and times of his uncle, Jake Erlich. Born to immigrant parents in El Paso, Texas, Jake challenged humankind’s darkest thoughts, coming to terms with the bitter reality of prejudice, judgment and self-debasement, and finally arriving at joy and power that communicates to us from beyond the grave. The adventures of this gentle giant will open a thrilling pathway to life in the raw, a life haunted by one word: normal. In telling his uncle’s story, Andrew Erlich has brilliantly uncovered the misfit in us all.”

— Stella Pope Duarte, author of If I Die in Juárez

“Andrew Erlich’s true-life novel about a shy man trapped in an oversized body is an inspiring, larger-than-life story that teaches us that character defines us, not our size or physical limitations. Jake overcame so many challenges in his life with dignity, grace and artistry. He is an example for all of us.“

— E.B., Phoenix, Arizona

“Although The Long Shadows focuses on Jake, it’s also a story about his immigrant parents and their struggles to give him and his brothers a satisfying life. This is something every parent grapples with, particularly when their child is different from other kids. This wonderful book shows that, with love and support, you can help a child overcome almost any challenge. It’s truly an amazing and inspiring story.”

— J.R., Chino Hills, California