Jewish Women in Comedy - Fanny Brice
One of America's great clowns, Fanny Brice built her career on a Yiddish accent and a flair for zany parody. In an era when ethnic comedy was the norm, she delighted audiences for more than forty years and won a following in almost every branch of American show business.
During the fourth decade of her professional life, she became precocious radio brat "Baby Snooks," and that is the role for which she is most often remembered. Yet "Snooks" was only one of Brice's many inimitable characters in radio, the last of the entertainment forms in which her comic genius found expression. Before focusing exclusively on "the airwaves," she appeared in burlesque and vaudeville, drama, film, and musical revues (including nine Ziegfeld Follies between 1910 and 1936). Brooks Atkinson, longtime drama critic of the New York Times, called Brice "a burlesque comic of the rarest vintage" and acknowledged her achievement in comedy, a field men had previously dominated.
First, Fania Borach
Born Fania Borach on October 29, 1891, Brice was the child of Jewish immigrants who had settled on New York's Lower East Side, like so many successful entertainers of her generation. Her mother, Rose Stern, left a small village near Budapest to come to America in 1877. Charles Borach, her father, set off from Alsace during the late 1870s or early 1880s. When they met in Manhattan, Rose was working at a sewing machine in a fur factory and Charles was a bartender in a Bowery saloon.
They married in 1886, moved to Second Avenue, and produced four children in the next seven years: Philip ("Phil," born in 1887), Carolyn ("Carrie," born in 1889), Fania ("Fanny," born in 1891), and Louis ("Lew," born in 1893). At the time of Fanny's birth, they were living on Forsyth Street. By 1895, they had left the Lower East Side's congestion and crime for Newark, New Jersey.
The Borachs bought a saloon, which Charles Borach turned over to his wife's efficient management. Soon, Borach was gambling away the money his wife worked so hard to earn. Tiring of the unequal partnership, she left her indolent husband and took her children to Brooklyn (c. 1902). Charles Borach followed them to New York and drifted into a series of odd jobs. When he died in 1912, he had lost virtually all contact with his family. Brice, who accepted the estrangement from her father as irrevocable, would mirror her mother's experience. Like Rose Stern, she would marry unwisely and unhappily. She, too, would be a working mother and a single parent, whose relentless drive assuredly came from necessity as well as ambition.
A chronic truant who ended her formal education sometime during or after the eighth grade, Brice yearned for a career in show business. Encouraged by her success in neighborhood amateur night contests, beginning with a victory at Keeney's Theatre on Brooklyn's Fulton Street in 1906, she was determined to become a professional performer.
Appearing as Fanny Brice
While working at a Manhattan nickelodeon, she learned that musical comedy star George M. Cohan was holding auditions for The Talk of New York, the first of three shows he had written for the 1907–1908 season. Elated when she won a place in the chorus, the inexperienced Brice was fired before the musical's December 1907 opening.
Desperate for training, she paid thirty-five dollars to enroll in what she thought was an acting school and found herself touring in a ragtag production of the popular melodrama The Royal Slave. When the company went bankrupt in Pennsylvania, Brice refused to abandon her dream. With characteristic determination she turned to burlesque, the least selective branch of the entertainment business, and spent three formative years on the Eastern Burlesque Circuit (also known as the Eastern, or Columbia, Wheel).
Performing in The Transatlantic Burlesquers (1907–1908) as chorus girl Fannie Borach, she joined the cast of The Girls from Happyland for the 1908–1909 season. Although the show was poorly received, it was a landmark in her career because it marked her first appearance as Fanny Brice, the name she used for the rest of her life. She explained in a 1946 interview that she was tired of being called "Borax" and "Boreache" and chose Brice, the surname of a family friend, to prevent further teasing. She was also, undoubtedly, trying to seem less ethnic, less foreign, and less Jewish, thereby broadening her appeal. In 1908, she did not know that she would shortly find fame as an entertainer by exploiting her Jewishness and caricaturing her ethnicity.
"Sadie Salome, Go Home"
In Max Spiegel's The College Girls the following season, she had her first sizable role. Cast as Josie McFadden, she won praise for the specialty number she performed in the show's second act, particularly her rendition of "Sadie Salome, Go Home." It was, in her words, "a Jewish comedy song" by Irving Berlin, who must have known it would suit the lanky teenager with the big nose and wide mouth when he suggested it.
An outrageous spoof of Salome dancing, a phenomenon once described as "the phoniest craze to hit show business," the song was the first Brice performed with a Yiddish accent. In so doing, she was giving American audiences what they wanted. Ethnic comedy was still very much in vogue in the early years of the twentienth century, and minority groups were parodied by the popular arts. Racial and ethnic stereotypes appeared in serious dramatic fare and cavorted in burlesque and vaudeville. Although allegedly unable to speak Yiddish, she could join the many non-Jews who succeeded as "Jew comics" by adopting the externals required for "Hebrew impersonation."
Just as Al Jolson could put on his makeup and perform in blackface, Brice could assume the accent and the mannerisms for Yiddish dialect comedy. With Sadie, she created the first of her many memorable characters and found the performance style that became her signature, a style based on deft parody, broad physical humor, and an accent used brilliantly for comic effect.
The Ziegfeld Follies
She also attracted the attention of producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., who hired her for his Follies of 1910. When he did, he was certainly not adding another lovely showgirl to his stable. Although far from unattractive by today's standards, the tall, slender, Semitic-looking Brice did not conform to the prevailing notion of feminine beauty. She did not have the requisite rosebud mouth, pert upturned nose, or halo of blond curls, and Ziegfeld's chorus of "long-stemmed American beauties" only exaggerated her difference from the norm. Yet, paradoxically, Ziegfeld provided the setting that displayed her comic talents to best advantage. If she could not be the prettiest girl on the stage, she would be the funniest. She was literally built for comedy.
Disappointed by her small part in the Follies of 1910, Brice added a rousing ragtime song, "Lovie Joe," which quickly became one of the show's big hits. Handicapped by poor material, however, she was far less successful in the Follies of 1911. When Ziegfeld failed to renew her contract at the end of the season, she signed with the rival Shubert organization and did not perform under the Ziegfeld banner again until 1916.
During the intervening four years, she took part in seven musical revues, three of them in London, and had vaudeville bookings in over thirty cities. Yet, much of this work was undistinguished. She did not win critical acclaim as a Jewish maid in two Shubert productions, The Whirl of Society in 1912 and The Honeymoon Express in 1913.
It was not until she hired songwriter Blanche Merrill that she developed into the "character comedienne" she had promised to be with "Sadie Salome." They began collaborating in 1915, and Merrill, who specialized in writing for women, created material that suited her. With such songs as "Becky's Back in the Ballet" and "The Yiddish Bride," she soared to stardom in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 and 1917.
Drama and Divorce
In spite of her Follies success, Brice wanted to develop her talents as a dramatic actor. The vehicle she unfortunately chose in 1918 was Why Worry?, a theatrical hodgepodge in which she floundered as waitress Dora Harris. Even the last-minute addition of two wonderful Merrill songs ("I'm an Indian" and "I'm a Vamp") could not salvage Brice's performance. She would be similarly disappointed in 1926 when she thought David Belasco's production of the banal Fanny would establish her reputation as a serious actor and, instead, saw her efforts dismissed by the critics who referred to the show irreverently as "What Brice Glory?" and "Fanny's Worst Play."
Why Worry? closed in September, and on October 18 Brice finally married the man she loved after a six-year relationship. She had met handsome and sophisticated Jules Wilford "Nick" Arnstein in 1912 after a performance of The Whirl of Society in Baltimore and said she fell in love with him as soon as she saw his seven toothbrushes and monogrammed silk pajamas in the bathroom of his hotel suite.
Contrary to her glowing perception of him, the Norwegian-born Arnstein was a con man and a criminal who operated under a number of aliases and failed at everything he attempted, including the wiretapping that sent him to Sing Sing in 1915 and the bond theft that led him to Leavenworth in 1924. Oblivious to his character flaws, she was also undeterred by the discovery that he was already married. (Brice herself had impulsively married barber Frank White in 1910 while touring with The College Girls, but never lived with him and obtained a divorce in 1913.)
After Arnstein's divorce in 1918, he and Brice married. They had two children, Frances (b. 1919) and William (b. 1921), but life was far from idyllic. In 1920, "Nicky" was accused of orchestrating a Wall Street bond robbery. He fled New York but surrendered to the authorities two months after he disappeared. Convinced of his innocence, Brice financed his trial and lengthy appeal, endured the attendant notoriety, and remained loyal to him during his incarceration. They finally divorced in 1927, after his release from Leavenworth, on account of his flagrant infidelity. Years later, Brice admitted that she was shocked he did nothing to stop the proceedings or to contest the decree awarding her sole custody of their two children. He disappeared from their lives more abruptly than Charles Borach had vanished from Brice's.
The "cartoonist working in the flesh"
From 1918 to 1927, Brice worked hard and steadily on the stage. (She performed into the seventh month of both her pregnancies, returning to rehearsals soon after the birth of each child.) She appeared in three more editions of the Ziegfeld Follies (1920, 1921, and 1923), four other Ziegfeld shows (two Nine O'Clock Revues and two Midnight Frolics), and two non-Ziegfeld productions (Irving Berlin's Music Box Revue in 1924 and the Hollywood Music Box Revue in 1927). She made several records, produced Is Zat So? and The Brown Derby, and filled the remaining time with lucrative vaudeville engagements.
She refined her craft as a comic artist, describing herself as "a cartoonist working in the flesh," and caused a sensation in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1921 with an uncharacteristically serious selection, "My Man," designed to capitalize on her tumultuous relationship with Arnstein. Instead of the animated parody she typically offered, she stood almost motionless, sang without a funny accent, and created the illusion that she was sharing her own painful experience. The moving song always produced a powerful emotional effect on audiences who clamored for it.
Brice had some of her best comic material in the Follies of 1921, including spoofs of Ethel Barrymore in Camille and the memorable song "Second Hand Rose." Yet dissatisfied with being "just a comic," Brice still sought acceptance as a serious actor in a starring vehicle.
In 1923, tired of being a sight gag, she decided to have cosmetic surgery on her nose. Algonquin wit Dorothy Parker quipped that Brice had "cut off her nose to spite her race," and there was probably far more truth to that acerbic statement than Brice ever acknowledged. However legitimate her dramatic aspirations, she was motivated in part by her wish to escape from the ethnicity of her comedy.
She seems to have decided that her Yiddish-accented routines had become too limiting, particularly in the xenophobic and racist climate of the 1920s when prejudice against ethnic groups was very real. She had escaped from Borach fifteen years earlier; at thirty-two, thanks to medical advances made during World War I, Protestant prettiness might actually be attainable.
Disappointed both with the results of the surgical procedure and the response to her attempts at more serious material, Brice accepted the inevitable and returned to comedy. Determined to find a starring vehicle that would catapult her into the nation's consciousness, she turned to film. Even with her new nose, she did not have the kind of face Hollywood loved. She did not conform to its beauty standards any more than she had met Ziegfeld's exacting requirements for his legions of lovely Follies girls.
First Woman to Star in a Motion Picture—With Sound
But she could sing and since Al Jolson's 1927 triumph in The Jazz Singer, Hollywood needed voices. Promoted by Warner Brothers as a "female Jolson," Brice became the first woman to star in a sound motion picture. Much to her dismay, she did not duplicate Jolson's success. Her film, unimaginatively titled My Man and now lost, was a box-office disaster. Audiences across America simply could not relate to her Yiddish accent and comic mannerisms. Although she would make six movies in all (including Be Yourself, 1930; The Great Ziegfeld, 1936; Everybody Sing, 1938; and Ziegfeld Follies, 1946), film stardom eluded her and she claimed she never felt comfortable in front of the camera.
The year 1929 brought another critical failure in the musical Fioretta and in another marriage. Songwriter and aspiring impresario Billy Rose became her third husband in a civil ceremony on February 8 at Manhattan's City Hall. Brice's friends considered the union a mismatch, and her children compared the short, stocky Rose unfavorably to their handsome father.
Nevertheless, the thirty-seven-year-old Brice seemed happy about the marriage. "I was never bored with Billy," she later reminisced. They shared a passionate commitment to show business, and she spent the next two years performing in the musical revues her husband created to showcase her talent, Sweet and Low (1930) and Crazy Quilt (1931). She also began a successful series of radio broadcasts and achieved her greatest stage triumphs in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 and 1936.
In these posthumous editions of the Follies produced by the Shuberts, Brice created some of her most brilliant comic characters. From "Soul Saving Sadie" (a spoof on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson) to "Countess Dubinsky" (an outrageous parody of stripteasing and fan dancing) and "Modernistic Moe" (an antic burlesque of modern dancer Martha Graham), Brice had never been funnier. With her humorous accent, mobile face, and wonderfully expressive body, in Billy Rose's words, "she stood out like a bagel in a loaf of white bread."
Her amusing sketches included two in which she appeared as terrible toddler "Baby Snooks" and delighted audiences with her thoroughly believable impersonation, complete with hair ribbon, starched pinafore, ankle socks, and Mary Janes. "Snooks" would lead Brice to the radio stardom she desired.
In 1937, with her marriage to Billy Rose disintegrating, she moved to California. They were divorced on October 27, 1938. Beginning in November, she launched a new career on radio with a popular weekly program broadcast across the country. Instead of her gallery of comic creations, she played only "Baby Snooks," the one character who did not require an accent of any kind. With antisemitism rampant in the United States and Europe, even Brice, admittedly uninformed about world events, must have realized that a Yiddish accent was probably not the best way to win a national following. "Schnooks," as she liked to call her, ensured a much wider appeal.
Brice suffered a serious heart attack in July 1945 but was well enough to resume her radio show in the fall. The profitable series continued until 1948, when she went off the air during a highly publicized contract dispute caused by fierce competition from the latest technological marvel to arrive on the show business scene: television.
Rather than take a salary cut, Brice refused to work and began an autobiography she would not live to complete. Returning to radio in 1949, she continued happily wreaking havoc as Snooks. She had no interest in making the transition to television and, ironically, was contemplating retirement when she had a stroke on May 24, 1951. She died in Los Angeles, five days later, without regaining consciousness.
Reminiscing in her memoirs, Brice acknowledged the price professional women often pay for success: "If you have a career, then the career is your life. The hell with anything else. It is the biggest part of you and you can be married, have children, have a husband, but it isn't enough for you because the career is always there in your mind, taking the best out of you which you should give to your husband and kids."
Yet, in what would have been the conclusion of her planned autobiography, she declared, "I made most things happen for me, and if they were good, I worked to get them. If they were bad, I worked just as hard for that. But I am not sorry. I will tell anybody that and it is the truth. I lived the way I wanted to live and never did what people said I should do or advised me to do." Ambitious, tenacious, and tough, a survivor in a ruthless business where fame is especially ephemeral, she achieved greatness when she accepted her comic gifts and abandoned her desire to become a serious actor.
Brilliant Clown, Consummate Professional
Critics frequently noted the "pronounced Jewish flavor" of her performances, and it is tempting to attribute a great deal of significance to Brice's Jewishness. Although she worked with a Yiddish accent for many years on stage and screen, however, her routines were only superficially "Jewish" and did not stem from a deep sense of ethnic or religious identity.
A performer in the dialect comedy tradition, Brice often played to the prejudices of the period, but mocking Jewish values was not generally part of her comic world and she was careful not to offend Jewish audience members. Even as the quintessential Jewish mother in the monologue "Mrs. Cohen at the Beach," she managed to avoid vicious satire. Brice's expressive delivery, coupled with her great warmth as a performer, humanized the stereotype and rounded the caricature into a character.
A truly popular entertainer, Fanny Brice worked hard to establish a rapport with her audiences. She did not deal with upsetting topics or controversial events, and people did not look to her for an evening of corrosive social commentary. A deft satirist capable of adroitly lampooning a variety of contemporary subjects, she seemed entirely uninhibited in performance, and her name always meant laughter, hilarious antics, and great fun.
Whether spoofing ballerinas, opera singers, movie vamps, child stars, or nudists, her zany comedy made her special, and her lunatic creations inspired endless delight. A brilliant clown and a consummate professional, Brice was a genuinely funny woman who turned to show business, like so many other children of immigrants, and fulfilled the American dream.
Main text © Barbara W. Grossman; from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, JPS, 2006.