Jewish Women in Comedy - Judy Holliday
"Your name is Judy Holliday as a stage name, is it?"
"A professional name?"
"What other name have you used in the course of your life?"
"Judy Tuvim, T-u-v-i-m."
"Do you have a married name?"
"What is your married name?"
"Mrs. David Oppenheim."
So began the interrogation of Judy Holliday on March 26, 1952, by the United States Senate Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary. Just one year earlier (March 29, 1951), she had won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award-the Oscar-for the best screen actor of 1950 for her portrayal of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. In many ways, winning the Oscar was the culmination of her career, although she later played other screen and stage roles.
Born on June 21, 1921, at Lying In Hospital in Manhattan, the only child of Helen Gollomb and Abe Tuvim, Holliday was the only child in a family of childless uncles and aunts, particularly on her mother's side. Her parents, who met at the Rand School in New York, married on June 17, 1917, and often frequented the Café Royale, a meeting place on New York's Lower East Side for people in the Yiddish theater.
After they separated when Holliday was about six, she was brought up by her mother's extended family, although later she reestablished relations with her father. President of the American Federation of Musicians from 1929 to 1937, a member of the American Zionist Strategy Council in 1944, and executive director of the Jewish National Fund of America from 1951 to 1958, Abe Tuvim, who died of cancer at sixty-four, was also a journalist for the Jewish-language press.
Judy's mother, whose parents emigrated from Russia—her father had made epaulets for the czar and died shortly after arriving in this country—grew up under the tutelage of a strong socialist mother and amid several brothers. After separating from her husband, Helen Tuvim gave piano lessons during the hard times of the Depression.
Educated in New York City public schools, Holliday graduated from Julia Richman High School at the top of her class in January 1938, having already scored 172 on an IQ test when she was ten. Refused entrance to drama school, probably because of her age, she briefly worked the switchboard at Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre, hoping to enter the theater world from the periphery. Unfortunately, she kept disconnecting telephone calls.
From Tuvim to Holliday
Her life as a performer began, instead, after a vacation in the mountains where she met Adolph Green, the camp's "social director." With him, she was responsible for the formation of the Revuers, a successful group that performed at Max Gordon's Village Vanguard and included Betty Comden, Alvin Hammer, and John Frank.
Apocryphal stories of the group's beginnings exist. Young and optimistic, the Revuers eventually accepted an invitation to Hollywood, then watched the opportunity evaporate for everyone but Holliday. Loyal to her friends—for they were friends by then—she refused to split from them. Finally, however, in 1943 they persuaded her to sign a contract with Twentieth Century Fox. At the studio's insistence, she changed her name, choosing "Holliday" because it related to the Hebrew word tuvim, meaning holiday. But the roles were minuscule, and eventually she was released from her contract, returning East in 1945.
The theater was more receptive. She opened in Kiss Them for Me in March 1945 and won the Clarence Derwent Award of $500 as "best supporting actress." Next came her major role, Billie Dawn, the tough ex-chorus girl in Born Yesterday. Her voice, her walk, her manner on stage all captured the essence of this dumb blonde who somehow fools the gangster she accompanies. Given the role in its pre-Broadway tryout in Philadelphia in January 1946, she made it her own.
And yet, despite 1,643 performances and great applause, she was long refused the screen role by Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures. She was too Jewish, thought this Jewish movie mogul, who screen-tested others for two years. Not until Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, the stars of Adam's Rib, turned Holliday's short role in that film into a screen test and then invited Cohn to see it, was he convinced. After making the film, she returned to Broadway in Bells Are Ringing, for which she won the New York Drama Desk Award and the Tony in 1957.
The American Dream, But Subversive?
Her brief life included marriage on January 4, 1948, to David Oppenheim—whom she divorced in March 1957—and a son, Jonathan Lewis, born in 1952 at Doctors Hospital in New York City. She died of cancer on June 7, 1965, at Mount Sinai Hospital. Her funeral services, conducted by the president of the Ethical Culture Society, were followed by a small private Jewish service at the Westchester Hills Cemetery, reflecting her mother's wishes.
A brilliant comedian, Judy Holliday epitomized the duality of her American-Jewish heritage. She achieved the American dream of success on stage and film; she also felt the pressures of antisemitism as she became part of that large sweep of theater people being investigated for subversive activities in the McCarthy years of the 1950s. Her life offers a glimpse of the emergence of Jews in the theater and film communities.
Main text © Irene G. Dash; from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, JPS, 2006.