Birth of “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” author Lillian Roth
December 13, 1910
In an era of celebrity tell-all’s and daily website revelations of almost anyone’s personal life, it’s hard to imagine the impact of the first public confession of a famous figure with a drinking problem. That person was Lillian Roth, and she did it in 1953 before 40 million Americans on a live broadcast of the hit television series, “This Is Your Life.”
Born to parents who thrust Lillian and her sister Anne into performing careers, she debuted on Broadway at age six, in a Florenz Ziegfeld stage musical at 17, and in a film musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald at 19. She sang in the Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers and worked with Cecil B. DeMille in 1930. The sudden death of her fiancé in 1930 and ongoing conflict with her overbearing mother and alcoholic father fueled her drinking, and she spent almost two decades being treated in mental institutions.
With the support of her sixth husband T. Burt McGuire, Jr., in 1947 she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began to rebuild her singing career, eventually touring worldwide. Her 1953 appearance on “This Is Your Life” was the only telecast of the show to be rebroadcast twice by popular demand. The following year she published an account of her illness and recovery, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, which topped the New York Times bestseller list. The 1955 film of the book would garner Susan Hayward her fourth Oscar nomination. Roth later starred in the stage musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale (where she got top billing over Barbra Streisand and Elliott Gould) and in multiple television and film roles. A YouTube excerpt from her appearance on What’s My Line showcases her warmth, glamour, and wit.
By going public with her illness, Roth helped to raise awareness of alcoholism as a disease, put a public face on an often-secret problem, and remove the stigma from women with drinking problems. As Norman K. Denzin wrote in Hollywood Shot by Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema, I’ll Cry Tomorrow “brought women out of the closet and gave them a man’s disease. [It] made alcoholism an all-American illness.”
See also: Lillian Roth, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.