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Sylvia Fine

August 29, 1913–1991

by Amy Lezberg

Sylvia Fine composes at the piano.

Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress, Music Division.

In Brief

Even after their separation, Sylvia Fine collaborated with her husband, Danny Kaye, creating playful, complex songs to support his performances. Fine began writing parodies when she was in high school and met Kaye during rehearsals for a Broadway show in 1939. Fine wrote over 100 songs for Kaye, including the music for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Inspector General, and On the Riviera. Fine and Kaye formed Dena Productions and produced a radio series and television specials together. Fine won a Peabody in 1979 for her PBS special Musical Comedy Tonight. She taught musical comedy at the University of Southern California and Yale and contributed over $4 million to renovate the Hunter College Auditorium, now called the Sylvia Fine and Danny Kaye Theater.

Contemporary commentators often ascribed much of entertainer Danny Kaye’s success to his having a “Fine” head on his shoulders. Publicly, his wife Sylvia Fine’s coruscating lyrics supported Danny’s zaniness in such films as Up in Arms (1944), Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), and On the Riviera (1951). Privately, both Kayes endured the tensions resulting from a talented woman’s subsuming her ambition to advance her husband’s career.

Early Life and Family

Born on August 29, 1913, in Brooklyn, Sylvia Fine was the youngest child, following Robert (Fine Forrest) and Rhoda (Gamson), of dentist Samuel and his wife Bessie Fine. Author of parodic songs and humor while still at Jefferson High School, she graduated in 1933 from Brooklyn College, a “Former Field in Flatbush,” she recalled, where she found new worlds to conquer.

Teaching piano, she also played at rehearsals for producer Max Liebman when Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kominsky), a Catskill tummler, auditioned for “Sunday Night Varieties” at Tamiment in the Poconos. Though from the same neighborhood, Danny (the school dropout son of Russian immigrants) had never met Sylvia. Their wit meshed, and when the resulting Straw Hat Review (1939) closed ten weeks after its Broadway opening, they eloped to Fort Lauderdale in January 1940 and then remarried on February 22 in a synagogue to satisfy her parents.

Fine and Kaye

With Fine’s compositions, such as “Anatole of Paris,” “Stanislavski Vonschtickfitz Monahan,” and “Melody in 4-F, Kaye achieved almost instantaneous success in New York. They went to Hollywood, where Fine wrote approximately one hundred numbers, including “Lullaby in Ragtime,” “Five Pennies,” “Popo the Puppet,” and “Soliloquy for Three Heads.” Fine also wrote “All About You,” called by Cole Porter “a perfect love song.” Often reflecting Kaye’s private preferences, Fine’s veto power over his shows’ participants earned her a reputation for being difficult.

In addition to working for major studios, the Kayes formed Dena Productions in 1956. Twice nominated for Academy Awards (The Five Pennies in 1959 and The Moon Is Blue in 1953), Fine also produced Kaye’s radio series and television specials.

A member of ASCAP, Fine appeared with Kaye as accompanist until the December 17, 1946, birth of their daughter Dena, later a photojournalist, for whom she named Kitty Carlisle godmother. In 1947, the Kayes separated briefly, thereafter seldom inhabiting the same domicile (in New York and Beverly Hills). Nevertheless, they continued their professional partnership until his death in March 1987.

In general, the Kayes’ Jewishness was more social than religious, as exemplified in their founding the Palm Springs Tamarisk Country Club after discovering that other clubs were restricted. After the 1967 war, they became active supporters of the State of Israel, where Fine received the “Pillars of Hope” award (1983) from Hadassah.

Sharing, with Danny Kaye, a UNICEF award for helping children, and a Performance Arts Council Award, Sylvia Fine also received a City of Los Angeles Award and an honorary doctor of arts from Long Island University. Recipient of a Peabody Award for Musical Comedy Tonight I (1979), based on her courses at the University of Southern California and Yale University, she endowed the Sylvia Fine Chair in Musical Theater at Brooklyn College, which granted her an honorary doctorate (1985). Before she died of emphysema on October 28, 1991, Sylvia Fine contributed $4.1 million to refurbish the Hunter College auditorium, which reopened in 1994 as the Sylvia Fine and Danny Kaye Theater.

Like Gilbert and Sullivan, Fine’s clever patter still influences today’s songwriters. In her partnership with the frenetic Danny Kaye, she created something unique.

Bibliography

Fine, Sylvia. Archives. Library of Congress Special Collection, Washington, D.C., and Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, NYC.

Freedland, Michael. The Secret Life of Danny Kaye (1985).

“Git Gat Gittle.” Time (March 11, 1946).

Gottlieb, Martin. Nobody’s Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye (1994).

Obituaries. The Annual Obituary (1991), and NYTimes, October 29, 1991, and Variety, November 4, 1991.

Richard, Dick. The Life Story of Danny Kaye (1949).

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How to cite this page

Lezberg, Amy. "Sylvia Fine." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/fine-sylvia>.