October 27, 1920 – Nanette Fabray:
“I was a movie actress at five and at eight a veteran singer and dancer.”
Between 1941 and 1951, pert, wide smiling, charming Nanette Fabray appeared in 11 Broadway shows, often as the star. In 1949, she won a Tony Award for the Kurt Weill/ Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life. But, even then, she hadn’t started the work that would define her long, long career.
Fabray grew up with her family in Los Angeles. Her stage mother had her studying tap dancing with famed African-American dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson when she was just three years old. As a tiny tot, she appeared in a Burlesque show as “Little Miss New Year’s Eve 1923” and was placed in a paddy wagon when the theatre was raided.
Fabray’s parents divorced in 1929; the Great Depression had begun, and her mother ran a boarding house in their home. An un-diagnosed hearing impairment in her childhood made learning in school difficult; Fabray failed her senior year and had to come back for summer school so she could graduate from Hollywood High in 1939. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that Fabray had her hearing tested and she was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss. Fabray:
“It was a revelation to me. All these years I had thought I was stupid, but in reality, I just had a hearing problem.”
Her mother wasn’t happy with her pug nose and took her to a plastic surgeon, who put in a metal bridge. The bridge was later removed. She had a final operation to try to bring her nose back to its natural shape. Each nose job made Fabray’s nose smaller.
When she was 18, Fabray began appearing in plays and she signed with Warner Bros. Her first film role was in The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), starring Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Olivia de Havilland.
Fabray was cast in the 1940 Los Angeles production of Meet The People and went on tour with the show. When the show opened on Broadway, 20-year-old Fabray moved to New York City to get away from her mother; she also changed the spelling of her last name from Fabares to Fabray. She was cast in Broadway musicals including Let’s Face It! (1943) starring Danny Kaye; and By Jupiter (1943) with Ray Bolger, and she replaced Celeste Holm in the lead in Bloomer Girl (1946).
Poor Fabray’s progressive hearing loss became worse; she discovered she couldn’t hear the orchestra from the stage. She was diagnosed with otosclerosis, a growth of spongy bone in the inner ear, that would lead to total deafness. Fabray:
“I kept my problem to myself. My hearing kept going down. Deafness is a threat to the hearing, as well, because it’s a breakdown in communication, the one thing we do that sets us apart from the animals. I was so neurotically involved with my problem, so totally self-involved, so insecure, it destroyed my first marriage.”
Fabray began to wear discreet hearing aids, and said:
“Wearing a hearing aid for the first time is like coming out of the dark; it’s blinding.”
She made six appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show between 1948-1953 and continued to appear in musicals on Broadway, despite worsening hearing loss and her intensifying anxiety over it.
Her husband did publicity for the popular Your Show Of Shows in 1950 starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Fabray appeared as a regular on Your Show Of Shows in 1950 and 1951. Her television career was launched, but her marriage ended in divorce.
Fabray was cast in the MGM musical The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. She is brilliant in the film, playing a slightly disguised version of writer Betty Comden. After she completed The Band Wagon, Fabray had a nervous breakdown of sorts and disappeared for a year.
In 1954, she was cast as a regular on Caesar’s Hour in 1954. She won three Emmy Awards for her performances on Caesar’s Hour before leaving the show in 1956. Fabray nearly gave her life for the show. In 1955, she was hospitalized for almost two weeks after being knocked unconscious by a falling pipe backstage during a broadcast.
All the while, her hearing got worse. She had surgery in 1956 and 1958, which was successful in restoring her to only 30% hearing loss. Fabray had four operations on her ears and used hearing aids during her career. In her 30s, Fabray began sharing her experiences about her hearing loss, and supporting various causes championing the rights of the disabled.
In 1957, Fabray married Ranald MacDougall, the screenwriter of Mildred Pierce (1945) The Naked Jungle (1954) and Cleopatra (1963), and who, in the early 1970s, served as president of the Writers Guild of America.
Fabray was a popular guest star on variety, talk, and game shows, appearing on Hollywood Squares 215 times between 1967-1978. From 1967-1972, Fabray appeared 13 times on The Carol Burnett Show. Carol Burnett was a friend of Fabray’s, and Burnett had planned on Fabray doing Somewhere Over The Rainbow in sign language. The CBS brass nixed the idea, insisting that American Sign Language was “too controversial”. Burnett planted an audience member to request the number, and Fabray sang-signed it after all.
Throughout the rest of the 1950s and 1960s, Fabray worked on stage and in television. She starred in Irving Berlin‘s last Broadway show, the old fashioned Mr. President (1962) and was nominated for a Tony Award.
On television, Fabray had her own comedy series The Nanette Fabray Show (1961), created and written by her husband. During the early 1970s, she played Dottie Richards, Mary’s mom, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the 1990s, she worked on sitcom Coach, playing the mother of her real-life niece Shelley Fabares.
A longtime champion of hearing awareness and support of the deaf, Fabray was a big booster of American Sign Language. She was one of, if not the first, to use sign language on live television. Fabray wrote to Dear Abby in 1971 and said she had worn a hearing aid for decades, prompting grateful readers to share their own stories of deafness, hearing loss, and hearing aids.
She appeared on 44 episodes of the Norman Lear sitcom One Day At A Time (1979-1984), and wrote the script of a 1982 episode focusing on hearing loss and sign language. Fabray was a founding member of the National Captioning Institute, one of the first big names to bring awareness to the need for media closed-captioning.
When MacDougall died unexpectedly in 1973, 58-year-old Fabray discovered that all of his assets were tied up in a lawsuit over one of his films and as a result, her assets were frozen too. She had to go to work and began performing on stage again. She appeared in six Broadway shows in the next decade.
Fabray became an advocate for Widows’ Rights and began to bring awareness to the need for changes in the law for widows and widowers. She focused her later years on campaigning for changes in women’s inheritance laws, taxes, and asset protection.
In February 2018, Fabray took her final bow at her home in Palos Verdes. She was 97 years old.