October 29, 1891- Fanny Brice:
“I never liked the men I loved, and never loved the men I liked.“
In 1964, producer Ray Stark wanted to produce a musical about Brice, but he was married to Brice’s daughter, Frances Stark. She was so protective of her mother’s image that he had to buy up the entire printing of an authorized, heavily censored biography because it stated, correctly, that Brice had shoplifted as a child. Brice’s real story included a criminal husband, Nick Arnstein, who was still alive. With such potential for lawsuits and to keep his wife happy, Stark came up with a solution: he lied.
Funny Girl was a smash on the stage as well as on screen, and, I don’t know if you’ve heard, it made a star out of a young, kooky nightclub singer, Barbra Streisand. Isobel Lennart‘s book for Funny Girl takes a lot of liberties with the life of Brice and misrepresented her personality and style. The real Brice was an earthy, gutsy woman with a fierier personality than the cool, consciously cute Streisand. When Brice performed, she was a rubber-faced clown, and when she met Arnstein, she was no nervous virgin. She also never had a Yiddish accent.
This summer, restless from the quarantine and hungry for live theatre, I caught a filmed version of Funny Girl that did a good job of de-Streisand-ing the piece, and I discovered that as a stage show, this musical is very conventional. In the central role, Sheridan Smith proved herself more than capable of matching Streisand’s physical comedy and belting vocals, without it ever feeling as if she was attempting to replicate her famous predecessor. The songs, in particular, Smith makes entirely her own, rippling Styne’s well-known melodies with raw emotion. For Vaudeville star Fanny Brice, comedy was a mask and entertaining the audience was a way to deny her personal pain. Smith, with a grin and a wink for the upper balcony, pointedly makes a performance out of Brice’s real life.
Brice was born Fania Borach on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Funny Girl has her living there until she was discovered for the Ziegfeld Follies, but her family moved to New Jersey when she was a baby, then to Brooklyn and then Harlem, where they had Irish friends called Brice.
Her first appearance on any stage took place when she was 13 years old at Keeney’s Theatre in Brooklyn, where she won an amateur night contest singing When You Know You’re Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can’t Forget. The prize was $5 and coins hurled by the audience, and from that night on Brice gave up school for the stage.
By the time she was 15 years old, Brice had been knocking around vaudeville and burlesque theatres, before strippers, when burlesque was more of a family entertainment. While on the road, she had an impulsive, short-lived marriage to a barber and had an affair with a Chicago man-about-town who took her to a show at a whorehouse for their first date.
At the time, ethnic stereotypes were a popular source of comedy, and Brice used German accents, and even sang what were called “coon songs” in blackface. For her first Ziegfeld Follies in 1910, a young songwriter named Irving Berlin presented her with a “Hebe song”, Sadie Salome, and said it would go over big if she did it with a Yiddish accent. Brice had to learn one, and indeed had a hit playing a Jewish man whose sweetheart has taken up the dance of the seven veils: “Everybody knows that I’m your lovin’ Mose./Oy, oy, oy, oy, where is your clothes?”
Except for Baby Snooks, the mischievous child that she played on radio, Brice’s best-known character was the homely Jewish woman in the wrong role. She was a Jewish Native American, a Jewish Buttercup, a Jewish Peter Pan, and a Jewish favorite of a sultan, who “appreciates a little kosher meat”. Brice used her down-to-earth personality to ridicule high culture. As Camille, she lay back on her couch coughing: “I’ve been a bad, bad woman, but awful good company!” It was a tradition that went back to the earliest days of the music hall, where performers got a laugh out of their characters’ misery. In “Oy! How I Hate That Fellow Nathan!” Brice bemoaned her boyfriend’s hesitancy to set their wedding date, by ending with the startling line: “And I’ll bring our children up to hate him, too!”
Brice was not a comedian as we think of them now, she called herself a “cartoon in the flesh”. When Garson Kanin, the director of the Broadway version of Funny Girl, asked two of Brice’s friends for her most outstanding characteristic, Katharine Hepburn said “elegance”, and Spencer Tracy said “sexuality”. Hepburn was referring to Brice’s professional elegance, though her gestures were large, she used the perfect one to make a point. She also probably meant Brice’s couture clothing or her later career. Brice was noted for her good taste in interior design.
Brice was friendly with the top members of society. She said they liked her because she treated them the same as anyone else. When the then Prince of Wales visited, she urged him to sit in a certain chair because “when I come to sell it, I’ll get twice as much“. At the swankiest soirees, Brice might be seen in designer clothes and jewelry, but would blithely switch from her “pretty” false teeth to her “choppers” for eating and for telling jokes.
Brice said she was not interested in making films because she had:
“…such a kisser the camera would have stood up and walked away“.
She was noted for her great warmth. Playwright / screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote:
“Theatre audiences never adored any performer more than Fanny. It would be impossible for an audience to laugh louder, weep more copiously and applaud more violently than Fanny’s audience did.”
That lovable quality was also a sort of sexiness, which was certainly in evidence when, in 1912, she met Nick Arnstein, a married man.
Funny Girl portrays Arnstein (one of several of his aliases) as an honest man who sometimes sold stolen bonds in a desperate attempt to prove his independence from a famous, successful wife. But, at the time he met Brice, the elegant smooth-talking Arnstein had been arrested several times for fraud, and the six years in which they lived together before marriage were interrupted by two years in Sing Sing for illegal wiretapping. Far from being too proud to take his wife’s money, he spent it on houses, horses, and the immense legal fees needed to defend him after he became involved in the five-million-dollar bond fraud and skipping town. Brice maintained his innocence, at least in public. At home she entertained too many of his gangster friends to believe it. When he came out of prison for the second time, in 1927, she divorced him, but not, as the musical has it, because they were incompatible; Arnstein had also been spending her hard-earned money on other women.
Brice’s anguished marriage gave a disturbing resonance to My Man, her hit song from 1921, which delivered while still with her eyes closed. Florenz Ziegfield had offered her a job at $75 a week in 1916, but when she left the stage after introducing My Man, Ziegfeld gave her a check for $2,500 and said: “You’ve earned it.” Her weekly salary was upped to $3,000.
Brice’s next husband, the songwriter/entrepreneur Billy Rose, created a number for her titled I Wonder Who’s Keeping Him Now. Rose was 21 years younger and significantly shorter than Arnstein. He proved to be another unsatisfactory spouse. Ruthless, dishonest and persistently unfaithful, Brice, later called Rose the evilest man she had ever known. She divorced him when, like Arnstein, his infidelity became just too much. Brice decided she was just too direct to captivate a man for long:
“Men always fall for frigid women, because they put on the best show.”
Known for being verbose, the essence of Brice might best be seen in the way she delivers a quiet line in the film The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which smartly Brice plays herself, shows her being discovered by the producer when she is singing in a small burlesque house. A fellow performer says: “Look, Fanny, you’re a hit on Tenth Avenue, but what do you think you’re going to be on Fifth Avenue?” Streisand would have answered with little smirk. But Brice, despite her big smile and big eyes, is wistful as she sweetly replies: “Half as good?“
Her pointed satire formed a hardy perennial of the Ziegfeld Follies almost every year starting in 1916, when she first did a comic version of the ballet Swan Lake. She lampooned sultry silent film star Theda Bara with W. C. Fields as her maid, and spoofed her modern dance.
She was billed with other top Broadway performers through the years, in which she appeared in such shows as Music Box Review Of 1924, Sweet And Low (1925) and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1928). She had a hit record with the song, Rose Of Washington Square.
She created Baby Snooks at parties for the entertainment of friends. Later Snooks was regularly featured in the Follies and was introduced to radio in 1938. After a decade, Baby Snooks went off the air when its sponsorship on the Columbia Broadcasting System network was withdrawn by General Foods. In 1949, Brice resumed the role on the National Broadcasting Company. The May 29, 1951, episode of The Baby Snooks Show was an on-air eulogy:
“We have lost a very real, a very warm, a very wonderful woman.”
Brice can now be found at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, next to her son William and daughter Fran with Arnstein, and her daughter’s husband Stark.