BRICE, FANNY (Fanny Borach) (1891–1951) Comic, Actress
On the stage and on the radio, Fanny Brice was one of America’s favorite comics for more than four decades. Born Fanny Borach on October 29, 1891, she grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where her parents owned seven saloons. She had an early taste of show business while performing impromptu song and dance numbers on tables at the Borachs’ establishments. Fed up with her husband’s gambling, Brice’s mother, Rose, left him and moved her children to Brooklyn, New York. There, at 14, Brice made her performing debut at Keeney’s Theater, where she won first prize in a talent contest. She made the rounds at other amateur night competitions before landing parts in several burlesque shows. Afraid that her skinny frame would keep her out of chorus lines, Brice found a better outlet for her talent while appearing in a show titled The College Girls (1909–10). Performing “Sadie Salome,” a comic song by Irving Berlin, she sang in the character of a Jewish girl whose family was appalled by her pursuit of a stage career. The act established Brice as a comedian and introduced audiences to her comically exaggerated Jewish accent, which would become one of her trademarks. While touring in The College Girls, Brice met and married Frank White, a barber. The couple stayed together for a mere three days. They were not officially divorced until 1913.
Having established herself in burlesque, Brice was hired in 1910 to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies. She would remain associated with the vaudeville extravaganza on and off for 14 years, BRICE, FANNYeventually becoming the Follies’ biggest star. Brice became well-known for her comic singing routines. Particularly popular was her performance of “Second Hand Rose,” a song about the hapless daughter of a secondhand goods dealer, and her parodies of celebrities such as screen vamp THEDA BARA.
Brice was also renowned for the emotional singing style she reserved for serious ballads. One of her signature songs was My Man, in which she sang of being loyal to her lover despite the pain he caused her. The lyrics were generally thought to refer to her romance with con man Nick Arnstein, whom she married in 1919 after a lengthy love affair. They had two children before Arnstein was sent to jail on a fraud charge in 1924. Although she never fell entirely out of love with him, Brice divorced Arnstein in 1927 for adultery.
After leaving the Follies in 1924, Brice made appearances in several films, including My Man (1927) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). She also appeared regularly in Broadway shows. Among the most notable were Sweet and Low (1930) and Crazy Quilt (1931), both produced by songwriter Billy Rose, whom Brice married in 1929. In Sweet and Low, Brice developed the character of “Babykins,” a wisecracking baby who proved wildly popular with her fans. Renamed “Baby Snooks,” the character made her radio debut in 1936 and became a regular on the program Good Times the following year. In 1944, Baby Snooks received her own show, and on it continued to delight audiences until Brice’s death on May 29, 1951, of a cerebral hemorrhage.
For the next generation, Brice was reborn in the popular stage musical Funny Girl (1964), which made BARBRA STREISAND a star. It and the subsequent film adaptation told of Brice’s career with the Follies and her ill-fated romance with Arnstein, while a film sequel, Funny Lady (1975), focused on her marriage to Rose. Both films presented Brice as a confident, charming woman with a genius for parody. Her influence both as a verbal and physical comedian continues to be felt today.
Goldman, Herbert G. Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Grossman, Barbara Wallace. Funny Woman: The Life and Times of Fanny Brice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Everybody Sing (1938). MGM/UA, VHS, 1992.
Funny Girl (1968). Columbia/Tristar, VHS, 1997.
Funny Lady (1974). Columbia/Tristar, VHS, 1997.
Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1994.