BERG,GERTRUDE (Gertrude Edelstein) (1899–1966) Actress

The creator and star of radio’s The Goldbergs, Gertrude Berg was born Gertrude Edelstein in New York City on October 3, 1899. When she was seven, her father bought a resort in the Catskills. There, Gertrude made her show business debut, performing skits she wrote and depicting characters based on relatives from the Jewish community in which she was raised.

In 1918, she married Lewis Berg, a chemical engineer, with whom she had two children. While raising her family, Gertrude Berg took playwriting courses at Columbia University and started writing radio plays. In 1929 she made her first sale to NBC, but her show, a soap opera titled Effie and Laura, was canceled after one episode. The same year she had far better luck with The Rise of the Goldbergs. Later renamed The Goldbergs, the show ran for 20 years and became one of the most popular programs in the history of radio.

In addition to writing most of the episodes, Berg starred as Molly Goldberg, the matriarch of a Jewish family from the Bronx. A self-sacrificing fount of common sense, the character was largely responsible for introducing the type of the “Jewish mother” to American popular culture. Although Berg’s characters were sometimes faulted as stereotypical portrayals of Jewish immigrants, her gentle humor sketched the Goldbergs with such warmth and affection that they were embraced by a weekly audience of millions. Berg proved to be a skillful businesswoman, maintaining control over the show she created and negotiating advantageous contracts for herself. She also made the most of The Goldbergs’ success by taking her characters into other media. In 1948, her play Molly and Me, was a hit on Broadway, and in 1951 she brought the Goldbergs to the screen in Molly. In addition, Berg published Goldberg short stories and even authored The Molly Goldberg Cookbook (1955).

Gertrude Berg also oversaw in 1949 The Goldbergs ’ transition from radio to television, becoming in the process one of the few women to write for television in its early days. Although The Goldbergs on television never equaled the success it had had on radio, the show ran for six seasons. In the early 1950s, the show was almost canceled when Berg refused to buckle under to a sponsor’s pressure to fire her costar Philip Loeb, who was accused of having communist sympathies. The show was saved only after Loeb decided to resign. To combat a fall in ratings, Berg moved the Goldbergs from the Bronx to the suburbs in 1955. Nevertheless, the program was canceled the following year. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Berg transformed herself into a Broadway star. Among the plays in which she performed were The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), The Matchmaker (1957), and Dear Me, the Sky Is Falling (1967). Her most memorable work, however, was in The Majority of One (1959), a drama that tackled such difficult issues as racial prejudice and the loneliness of her widowed character. Berg’s sensitive performance won her a Tony Award. While preparing to open in a new play, she died of natural causes on September 15, 1966.

Further Reading

Berg, Gertrude, with Cherney Berg. Molly and Me. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
Marc, David. “Berg, Gertrude.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 3, pp. 629–630. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.