Funny Woman: The Life and Times of Fanny Brice

FUNNY WOMAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FANNY BRICE by Barbara W. Grossman. Indiana University Press. 1991.

It is almost a classic rags to riches story: a Jewish girl, born in 1891 to immigrant parents, tests her luck at the age of 13 by singing in a Brooklyn talent show. She wins, and begins a nearly unrivaled career as a vaudeville, and later radio, star.

Although Fanny Brice died in 1951, her memory has been kept alive by stage and screen portraits; in the 1970s, Barbra Streisand played Brice in both Funny Girl and its film sequel. Funny Lady. Here, historian Barbara Grossman gives us a whole volume about the public and private Brice, as well as the social, cultural and political milieus in which she lived.

Grossman describes Brice’s ascent to celebrity status by performing “Coon” and “Yid” songs — material that today sounds shockingly racist and anti-Semitic. Often in blackface and with an exaggerated accent, Brice ridiculed Jews and African-Americans to the endless delight of audiences forced to accommodate new neighbors and co-workers. Brice’s inimitably crafted, stereotyped characters, perfectly mimicked dialect, and ungainly movements brought joy to thousands, in Ziegfield’s Follies and beyond.

Characters like Sadie Salome, a silly would-be Salome dancer, gave Brice a stage vehicle to poke fun at both Jewish wannabes and other social climbers. So did the character of Baby Snooks, a radio persona Brice created in the late 1930s, a lovable, but endlessly naughty two year old. While Brice always preferred the stage to radio (her humor relied a good deal on the physical). Baby Snooks remains to this day a Bricean classic.

The transition from ethnic swipes to other themes occurred by the year 1913, at which point stereotyping Jews had become unacceptable, and Brice adapted her material to new standards of decency. Along the way, Brice had to deal with the fact that she herself was labelled. Her nose-job is part-and-parcel of her larger striving to be more “universal”: she was a woman in a man’s, field, a single mother in a world of couples, a visibly Jewish personality in an environment of W.A.S.P. gentility and attractiveness.

On the personal side, Grossman describes Brice’s three marriages, as well as her relationships with theatre greats like David Belasco, Billy Rose, Florenz Ziegfield, Irving Berlin, Bob Hope, Al Jolson and Blanche Merrill.

Although Brice never did achieve her deepest goal (of being taken seriously as a dramatic actor), her reputation as a tough, fiesty, earthy, versatile, brash woman and brilliant comedian lives on. Norman Katkov, the man Brice’s family engaged as her biographer, describes her as a woman to be reckoned with, “who sat like a queen and could talk like a truck driver.” She was also, truly, a very funny woman. 

Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer living in New York City.