Spewak, Bella Cohen
SPEWAK, Bella Cohen
Born 15 March 1899, Bucharest, Rumania; died December 1987
Daughter of Adolph and Fanny Lang Cohen; married Samuel Spewak, 1922
Born in Hungary (now Rumania), Bella Cohen Spewak moved to New York in her youth. She graduated from Washington Irving High School (1917) and began her career reporting for various New York newspapers, writing features. She later assisted her husband as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Russia from 1922 to 1926. They returned to New York to collaborate on Broadway dramas and musicals and Hollywood film and television scripts. After World War II, Spewak returned to Europe for material to broadcast an ABC series on the work of United Nations Refugee Relief Association and conditions abroad. She once served as national publicity director of the Camp Fire Girls; she was a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Screen Writers Guild.
Although they experimented with different styles, the Spewaks wrote primarily comedy and satire. The commercial failure of Spring Song (produced 1934, published 1936) with its affectionate portrayal of New York's ethnic East Side neighborhood and its tragedy apparently convinced them to challenge social ills through humor. The effects of fortune and fame upon the individual became subjects for satiric attack. Characters are manipulated to satirize institutions—generally connected with the mass media—they represent. The Spewaks expose romantic love, movie stardom, and wartime heroism to unsentimental analysis. While sometimes too extravagant to be truly satiric, their works invariably center on the exploitation of reality and universal emotion which characterizes the mass media.
The Spewaks' best play, Boy Meets Girl (1935, film version, 1938), winner of the Roi Cooper Megrue Prize (1936), is a hilarious comedy in which theme, content, structure, subplots, satire, and even the movie scripts being discussed duplicate each other by presenting variations on the boy-meets-girl cliché. The traditional love story is complicated by the presence of baby Happy, around whom all the developments center. His not so innocent mother, widowed by a bigamist, is only the most visible "girl" whose love life is rearranged when the baby becomes a movie star. Hollywood and its film audiences are unmercifully satirized as the Spewaks expose formulaic composition, deliberate inaccuracy, and shameless pandering to the lowest public taste. A spirit of fun pervades the criticism as the play inevitably concludes with the boy getting the girl—and the baby.
The Spewaks' most popular work is Kiss Me Kate (produced 1948, published 1953, television version 1959), with music by Cole Porter. The plot meshes a theatre company's on-stage production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew with the similar backstage marital battles of the actors playing Kate and Petruchio, who carry their dramatic roles into their private lives. Genuinely humorous, the musical avoids mechanical complications and purely slapstick gags.
Spewak employed her extensive working experience in newspapers, television, Broadway, and Hollywood to provide an unquestionably authentic atmosphere; her characters, dialogue, and action are believable. Even though her satire is based on the extremes of behavior, the total circumstances seem realistic and the resultant humor is good natured and unthreatening. The success of Spewak's dramas results from a judicious blend of mockery and acceptance of the vagaries of human nature.
All written with Samuel Spewak: Poppa (1929; produced, 1935). Clear All Wires (1932; produced, 1932; film version, 1933). Solitaire Man (1934; produced, 1926). Trousers to Match (1941; produced, 1941; produced as Miss Swan Expects, 1939). Woman Bites Dog (1947; produced, 1946). My Three Angels (1953; produced, 1953; television version, 1960). Festival (1955; produced, 1955). Boy Meets Girl and Spring Song: Two Plays (1973, 1987). Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side (1995).
From Russia to Kiss Me, Kate: The Careers of Sam and Bella Spewack: An Exhibition at the Alan and Margaret Kempner Exhibition Room Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 8 March 1993 to 9 July 1993 (1993). Professional Luncheon Meeting Guest Speaker, Miss Bella Spewack (audiocassette, 1966).
—KATHLEEN GREGORY KLEIN