Brice (Borach), Fanny

views updated


BRICE (Borach), FANNY (1891–1951), U.S. actress and singer. Born in New York, Brice made her first appearance at the age of 14, eventually becoming a leading comedienne of stage, screen, and radio. She had a gift for mime and satire, and was noted for songs with a Brooklyn accent.

Brice was the third child of relatively well-to-do saloon owners of Hungarian descent. Her first amateur appearance was in a talent contest at Keeney's vaudeville theatre in Brooklyn, where she won first prize.

In 1910 Florenz Ziegfeld heard her singing in a burlesque house and made her a headliner in his Follies of that year. From then on, she appeared in almost every annual production of the Ziegfeld Follies until 1924. In 1910 she was asked to appear at the College Girls, a major New York theater, and perform in a benefit. Needing some original material to sing, she went straight to her long-time friend Irving Berlin. He wrote several special numbers for her, including "Sadie Salome, Go Home." When he played it for her, he insisted that a Yiddish accent was needed to render it. Although Brice did not know any Yiddish, it soon became her trademark dialect. But Brice attained real stardom with the song "My Man." Already famous as a comedian, she introduced the poignant ballad in the 1921 edition of the Follies. On a trip to Paris, Ziegfeld had bought the rights to a heartbreaking chanson called "Mon Homme" and had English lyrics written for it. Brice wanted to play it for comic effect, but Ziegfeld knew that she had the pathos to sing it from the heart. The song became her cachet. Other songs identified with Brice were "Second Hand Rose," "I Should Worry," and "Rose of Washington Square."

Belasco's Broadways production Fanny (1926), starring Brice, marked another high point of her career.

And, in Billy Rose's Broadway musical revue Crazy Quilt (1931), she introduced the character of Baby Snooks, a mischievous toddler she had first played in vaudeville. That character later became a Follies favorite. From the late 1930s until her death, she had her own radio show, featuring her as the bratty baby. Brice also appeared in several motion pictures: My Man (1928), Night Club (1929), Be Yourself! (1930), The Man from Blankley's (1930), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Everybody Sing (1938), and Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

Brice first met the notorious Julius (Nick) Arnstein in Baltimore while on tour in the Shubert Brothers' 1912 revue Whirl of Society. At the time, he was betting on horses under the name Nick Arnold, one of his many aliases to cover his criminal record of international swindling. They married in 1919, after waiting seven years for his divorce to come through. Shortly after they met, he went to jail for wiretapping, and Brice visited him every week in Sing Sing prison. In 1920 he and several other hoodlums stole $5 million worth of Wall Street securities. After remaining in hiding for four months, he surrendered to the authorities but fought the charges in court for four years. Ultimately, a federal court sent him to Leavenworth prison for 14 months. Upon his release in 1927 Arnstein ran off, abandoning Brice and their two children and leaving her no recourse but to divorce him. In 1929 she married Broadway producer/lyricist Billy Rose; the marriage ended in divorce in 1938.

Brice's fame has lived on for decades through the Broadway musical Funny Girl (1966) and the films Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975), loosely based on her life.


N. Katkov, The Fabulous Fanny (1953); B.G. Grossman, Funny Woman: The Life and Times of Fanny Brice (1991); H. Goldman, Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl (1992)

[Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]