Holliday, Judy (1921–1965)
Holliday, Judy (1921–1965)
American actress typecast as a "dumb blonde" who endowed her roles with heart, intelligence, and an awareness of the characters' predicaments. Born Judith Tuvim in New York City on June 21, 1921; died of breast cancer on June 7, 1965, at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City; the only child of Abraham Tuvim (a fund raiser for Jewish and socialist causes) and Helen (Gollomb) Tuvim (a piano teacher); graduated Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, 1938; married David Oppenheim, on January 4, 1948 (divorced 1957); children: Jonathan (b. 1952).
Clarence Derwent and Theatre World Award (1945) for her role in Kiss Them for Me; Academy Award for Best Actress (1950) for Born Yesterday; Antoinette Perry Award (1956) for Outstanding Lead in the musical Bells Are Ringing.
Made film debut in Greenwich Village (1944); made stage debut in Kiss Them for Me (1945); starred in Born Yesterday on Broadway (1946–50), with a break to appear in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film Adam's Rib (1946); costarred with Broderick Crawford in Born Yesterday at Columbia, for which she won an Oscar; blacklisted (early 1950s); made musical comedy debut in Bells Are Ringing (1956).
Greenwich Village (1944); Something for the Boys (1944); Winged Victory (1944); Adam's Rib (1949); Born Yesterday (1950); The Marrying Kind (1952); It Should Happen to You (1954); Phffft (1954); The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956); Full of Life (1957); Bells Are Ringing (1960).
With an IQ of 172, Judy Holliday wanted to be a writer and director, but she had to settle for being an outstanding comedienne. Type cast as the eternal dumb blonde with a heart of gold, she won top honors for her most important roles, proving that her performances were anything but cliché.
She was born Judith Tuvim in New York City on June 21, 1921. Her father Abraham Tuvim was a professional fund raiser who wrote songs on the side; her mother Helen Gollomb Tuvim taught piano. The musical gatherings at the family home soon ended with her parents' separation when she was six, so Holliday was raised by her mother in her maternal grandmother's house in Queens, New York. "Mother went to her pupils' homes to teach piano," recalled Holliday, "and she also taught WPA classes at settlement houses. She was gone most of the day. My grandmother took care of the house and did the cooking. Between the two of them, I usually got what I wanted unless it was something we couldn't afford. I never had a bicycle or a Girl Scout uniform, but I never really minded. Somehow the explanation that we just didn't have the money for them seemed quite sensible to me." Though she regularly saw her father, she became extremely protective of her mother; theirs was a warm, friendly relationship.
She attended grade school at P.S. 125 in Queens. While classmates were reading Nancy Drew and the Mystery in the Old Attic, she was reading War and Peace. Arithmetic, however, left her cold. Overcoming great natural shyness, she took part in dramatics and went so far as to write and act in a Christmas play, even though she was Jewish and her grandparents had fled the tsar's pogroms in Russia. She also edited her school newspaper and won a $50 prize with an essay on "How to Keep the Streets, Parks and Playgrounds of Our City Clean." She then attended Julia Richman, a public high school for girls, graduating first in her class at age 16. Holliday remembered little of those high school years, except that she acted in school plays and had to make up arithmetic in summer school. "I'm afraid I was horribly stuffy about social life," she said. "I guess I was just a natural snob. I got a kick out of being different, and I was eager to improve myself and everyone around me. As a result, I went out mostly with boys who would take me to Broadway shows instead of parties; symphony concerts and recitals instead of dances. I was more interested in writing poetry than passing love notes and in hearing Bach than dancing to Benny Goodman. I must have been obnoxious."
Particularly in the early days of her career, she enjoyed a series of lucky breaks that she was able to maximize because of her talent, drive, and perfectionism. Told she was too young to apply to the Yale Drama School, she took a nonpaying job at Orson Welles' Mercury Theater as an assistant switchboard operator.
While vacationing at a Jewish resort in the Catskill Mountains with her mother, she became friends with Adolph Green who was performing there. Together, they gathered Betty Comden , Alvin Hammer and John Frank, who became "The Revuers," a cabaret group. Back in the city in the fall of 1938, Holliday (the English equivalent of the Hebrew word Tuvim) dropped by a cafe called the Village Vanguard and persuaded the manager to let the group give free performances on Sunday nights in return for rehearsal space. Their topical skits, which included honoring the inventor of the shoe horn and ridiculing Joan Crawford fans, were so successful that The Revuers were booked into top clubs like the Rainbow Room. The irony was that while Comden and Green wanted to perform, they were more successful as writers. Holliday, who wanted to write, was more successful as a performer, even though she became physically ill before each appearance. She was terrified of the audience, abhorred the smoke and noise of the nightclubs, and hating having to fight for the attention of drunks. Though she felt trapped and depressed, she enjoyed the company of her fellow artists. She was also bringing in money to augment her mother's income from piano lessons and intent on learning her trade. "The more painful it was," she said, "the more important I thought the experience must be. Hating it, I convinced myself it must be invaluable."
[Judy Holliday] had in common with the great comedians—with Chaplin—that depth of emotion, that unexpectedly touching emotion, that thing which would unexpectedly touch your heart.
A creature of rapidly changing moods, Holliday was a perfectionist and extremely self-critical. "It wasn't unusual to find her crying between acts because she felt she hadn't done well," said her close friend Betty Comden. "Then, in a matter of minutes, she'd pull herself together and go out and do much better." Her self-imposed demands resulted in an attack of nerves with each new project. Even so, Holliday worked at relaxing everyone else involved.
In 1943, the group (along with Judy's mother Helen) went to Hollywood, rented a small apartment, bought an aging limousine, and set out to find work. Though they soon had a $1,000-a-week booking at the Trocadero, it was Holliday, and Holliday alone, who was offered film work. She turned down all opportunities until Fox agreed (only if she would sign a year's contract) to put her friends in a movie with her. The Revuers ended up on the cutting room floor of the 1944 Greenwich Village and, discouraged, broke up. Comden and Green returned to New York while Holliday stayed in Los Angeles with her mother and quickly followed up on her debut with bit parts in Something for the Boys and Winged Victory, for which she secured a good review. Even so, Fox dropped her option.
Always happiest in New York City, she and her mother returned there in 1945 at the time Comden and Green had their first musical hit, On the Town. They persuaded her to try out for the part of a prostitute in Kiss Them for Me. Holliday's voice was naturally low, but she worked until she developed a roar that reached the back of the house. For this, her stage debut, she won the Clarence Derwent Award for Best Supporting Actress of 1945.
A year later, when illness forced Jean Arthur to drop out of Born Yesterday before it opened in Philadelphia, Holliday was given 72 hours to learn the role of Billie Dawn. Living on coffee and dexadrine in a Philadelphia hotel, she created a part that would endure, causing total strangers to walk up to her for the rest of her life and beg her to repeat her line: "Do me a favor, will ya, Harry? Drop dead." As the slow-witted mistress of an abusive junk dealer who caught on to her lover's crimes and outfoxed him for the good of his victims, she triumphed and won a Tony Award, playing the part on Broadway for almost four years without missing a performance. In 1948, in the middle of her Broadway run, she married the clarinetist David Oppenheim, the head of the classical recording division of Columbia Records.
Harry Cohn wanted her to do the film version of Born Yesterday at Columbia, and Holliday agreed on the condition that her contract bind her to no more than one picture a year so that she would have time for her new husband. Cohn rejected Holliday's demand and considered other actresses under contract to him, such as Lucille Ball and Rita Hayworth .
Meanwhile, with the help of Garson Kanin, who wrote Born Yesterday, Judy landed a supporting role in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film Adam's Rib, in which she played Doris Attinger, a jealous housewife who nervously devours candy bars. Kanin, Tracy, Hepburn, and director George Cukor were all pushing Holliday for Born Yesterday, and her performance in Adam's Rib was outstanding. Cohn had to recognize her screen presence and the fact that Holliday was indeed perfect for the film version of Born Yesterday, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1950.
Returning to New York, Holliday took a two-year hiatus from acting and settled down to the role of wife and the longed-for role of mother. Though she underwent psychoanalysis
(which would last four years) to save her marriage, the age old problem of the wife outdoing the husband prevailed, and the marriage faltered. But with the help of those psychiatric sessions and her friend George Cukor, she began to change her attitude toward acting. Cukor showed her that "my so-called desires to write and direct were completely unreal and that acting—really good acting—could be both creative and satisfying. He knocked a lot of nonsense out of me." Psychoanalysis "gave me a far greater understanding of the motivations which underlie action, and it made me look at myself in a much more realistic way."
She went on to do five more film comedies—The Marrying Kind (1950), It Should Happen to You (1953), Phffft (1954), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), Full of Life (1956) and Bells are Ringing (1960). To a large extent, she managed to evade the "dumb blonde" stereotype in The Marrying Kind. Costarring Aldo Ray, it was a comment on the unrealistic dreams that burden middle-class marriage. In playing Florence Keefer, whose young son drowns in a swimming pool, she displayed her range and sensitivity as an actress, but her performance was over-shadowed by her brush with McCarthyism.
In 1952, Holliday was drawn into the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. Although she was extremely alert in all her dealings, when she testified before the Senate Internal Security sub-committee, she took on the scatterbrained persona of Billie Dawn. Unable to think of anyone she knew to be a Communist, Holliday claimed to have been duped into lending her name to Communist organizations and said that she had hired investigators to find out how she had gotten into such a mess. "I have awakened to a realization that I have been irresponsible and slightly—more than slightly—stupid. When I was solicited, I always said, 'Oh, isn't that too bad. Sure, use my name.'" Her name was listed in a book called Red Channels, which cataloged 151 people in the entertainment field (Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, and Dorothy Parker among them) who purportedly had links to Communists. Thus she was blacklisted and effectively banned from appearing on television.
Her success in the 1954 film It Should Happen to You, which introduced Jack Lemmon and was directed by Cukor, lifted the cloud. In it, she played Gladys Glover, whose dreams of finding fame in New York falter when she is forced to become a girdle model. She gains some weight and loses her job and decides to advertise herself by renting a billboard on Columbus Avenue. Holliday and Lemmon costarred again in Phffft about a tedious lawyer and his wife, a writer of radio soap operas, the following year, but it was
unsuccessful. Though The Solid Gold Cadillac, about a shareholder who battles corrupt executives, earned her solid reviews the next year, she was tired of moviemaking and Hollywood.
In 1956, her old friends Comden and Green gave her the starring role as a ditsy telephone operator in the Broadway musical Bells Are Ringing. Holliday drew on her experiences with the Mercury Theater and revealed her talent for vaudeville and impersonation. She also began singing lessons with conductor Herbert Greene. They, too, became close friends. Said Greene: "She understood deeply the nature of her talent, but she was also violently and destructively self-critical, to the point of unreality. Her strongest feelings were negative; she was driven by unfounded fears and feelings of guilt; she had nasty periods of depression, and she doubted her femininity and appeal to men. At the same time, she had enormous insight into other people, intense loyalty and great generosity." Holliday starred in the MGM version of Bells Are Ringing four years later.
Bad health and alcoholism plagued her when she was on the brink of expanding into more demanding roles. In 1960, she had the opportunity to play Laurette Taylor , a film and stage star of the '20s whom Constantin Stanislavsky regarded as America's finest actress. In her lifetime, Taylor had been beset by romantic problems and alcoholism, which she conquered before succumbing to a throat ailment. Laurette was canceled in New Haven after Holliday herself began having problems with her throat. Audiences in Philadelphia booed her for mumbling her lines. Doctors soon discovered greater problems, and she was operated on for breast cancer. Judy Holliday appeared in one last musical, the unsuccessful Hot Spot in 1963, and was writing lyrics to songs by the jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan at the time of her death. She died of breast cancer on June 7, 1965, two weeks before her 43rd birthday.
Carey, Gary. Judy Holliday: An Intimate Life Story. Seaview, 1982.
Current Biography. April 1951. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1951.
Holtzman, Will. Judy Holliday. NY: Putnam, 1982.
The New York Times (obituary). June 8, 1965.
Shout, John David. "Judy Holliday" in Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. IV. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980
Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center.