Holtzmann, Fanny (c. 1900–1980)

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Holtzmann, Fanny (c. 1900–1980)

American lawyer. Born Fanny Ellen Holtzmann in Brooklyn, New York, around 1900; died of cancer on February 7, 1980; one of seven children of Henry Holtzmann (a scholar and tutor) and Theresa Holtzmann; attended P.S. 84, Brooklyn; attended Girls' High School for three years; graduated from a business course at Pernin School, Brooklyn; Fordham Law School, LL.B., 1922; never married; no children.

Considered by some one of America's most brilliant legal strategists, Fanny Holtzmann was not a child of wealth. She was born around 1900 and grew up on Eastern Parkway in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, a nearly forgotten child in a large Jewish family. A mediocre student who did not finish high school, Holtzmann was inspired by her eldest brother David, the family's first attorney, and was encouraged in her own pursuit of the law by her grandfather "Zaida," to whom she was devoted. Holtzmann received her law degree from Fordham Law School, attending classes at night and working as a clerk in a theatrical law firm during the day. She began her career in New York, and through dedication, creative flair, and a direct approach ("I don't follow precedent, I establish it") made her way into the high echelons of entertainment law, then to England's "castle circuit," and finally into international politics.

Holtzmann was thrust into the public eye in 1934 when she successfully represented the Russian royal family in a libel suit against MGM, which involved the misrepresentation of Princess Irina (1895–1970), the niece of Tsar Nicholas II, as the mistress and sponsor of the notorious Rasputin. The trial, which culminated in the largest financial settlement ever resulting from a libel action, brought the film company to its knees and catapulted Holtzmann to fame in England and America. (" Greta Garbo of the Bar," she came to be called.) Good Housekeeping of London lauded her as "one of the most mentally alert lawyers alive," and American columnist O.O. McIntyre thought her "a satisfactory exemplar of the new freedom of women." Reportedly, she even had something like a fan club in Buckingham Palace. While publishers clamored for her story, Holtzmann declined, preferring to retain her anonymity.

Holtzmann's roster of famous clients included Noel Coward, Clifton Webb, Fred Astaire, George Bernard Shaw, Jacob Epstein, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Louis Bromfield, and Darryl F. Zanuck, but her star client ("in every way," notes friend and biographer Edward O. Berkman) was Gertrude Lawrence , whom she saved from bankruptcy at least once and served as a financial consultant for 20 years. Beyond show business, Holtzmann had early warnings of Hitler's atrocities from her European clients. By soliciting money to ensure that immigrant Jews would not become dependent on public funds, she convinced the U.S. Immigration Service to permit more Jews into the county. Though she saved hundreds, her own relatives died in concentration camps. At the founding session of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, Holtzmann was principal U.S. counsel to the Republic of China and assisted China in becoming one of the five countries with veto power. She also used her influence to marshal votes from a number of smaller non-aligned nations for the admission of Israel into the United Nations in 1947.

Holtzmann was described as a small, delicate woman, with fawn-like eyes, and an overriding air of helplessness. "Helpless, indeed!" scoffed playwright Moss Hart, who first met Holtzmann in 1920, when she was instrumental in getting a Broadway hearing for his play Once in a Lifetime. "Fanny is about as helpless as the Bethlehem Steel Company and as delicate as 'Jack the Ripper.'" Although Holtzmann's professional life was full, her personal life was quiet. She was notoriously unlucky in love, Berkman writes, perhaps due in part to her success in what was then strictly a man's world. There was an early engagement that was broken and a number of subsequent romances. A later "proposal" to "Fairest Fanny" came from G.B. Shaw, who wrote her, "I have the ideal catch for you. Rich, Famous, and 90. Me." But the domestic life that Holtzmann craved eluded her. According to Berkman, she channeled her "overflowing affection and boundless energy" into her family and a variety of causes, including rescuing British war orphans and stranded Hong Kong refugees, and financing medical research. Other outlets were painting, and later, sculpture, under the tutelage of Jacob Epstein, who was also a client. Through the intervention of Shaw, a series of her paintings was exhibited at London's Leicester Galleries, and her sculptures (mostly heads) were part of a New York Bar Association exhibit.

Around 1974, Holtzmann, who aside from a bout with measles when she was five was never sick, was struck down by a virulent blood disorder that nearly took her life. She was cured by a therapeutic program devised by Dr. Emanuel Revici, whose medical research she had supported since 1953. However, she did not adhere to the regimen of diet and rest and was soon back at work, prompting Revici to call her "a terrible patient." "Fanny had no talent for sickness," concludes Berkman, "her talent was for life." On January 18, 1980, Holtzmann was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in a bedside ceremony. She died three weeks later, on February 7, of cancer.


Berkman, Edward O. The Lady and the Law: The Remarkable Story of Fanny Holtzmann. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1976.


Fanny E. Holtzmann Papers 1920–1980, American Jewish Archives.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Holtzmann, Fanny (c. 1900–1980)

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