Kalich, Bertha (1874–1939)

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Kalich, Bertha (1874–1939)

Famed Yiddish actress. Name variations: also seen as Kalish. Born in Lemberg, Galicia (Austrian Poland), on May 17, 1874 (also cited as 1872); died in New York City, on April 18, 1939; the only child of Solomon Kalich (a brush manufacturer) and Babette (Halber) Kalich; attended the Chatsky School, Lemberg; studied voice at the Lemberg Conservatory; married Leopold Spachner, around 1890; children: Arthur (died in childhood);Lillian Spachner .

Referred to variously as "the Jewish Bernhardt" and "the Yiddish Duse," Bertha Kalich was a leading dramatic actress of New York's Yiddish theater during the late 19th and early 20th century. After a stunning English-speaking debut in 1905, she also played successfully on Broadway for several years. Strikingly tall, with a deep, resonant voice and expressive face, the actress, by her own count, took on 125 different roles in seven languages during the course of her career.

The events of Kalich's early life are sketchy. Born and raised in Lemberg, the capital of the Austrian province of Galicia (Poland), she apparently studied music and voice as a child and made her stage debut in 1887, age 13, at the Skarbeck Theater in her native city. She subsequently became a leading singer in the newly established Yiddish Theater in Lemberg and also made appearances in Budapest, Hungary, and Bucharest, Rumania. Around 1890, she married Leopold Spachner, whom she had met during her conservatory days. The couple had two children, a son who died in early childhood, and a daughter.

In 1894, amid the rising tide of anti-Semitism, the family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York, where Kalich first appeared at the Thalia Theater in a Yiddish version of La Belle Hélène, a comic opera adaptation that was typical fare in the early Yiddish theater. The following year, she made a transition from musicals to drama, performing with great success in Abraham Goldfaden's The Ironmaster. As the Yiddish theater began to produce the more serious plays of Jacob Gordin and others, as well as translations of Shakespeare and modern European dramatists, Kalich's career flourished. One of her more outstanding performances was in Gordin's The Yiddish King Lear, but she was equally as effective in realistic plays depicting ghetto life, such as The East Side Ghetto, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Truth, and God, Man, and the Devil. Over the course of ten years, Kalich reigned as the leading dramatic actress of the Yiddish theater.

The actress could not help but attract the attention of Broadway producers, who, in spite of the language barrier, were eager to exploit her extraordinary talent. After working hard to overcome her Polish accent, Kalich made her first English-speaking appearance in the title role of Victorien Sardou's Fedora, on May 22, 1905, at the American Theater. The performance apparently caught everyone by surprise. "Here was a Yiddish actress from the Bowery precincts," wrote one incredulous critic, "wearing Paris gowns as though to the manner born, and as regal and distinguished looking as Duse or Re-jane!" Manager Harrison Grey Fiske, who later recalled Kalich's Broadway debut as a "wholly unexpected revelation," signed the actress to a five-year contract. After further tutoring in English by Minnie Maddern Fiske , Kalich appeared in such plays as Monna Vanna (1905), an English version of Gordin's The Kreutzer Sonata (1906), Therese Raquin (1906), Marta of the Lowlands (1907), Sappho and Phaon (1907), The Unbroken Road (1908), and Cora (1908).

Bertha Kalich's appeal, however, was somewhat limited, her ethnicity and accent presenting too great a challenge for more conventional audiences. "In nothing but an exotic part, where

she is either a woman of foreign birth or a strange creature doing strange things can the American public accept her," commented the Boston Transcript. Eventually, even Fiske found it difficult to find roles suited to Kalich's unique talent, and the two parted ways in 1910. Kalich subsequently acted for producers Lee Shubert and Arthur Hopkins, among others, and made several movies between 1916 and 1918. Her later stage roles included performances in Jitta's Atonement (1923), adapted from German by George Bernard Shaw, Magda (1926), and The Soul of a Woman (1928). While performing in the latter, she caught a cold which affected her eyesight. Despite three operations, she became increasingly blind and officially retired from the stage in 1931. She made occasional benefit and testimonial appearances, the last of which was a performance at the Jolson Theater on February 23, 1939. Bertha Kalich died on April 18, 1939, following several weeks of treatment for a stomach ailment.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theater. London and NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts