Sidney, Sylvia (1910–1999)

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Sidney, Sylvia (1910–1999)

American actress. Born Sophia Kosow on August 8, 1910, in the Bronx, New York; died of throat cancer on July 1, 1999; studied acting at the Theater Guild School; married Bennett Cerf (a publisher), in 1935 (divorced 1936); married Luther Adler (an actor), in 1938 (divorced 1947); married Carlton Alsop (a publicist), in 1947 (divorced 1950); children: Jacob Adler (deceased).

Selected theater:

made stage debut in The Challenge of Youth (1926); appeared in The Squall (1927), Broadway Lights (1927), Gods of the Lightning (1928), To Quito and Back (1937), Pygmalion (1939), The Gentle People (1939), Angel Street (1941), The Fourposter (1951), A Very Special Baby (1956), Auntie Mame (1958), and Enter Laughing (1963).

Selected filmography:

Broadway Nights (cameo, 1927); Thru Different Eyes (1929); City Streets (1931); Confessions of a Co-Ed (1931); An American Tragedy (1931); Street Scene (1931); Ladies of the Big House (1931); The Miracle Man (1932); Merrily We Go to Hell (1932); Make Me a Star (cameo, 1932); Madame Butterfly (1932); Pick Up (1933); Jennie Gerhardt (1933); Good Dame (1934); Thirty Day Princess (1934); Behold My Wife (1935); Accent on Youth (1935); Mary Burns—Fugitive (1935); The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936); Fury (1936); Sabotage (A Woman Alone, UK, 1936); You Only Live Once (1937); Dead End (1937); You and Me (1938); One Third of a Nation (1939); The Wagons Roll at Night (1941); Blood on the Sun (1945); The Searching Wind (1946); Mr. Ace (1946); Love from a Stranger (1947); Les Misérables (1952); Violent Saturday (1955); Behind the High Wall (1956); Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973); God Told Me So (1976); I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977); Damien: Omen II (1978); Hammett (1982); L'assassino dei poliziotti (Cop Killers or Corrupt, It., 1983); Beetle-juice (1988); Used People (1992).

Born Sophia Kosow in 1910 in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Sylvia Sidney decided at age 11 to become an actress, then set out to make it happen. She studied dancing and elocution as a child, and left high school at 15 to join the Theater Guild School, where she was she was known as something of a maverick. She made her professional stage debut in Washington at age 16, in The Challenge of Youth, then took over the lead in the New York production of The Squall. Her first screen effort, as a screaming witness in the courtroom drama Thru Different Eyes (1929), brought her to the attention of studio heads at Paramount. By 1931, she had signed a contract and was on her way to becoming one of the studio's brightest stars.

Small, dark, and waiflike in appearance, Sidney exuded vulnerability, which the studio exploited in the 1930s by invariably casting her as the downtrodden girl of the working class. "Her heart-shaped face and trembling petal lips invited sympathy, and her sad eyes expressed the silent cry of a suffering generation," writes Ephraim Katz, explaining Sidney's popularity during the Depression. She played a sweet young girl whose boyfriend becomes involved in racketeering in City Streets (1931); an unmarried mother in Confessions of a Co-Ed and again in An American Tragedy (both 1931); a prisoner in Ladies of the Big House (1932); a fugitive from the police in Mary Burns—Fugitive (1935); the girlfriend of a fugitive in Fury (1936); and the sister of a criminal living in the slums in Dead End (1937). Occasionally, the actress was allowed to try her hand at lighter fare, such as her dual role opposite Cary Grant in Thirty Day Princess (1934), and her portrayal of a secretary who is pursued by her boss in Accent on Youth (1935). By the early 1940s, Sidney was growing tired of being typecast as a victim and began returning more and more to the stage. She played character roles in three films during the 1950s, then for the most part retired from movies. "I didn't leave Hollywood because of anybody but myself," she said later. "I just got disgusted with myself. I didn't know who I was, as an actress or a person."

During the 1950s and 1960s, Sidney busied herself with stage and television appearances, and published a book on needlepoint that was said to be one of the best on the subject. She made a film comeback in 1973, playing Joanne Woodward 's doomed mother in Summer Wishes,Winter Dreams, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In 1986, she received a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of the compassionate grandmother of an AIDS patient in the television movie "An Early Frost."

Sidney was tough and sharp-witted, much the opposite of her 1930s screen image. She also had a reputation for being somewhat difficult to work with; her battles with the late Josef von Sternberg, who directed her on the screen, were legendary. Sidney also had a series of tumultuous marriages: her first and shortest to publisher Bennett Cerf (1935–36), a second to actor Luther Adler (1938–47), and a third to publicist Carlton Alsop (1947–1950). The actress had one son, Jacob Adler, who died in the mid-1980s of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. From the time of his diagnosis, Sidney became an active volunteer for the ALS Foundation.

In her later years, Sidney lived alone in Connecticut with her two Pekingese. She continued to work, making her last film appearances in Beetlejuice (1988) and Used People (1992). In

1990, she was given the Life Achievement award by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. She died nine years later, at age 88.


Anderson, Polly. "Obituaries," in The Day [New London, CT]. July 2, 1999.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 3rd Series. NY: Crown, 1970.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts