Spewack, Bella (1899–1990)

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Spewack, Bella (1899–1990)

Rumanian-born American playwright and screen-writer. Name variations: Bella Cohen. Born Bella Cohen in Transylvania on March 25, 1899; died in Manhattan, New York, on April 27, 1990; daughter of Adolph Cohen and Fanny (Lang) Cohen; educated at Washington Irving High School in the Bronx, New York; married Samuel Spewack, around 1922 (died 1971); no children.

Selected plays with Samuel Spewack:

The Solitaire Man (1926); Poppa (1928); The War Song (1928); Clear All Wires (1932); Spring Song (1934); Boy Meets Girl (1935); Leave It to Me (1938); Miss Swan Expects (1939); Woman Bites Dog (1946); Kiss Me Kate (1949); Two Blind Mice (1949); The Golden State (1950); My Three Angels (1953); Festival (1955).

Selected filmography with Samuel Spewack:

The Nuisance (1932); The Secret Witness (1932); The Gay Bride (1934); The Cat and the Fiddle (1934); Rendezvous (1935); Boy Meets Girl (1938); Vogues of 1938 (1938); Three Loves Has Nancy (1938); My Favorite Wife (1940); Weekend at the Waldorf (1945); Kiss Me Kate (1953); Move Over Darling (1963).

As a playwright, Bella Spewack made her mark with the musical Kiss Me Kate, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew which she co-wrote with her husband. First produced in 1949, the play enjoyed an initial run of over 1,000 performances on Broadway and was credited with reviving the career of its composer Cole Porter. Born Bella Cohen in Transylvania in 1899, the daughter of Adolph Cohen and Fanny Lang Cohen , Bella Spewack came to New York City at the age of three. In her autobiography Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side, she recounted her youth as a Jewish immigrant raised by a single mother in Manhattan. Fanny, a live-in domestic, took in sewing and eventually boarders in an attempt to make ends meet. Spewack and her two younger brothers, one of whom needed constant nursing, changed homes every year as their mother sought more affordable accommodations, but Fanny Cohen refused to allow her daughter to work in a factory because she wanted her to be a "lady." Bella finished her schooling at Washington Irving High School in the Bronx in 1917.

Spewack worked first as a journalist, starting at the socialist newspaper The New York Call. Her impressive writing garnered her work at other papers, including The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, and the Evening Mail. Her writing also caught the eye of fellow reporter Sam Spewack, whom she married around 1922. Immediately following their marriage, the pair traveled to Moscow, where they both served as foreign correspondents for The World. Bella achieved distinction both for the quality of the stories she sent back to the States and as one of the few female foreign correspondents at the time.

Despite her success in journalism, Spewack turned her talents to the theater upon their return to America in 1926, becoming a press agent. Although Sam continued to write for The World, he found time to collaborate with Bella in the creation of Broadway scripts. They utilized their experiences in Moscow to write their first hit, Clear All Wires, in 1932. Although supposedly a satire on Eastern European politics and American bureaucracy, it was more of a farce about a globe-trotting journalist who creates as much news as he covers. The play was later turned into the musical Leave It to Me, featuring tunes by Cole Porter. It also launched the career of actress Mary Martin and featured a young Gene Kelly in the chorus.

The year 1932 also saw the Spewacks' first Hollywood projects, with the scripts for The Nuisance and The Secret Witness. Over the years, they wrote approximately 20 movies, many of them cinematic adaptations of their stage hits. Their Hollywood experiences spawned another successful Broadway play in 1935, Boy Meets Girl, poking fun at the film industry and the people involved in it.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Spewacks consistently had their productions on the Broadway stage, averaging one a year. Much of their success stemmed from their formulaic approach to writing, as they stuck to the standard, lighthearted "boy-meets-girl" kind of love stories that lifted the spirits of their post-Depression audiences. The sentiment they so ably conveyed was linked to madcap comedy and slapstick, featuring the harassed, the scatterbrained and other cartoonish characters designed to elicit easy laughs.

But none of their plays equaled the success of their 1949 musical Kiss Me Kate. Although Spewack did not consider The Taming of the Shrew to be one of Shakespeare's best, she was sold on the project by the presence of Cole Porter, who agreed to write the songs. The play won a Tony Award. In 1953, it was made into a movie, the same year the Spewacks scored another hit on Broadway with My Three Angels, an adaptation of a French play about three likeable scoundrels. Their 1955 play Festival, however, received terrible notices and was rescued from early closure only by Bella Spewack's personal appeals from the stage after every performance. It would be their last play, although they did write the movie Move Over Darling in 1963.

In addition to her accomplishments on the stage and screen, Bella Spewack also achieved a degree of fame for her work as a publicist for the Girl Scouts Association prior to her marriage. She is credited with the invention of the Girl Scout Cookie, which developed into an enduring national fund-raising campaign. Bella Spewack died in Manhattan on April 27, 1990.


Andrews, Deborah, ed. The Annual Obituary 1990. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1991.

Kunitz, Stanley J., ed. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts