Brice’s mother, Fanny, was an international star of stage, screen, and radio. Her unique personality, talent as a comedian, singer and actress, and her milieu offered particularly rich intellectual and artistic soil in which to grow. They were extraordinary blessings for Brice.
Whether in New York or in Hollywood, Fanny’s home was a mecca to many of the most gifted, interesting, and significant actors, comedians, directors, producers, composers, musicians, writers, and other artists of the first half of the 20th Century as well as to some of the most influential financers, politicians, and presidential cabinet secretaries. Even the underworld’s Arnold Rothstein, who is best known for fixing the 1919 World Series, was an acquaintance.
By 1910 at age nineteen Fanny Brice had become the female Broadway star and remained so until the mid-1930’s. She began a movie career in 1928 when Warner Brothers developed My Man as a star vehicle for her and brought Fanny to Hollywood. It was the second talkie ever made and was based on her hit, Ziegfeld Follies song of the same title and also loosely upon her life. More movies and trips to Hollywood followed as did friendships with top movie stars who sought out her company.
Then, in 1937, and after her divorce from her third husband, Broadway impresario, and lyricist, Billy Rose, Fanny permanently moved to Beverly Hills with Brice and his sister, Frances. Fanny continued to make movies and began starring on the radio as Baby Snooks in 1937, which began as variety show features. In 1944, CBS gave Fanny her own weekly radio show, The Baby Snooks Show, which she starred in until her death in 1951. Fanny had invented the Snooks character for Vaudeville, first as Baby Peggy, and then refining the character until she presented Baby Snooks in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934.
When her good friends were asked what were Fanny’s most outstanding characteristics, Katharine Hepburn said “elegance” and Spencer Tracy answered “sexuality.” Playwright, screenwriter, and producer Ben Hecht said about Fanny on stage, “Theater audiences never adored any performer more than Fanny. It would be impossible for an audience to laugh louder, weep more copiously, and applaud more violently than Fanny’s audience did.”
Besides having a terrific sense of irony, Fanny was inquisitive, smart, streetwise, and wise. She was an astute observer of life and the human condition. A tireless perfectionist, she was searingly honest about herself and about everything and everyone around her. She was also loyal and immensely generous. Dancer Harry Pilcer, a friend escaping the Nazi invasion of Paris, asked Fanny he could stay with her in Los Angeles for a few weeks until he got on his feet. He wound up living in her home for six years until the war was won. On a week-long train journey from New York to California, Fanny became impressed with a young black porter. By the end of the trip, she offered to finance his medical education so he could fulfill his ambition to become a doctor, which he did.
However, these gifts of birthright came at a high cost for young Brice.
His father’s (Jules “Nicky” Arnstein) real troubles started in 1919 just before Brice was born. “Nick,” as most called him, had two penchants in life—for opulence and for getting rich the easy way, which were the causes of his troubles. Nick billed himself as a professional gambler when he was introduced to Fanny in Baltimore on an evening in 1912. She was on tour; he was there for the racing season. One of Fanny’s show girlfriends was desperate for a date and so dragged a reluctant Fanny into a foursome blind date with Nick and a gambler pal. Nicky was the epitome of suave and was an absolute charmer. “Did I get born!” Fanny remarked about their first encounter with her biographer.
She was just twenty-one and fell for his elegance: his handmade silk shirts, his monograms, his English leather nearly everything, and his seven toothbrushes. Whenever Nick saw ordinary, 9 to 5’ers rushing to or from work, he called them “suckers.” Eventually, Fanny came to understand that Nicky was not just a gambler, but also a con artist and a thief who wasn’t capable of running a business in the straight world although Fanny had tried and tried to help him. She forgave Nick the first time he was sent to prison in 1916 for swindling, but not the second time.
In 1919, the police and the papers began to accuse Nick of having been the mastermind behind a scandalous, multi-million dollar, insider bond heist from a Wall Street trading firm—and he went on the ‘lam.’ After the FBI labeled Nick the most wanted man in North America and hunted him for six months, and after Nick’s ensuing years of legal battles that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and after years of relentless newspaper headlines, Nick was finally convicted of the crime in 1924. His son, William Brice, was just three-years-old when he saw his father hauled to Leavenworth prison. He was six when his father was released and his parents finally divorced. After that, his father essentially abandoned Brice, who only saw his father four more times. This despite the fact that Nick coincidentally moved from New York to Pasadena, California, and into the home of his wealthy, new wife around the time that Fanny moved Brice to Beverly Hills—and despite the fact that father and son lived only thirty minutes apart from 1937 until Nick’s death in 1965.
Fanny, too, was mostly absent during Brice’s childhood. The requirements of her success, at least, made her so. She had been born in 1891 in the Lower East Side of New York to relatively well-off saloon-keepers. It was in their saloon that as a kid Fanny learned to perform—and learned that audiences would pay for her to sing as they threw coins onto her small stage.
In 1908, at age seventeen, Fanny’s professional career began in earnest when she dropped out of school and signed onto sing in a burlesque review called College Girl. She talked her way into the show, telling the producer that she had a ‘specialty song’ (a “number” that is isolated from the rest of a show)—but it was a lie; she didn’t have anything. In a panic, Fanny rushed from the producer’s office after being hired to Tin Pan Alley where she asked the young and, as yet, unknown Irving Berlin to give her a specialty number. He offered his newest: the Irish-themed, Sadie Salome, Go Home. It was an era when ‘clean’ entertainment was based on ethnic stereotypes. Fanny had tried nearly all of them, except, oddly, a Yiddish one even though she was Jewish by heritage. Had Berlin not personally auditioned Sadie Salome for Fanny, singing it with his Yiddish accent, then she would never have realized that the song had to be sung that way, and so would never have tried the accent that became her hallmark. Fanny was a hit, so much so that Florenz Ziegfeld, the revue king of Broadway, heard of her and offered Fanny a contract for his 1910 Ziegfeld Follies.
Fanny was allowed two numbers in her first Follies: Lovey Joe by Will Marion Cook and Joe Jordan and another Berlin Yiddish dialect song, Goodbye Becky Cohen. From opening night, Fanny was a wild success and so were both of her songs, especially Berlin’s. Ziegfeld, who had hired Brice at $75 per week, promptly tore up her contract and gave her a new one “befitting a star.” Fanny’s performance put her and Berlin on the road to fame.
From the 1910 Follies onwards, Fanny was a headliner in every Ziegfeld Follies show (except when headlining for Ziegfeld’s rivals, the Shuberts) until 1937.
About her stage career, Fanny said:
“Listen, kid! I’ve done everything in the theatre except marry a property man. I’ve been a soubrette in burlesque and I’ve accompanied stereopticon slides. I’ve acted for Belasco and I’ve laid ’em out in the rows at the Palace. I’ve doubled as an alligator, I’ve worked for the Shuberts, and I’ve been joined to Billy Rose in the holy bonds. I’ve painted the house boards and I’ve sold tickets and I’ve been fired by George M. Cohan. I’ve played in London before the king and in Oil City before miners with lanterns in their caps.”
However, to be a Broadway star and a mother was impossible. Stage life required that Fanny start her ‘morning’ in the afternoon by waking and going to the theater, performing at night (when not also doing matinees), dining and relaxing after the show until the morning hours, and then waking the next afternoon to start all over again. It also necessitated going on tour with the show across America or to Europe for months at a time. When the show season finished, rehearsals for the next year’s show shortly began. One way or another, Fanny was unavailable for most of her children’s waking hours. Responsibility for rearing Brice and his sister, therefore, fell to a series of French governesses, who firmly believed that teaching children correct manners was all that was important. Even in the summers when they were out of school, Brice and his sister often went to France without Fanny to visit their governesses’ families, which is when Brice learned to speak French fluently. Consequently, there was little maternal nurturing in Brice’s and his sister’s young lives. When recalling his childhood, Brice would relate an anecdote with a wry smile and an ironic tone, “Mam’selle would hold a piece of hose underneath the table and if I picked up the wrong fork she’d whip my legs.”
About Fanny, Brice said:
“I didn’t really get to know her until we moved to Los Angeles when I was seventeen. She wasn’t so much a mother as my best friend. She was a fascinating person.”
Fortunately for Brice, his mother believed that art was special. She became an amateur painter, whom Brice described as “…a kind of a talented primitive.” Fanny took obvious joy and pride in the fact that her son was a developing artist and gave him her fullest support from the moment he first expressed his interest in art at age thirteen until her death in 1951. (For more on Fanny Brice, please see: About Brice/Photo Album/William Brice as well as Library/Links/William Brice/Family of/Brice, Fanny – Mother of)