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Life

When Fanny Brice Made the Follies

Forward Association

Fanny Brice (born Fania Borach) of Forsyth Street, and later on, further uptown and even New Jersey, opened her career-making act as the Yiddish “Salome” with this line: “I’ve been a bad woman, but such good company, Nu?”

Originally set up for her acclaimed Yiddish-accented comedy act by songwriter Irving Berlin, Brice caught impresario Florenz Ziegfield’s attention, and a long-term theatrical contract in his follies with her Jewish Salome. So encouraged was she by Berlin to adopt the Yiddish accent to perform his “Sadie Salome” that one might say she dropped her previous accent, an Irish brogue, like a hot potato.

A glance at this 1928 image in the Forward Association’s archive in which she is seen recording the “singing-talking” Vitaphone film of the English version of Maurice Yvain’s 1920 French hit “Mon Homme,” puts one in mind of a mirrored disco ball from the 1970’s. With each spin of the ball, Brice’s sphere of influences is further reflected to viewers. The song she was recording here was first popularized in 1920 by Mistinguett, the beloved French star of the Folies Bergieres and the world’s highest paid female entertainer at the time. (Her legs were reportedly insured for 500,000 francs.) Mistinguett’s foray into Ziegfield’s orbit ended on a sad note when Ziegfield chose the popular comedic burlesque Brice over France’s husky-voiced magnet to perform it in English for his version of follies in New York City.

What must have been a tense showdown for Brice — angering the throaty voice of Paris — became instead a chance to drop the Yiddish minstrel act and draw on her own real-time tsoris and show her vulnerable side. For a Jewish woman performer who underwent an early nose job and the equally popular last-name-change in order to best fit into the entertainment profession, exposing her lovelorn grief was a brave second act. Now the broad-featured Brice, whose face was said to seemingly be made of rubber, stood in an evening gown and leaned on a lamp post keening a bluesy soulful dirge about her own man. And what a man she mourned. Nicky Arnstein, a famed gambler and Brice’s husband at the time was unable to attend her show stopping performance because the man himself was sitting in a prison cell doing time for “stock irregularities.”

Brice was later immortalized by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” and “Funny Lady.” The song “My Man” was sung by the eternal Billy Holliday and then, most recently, the torch passed to another local Jewish talent who seems to infuse it with her own uniquely Russian Jewish immigrant melancholia — Regina Spektor — for the HBO series “Broadway Empire.” Fanny Brice lived through another disappointing husband, raised two kids on her own and had an innovative career as a pioneering Jewish comedian. She brought the Lower East Side onstage in a blaze of accents, and later, in a stunning career cliff-walk, was unafraid of keeping it real by baring her soul in song.

Listen to Fanny Brice sing ‘My Man’ in the recording below.

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