This Day in Jewish History

2006: A Reinvented Woman Who Would Write 'Singin' in the Rain' Dies

Betty Comden’s name was an artifact too – she changed Basya because it sounded too Yiddish, and Ellis Island changed Astershinsky Simselelyevitch-Simselyovitch for the obvious reason.

Betty Comden (May 3, 1917 – November 23, 2006), shown in the left of this composite photo in a shot from about 1939, against the backdrop of rain in Spain.
AP and Wikimedia Commons

On November 23, 2006, Betty Comden, the writer, lyricist and performer who, together with Adoph Green, formed one of the musical theater’s most successful creative and long-lived partnerships, died, at the age of 89. Comden and Green’s collaborations, which won them seven Tonys and two Oscar nominations, included the book and lyrics for “On the Town” (both play and film), “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Bells Are Ringing,” among many other creations.

She was born Basya Cohen, in Brooklyn, on May 3, 1917. Her father, Leo Cohen, was a lawyer, and her mother, the former Rebecca Sadvoransky, was a teacher; she had an older brother, Nathaniel.

When she was five, Basya came home complaining of being teased in the neighborhood about her Yiddish name, and her father told her she could choose replace it with any English name she wanted, provided it began with B. Thus she became ‘Betty.’

Much later, at 19, Betty and Nat decided to lose the name “Cohen,” which they understood had been given her father’s family at Ellis Island, because their original name of “Astershinsky Simselelyevitch-Simselyovitch” was perceived as unwieldy. They landed on “Comden” because it sounded like the maiden name of Betty’s namesake aunt, Basya Emden, and retained the letter “C” from Cohen.

That same year, she dealt with another source of embarrassment, when she underwent cosmetic surgery on her nose.

Seventh-grade stage star

Betty had her start on the stage in seventh grade, at Brooklyn’s Ethical Culture School, where she played the role of Rebecca, the “Jewess,” in a theatrical version of Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” After graduating Erasmus Hall High School, Comden studied drama at New York University, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1938.

Soon after, she met Adolph Green, Judy Holliday (formerly Judith Tuvim), and two other performers, Alvin Hammer and John Frank, who together established the performing troupe The Revuers. Lacking satisfactory comedic material for their skits, Comden and Green began producing their own. The Revuers persuaded Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard club in New York, to engage them, which he did with great success. Sometimes, when he was available, they would be joined on the piano by their friend Lenny Bernstein.

Singin' in the Rain trailer screenshot, featuring Gene Kelly and women.
Wikimedia Commons

The Revuers were successful enough that they were invited to Hollywood to appear in a film called “Greenwich Village,” but their screen-time in the final 1944 film was so slight as to make them almost invisible, and they returned to New York.

That same year, though, Leonard Bernstein asked Comden and Green to write the script and lyrics for a dramatic version of the ballet “Fancy Free,” whose music he had composed, to choreography by Jerome Robbins. The result was “On the Town,” for the stage in 1944 (she and Green also appeared in the play, she in the part of an anthropologist called Claire de Loone), and the screen in 1949.

The professional partnership continued until Adolph Green’s death, in 2002, with the two claiming that they met every day to work, though there were days when nothing got written. Both, however, were married to other people, Comden to the designer and businessman Steven Kyle (born Siegfried Schutzman).

It is true that Green and Comden turned down invitations to write what would become “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story,” but over their six-decade career, they wrote such successful plays as “Wonderful Town,” which won them their first Tony; “Bells Are Ringing,” with music by frequent collaborator Jule Styne, and starring Judy Day as a telephone answering-service employee; and 1970’s “Applause,” a musical version of “All About Eve.”

On the screen, in addition to “Singin’ in the Rain,” for which they built a story around old songs by producer Arthur Freed in 1952, they also wrote “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949), which reunited Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and “It’s Always Fair Weather,” a melancholy, 1955 sequel to “On the Town.”   

The great tragedy of Comden’s life was the death, in 1990, of her son, Alan Kyle, an intravenous drug user who contracted AIDS. She wrote at some length about him in her 1995 memoir “Off Stage.”

Betty Comden’s death was caused by heart failure.

Bells Are Ringing Official Trailer #1