This Day in Jewish History, 1938

Not Funny: Billy Rose and Fanny Brice Divorce

Theirs had been the celebrity wedding that birthed 'Funny Lady,' the sequel to 'Funny Girl' – both portraying the turbulent private life of Fanny Brice

Wikimedia Commons

On October 27, 1938, entertainer Fanny Brice and lyricist and impresario Billy Rose got divorced. That ended a marriage that had begun nine years earlier with a well-publicized ceremony at New York City Hall, presided over by Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Fanny Brice, born Fania Borach in New York’s Lower East Side on October 29, 1891, was one of America’s most beloved comic actors during the first half of the 20th century. Her main claim to fame was the character Baby Snooks, whom she portrayed in different forms starting as early as 1912, until her death nearly four decades later. Snooks, originally called “Snookums,” was a mischievous if basically lovable child who always getting herself and the adults around her into hot water.

A loyal wife indeed

Brice’s private life was of abiding interest to the public, which followed the sad saga of her second marriage to gambler and con man Julius “Nicky” Arnstein. (Her first marriage took place when she was still a teenager, and didn’t last longer than a few days.) Brice remained loyal to Arnstein while he was behind bars – first, while he was still married to his first wife, and serving a sentence for “swindling” at Sing-Sing, and later, when he spent two years at Leavenworth federal prison for possession of stolen securities. Yet he would disappear from her life after his release.

That relationship served as the basis for the story of the Broadway play, and later the film, “Funny Girl,” in both of which Brice’s character was played by Barbra Streisand.

It was the sequel to “Funny Girl,” the 1975 movie “Funny Lady,” that focused on Brice’s relationship with Billy Rose (1899-1966), her third husband.

Born William Samuel Rosenberg, the New York-born songwriter, theatrical producer and nightclub owner famously got his start in business as a speed shorthand-taking clerk for financier Bernard Baruch, who ran the U.S. War Industries Board during World War I. As a lyricist, Rose may be best remembered for writing or co-writing the words for the songs “Me and My Shadow” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” – although his collaborators sometimes complained that he took credit where it was not always due.

Israelis may remember Rose because of the sculpture garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi, that bears his name at the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem, and because of his efforts to save European Jews during the Holocaust.

A mental Gary Cooper?

Rose was eight years younger than Brice, and four inches shorter, but when they married, she was by far the better-known celebrity, with her husband sometimes being referred to as “Mr. Fanny Brice.” Brice biographer Herbert G. Goldman says that Rose was fairly good-natured about playing second fiddle to Fanny, though it was hard for him not to take offense when at a party, introducing him to friends, she forgot his name – twice.

“At other times,” wrote Goldman in “Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl,” “she introduced him with lines like, ‘This is my husband, Billy Rose. He’s just a little shrimp, but mentally he’s Gary Cooper.”

Later, by dint of great effort on his part, Rose too became a household name in America. One of his best-known extravaganzas was “Billy Rose’s Aquacade,” a water show he first produced in 1937, featuring such star swimmers as Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams.

However, it was with Eleanor Holm, another Olympic swimmer who headlined in “Aquacade,” that Rose began a very public affair, humiliating Brice – and leaving her little choice but to divorce him. Rose soon married Holm, but the two divorced in 1954; she was followed by three more marriages for him – two of them to the same woman – before his death at age 66. 

Fanny Brice, who was raising the two children she had had with Nicky Arnstein, did not marry again. (Her daughter Frances went on to marry Hollywood producer Ray Stark, whose films included both “Funny Girl” and its sequel; her son, William Brice, became a well-known abstract painter.) She was still appearing weekly in the “Baby Snooks Show” on radio when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died, at age 59, on May 29, 1951.

Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons