This Day in Jewish History

1957: The all-English, Very Jewish Stephen Fry Is Born

Grasping early that petty crime does not pay, Stephen Fry discovered acting, and who he and his family are.

Hugh Laurie & Stephen Fry comedy sketch! 'Your name, sir?' - BBC YouTube

August 24, 1957, is the birthdate of Stephen Fry – actor, novelist, TV presenter and all-round English national personality.

For many viewers most identified with his portrayal of Jeeves, valet to Hugh Laurie’s Bertie Wooster, in four seasons of “Jeeves and Wooster,” two decades ago, the Cambridge-educated Fry can come off as quintessentially English. But, whereas his scientist father does indeed come from veteran English stock, Fry’s maternal grandparents were Hungarian Jews, and their parents and much of the family died in Nazi concentration camps.

A decade ago, Fry explored his family history on the BBC show “Who Do You Think You Are?,” and since then he has been a frequent commentator on Holocaust-related issues.

Expelled from school

Stephen Fry was born in Hampstead, London, and grew up in Booton, in Norfolk, northeast of London. He is the second of the three children of Alan John Fry, an engineer and inventor, and the former Marianne Eve Newman.

Marianne’s immediate family came to England from Slovakia in 1927, but her mother’s parents and extended family had lived in Vienna and were deported by the Germans to the death camps during World War II.

Stephen was expelled from two different high schools, and after a brief period at the Norfolk College of Art and Technology, he was arrested for stealing and using a credit card, and held for three months at Pucklechurch Prison, near Bristol. When his case came to trial, the judge placed him on probation, and Fry resolved to return to the straight life.

Not sexually straight, that is – Fry has been actively gay since adolescence – but he did return to school, and in 1978 he passed the entrance exams for Queens College, Cambridge. There, he studied English literature and began acting at the Footlights drama club, where two of his colleagues were Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson.

The secret life of a manic depressive

Fry and Laurie, probably best known today for his long-running performance as the title character of the American TV medical drama “House,” formed a comedy team that, in addition to series based on the P.G. Wodehouse novels about Bertie and Jeeves, also appeared for years in the TV show “A Bit of Fry & Laurie.” They are said to remain best friends to this day.

In addition to his abundant dramatic work in television and cinema, Fry has been a radio- quiz show host, novelist and memoirist, blogger and inveterate tweeter, and host of a variety of TV documentaries. In one of them, “Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive” (2006), he described his own struggle with bipolar disorder. He has also been active in mental-health charities in the U.K.

Sonia Friedman Productions / AP

In his 1997 memoir, “Moab Is My Washpot,” Fry discussed his Jewish background, describing a great-grandfather in Vienna who was said to be “the kind of man to give you the coat off his back.” Fry then noted how, when he read Alan Bullock’s biography of the Fuehrer, he came across a description of Hitler as he appeared in 1910 to a contemporary: “He [Hitler] wore an ancient black overcoat, which had been given him by an old-clothes dealer in the hostel, a Hungarian Jew named Neumann, and which reached down to his knees.” Fry then goes on to muse about whether it was possible “that one's great-grandfather might have befriended and kept warm a man who would decimate a large part of his family and some six million of his people.”

Fry’s tendency to speak openly about the things on his mind sometimes draws fire. He is an outspoken atheist. He has angered some Jews for having signed the anti-occupation statement of the British group Jews for Justice for Palestinians. In 2009, after having publicly retraced his family’s Holocaust experiences, he made an offhand remark in an interview in which he suggested that the Poles were responsible for Auschwitz. The response, not only from Polish officials, but also from scholars of the Shoah, was furious, and Fry, to his credit, soon issued a lengthy apology in his blog, in which he noted that his comment had been a “rubbishy, cheap and offensive remark that I have been regretting ever since.”

Last year, Fry married stand-up comic Elliot Spencer, who is 29.