BOOK REVIEW / Dat's not a business for a lady: 'Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl' - Herbert Goldman: OUP, 17.50 pounds

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The Independent Culture
MOST people confuse Fanny Brice with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl - clever casting, since both were sassy, talented, ambitious, Brooklyn-Jewish kids. Herbert Goldman, however, thinks that fame hit them differently: Fanny remained 'her earthy self' while Streisand became self-absorbed and megalomaniacal, with a 'supreme ego (which would dwarf Al Jolson's)'. Hmmn, but Fanny's daughter didn't reckon much to Barbra either: 'No character could be quite like Mother . . . Mother was a comic, but she was never a nut.'

If Fanny Brice was no nut, she was just as egotistical, in her own way, as Jolson or Streisand. She was born on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1891, the third child of Charlie and Rose Borach ('Brice' was borrowed from a neighbour). 'French Charlie' came from Alsace, Rose from Hungary: while he played cards, she bought stores, ran bars, left him and took the children to Brooklyn. But at 13 Fanny was still in a class of nine-year-olds; instead of being in school she was selling lemonade on the street, conning free trips to Coney Island, sneaking into matinees or putting on shows for her friends, who called her 'Borax' or - forgiveably - 'Bore Act'.

At 14 Fanny entered an Amateur Night at Keeney's Theatre, Brooklyn's leading vaudeville, and never looked back. At 15, she crossed to Manhattan, took bit parts, toured and was thrown off a chorus line for dreadful dancing. Undeterred, she moved into burlesque and her break came when a friend, the 21-year-old Irving Berlin, gave her a new song. It was 'Sadie Salome', about a Jewish girl who does the Dance of the Seven Veils, a dig at the then notorious Eva Tanguay: 'Don't you do that dance, I tell you, Sadie, / Dat's not a business for a lady . . . / Oy, oy, oy oy; where is your clothes?'

Deathless poesy: but her roof-

raising Yiddisher acts made Fanny a hit in the Ziegfeld Follies before she was out of her teens, and kept her in style for years. 'I've been rich and I've been poor,' she said. 'Rich is better.'

Goldman's writing sometimes smacks of yellowing files of Variety, but he's marvellous on the intricate, exploitative show-business world - its agents and producers, writers and musicians, feuds and favouritisms - and on Fanny's friendships with fellowworkers such as Sophie Tucker, W C Fields, Eddie Cantor, Beatrice Lillie; there are 60 pages of '-ographies' (stage, film, disc and radio), complete with dates and cast lists.

Fanny Brice could certainly sing but her real metier was farce, satire and parody (she did a cruel Theda Bara and a killing Camille - or 'K'meel' as one reviewer put it). She implicated her audience from the start, with an open-armed embrace or a broad wink; critics loved her blazing sense of fun, bold timing, risque material, 'willowy form and elastic face'. Though she looked as though she didn't give a damn, they saw that 'there is brains behind of her nonsense'.

She did not show many brains off- stage, however. A brief marriage to a barber was followed by a second to a gangster, Nick Arnstein, and a third to the songwriter, Billy Rose.

All were bitter. Her passion for Arnstein is classic stuff: swooning self-deceptions, flights from the law, the pawning of jewels for bail money, the way she sang 'My Man', with her eyes closed, thinking of Nick, the shouting and silences and flying plates, the nose-job to make her young and beautiful again. ('Fanny Brice cut off her nose to spite her face,' sniped Dorothy Parker.)

Half her party guests were millionaires and diplomats; the other half had names like 'Large Face the Safecracker', 'English Bob the Nose-Biter' or 'Charles Chink Sherman'. Goldman tells the tale straight, although his psycho-musings make one wince: it's hard to accept, for example, that Fanny married all her husbands because they resembled her father. I like her version: she fell for the first 'because he smelled good', the second 'because he looked good' and the third 'because he thought good'.

In her mid-forties, after a third divorce, Fanny went to California, but not to the silver screen. (Emulating Al Jolson, she became the first female star of sound movies, but her films were all flops.) Instead, for 15 years, until her death in 1951, she was 'Baby Snooks' on a weekly radio show. The jokes stayed sharp, since a 'child' could say what no adult dared, but she lived in a closed-off world, ignoring the War and all political realities; outwardly tough, funny and outspoken, she was lonely, ill and insomniac, ringing old burlesque- days friends such as Eddie Cantor at 'one, two, three in the morning', desperate to talk. In 1949 Nick Arnstein reappeared like a ghost and talked of remarriage. But love, Fanny said, was like a card trick: 'After you've seen it done once, it loses all its mystery.' A not-so-funny girl, in the end.

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