We are currently trialling our new-look independent.co.uk website - please send any feedback to beta@independent.co.uk


When Fanny Brice met Florenz Ziegfeld

first encounters sorel and sorel
To Flo Ziegfeld, entrepreneur of the sensual, a comedian was someone who kept audiences distracted while his beloved chorus girls were changing costumes. Still, he would have the best - Will Rogers, WC Fields, Bert Williams - and when he heard Fanny sing "Sadie Salome, Go Home" with a Yiddish accent in a Broadway burlesque, he knew that with her onstage his girls could take their time.

Fanny Brice was almost 19. She had been born on the Lower East Side and brought up above a saloon in Newark. She was tall and skinny - a drawback in 1910, when chorus girls were at the very least statuesque. Skinny was funny. A comedian could capitalise on skinny.

The dream of every dancer, singer and comic in America was to make the Follies, so on the day Fanny arrived at work and was handed a telegram signed "Florenz Ziegfeld", she thought it was a joke. Still, what if... She didn't know that correspondence by telegram was Ziegfeld's style. On a hunch she telephoned. A moment later, she was whooping down Broadway.

But in Ziegfeld's presence she was suddenly speechless. She sat, knees together, fingers locked, hardly raising her eyes, and even when he offered her a job, she could answer only in monosyllables. Yes, she had been underage when she signed her present contract (thank God). No, her mother had not cosigned it: her mother could not read and write (Gott sei dank). Yes 75 dollars a week, next year a hundred, would do.

After she signed the Follies contract, Fanny recovered enough to thank Ziegfeld in her most ladylike manner. She thanked the secretary. She thanked the doorman. Then she raced back down Broadway and stood outside the burlesque house all afternoon, grabbing people, showing them.

Many more contracts followed. For 20 years, Fanny sang her funny/sad songs and lampooned ballet dancers in graceful poses and society ladies from Sutton Place and Oyster Bay. And Ziegfeld smiled his tender smile and wrote out his generous checks, because the Follies wasn't the Follies without Fanny