Wild Facts About Fanny Brice, The Real Funny Girl

April 18, 2024 | Byron Fast

Wild Facts About Fanny Brice, The Real Funny Girl

In her career, comedian Fanny Brice let no man stand in her way. In her personal life, that’s all men seemed to do.

1. She Had A Soft Spot

Fanny Brice was a woman ahead of her time. In an era where men were funny and women were their sidekicks, she stood out as a sole female performer. And then there was her voice, which could take audiences into joyous laughter and deep sorrow. Sadly, she had her kryptonite—and it was bad.

In fact, it took two movies to tell the story of Brice’s tragic life. Now, let’s look beyond what the movies tell us and discover the real Fanny Brice.

fanny brice

2. She Grew Up In A Weird Place

Fanny Brice was born Fania Borach on October 29, 1891, in Manhattan. She was one of four children, and their upbringing was in a strange environment. You see, the parents owned saloons, which were bars bursting with entertainment. The saloons made heaps of money, but there was a problem, well…actually two. Dad was both a drinker and a gambler.

Mom was not happy with her husband’s behavior, so she came up with a drastic solution.

Fanny Brice, ca. 1921Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

3. She Acted Poor

To deal with her husband’s money-wasting vices, mom sold the saloons for a handsome price. She then packed up the kids and headed to Brooklyn, where she wheeled and dealed in real estate. Even though they had more than enough money, Brice did things that poor kids did. She sold lemonade on the street, snuck into movies and even shoplifted.

Then, one single night in 1906 sent her life soaring in a totally new direction.

Fanny Brice in white dressBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

4. She Made A Drastic Decision

When she was just 15 years old, Fanny Brice entered an amateur talent show at Keeney’s Theater in Brooklyn. Well, to her own surprise, she won. This convinced her that her future was in performing, and she immediately made the drastic decision to quit school. It took a while, but she did eventually get a job, and she hoped it would be her big entrance to the glamorous world of theater.

Yes, she entered a theater, but she was in for a huge disappointment.

Fanny Brice wearing pearlsBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Was An Assistant

Brice had got it wrong. She wasn’t going to be working in “the theater”…she was going to be working in “a theater”. This was a cinema where she was an assistant in the projection room. Thankfully, on some nights they let her play piano and sing for the patrons. This clearly wasn’t what Brice was hoping for, so she auditioned and nabbed a role in the chorus of a Broadway show.

This was clearly a step in the right direction, until Brice realized she’d forgotten one very important detail.

Fanny Brice in black and white dressWhite Studio, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Couldn’t Do It

One thing that a member of the chorus needs to do is dance, and Fanny Brice had never bothered to learn. When the company fired her, Brice lied and told people it was her skinny legs that made her lose her job. Brice was now desperately searching for her next place in show business. That’s when the comedic world of Burlesque called her name.

Brice was about to find out that there was something special about her. Something that made her born to work in Burlesque.

Fanny Brice. Photo portrait, standingBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

7. She Had A Look

When Brice walked out onto the Burlesque stage, audiences started laughing before she even did anything. The thing was, Brice had quite a surprising look. She was slim and extremely tall, and her face was very expressive with its large nose and wide mouth. She was perfect for Burlesque, where getting a laugh was paramount. With her off look, Brice soon got a gig in a show called College Girl.

The show went on tour, and Brice did something that no teenager should ever do.

Fanny Brice headlined in Bettmann, Getty Images

8. She Met A Guy

During the College Girl tour, the company made a stop in Springfield Massachusetts, where Brice met a barber named Frank White. Well, Brice—who was still a teenager—fell head over heels in love with White. Her teenage emotions ran so high that she ended up spontaneously marrying the guy. But their all-consuming love affair had a dark side. 

Before she even left Springfield, Brice knew she’d made a huge mistake. Now she needed a way out.

Fanny Brice, Ziegfeld Follies photo, 1918.Alfred Cheney Johnston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

9. She Had A Problem

On paper, Brice’s first marriage lasted a couple of years. In reality, she ended it after only a few days. Brice was soon back in New York working on her act. Of course back then, using ethnic stereotypes was pretty common. Brice tried an Irish accent, and then a German one. But nothing was quite right. She had a friend who was a songwriter—Irving Berlin—and she told him her problem.

What Berlin suggested literally turned Brice’s career around.

Irving Berlin 1906Life magazine images, Wikimedia Commons

10. She Wasn’t A Natural

Now, Fanny Brice was Jewish, but she hadn’t thought of using a Jewish accent in her act. What Berlin had for her was a song about a Jewish girl, so Brice worked on faking an accent. While it wasn’t natural, the accent came to Brice easily. She then worked on her physicality. She crossed her eyes, pushed her knees apart and came up with a “slice-of-honeydew-melon smile”.

Now she had to put this kooky character on stage and risk the “boos” of an audience.

Fanny Brice sitting at a tableBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Thought It Was A Joke

Brice’s clown-like character was a big hit, and one morning she received a telegram for a meeting. When she read closer, she was shocked. The signature at the bottom was “Ziegfeld”. Florenz Ziegfeld was the king of show business, but Brice assumed it was a joke telegram from a friend whose name was also Ziegfeld.

Nope, this was the real thing. Ziegfeld had seen her on stage and wanted a meeting. He was a man who could launch her career in a heartbeat. This meeting could not have been more important.

Florenz Ziegfield, Jr, Producer  in suitBaker Art Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

12. She Took It And Ran

Ziegfeld had heard about Brice’s incredible talent and was considering adding her to his Ziegfeld Follies. When he offered her a two year contract, Brice didn’t have to think twice. In her excitement, she grabbed the piece of paper and went running into the street to show it off. Embarrassingly, Brice had to return and ask for a fresh copy after wearing out the original.

Meeting Ziegfeld was a gift from heaven. The other guy she met around this time was from somewhere a little south of there and would turn her life upside down.

Ziegfeld FolliesHulton Archive, Getty Images

13. He Had A Red Flag

While Fanny Brice was causing a sensation working with Ziegfeld, she met a man named Nicky Arnstein. In 1912, Brice started a relationship with Arnstein, whose suspicious sounding job was “professional gambler”. Brice was earning a lot of money on Ziegfeld Follies, but a lot of that cash seemed to, in one way or another, be going to Arnstein.

That was one red flag, but Arnstein had two more that should have sent Brice walking.

Nicky Arnstein 1920National Photo Company, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Was Desperate

Amstein's second and third red flags were even worse. He already had a wife and that he was a crook. In spite of these, Brice allowed Arnstein to move in. He wasn’t actually staying long, because he was heading to prison for wiretapping. Brice was desperate to get him off the hook, so she quickly got an appeal going.

This appeal soon came up against a brick wall.

Fanny Brice & Nick ArnsteinLibrary of Congress, Picryl

15. She Sold Her Valuables

The thing about appeals is that they’re expensive. Fanny Brice was not yet earning that kind of money, so she pawned off her jewelry. Well, a now broke Brice finally got the appeal, but to her dismay, it failed. The love of her life was heading for the dangerous Sing Sing prison, and there was nothing Brice could do about it.

Brice was not one to sit quietly and wait, but jumping to action just got her into trouble.

Sing Sing (Prison) With WardenBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Alienated His Affection

While Arnstein was in prison, Brice selflessly visited him every week. Sadly, even doing that got her into trouble. Arnstein’s wife was soon livid that another woman was visiting her husband in prison. She got a lawyer and took Brice to court for “alienation of affection”.

With no right to even visit, getting Arnstein out of Sing Sing became Brice’s desperate mission.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny Brice and  Omar Sharif  as Nick Arnstein  looking at each otherColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

17. He Was A Free Man

Brice’s appeals had failed, so this time she went for a pardon—and got it. Arnstein was a free man…in more ways than one. His wife had also given him a divorce. In 1918, Brice and Arnstein became man and wife, and then two months later they became parents to their daughter Francis. Brice’s involvement with Arnstein was getting deeper and deeper.

What she desperately needed to find out was whether his love was for her, or just for her money.

nicky arnstein and fanny brice and their children on a holidayBettmann, Getty Images

18. They Lived The High Life

Soon, Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein were living a luxurious life. She had a townhouse on Central Park West and a summer home on Long island. All this was coming from Brice’s earnings as an entertainer. Most of Arnstein’s money—what there was of it—came from underhanded business. Most people wondered what the heck she was doing with Arnstein.

Some even believed that Brice’s interest in Arnstein was unnatural.

Fannie Brice In OldsmobileNational Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia Commons

19. It Was Creepy

Brice’s mom was not on “Team Arnstein”—and the reason why was twisted. He reminded her of her own husband, Fanny’s father. It wasn’t that the two men looked alike, they just spent money the same way. Like her husband, Arnstein liked to gamble. Both men also seemed to have no problem taking a woman’s money. In some ways, it was kind of like Brice was in a creepy relationship with her own father.

Certainly Arnstein had some kind of hold on Brice, and she was about to let the world know about it in a very public way.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny Brice and  Omar Sharif  as Nick ArnsteinColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

20. She Became Dramatic

Ziegfeld had found a song, and he thought it would be perfect for Brice. The only problem was that it was a heartfelt ballad. Brice was excelling at doing comedic bits, and this song was anything but. Well, Ziegfeld convinced her, and she found a place deep inside her to make “My Man” into both a huge hit and her signature song.

The problem was the lyrics. They put her problems with Arnstein out there for everyone to see.

Fanny Brice singingThe American Vaudeville Music Archive, Wikimedia Commons

21. She Sang About Him

Audiences couldn’t believe how brilliantly Fanny Brice had moved from comedy to high drama. Well, it was pretty easy to see where the drama was coming from. The song was so obviously about Arnstein. The opening lines go like this: “Cost me a lot, but there’s one thing that I’ve got, it’s my man”. It was true that Arnstein had cost Brice a lot, but the real question was whether Arnstein was worth the expense.

The answer came to Brice loud and clear.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny Brice in black dressColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

22. He Had To Run

After a 1920 failed robbery attempt, Arnstein’s name came up as the mastermind behind the elaborate heist. When Arnstein heard that authorities were looking for him, he did what most guilty parties do, he ran. Detectives quickly turned to Brice for information about her husband. Her answer was pure Fanny Brice. She said that “Nicky Arnstein couldn’t mastermind an electric light bulb into a socket”.

Arnstein was on the lam, and while waiting for him, Brice made two very different trips to the hospital.

Fanny Brice sitting on a couchBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Changed Herself

While Arnstein was still AWOL, Brice gave birth to their son, William. She made a second visit to the hospital for something that was quite rare at the time, plastic surgery. More specifically, Brice got a nose job. When, and if, Arnstein returned home, he’d have quite a different looking family greeting him.

Likely Brice knew the truth. That Arnstein would definitely come home…and there would be heaps more trouble from her bad boy husband.

Actress Fanny Brice and Youngsters Posing on the BeachBettmann, Getty Images

24. She Had To Sit Tight And Wait

Arnstein did turn himself in, but only when a “business associate” paid his bail. Now it was Brice’s turn to start paying. She raised the funds for his trial, and for four years they fought to keep Arnstein out of prison. Even after spending all that money, Arnstein ended up behind bars for 14 months.

Again, Brice was waiting for Arnstein’s return from prison. When he finally got out, Brice got the shock of her life.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny Brice in orangeColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

25. She’d Had Enough

After being behind bars, Arnstein’s cheating escalated. In 1927, Brice found out something that pushed her over the edge. She’s known about his affairs with younger women, but she then found out he was seeing someone older and richer than her. Brice had had enough and wanted a divorce.

The reason Arnstein gave for his infidelity was the absolute worst.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny Brice and  Omar Sharif  as Nick ArnsteinColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

26. She Was Too Pretty

When asked, Arnstein gave a reason for his terrible treatment of Fanny Brice. He said that it was Brice’s nose job that did it. With a perfect nose he felt “uncomfortable in her presence”, so he started having affairs with women who were not so good looking. With her divorce, Brice had finally gotten rid of the bad boy in her life, but there was another guy waiting in the wings.

Brice, and likely all of her friends, had their fingers crossed that he wouldn’t be a repeat of Arnstein.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny Brice and  Omar Sharif  as Nick ArnsteinColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

27. She Cast A Shadow

In 1929, Fanny Brice met Billy Rose, who was a lyricist and producer of theatrical shows. He was not nearly as famous as Brice was—and those weren’t their only differences. Not only was Rose eight years Brice’s junior, he was also quite a bit shorter than her. Rose was clearly going to be living—quite literally—in Brice’s shadow. Shadow or no shadow, Brice and Rose tied the knot anyway.

A younger man living in the shadow of a big star. This marriage had disaster written all over it.

American actress, singer, and comedian Fanny BricePictorial Parade, Getty Images

28. She Forgot His Name

Apparently Rose didn’t mind living in Brice’s shadow. He also didn’t mind people calling him Mr Fanny Brice, or when Brice called him “a little shrimp”. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have his limits. What made Rose’s blood boil was the occasion when Brice, in the middle of introducing her husband, forgot his name—twice.

This humiliation caused Rose to go to great lengths to make sure she never forgot his name again.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny Brice in coat and gray hatColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

29. She Damaged Him

Having Brice forget his name had apparently done some real damage to Rose’s ego, and you can see the results quite clearly. Rose did two shows, one called Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt and the other Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Then he opened a nightclub called Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. Rose was obsessively sticking his name on everything he touched just so Brice could remember it.

Rose was making the mistake of trying to be Brice’s equal, and it would only lead to disaster.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny BriceColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

30. She Made A List

To try and match Brice’s fame, Rose opened Billy Rose’s Aquacade. This was a spectacular dancing and swimming show which featured Tarzan portrayer Johnny Weissmuller and Olympian Eleanor Holm. I guess Rose saw a little too much of Holm in her bathing suit, as the two started a heated affair. When this clandestine relationship went public, Brice had had enough.

It wasn’t just the affair, Brice was ready to read out her long list of complaints about Rose.

Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan's New York AdventureMGM, Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942)

31. She Had Marital Deja Vu

Fanny Brice said that Rose was dishonest, unfaithful and ruthless—just like her first husband. Brice went on to call Rose “the most evil man she’d ever known”. In 1938, Brice filed for and got a divorce. She was realizing she was no good with men, and she came up with a reason why. She was just too direct for most of them.

Brice’s romantic relationships didn’t seem to last, but there was a child in her life that stuck around until the bitter end.

Fanny Brice in black coat and a hatBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

32. She Found Inspiration

Way back in 1904, artist George McManus created a comic strip called The Newlyweds which featured an odd looking, chinless baby who had googly-eyes. The name of this baby was Snookums, and Brice took him as her inspiration. Soon Brice had come up with her own character named Baby Snooks, a wise-cracking—and occasionally rude—toddler.

Creating Baby Snooks was easy, now Brice began her uphill battle. She had to convince audiences that this baby was funny.

Fanny Brice Hanley Stafford Baby Snooks 1945CBS Radio, Wikimedia Commons

33. She Took It Seriously

Fanny Brice took her role as Baby Snooks very seriously. When she did the character on stage, she’d dress up full-on in baby clothes. Strangely, Brice also dressed up in her baby get-up even for radio recordings. Then she went a step further. She had the writer print up her script in extra-large type, so she wouldn’t have to wear glasses. I mean, what kind of baby wears glasses?

Brice had poured her heart and soul into Baby Snooks. Now it was time to see if it all paid off.

American actress Fanny Brice (1891 Ð 1951) as 'Baby SnooksPictorial Parade, Getty Images

34. She Went Out On Her Own

The hilarious Baby Snooks was so popular on the airwaves that CBS gave her her own show that lasted from 1944 to 1951. Baby Snooks, who Brice affectionately called “Schnooks”, eventually became Brice’s most recognizable character, and would stay with her right up until the end of her life. This character may seem like child’s play, but it would go on to change radio history.

Fanny Brice circa 1938: American actor and singer Fanny Brice (1891 - 1951) as 'Baby Snooks,'Hulton Archive, Getty Images

35. She Ended A Tradition

Back in those days, women always played second fiddle to men when it came to comedy. The guys were funny and women were their “sort of” funny sidekicks. With Baby Snooks, Brice destroyed this tradition with a sledgehammer. Only she and one other female performer—Kate Smith—got single billing on a radio show.

Baby Snooks was standing out from all of Brice’s other characters. Mostly because there was something completely different about her.

Kate Smith Show 1953NBC, Wikimedia Commons

36. She Fought With Censors

Baby Snooks did not, like her other characters, have any obvious ethnicity. Also missing was any off-color humor, which was perfect for the more conservative radio audiences. Gone were the days of Fanny Brice fighting with censors. As she put it, “What can you write about a child that has to be censored?” Well, Brice was actually wrong about that.

Innocent Baby Snooks was about to anger a very powerful group of people.

Photo of Fanny Brice as Baby SnooksNBC Radio, Wikimedia Commons

37. They Thought She Was Bad

At this time, there was a juvenile delinquent problem in America, and parents were desperate to stop it. What these parents saw in Baby Snooks was a child learning from her father how to misbehave, and they thought that was harmful. The reaction was devastating. The tide had turned, and it was the beginning of the end for Brice’s favorite character.

Okay, she'd fallen from grace, but some believe that Baby Snooks changed TV forever.

Fanny Brice on the airNBC Radio, Wikimedia Commons

38. She Started A Trend

Some TV historians say that the character of Baby Snooks started one of the most common trends in TV comedy that still carries on today. These are shows that center on mischievous children that humorously question the authority of the adults in their lives. Without Baby Snooks we may not have had shows like Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, or even The Simpsons.

Don’t forget, playing Baby Snooks was just one of Brice’s many talents. But there was one area where Brice failed to lift off.

Screenshot from the animated sitcom The Simpsons (1989-)Gracie, The Simpsons (1989-)

39. She Had A Problem With Her Face

Moving from the theater and radio into movies would seem like an obvious choice for Fanny Brice. But it didn’t happen. You see, Brice thought she didn’t have a face for film. She famously quipped that if they pointed a camera at her and yelled action, “the camera would have stood up and walked away".

As it turned out, Brice had some bizarre social behaviors that could also make people stand up and leave.

Fanny Brice Being Granted Divorce Decree By Judge Otto KernerChicago Tribune photographer, Wikimedia Commons

40. She Had Two Sets Of Teeth

Fanny Brice certainly liked to dress up in finery, but she was completely unpretentious about it. At a typical dinner party, she’d look elegant in her designer dress and pearls, but when it was time to eat, Brice would do something shocking. Without shame or embarrassment, she’d change her teeth from the pretty ones to her “choppers”, the ones for eating.

Being authentically Brice drew in many friends. It even lured in some royalty.

American actress, singer, and comedian Fanny BricePictorial Parade, Getty Images

41. She Charmed A Prince

Brice was very popular and had quite the collection of famous friends. She later said that famous people liked her because she didn’t treat them any differently. Although, that wasn’t completely true. Once the Prince of Wales came for a visit, and she insisted he sit in a particular chair. When asked why, she told the prince that when she went to sell it, she’d “get twice the price”.

Clearly, she loved to clown around, but there was another, completely different side to Brice.

Hrh The Prince Of WalesBritish Library, Wikimedia Commons

42. She Was Elegant And Sensual

There was much more to Fanny Brice than just being a funny lady. In his novel The Disenchanted, author Budd Schulberg described an office that was furnished by Fanny Brice, "one of Hollywood's more discriminating decorators”. Katharine Hepburn once said that Brice’s number one characteristic was her elegance while Spencer Tracy said it was her sensuality.

Brice seemed to have lived many lives in one lifetime. Sadly, fickle fate was about to make it a short one.

B&W photo of Katharine Hepburn looking at side and smiling - 1941MGM, Wikimedia Commons

43. There Was A Sudden Tragedy

In 1951, Fanny Brice had a massive cerebral hemorrhage. They rushed her to the hospital, where doctors placed the unconscious Brice in an oxygen tent. Sadly, she passed on Thursday, May 29, 1951 at the age of 59. Brice had lived a full life, and it would only be a matter of time before Hollywood decided her story needed telling.

When they started making a film about her life, they made a shocking realization. 

Fanny Brice Grave At Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery In Brentwood, CaliforniaMeribona, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

44. They Needed Two

Brice’s daughter Francis had married film producer Ray Stark, and he was the one who got the ball rolling on a film about Brice’s life. What was shocking was that one film just wasn’t enough. Brice had had such an interesting life, that they needed both Funny Girl and its sequel Funny Lady just to do Brice’s story justice.

Once the creative types got working on the first film, an annoying obstacle arose out of a very unexpected place.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny BriceColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

45. She Was Obsessed

Brice’s daughter Frances had suddenly become obsessed with keeping her mother’s reputation clean. When a biography stated that her mother had once shoplifted—which was true–Frances went out and bought up the entire printing. An obsessed Frances began watching the making of Funny Girl like a hawk.

As it turned out, she wasn’t the only person who didn’t want the film to tell the truth.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny BriceColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

46. The Movie Made Him Nervous

Brice’s ex-husband Nicky Arnstein, was still alive and he was adamant that he not come across as a common crook in Funny Girl. For this reason, he was standing by ready with a lawyer. So, the final film shows Arnstein breaking the law only once, even though the reality was a completely different story. In spite of these hardships, both films went on to thrill critics and audiences.

Fast forward a few decades and Brice’s life would be at the center of a major casting drama.

Omar Sharif  as Nick Arnstein in suitColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

47. She Was A Tough Act To Follow

Barbra Streisand had launched her career playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Funny Lady. So, when they were looking for someone to play Brice in a 2022 Broadway production of Funny Girl, there were many hopefuls dying for the part. The actor had to have both a huge vocal range and stunning comedic timing. They were looking for a “once-in-a-generation talent”.

Apparently there were two “once-in-a-generation” stars ready to walk in Brice’s shoes. Sadly, only one would survive.

Barbra Streisand  as Fanny BriceColumbia, Funny Girl (1968)

48. It Was A Battle

In one corner was Beanie Feldstein, who’d recently appeared on Broadway in Hello Dolly! with Bette Midler. In the other corner was Glee’s Lea Michele, who had been campaigning to play Fanny Brice since, well…almost the day she was born. When the dust had cleared, Feldstein had won the coveted role. But fate was not through with his story.

The real drama was just getting started.

Beanie Feldstein in black dress and jewelsDFree, Shutterstock

49. She Got It In the End

Sadly, critics and audiences liked everything about Feldstein except her singing voice. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t Fanny Brice. Her understudy proved to be insanely popular, but the producers saw something in that Feldstein/Michele rivalry. Something that could bring much needed revenue to their hurting production of Funny Girl. They brought on Michele and ticket sales soared.

Everything connected to Brice seems to inspire such intensity. Surely, there must be a secret to her success. As it turns out, there is.

Lea Michele wearing earrings at an eventKathy Hutchins, Shutterstock

50. She Had A Secret

Fanny Brice’s secret for success was plain and simple. She had oodles and oodles of talent. Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Ben Hecht, had nothing but the highest praise for Brice. He said that “audiences never adored any performer more than Fanny”. In his opinion, Brice could make audiences laugh the loudest, cry the hardest and clap with more vigor than any other performer.

Fannie Brice in black dress looking trough a cameraBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

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