With Funny Girl, which tells the story of the singer and comedy performer Fanny Brice, due to arrive at our theatre next month, we take a look at the real life behind the story.
In the best tradition of performers, Fanny Brice acquired a new name to go with her performing career. She was born Fania Borach in October 1891, in New York, the third of four children. Fanny’s prosperous parents owned a chain of saloons in New Jersey, and she and her siblings grew up with servants and regular holidays in Europe.
Not that the family’s life was trouble-free: Fanny’s father drank and played cards, leaving her mother to run the family business. She eventually got a legal separation from her husband, and left him, taking the children with her. Even after the couple’s separation the family were never poor – Fanny’s mother made a good living buying and selling real estate, and lived in a prosperous part of Manhattan – nothing like the lower class area Fanny is shown as living in Funny Girl.
While truth should never be allowed to get in the way of a good story, there are other reasons why the truth was bent for the story. Both the famous movie starring Barbra Streisand and the play which proceeded it were produced by Ray Stark, Fanny’s son-in-law – who had to keep the rest of the family happy. Although Fanny herself was dead by the time the play was first produced in the 1960s (she died aged 59 in 1951), many of the other characters in the story were still very much around – including Fanny’s former husband Julius ‘Nicky’ Arnstein.
Far from the suave professional gambler in Funny Girl, the real Arnstein was little better than a crook who enjoyed spending Fanny’s money. He had been arrested for swindling in no less than three European countries, and not long after the couple met, he was convicted of wire-tapping, but the devoted Fanny visited him every week in Sing-Sing Prison. Her devotion survived even the knowledge that he was still married to his first wife. They eventually married seven years after their romance began, just two months before the birth of their daughter. Five years and another child (this time a son) later, Arnstein was arrested for involvement in a multi-million dollar Wall Street bond theft. Rather than handing himself in, as in shown in the film, he went into hiding, leaving Fanny to face press and police scrutiny alone. Despite spending large amounts of Fanny’s money on his defence, he was convicted and spent three years in jail. On his release, he disappeared from Fanny and his children’s lives. She eventually divorced him in 1929. Funny Girl whitewashes Arnstein partly to spare the family’s embarrassment (probably the same reason why it makes no mention of Fanny’s early and short-lived first marriage) and also because it was apparently feared he might sue if the truth were told.
The film also alters some of the details of Fanny’s career – for example showing her performing as her most famous character Baby Snooks, on the night Arnstein is arrested, although the character wasn’t even created until 1933, long after her divorce from Arnstein, and outside the scope of the film. But perhaps the temptation to portray what became Fanny’s best known work was irresistible. The Baby Snooks Show was a huge success for Fanny, running on radio from the early 1930s until her death in 1951. But while her career was successful, her personal life didn’t always run smoothly. Although she married for a third time in 1929, she divorced her husband – songwriter and producer Billy Rose – in 1938.
Funny Girl: Tuesday 2 to Saturday 6 May. To book go to marlowetheatre.com.