Funny Girl Debunked: The Truth About Fanny Brice
by John Kenrick
Although the stage and screen hit Funny Girl is based on the life of singer-actress Fanny Brice, it is mostly delicious fiction with an occasional stray fact thrown in. Both the play and movie were produced by Fanny Brice's son in law, Ray Stark. So it is no surprise that he was happy when librettist Isobel Lennart took creative liberties with history.
The release of the digitally restored film on DVD makes this the perfect time to debunk some of the inaccuracies Funny Girl perpetrates in the name of providing good entertainment...
- Fanny's family name was Borach. After her career took off in burlesque, she changed it to Brice.
- Fanny's parents owned a chain of profitable saloons in Newark, New Jersey. They lived comfortably, with household servants and and frequent trips to visit relatives in Europe. Fanny's mother Rosie spent years managing the bars while her husband played cards and drank his days away. When that got to be more than she could bear, Rosie got a legal separation and took the kids to New York. Rosie made a good living buying and selling real estate. While Fanny struggled, her family lived in a series of handsome apartments and townhouses, including one on swanky Beekman Place — nowhere near the folksy poverty of Henry Street.
- Fanny made her amateur debut at Frank Keeney's popular Brooklyn vaudeville theatre as a solo singer. She was never part of the chorus, on roller skates or otherwise.
- Fanny was eventually fired from a chorus, but not by Keeney. No less than Broadway legend George M. Cohan dropped her from the Broadway cast of Talk of the Town because she could not dance. To cover her disappointment, Fanny always claimed she was dumped because of her "skinny legs."
- In her teens, Fanny was married to (and quickly divorced from) Frank White, a barber with a taste for young actresses. So she lost her sexual innocence years before meeting Nick Arnstein.
- Funny Girl makes no mention of Fanny's long friendship with Irving Berlin. He wrote several special numbers for her, including "Sadie Salome," a song which helped Fanny break into big-time show business.
- Fanny made her Broadway debut in a Shubert Brothers production, so she was not in burlesque when Ziegfeld sent for her.
- Fanny performed material her own way, but the pregnant bride routine depicted in Funny Girl never happened. If it had, Ziegfeld would have fired her on the spot, no matter what the audience thought of her! When Fanny debuted in the 1910 Follies, she stopped the show singing "Lovey Joe."
- Fannny and Ziegfeld had few (if any) disputes, and always treated each other with professional and personal respect.
- The Ziegfeld Follies did not move to the New Amsterdam Theater until 1913. When Fanny made her Follies debut, it was at The Jardin de Paris, an open air summer theater atop the now-gone New York Theater.
- Nick Arnstein "gorgeous"? Oy vey! Compared to who — William Howard Taft? He may have been sophisticated, and at 6'6" he towered over most men, but he had a face that could stop a truck.
- Fanny first met Nick in Baltimore while on tour in the Shubert Brother's 1919 revue Whirl of Society. He was betting on horses under the alias "Nick Arnold." His real name was Julius Arnstein — his friends called him Nick. Once they met, Nick did not disappear. In fact, he slavishly tagged along with the Whirl of Society tour, returned to New York with Fanny and moved in with her and her mother. Fanny's mamma saw through Arnstein's charms and hated him from day one.
- Fanny had Nick investigated and learned he was still married to his first wife. Hopelessly in love, Fanny pretended it didn't matter. She had to wait until 1919 for his divorce to come through, and married him just two months before the birth of their daughter Frances.
- Nick and Fanny sailed to England on The Homeric, but he didn't win any jackpots on the voyage. Instead, he shamelessly lived it up while Fanny supported him in high style.
- The musical suggests Arnstein was a classy gambler who turned to crime because he didn't want to live on Fanny's money. Bull! The real Nick happily sponged off Fanny for their entire marriage. He was also a blatant embezzler. Before meeting Fanny, he had already been arrested for swindling in three European countries. Shortly after they met, he was jailed for wiretapping. He was nothing more than a common criminal. The lovesick Fanny visited him weekly in Sing Sing.
- Along with their daughter Frances, Nick and Fanny had a son named William who became a respected artist and educator.
- The film version shows Fanny doing a "Baby Snooks" routine in the Follies on the night Ziegfeld tells her Nick has been arrested. In fact, she did not play Snooks until the 1933 Follies — a year after Ziegfeld's death.
- Nick would frequently disappear to work on unexplained "business deals."
- The Arnstein's had a Manhattan townhouse on West 76th Street and a large county place in Huntington, Long Island. Fanny's money paid for both, so neither was lost because of Arnstein's financial losses.
- Funny Girl suggests Nick's big mistake was selling phony bonds. In fact, he was part of a gang that stole five million dollars worth of Wall Street securities – a tremendous sum in 1920. Instead of gallantly turning himself in, he went into hiding for four months, leaving Fanny to face intense press and police harassment while giving birth to their son William. When Nick finally surrendered to the authorities, he did not gallantly plead guilty. Instead, he fought the charges on every possible technicality for four years. A federal court finally threw him into Leavenworth for 14 months.
Related: Funny Girl film