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Anything but Average

Gertrude Berg conquered America. Why is she still something of a mystery?

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At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 20, 1929, in an NBC radio studio above Madison Avenue, a man, a woman, a boy, and a girl began reading a fifteen-minute script into a live microphone and launched one of the twentieth century’s most successful entertainment franchises. The program was The Rise of the Goldbergs (soon to be The Goldbergs), and the woman at the microphone, who invented it and nourished it and ruled it and rode its success to celebrity and moderate fortune, was Gertrude Berg, a stout, dark-eyed, round-faced, thirty-year-old Park Avenue housewife and mother of two. Her achievement is all the more striking for its having occurred during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—not decades in which American gentiles felt comfortable with Jews (53 percent of gentile respondents to a 1938 Roper poll said the freedom of Jewish citizens “should be restricted”), nor a golden era for women who offered up their creative gifts to the papa-knows-best titans who ruled the airwaves, Broadway, publishing, and the silver screen.

Born Tillie Edelstein, and raised in East Harlem, Berg was the only daughter of a feckless father and an emotionally frail mother who suffered a nervous breakdown when Tillie’s older brother and only sibling, Charles, died of diphtheria at age seven. (Mr. Edelstein carried the death-announcing telegram on his person the rest of his life, his wife never fully recovered and was eventually institutionalized, and their daughter forever spoke of herself as an only child.)

Tillie attended public school, worked summers in a teetering Borscht Belt hotel her father had bought, and may have taken some writing courses at Columbia University. (A world-class self-creator, she later made—or encouraged the expression of—various claims about her relationship with Columbia, including that she was a graduate.) At nineteen, she escaped her father’s plan to keep her around as his business partner by marrying Lewis Berg, a British native she’d met when she was fourteen and he was a university student and guest at her father’s hotel. Four years later, he returned to the Catskills to court her, having apparently cast her as Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins. He would not be the last man to underestimate Tillie Edelstein. (Her father, as is the custom, was the first.) Seven years after they married, and shortly after the birth of a second child, Tillie turned her back on nursery and kitchen and headed downtown to build a theater career on the foundation of some children’s plays and dialect skits that she had produced as a teenager to keep hotel guests quiescent on rainy afternoons. (This did not prevent her from later ginning up a past that included work in “the Jewish art theaters.”)

Berg somehow talked herself into a job writing between-acts material for an “African review” and then voiced a Yiddish radio commercial. (Her husband rehearsed her; she herself had no Yiddish—and little Judaism.) Using family connections, she developed a relationship with upstart CBS, eventually persuading the network to buy four episodes of Effie and Laura, a serial she’d written that pivoted around chats between a pair of five-and-dime sales clerks. CBS cancelled the show after one episode because Berg—who had by this time dumped the Bronxy Tillie for the Manhattanesque “Gertrude”—had one of her characters sourly opine that “marriages are never made in heaven.” Berg learned the lesson. Twenty-seven years later, explaining the staying power of The Goldbergs to a Commentary writer, she said, “You see, darling, I don’t bring up anything that will bother people. That’s very important. Unions, politics, fund-raising, Zionism, socialism, inter-group relations, I don’t stress them. . . . I keep things average. I don’t want to lose friends.”

Berg’s next sally was The Goldbergs, which made friends quickly over at NBC. (Berg was a network-shuttler until 1938, when she settled down for good at CBS.) A drama centered on a family in a Bronx walk-up whose members dreamed of Park Avenue elevators, The Goldbergs was perfectly pitched to the “average” tones favored by broad audiences and deep-pocket sponsors (and, therefore, networks). Domestic problems were followed by comic and frenetic responses followed by common-sense solutions; the entirety was garnished with dashes of patriotism, neighborliness, hope, hard work, faith in God, praise for the orchestra, and suspicion of the soloist.

On the set of 'The Goldbergs'
On the set of The Goldbergs (L-R): Philip Loeb, Arlene McQuade, Larry Robinson, Gertrude Berg, and Eli Mintz

But The Goldbergs was unique in network radio (and later, television) in serving up Jews as dramatis personae, an exotic flavor not present in any strength in any of the hundreds of radio programs with which it would compete over the decades. (Comic-relief Jews, such as Fred Allen’s Mrs. Pansy Nussbaum or Jack Benny’s Shlepperman, were another matter.) Foremost among the program’s Jews were the headstrong, proud, immigrant rag-trade worker Jake Goldberg and his wife, Molly, a “plump, dark, and motherly” woman (as Berg wrote, somewhat hazily, in a 1931 short story collection based on the radio scripts). And then there were the children, Sammy and Rosalie, boasting all-American preoccupations with schoolwork, baseball, and movie stars—proof that even Jews, if caught young, could be raised to become regular people.

A publicity photo from the early years shows Jake facing the camera while his wife and children look at him adoringly. But it was not for nothing that the first Goldbergs script was titled “Molly Saves the Day.” Mrs. G. was always the show’s center, her volcanic sympathies and kitchen-table sagacity drawing on then-commonplace American idealizations of the Jewish immigrant Mama, and her malapropisms—“Maybe he got himself runned over by a cabsitac. Dey run around so fast like cackroachers”—drawing on vaudeville strains that were well known to American audiences, though hardly idealizations. (As the years passed, and dialect gags lost their box office, Berg traded in her “Cohen on the Telephone” shtick for rabbi-at-the-podium descants and began to say that she had never done “dialect, but intonations and word order.”) The show was in any case an exotic, amusing, and ultimately comforting proposition, and by 1932, The Goldbergs had snared Pepsodent toothpaste as its sponsor and was the second-most popular serial on American radio after Amos and Andy (another dialect-driven bit of social reassurance), airing live shows morning and evening, six days a week, to as many as ten million listeners at a shot.

Over the next twenty-four years, propelled by Berg’s savvy management, powers of suasion, and formidable work habits, the Goldbergs franchise offered up as many as 3,500 radio programs (Berg wrote, directed, and acted in virtually every one), a live touring show, an advice column called “Ask Mama,” the book of short stories, a comic strip, the Molly Goldberg Cookbook, a Berg memoir titled Molly and Me, a Broadway play (Me and Molly), a line of inexpensive housedresses (Berg herself wore designer clothes), a Hollywood movie, and one of television’s earliest serial hits, The Goldbergs, for which, in 1949, Berg won a best actress Emmy (besting Helen Hayes, Judith Anderson, Imogene Coca, and Betty White).

While the cancellation of the show in 1956 effectively brought an end to The Goldbergs as a dramatic production, it did not bring an end to The Goldbergs, Inc., as Berg, after some hard years in summer stock and in revivals, developed a successful boutique stage career in which she reprised Molly Goldberg under other names and in other ZIP codes. In 1959 she won a Tony for her performance in the hit play A Majority of One, playing a Jewish mother whose from-the-heart diplomacy eases postwar Japanese-American relations (Maureen Stapleton, Lynne Fontanne, Claudette Colbert, and Kim Stanley went down in defeat). At the time of her death, in 1966, from heart disease (and exhaustion, it seems agreed), two new Broadway shows were being prepared for her, one a Roaring ’20s gewgaw that had already sold out its opening night on the strength of nothing more than Berg’s name, and the other a version of Dan Greenburg’s satire How to Be a Jewish Mother—which means that Berg, given a few more years of life, could have gone into the books not only as a woman “known to millions as the original Jewish mother of radio, television, stage and screen” (the New York Times, in a thirty-inch obit), but as the original parody of that Jewish mother.

Yet forty-one years after her death, Gertrude Berg is hardly known at all, and her ghost rarely summoned except by scholars trying to address such matters as Jewish apologetics

Gertrude Berg in 'The Goldbergs'
Gertrude Berg in The Goldbergs

(one of Berg’s declared aims was to make the goyim understand that not all Jewish fathers were child smackers and mothers window screamers), or the fearful psyches of the Jewish owners of television networks in the third quarter of the century (after The Goldbergs went off the air in 1954, no television program dared offer a Jewish main character until Bridget loved Bernie in 1972), or how a mere two years after Berg died Sophie Portnoy came to replace Molly as the Gaia of American Judaism.

Now, however, we have “Something on My Own”: Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1926-1956, by Glenn D. Smith, Jr., a historian at Mississippi State University. As a catalogue raisonné, the book earnestly delivers; whatever Gertrude Berg did or said on the record regarding The Goldbergs, it’s probably referenced between these covers. But as a critical biography it offers woefully little insight, being drawn largely from two thin sources. One is the chirrupy 1961 memoir Molly and Me, which Berg is credited with writing “with” her son (what that “with” meant would have made a good chapter in a solid biography). The other is the Gertrude Berg Papers at Syracuse University, which, if Smith is any guide, constitute the last and ultimate of Berg’s many redactions of her life, their ninety-nine linear feet of scrapbooks and radio scripts seemingly offering not so much as an inch of “anything that will bother people.” That both these sources—one a celebrity confection and the other a sarcophagus decorated by its occupant—feature self-serving pieties and lacunae (World War II, for example, is virtually absent from Berg’s memoir of being a famous twentieth-century Jewish woman) should be a starting point for a serious consideration of Berg’s life and work.

Smith glosses over potentially revealing aspects of Berg’s emotional life. That she always referred to herself as an only child turns up in an end note. On Berg’s estrangement from her daughter, Harriet Schwartz (Schwartz says her mother took little interest in her), Smith writes, “Despite her every intention to do so, Berg simply could not be in all places at once.” But it’s quite clear that Gertrude Berg had no intention of spending any time with Bergs that she could spend with Goldbergs, to whose welfare she devoted twelve-hour days, six days a week, exercising what Newsweek called “headmistress authority” as she wrote and rewrote lives, cued the populace of her fantasy world with tugs, pushes, and occasional kicks, and improvised speeches and plot turns during live broadcasts—withdrawing from her labors only for a quick sherry and cigarette lunch. “Committee on Molly / Headed by same / Whose work shall consist / Of repeating her name,” her young son wrote in a poem to his mother that was, I suppose, meant to be funny.

Taking her word about her aversion to dialect jokes and of her particular distaste for Milt Gross, the author of once-popular lampoons such as “De Night in De Front From Chreesmas,” Smith misses how much the early Goldbergs owed to Gross, not simply in Molly Goldberg’s use of “cabsitac” and “cackroachers” but in the show’s dramatic structure, which featured Jewish characters shouting up and down from one tenement floor to another through a dumbwaiter—an unabashed lift from Gross’s successful book of stories Dunt Esk, published in 1927. Nor does Smith make much of Berg’s critics, who once included, at least by implication, a young fiction writer from Newark whose essay attacking “the new stereotype” of “Jews being warm to one another and having their wonderful family lives” was published in 1961 in American Judaism, shortly after his stories about the Portnoy family began appearing in literary journals.

Smith’s curious interpretation of matters Jewish doesn’t help. He cites the aforementioned Roper poll as suggesting that a majority of Americans believed that Jews were “different from everybody else,” when the majority believed Jews were dangerous enough to be subject to special laws. He refers to “the Settlement” instead of the Pale, to “Jewish peasant life” in Eastern Europe, and to Passover as “the most celebrated of Jewish holidays.” He says, impenetrably, “The transmission of Jewish identity from one generation to another was traditionally the responsibility of the mother, who subsequently found herself the object of intense public and private scrutiny.”

Smith does pay appropriate respect to the braver (at least by contemporaneous network standards) episodes of The Goldbergs, such as the post-Kristallnacht show in which a rock strikes the kitchen window during the Goldberg Seder (Passover and Yom Kippur were the only holidays on Berg’s liturgical calendar). As for the Goldberg corpus as a whole, he informs us that Berg had “the ability to tell stories that reflected and influenced the human condition.” In fact, The Goldbergs, like every other dramatic serial that appeared on network radio, was mostly spun dross.

To give Smith his due, he has plenty of distinguished company in his apparent vassalage to his subject, his seeming reluctance to do anything that would constitute interrogation, as they say in the scholarship trade—or piss mama off, as most of us would put it. The (Jewish) CBS chairman William Paley, who had originally declined to air a television version of The Goldbergs because he didn’t put Jews on his network, was visited by Berg. He changed his mind about Jews on television. Gilbert Seldes, a thorough-going academic and intellectual, said of Berg in a 1956 review of an Alcoa Hour bauble called Paris and Mrs. Perlman: “She is a great force in what she does and in this, the primary business of giving life to imagined people, she is incomparable.” Charles Angoff, Mencken’s protégé at The American Mercury, in 1951 wrote, “Molly Goldberg, indeed, is so basically true a character that I sometimes think she may yet become an enduring name in the national literature.” And Brooks Atkinson, the legendary New York Times drama critic who seems never to have written a less than hyperbolic word about Berg (“a native goodness that is rare and irresistible”), said after seeing her in A Majority of One, “We are all children when she presides over a play.”

If you’d like to see the kind of thing that felled these and many other men (and women), catch the final minutes of a 1954 broadcast of the Milton Berle show (available on DVD as Milton Berle’s Buick Hour, Volume 4). Fast-forward to where Berg, Berle, and the early ’50s heartthrob Bob Cummings outcue the show—an episode called “Show Business”—by singing and dancing to “Young At Heart.” The men are clearly working, intent on their steps, their singing, and camera locations. (This was a live broadcast.) But Berg, in black and pearls, is having a ball. She dances flawlessly from Berle’s arms into Cummings’ arms and back. As the audience applauds and the credits come up, Berle (a friend of Berg’s in real life) pecks her on the cheek. She responds with what seems spontaneous joy by kissing him on the mouth, then turns around and kisses young Cummings on the mouth as well. Mama’s got class, money, grace, and eros.

To some degree, Berg herself—by virtue of her determination to be “average”—is responsible for the fact that, so far as I can tell, no critic ever saw the need to take her seriously except for Morris Freedman, the man who wrote “The Real Molly Goldberg,” the 1956 Commentary profile that I cited earlier. Freedman had the patience and determination to wait Berg out, to see her angry, suspicious, exhausted, and cunningly charming, her hand falling on his as they spoke; he even got into her apartment and noted that her bathroom reading included “The Bostonians, by James, with dog-eared pages.” For the many others who considered her, Berg was simply the seamless self-portrait she’d painted, a handy screen on which to project yearnings. And so she was, and is, a darling Jewish mother to some (and a suffocating monster to others), a protofeminist, a pioneering mogul, a champion of the family, a paragon of Jewish values, a girl who bootstrapped herself out of the ghetto, the inventor of the sitcom, a rebel against the tyranny of thin; and even a lesbian for those who need her to be one. (Berg had a close and longstanding relationship with her personal assistant Fannie Merrill.)

A reader can see what might have been possible in Smith’s book when Smith talks with people who knew Berg, particularly her daughter, Harriet Schwartz, and the actress Madeline Gilford. (Smith’s notes cite only one other interview, and none, for some reason, with Berg’s son, a writer who was his mother’s coproducer for years and who has given interesting, if discreet, interviews to other scholars.) Schwartz, for example, describes the anger of some of Berg’s Jewish fans when it was reported that a print of Raphael’s Madonna and Child hung over her bed, and Berg’s incomprehension of their irritation. The women’s recollections give the book its only gripping chapter, about the blacklisting, in 1950, of Berg’s costar and television husband Philip Loeb, and Berg’s efforts to save both his career and The Goldbergs. And while she cut Loeb loose in the end, she did so only after struggling for years, at great cost (her sponsors pulled out, and her show was cancelled), and at risk of being herself named a “red.” With furious integrity and strength, she at one point threatened her sponsor General Foods that she’d take to the road and speak against the company’s products if it continued with its policy of firing actors who’d been accused of leftist sympathies. General Foods reversed the policy, but soon reestablished it. By that time, Berg was off the air. In 1955, three years after Berg bought out his contract, Loeb killed himself.

It’s from Schwartz and Gilford that we learn of a last desperate effort by Berg to save Loeb’s acting career: a meeting she secured in late 1951 with Cardinal Francis Spellman, New York’s powerful prelate. It was said he had the wherewithal to have men and women removed from blacklists, a kindness he generally, but not necessarily, extended in return for a promise to convert to Catholicism. (Gilford says that Spellman supposedly cleansed Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne of the stain of their communist associations at the request of his coreligionist, the talent booker Ed Sullivan.) No naïf, Berg could hardly have been unaware of Spellman’s distrust—to put it mildly—of Jews and liberals. And indeed, Spellman was unmoved by her plea. Schwartz told Smith that her mother said “she never saw such a closed face like Cardinal Spellman’s.”

Late in life, Berg told The American Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement, “When I’m by myself, sometimes I wonder—did I really become the woman I wanted to be—or am I still trying?” It’s a heartrending question, and, like the story of her encounter with Spellman, a reminder that the demands made on Jewish American mothers for much of the twentieth century were great, and the restraints upon them considerable—limits on what they could be and do for themselves, their men, their families (real or imagined), their coreligionists, their nation. If anyone ever wants to write a serious meditation on the subject, the troubled and triumphant and un-average life of Gertrude Berg might still offer the way in.

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Anything but Average

Gertrude Berg conquered America. Why is she still something of a mystery?

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