On Monday night, many of us will be glued to our TVs for the 70th annual Emmy Awards, waiting to see whether Rachel Brosnahan wins her first Emmy for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But if you’re rooting for the star of the Jewish-est show on television, why not take the opportunity to learn about the winner of the very first Emmy for best actress, Gertrude Berg?
Berg is the unjustly underwritten-about powerhouse who not only starred in the Jewish-est show on television from 1948 to 1957, but also created it and wrote it. The Goldbergs began life as a radio program, broadcast from 1929 to 1946 on NBC and then on CBS radio. Berg not only created the character of Molly Goldberg for the radio show, but also wrote all 3,500+ episodes.
The Goldbergs focused on a funny yet functional family and its meddlesome yet loving matriarch. (As the announcer intoned in every episode, “There she is, folks—that’s Molly Goldberg, a woman with a place in every heart and a finger in every pie!”) The Goldbergs radio show reached as many as 10 million listeners; a national poll named Berg the most respected woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition to the radio and TV shows, the character spawned a straight play, a musical, an advice column, two books, a cookbook, and a line of housedresses. (Which Berg herself did not deign to wear; as Tablet noted, she favored designer duds.) Despite a lack of stage acting experience, Berg also won a best actress Tony in 1959 for A Majority of One, a play about a Jewish widow and a Japanese widower who’d both lost children during WWII. She was also active in liberal causes and fought the blacklist, which wound up hitting terribly and tragically close to home.
How on earth could this woman, who created a show about an explicitly, authentically Jewish-inflected family at a time of immigration quotas and widespread anti-Jewish sentiment, be remembered by so few? Especially given that there wasn’t another TV show with a Jewish character as the lead until 1972 or with married Jewish leads again until 2002? (Even those who should know, don’t know. Documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner met Fran Drescher at a party a few years ago and mentioned that she was working on a project about Gertrude Berg. Drescher asked, “Who’s that?”)
I chatted with Berg’s granddaughter, Anne Schwartz, a big-macher publisher of children’s books, about her beloved grandmother. “The character of Mrs. Goldberg was this immigrant bootstraps-y, good-natured busybody, but my grandmother was not an immigrant,” she said. “Molly’s family lived in the Bronx, but my grandmother lived on Park Avenue and in Westchester County.”
Schwartz recounted her grandmother’s life story. “She was born Tillie Edelstein in Harlem, when it was a middle-class neighborhood,” she said. “She had a brother who died really young, and my great-grandmother lost it after that. Just totally lost it. My grandmother became everything to her—her sun, her moon—and talk about overprotective. Eventually my great-grandmother was institutionalized, and my grandmother could only see her maybe once a year. My great-grandfather was an entrepreneur with all these get-rich schemes. He’d try and fail, try and fail. He bought a resort in the Catskills and would tell my grandmother, ‘You have to do something to keep the guests here when it rains.’ That’s how she started writing and performing.” (Berg used to tell interviewers about her background in Jewish art theaters. This was, as they say, a bubbe-meise.)
“I think her family history was why she had to be busy all the time,” Schwartz mused. “She never wanted to slow down, and she hated to be alone, because ‘I don’t want to think about me.’” Berg’s relentless work schedule (when she got sick and the radio show was off the air for a week, NBC received 18,000 letters of distress) meant she wasn’t the most present parent. “My mom paid the price,” Schwartz said. On TV, Berg may have played the ideal mother, but in real life she was often absent. According to Glen Smith’s book Something on My Own: Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956, “Berg’s daughter resented her mother’s career, the fact that Berg spent more time with her fictional children than she did with her own,”
She was, however, an elegant, generous, and adored grandma. “My main memory is how much she loved us and the amount of charisma she had,” Schwartz recalled. “She’d take our face in her hand like this and we didn’t mind because we never saw her, and she was such a warm, charismatic person. We were nothing but a joy to her.” She also loved to shop. “I remember this unbelievably beautiful doll in a tulle skirt that my parents would never in a million years have gotten me,” Schwartz said. “I remember three dresses laid out on the couch in the living room, each more beautiful than the next. I remember going up this big, winding driveway to a big house with a swimming pool in Beverly Hills. I remember seeing her in her bathing suit and her arms went down to here and I’d never seen anything like it.”
Berg always struggled with anxiety. She wouldn’t let the grandchildren get near the windows of her apartment, lest they somehow fall out. And she was terrified to fly. She went to do charity work in Israel by ship and traveled domestically by rail rather than air. “When she was working on Mrs. G Goes to College in Hollywood, my grandfather took a train from California to New York to pick us up and took us back. It took two or three days, and we had a sleeper car.”
In 1938, a poll found that 53 percent of non-Jews felt that the freedom of Jewish citizens “should be restricted.” Yet The Goldbergs, in addition to warmly portraying Jewish tenement life, kept fearlessly tackling Jewish subjects. In April 1939, the radio show discussed Kristallnacht, and the family’s Passover seder got disrupted by a rock thrown through their window. Other plots discussed family and friends trying desperately to get out of Europe. (You can listen to a lot of the shows for free online, courtesy of the UCLA Film & TV Archive.)
Listeners and viewers were amused by Molly’s malapropisms (when a fancy British lady invites her to “the cinema,” Molly asks Jake if he wants to go to “the cinnamon”; she calls a taxi cab a “cabsitac”), but the show could be pointed, too. Reflecting on her husband Jake’s endless work hours at the dress factory, Molly exclaims, “Dat’s business? It’s a slavery! Just like in Uncle Tom’s Cabinet!”
Berg didn’t only critique capitalism. In her lecture “Red Networks: Women Writers and the Broadcast Blacklist,” Carol A. Stabile, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Oregon, noted that Berg repeatedly “violated the color line in television, first by hiring Fredi Washington and second by publicly discussing plans to develop a character for actor Eartha Kitt.” (Kitt also had a role on Berg’s radio show.) Furthermore, Berg employed actors who’d been called to testify by the House Un-American Activities Committee, over the objections of the show’s sponsor, General Foods. In addition to Fredi Washington, who was a civil rights activist as well as an actress, Berg hired Philip Loeb, a union organizer as well as an actor, to play Jake. Folksinger Burl Ives and screenwriter Garson Kanin guest-starred. Berg further failed to endear herself to the powers that be by leading the cast in a walkout in support of a technicians’ strike just two weeks before “Red Channels,” the cataclysmic pamphlet naming suspected Communists in broadcasting, came out in 1950.
Stabile points out that while audiences were smitten with The Goldbergs, advertisers were not. “[T]he business community had never liked the politics and culture of The Goldbergs, favoring the racist content of the popular Amos ‘n’ Andy over The Goldbergs in 1934 and remaining uncomfortable with the series’ New Deal liberalism throughout the 1930s and 1940s,” she writes. “Only its popularity among listeners, which Berg herself repeatedly leveraged in support of the program, kept it on the air. This very precarious balance fell apart in the early 1950s, when the sea change in political climate and the work of the blacklist enabled networks and sponsors to finally kill a series that had long made them uncomfortable.”
One of the actors blacklisted was Loeb. Two days after he was named in “Red Channels,” The Goldbergs’ sponsor, General Foods, demanded his firing. Berg refused. She held out as long as she could, but, threatened with cancellation, she finally gave in. A new actor was cast as Jake. Some sources say that Berg continued to pay Loeb’s salary. She certainly arranged a meeting in late 1951 with Cardinal Francis Spellman (not a big fan of either liberals or Jews), who reputedly had the power to get names taken off the blacklist. Some sources say that he would offer to intercede in exchange for promises of a conversion to Catholicism; no one knows for sure if he offered the option to Berg (though Kempner’s documentary, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, says he did, and she refused). Regardless, Spellman refused to intercede on Loeb’s behalf.
The network bought out Loeb’s $40,000 contract, paying him the equivalent of $368,600 today. But unable to get other work because of “Red Channels,” Loeb wound up homeless, living with his friend Zero Mostel’s family. In 1955, he checked into a midtown Manhattan hotel under an assumed name, got into bed, swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, and committed suicide. His story is paralleled by that of the character played by Zero Mostel (who was also blacklisted, but whose career recovered) in the 1976 Martin Ritt film The Front.
And the show didn’t recover from his loss. “Nobody liked the new Jake,” Schwartz noted. “The show was canceled soon anyway.” Perhaps audiences also didn’t like the family’s move to the burbs, either. Regardless, The Goldbergs was gone, and a new show called I Love Lucy got its timeslot.
In 1959, Berg, who continued to work in TV and other media, did a television movie: The World of Sholom Aleichem with a host of big names like Mostel, Charlotte Rae, Nancy Walker, Jack Gilford, Lee Grant, and more. Six of the stars had been blacklisted. The show is credited with helping to break McCarthy’s hold on entertainment.
Today, practically no one knows there was once a massively popular show called The Goldbergs long before the current show called The Goldbergs. (Which is not nominated for any Emmys, though Wendi McLendon-Covey should have been.) Perhaps one reason The Goldbergs hasn’t gotten its due is that men began dismissing it while it was still on the air. “[T]elevision audiences today do not find the portrait of a domineering, sheltering matriarch exactly comfortable,” sniffed critic Morris Freedman in Commentary in 1956. Imagine that. “For another, it may be pointless and somewhat tedious now to insist, however mildly, on the family’s Jewishness.” Heaven forfend.
Functional families were also passe. In 1961, Philip Roth wrote an essay in American Judaism expressing his annoyance at “the new stereotype” of “Jews being warm to one another and having their wonderful family lives.” Better we should all masturbate into liver.
The fact that Berg was a pioneering woman showrunner who continually threatened the status quo surely has nothing to do with her lack of glory from the culture keepers. Neither does the fact that she created pretty much the only positive portrayal of a Jewish mother on TV, long before the parade of braying, selfish, neurotic Jewish Mother types created by men. It wasn’t until Broad City came along that we again got to laugh with, rather than at, a Jewish mother.
Berg died in 1966, at 66 (or maybe 68, don’t tell no one) while working to turn Dan Greenburg’s popular book How to Be a Jewish Mother into a Broadway show. As Ben Birnbaum pointed out in Tablet, she almost lived long enough to not only originate the Jewish Mother character, but also to parody it.
“She went into the hospital with heart palpitations,” Schwartz recalled. “She hired around-the-clock nurses, because she never wanted to be alone. But between nurse shifts she went into tachycardia and she died alone.” But with a legacy that deserves to be remembered by anyone who thinks women can be funny or that women should have supportive workplaces or that women can run things.
Oh, and Anne Schwartz’s daughter is named Molly.
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