SPRING 2007 CATALOG
"Something on My Own"
Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929–1956
Glenn D. Smith, Jr.
A compelling biography of a pioneering woman in broadcasting; an edifying companion to radio and TV broadcast history.
"Smith has added to [the] body of knowledge. . . . This book is the rediscovery
of Berg and the media empire she created."
"An engrossing narrative of a woman who became hugely popular—and
powerful—during the first half of the twentieth century."
Please scroll down to read the entire review from Shofar.
Please scroll down for the Washington Jewish Week review.
"Berg was a trailblazer for actors to follow for years to come. This well-written, well-documented book is highly recommended."
—Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter
"Smith, a communications professor at Mississippi State University, is at his best in chronicling [Gertrude] Berg’s tortured relatonships with networks and sponsors ... the author does his homework in writing this first comprehensive biography of the star..."
"A major figure in broadcast history and a key player in Jewish popular culture...Smith more than makes his case for Berg’s historical significance."
— The Journal of American History
In 1929 The Goldbergs debuted on the air, introducing Gertrude Berg—and her radio alter ego, Bronx housewife Molly Goldberg—to the nation. The show would become one of the most beloved and enduring programs of Golden Age radio and of early TV. At the helm was Berg who, as creator, star, writer, and producer, became a force to be reckoned with. This multifaceted biography provides a penetrating look at how Gertrude Berg carved a special place for herself in the annals of broadcast history. Decades before Lucille Ball, Berg triumphed as a woman of commercial and creative consequence in what was essentially a male-dominated arena.
For over three decades, Berg’s "Molly" fluttered about and hung out her kitchen window dispensing motherly advice laced with engaging malapropisms, insights, and lots of "schmaltz." The show offered a warmly comedic look at the lives and dreams of working-class American Jews and subtle insights into the nature of assimilation. While Molly, husband Jake, and Uncle David represent Old World Jewish stereotypes, children Rosalie and Sammy are as American as apple pie. A sentimental portrait of the immigrant experience, The Goldbergs offered a mythic ideal of the American dream.
Drawing on Gertrude Berg’s papers at Syracuse University’s Bird Library and rare interviews with her family and colleagues, the author reveals her as shrewd, creative, and forthright. Unlike "Molly," Berg was a cultivated woman and a Columbia graduate. A pioneer in the concept of product tie-in, she parlayed the show’s popularity into a movie, short stories, and even a cookbook. In 1951 she stood up to the blacklist by refusing to fire longtime co-star Philip Loeb who was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The book also chronicles Berg’s accomplishments in theater, film, and literature.
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Glenn D. Smith, Jr. is a visiting assistant professor in communications at Mississippi State University.
6 x 9, 248 pages, 11 black-and-white illustrations, notes, index
In "Something on My Own," his lucid, compelling biography of Gertrude Berg (born Tillie Edelstein), the creator and performer of the legendary Jewish American mother, "Molly Goldberg," Glenn D. Smith, Jr. offers the first comprehensive narrative of Berg’s career in radio and television. Drawing on the vast Berg archives housed at Syracuse University (where Berg deposited boxes and boxes of materials, including scripts, correspondence, even aprons sent to her by adoring fans), Smith unearths the biographical-ethnic origins of Berg’s famous alter ego. Smith also provides an institutional history of the corporate sponsor-controlled world of early radio and television—refracted through the lens of Berg’s astonishing achievement as, perhaps, the most famous woman auteur-writer-performer in the first half of the last century. "With steely determination, and an incredible sense of timing and talent," Smith observes, Berg founded the "Goldbergs franchise" (p. 9). Indeed, she was its first and only CEO. For almost forty years Berg presided over this "media empire" (p. 9) as its fiercely protective mogul, carefully projecting the ideal Jewish American family to America at the threshold of the Depression and beyond. "Something on My Own" thus provides a striking window on the emotional and (as it turned out in the case of the black-listed actor who played Papa Jake, Philip Loeb) political contexts of Berg’s invention of The Goldbergs.
Berg described the origins of her radio show in her folksy 1961 memoir, Molly and Me, linking her vision of Jewish family life—created in the Depression, and premiering on NBC in November, 1929—to her immigrant grandparents, whose story of arrival in steerage and new world striving represented the possibilities, indeed the fulfillment of the American Dream. Smith’s research suggests that The Goldbergs was born less out of Berg’s nostalgia for the older generation (the first incarnation of the archetypal old world mother was called "Maltke Talnitzky," which Berg later softened to "Molly") and more out of familial pain and loss. We learn, for example, through Smith’s interviews with Berg’s daughter, Harriet Berg Schwartz, that Berg’s older brother Charles died of diphtheria as a young boy, when Berg was three or four. The family, it seems, never spoke of this tragedy. We also learn that Berg’s chronically unstable mother, Dinah, grieving over the death of her young son, experienced a series of nervous breakdowns and later died in a sanitarium. Again, according to Smith’s interview with Berg’s daughter, the family appears never to have "mentioned" this tragedy, "or talked about" the breakdown (p. 16). "My mother hardly ever talked about it [either]"(p. 16).
In Smith’s telling, the biographical origins of The Goldbergs emerge as more complicated: tinged with unacknowledged grief; shaped, in part, by uncompleted mourning. Indeed, Smith’s narrative highlights the sheer emotional investment in Berg’s performing the role of iconic Jewish mother to the nation, in apparent conscious opposition to her own. Or perhaps, in fashioning the figure of "Molly," Berg sought in art to fill a (maternal) void in life. "Described as tough, sophisticated, demanding, bright, tyrannical, fair, and shrewd by the people who worked with her, [Berg] learned quickly never to apologize for her decisions or reputation" (p. 39). As one of Smith’s interviewees recalls, in person Berg was "‘the antithesis of the soft-hearted character she played on radio for so long’" (p. 39).
In the public’s eye, however, Berg would emerge, as the historian Joyce Antler has shown, as a figure emblematic of a modern woman with progressive child-reading ideas. At the height of her fame, Berg penned an advice column called "Mama Talks," which circulated in newspapers in the 1930s. Impressively, "Something on My Own" chronicles the shape of Berg’s career in popular culture: the twists and turns of her various radio series (including the little known "House of Glass," on the air in 1935 between installments of The Goldbergs, about life in a small Catskills hotel; her transition, along with her cohort of radio personalities, to the new medium of television in the late 40s; her brief, but heralded career on Broadway (Berg won the Tony Award for best actress in 1959 for her performance in A Majority of One, beating out fellow nominees Kim Stanley, Maureen Stapleton, Claudette, Colbert, and Lynn Fontaine).
The most important chapters in "Something on My Own" detail the sordid episode in the history of early television involving the actor Philip Loeb, who played Papa Jake on the television Goldbergs. Along with the names of a number of famous actors and performers, including John Garfield, Morris Carnovsky, Jack Gilford, and Zero Mostel (Loeb’s closest friend), Loeb’s name was listed in June 1950 in Red Channels, a pamphlet published by "Counterattack," described as "[t]he newsletter of facts to combat communism." A victim of a Cold War culture witch hunt, Loeb was exposed as a signer (for example) of a petition in 1945 calling for the "end of Jim Crow in Baseball."
As a result of such notoriety, General Foods, the corporate sponsor of The Goldbergs (on CBS at the time), demanded that Berg fire Loeb, less her show be canceled. At first she refused, and fought fiercely to keep Loeb (and the show) on the air. She challenged the corporate sponsors with the threat of withdrawing her own power as the embodiment of the emerging commodity culture. A good word from the authorizing presence of "Molly Goldberg" on television and sales of Sanka coffee rose by 57% (p. 122).
Berg pleaded her case with network president William S. Paley to no avail. In a last-ditch effort to save Loeb Berg even met with the Cardinal Francis Spellman, head of the New York Archdiocese and arbiter of local party politics. In Smith’s account, this addendum to the Loeb affair uncannily echoes numerous radio and television plots involving "Molly’s" habit of trying to "save the day" through her heartfelt acts of reconciliation and cross-cultural understanding. Channeling "Molly," Berg apparently hoped that one word from the powerful Cardinal would end the blacklist against Loeb (previously, at Ed Sullivan’s request, the Cardinal had interceded on behalf of performers like Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne to appear on Sullivan’s variety show), and thus enable Loeb to return. In the end, however, Berg reluctantly fired Loeb, in order to save the financial livelihoods of the show’s other cast members and related workers. Desperate and in despair, in heavy debt and with no prospect of steady work, Loeb committed suicide in September 1955. The "controversy over Loeb’s blacklisting," Smith writes, "haunted Berg for the rest of her life" (p. 163).
Unearthing the "facts" of Berg’s remarkable career, Smith offers an engrossing narrative of a woman who became hugely popular—and powerful—during the first half of the twentieth-century. "Something on My Own" will be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand how Tillie Edelstein became Gertrude Berg, and how Berg invented "Molly Goldberg." In the process of self-fashioning, "Molly" won the hearts of Jews and gentiles, but not, alas, the steely heart of Cardinal Spellman.
Gertrude Berg was a remarkable figure in American life during the last century. A pioneer in radio and later in television, Berg successfully portrayed Molly Goldberg in both media as a Jewish character in an age of widespread anti-Semitism in the United States. In a patriarchal era, she wrote, directed, produced and starred in her own show, generally demanding and getting complete control over the program. And she stood up for her co-star Philip Loeb, who was under attack in the 1950s by McCarthyites, even though her actions helped to end her TV career. Her fascinating life helps overcome Glenn D. Smith Jr.’s rather prosaic, academic writing style in this biography. Berg was born Tillie Edelstein in New York City in 1899, and her childhood was rocked by the death of her older brother, Charles, at the age of 7—her mother never got over the loss — and a father who was always chasing "the perfect job or the next ‘get rich quick’ scheme," Smith writes. As a result, The Goldbergs became "Tillie’s picture of the ideal Jewish family."
She made her show business debut in 1928 in a Yiddish radio commercial despite not knowing that language. (A coach helped her memorize her lines.) Using a language she didn’t know to break into radio was only one of the paradoxes of Berg’s life. (She became Gertrude Berg in 1928, "a pseudonym possibly used to make here sound a little more sophisticated and intelligent than ‘Tillie’ made her feel," the author writes.)
She could not cook, but that didn’t stop her from writing The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook. Her own family was not Jewishly observant, far from the image of Jewishness in her portrayal of Molly Goldberg. And while the character Molly was simple and down to earth, Berg lived an upper-middle-class lifestyle, and, according to her daughter, Harriet Schwartz, "loved beautiful things." Her radio show, which began in 1929 and ran for 15 years, purposely went against the negative image of Jews prevalent at the time as crude, dishonest people who couldn’t cope in America, the author notes. He quotes a 1935 interview with Radio Mirror magazine in which Berg complained about "an awful lot of rot" being written about Jews. On her program, she wanted "to show them [Jews] as they really are — as I, a young Jewish girl, knew them." Berg’s fight to help her co-star, Philip Loeb, in his fight against being blacklisted and to get her show back on television is the most interesting part of the book. After battling Jewish TV executives who shied away from her show because it was too Jewish, she got on TV in 1949. In 1950, Loeb was blacklisted, noted as one of 151 entertainers who were members of "Communist or Communist-front organizations." (Loeb’s problem was that he was "a loud, passionate, and driven union activist," according to Smith.) Told to get rid of him by her sponsor, Berg refused, and her show eventually was canceled. She finally succumbed to the pressure and agreed to put on the series without him, but it was too late.
Being off the air for a year had hurt the program, as had the advent of many competitive TV situation comedies, including Our Miss Brooks, I Love Lucy, I Married Joan and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. In addition, corporate America decided that its shows, like its products, should be more American and less ethnic. Berg’s series struggled through its death throes for a time—on NBC for a short time, then on the Dumont network and finally in syndication — but it finally went off the air for good in 1956. She acted on the stage for the next 10 years, dying in 1966.
Berg’s legacy is as "a prolific force in broadcasting," Smith writes. During her time on radio, Berg used her show "to attack the various social problems affecting her listeners. The Great Depression, the persecution of the European Jews and the Second World War provided the backdrop for many of the show’s plotlines ... ." The show had many Jewish listeners, but also appealed to non-Jews from various backgrounds, "all intrigued by the ‘plain simple woman’ whose voice became as recognizable and welcomed as their own mother’s." In an age when anti-Semitism was the norm, that is an amazing accomplishment.
—Washington Jewish Week