Lew Brice: Adjacent to Greatness

Lew Brice (1893-1966) was born on this day.

Unfortunate fellow! Brother of Fanny Brice, husband of Mae Clarke, Brice was destined to be outshone by the women around him — to the extent, even, that he used his sister’s stage name. The real family name, after all, was Borach. The family were in the saloon business. Fanny, two years older than Lew, was in show business by 1905, and hitting it big by 1910.

Lew, not unlike Jack Pickford, slunk in slower and smaller. He was a comedian and a song and dance man in vaudeville. He was considered one of the best tap and ballroom dancers around, but it was said he could not speak lines. No doubt with his sister’s help he was cast in The Passing Show’s 1913 and 1914 editions, as well as the shows Maid in America (1915), Step This Way (1916), Americana (1926), and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931). He also appeared in four very obscure silent movie comedies (1923-1926).

In between shows he juggled vaudeville partners and wives: often both at the same time. In 1914 he ran off with a 17 year old girl named Tillie Zill. Her parents threw him in jail and had the marriage annulled. Tillie may or not have been the same person as his second wife, Muriel Worth, who was also his vaudeville partner in the act of Worth and Brice. This pair broke up with a lot of sparks and acrimony in 1916. Then Brice hooked up with a woman named Ellen Kearns, whom he re-branded Ellen Worth so the act could stay Worth and Brice. His ex-wife sued. After this came an act with the Barr Twins, a sort of poor man’s Dolly Sisters. Then he did some time in the army (it was World War One) and returned to civilian life to form the act “Dances and Tunes” of 1919″ with Adelaide Mason and Rube Beckwith.

During the teens he fell under the spell of gangster Nicky Arnstein, his sister’s lover and later her husband. Lew worshiped Arnstein so much he groomed and dressed like him, and emulated all his bad habits, in particular gambling away all of Fanny’s money.

Mae Clarke was 17 years old and appearing in the George White show Manhattan Mary, when Brice met her and swept her off her feet. She had misgivings; he was a drinker and stayed out all night playing cards, but his attractive personality won her over. They were married in 1928. He commissioned Billly Rose to write a vaudeville act for the two of them. the pair sang, danced, told jokes and kibitzed in front of a film of horse races. The act was successful and big time.

This photo, taken in 1931, is pretty great. Cagney, a former hoofer, is clearly an old vaudeville and Broadway pal, and was Mae’s co-star in “The Public Enemy”. It is telling, however, that Lew reportedly loved the grapefruit scene.

In 1929, Mae and Lew went to Hollywood to break into talkies. Lew was in one early musical film Happy Days (1929), one comedy talkie short with Neely Edwards (1930), and had a bit part in the Edward G. Robinson picture Two Seconds (1932). That was it for Lew’s movie career. But by 1931 Mae was a major movie star in films such as Waterloo Bridge and Frankenstein . Meanwhile, Lew had no stage or screen credits after 1932 and that was the same year the Palace played its last two-a-day, ending vaudeville. Where and how and if he worked, ya gotta wonder. It seems he didn’t.  That can place a strain on a relationship.  He drank, accused her of cheating, and then he beat Mae and even broke her nose. The pair divorced in 1937, although he and Mae remained friends afterwards. In her autobiography, she clearly felt sorry for him, and never escaped the charm that had ensnared her in the first place. But some things are unforgivable.

But Lew lived on for another three decades after the break-up. How did he live? Undoubtedly Fanny helped him out, but she passed away in 1951. What after that? If you’ve got the skinny be sure and share it with us!

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