Bertha Levine a.k.a. Madame Spivy

Today, a post on the legendary lesbian cabaret singer and screen actress Bertha Levine (1906-1971), variously billed as Spivy, Spivy Levoe, or Madame Spivy. (Pronounced “Spivvy”, i.e., with a short “i”).

Spivy is probably most widely known for her supporting appearances in such films as The Fugitive Kind (1960), Studs Lonigan (1962), All Fall Down (1962), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), as well as guest starring turns on tv shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Peter Gunn. A big, husky woman with a colorful personality, she was usually used in grittier pictures for a touch of authenticity. Her physicality was not unlike that of Jane Darwell, but the intended effect was similar to screen appearances by the likes of Texas Guinan or Sophie Tucker.

Spivy’s acting career was launched with her turn in the original Broadway production of Auntie Mame (1956-57). By then she was a well known New York character of a couple of decades standing, adding a dash of magic to the cast. From playing organ in churches and movie theatres as a young woman, she developed a night club act where she recited witty, satirical, sophisticated, and sometimes sentimental songs over her terrific piano accompaniment. By 1936 she had a regular engagement at Tony’s, one of the joints that crowded the strip of nightclubs, former speakeasies, and cabarets along 52nd Street. She recorded a couple of 78s of her tunes, written for her by others. Most of the tracks are available on Youtube. The experience is not unlike listening to Belle BarthRusty WarrenPearl Williams, and Totie Fields, or for that matter Tom Lehrer. Smart stuff, the kind of thing people used to play for a laugh at parties.

From 1940 through 1951, she had her own club, Spivy’s Roof, on 57th Street. By all accounts it was a gay, or gay-friendly joint, and she booked artists like Bea ArthurThelma Carpenter, Frances Faye, Judy Holiday, Fred Keating, Liberace, Paul Lynde, Moms MableyMabel Mercer, and Martha Raye. Judy Garland was a regular. And I’m guessing Tennessee Williams was, as well; that would make a reasonable explanation for her turn in The Fugitive Kind. During these years, Spivvy became shy about performing for the public, as her club was hot and the people who took the stage were stars. But she would give private performances for special guests after the club had closed. After closing her rooftop club Spivy toured Europe for a few years before getting cast in Auntie Mame.

Madame Spivy’s last professional credit was, of all things, an episode of Daniel Boone in late 1967. Not long after that, she was diagnosed with cancer and a place for her at the Motion Picture Country Home was arranged for her by her pal Patsy Kelly. She passed away there in early 1971.

For more on show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.