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Women Crush Wednesday: The Wonder of Villager Judy Holliday

Judy Holliday, the brilliant star of stage and screen, was a New Yorker through and through.  It makes perfect sense that while she was an up-and-coming superstar, she made her home in Greenwich Village in a floor-through apartment at 158 Waverly Place, a gorgeous 1839 Greek Revival townhouse.  It is also no surprise that Holliday honed her acting chops and got her big break while showcasing in the Village at the venerable Village Vanguard

Holliday in her Waverly Place apartment

Born in Sunnyside, Queens on June 21, 1921, Holliday began life as Judith Tuvim, the daughter of Abe Tuvim,  a journalist and the executive director of the foundation for the Jewish National Fund of America (1951-1958), and Helen Tuvim, a piano teacher, both of Russian-Jewish descent. 

Judy Tuvim’s childhood home in Sunnyside Queens

Judy Holliday was a complete anomaly.  Her life and her career were both short, but as impactful as anyone in the entertainment industry has ever seen.

Holliday was a brilliant comedian who redefined the stereotype of the dumb blonde as “the smart dumb blonde.” A slapstick genius with extraordinary comic timing, Holliday made comedy confection with her ability to turn on a dime, instantly morphing from a loud mouthed pest into a cream puff of delight. She also had the keen ability to create characters that were not only side-splittingly funny, but also achingly human.

When just out of high school in 1938, Judy’s mother took her to a Catskill resort for vacation.  There she met and became friends with borscht belt comedian Adolph Green, which would prove to be a great boon for both of them. In the fall of that year, Holliday took refuge from a sudden downpour in the Village inside the Village Vanguard.  She met the owner, Max Gordon, who was impressed with her pluck and intelligence. 

“She was a Village kid, just like all of the kids today. She was very bright. I wanted some entertainment in the place and asked her if she could get a group together to go on Sunday nights for $5 apiece for each show.”

Max Gordon

Tuvim contacted Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Alvin Hammer, and John Frank, all friends she had fortuitously met along with Green at that Catskill resort. They jumped at the chance to perform and initially called themselves “Six and Company,” but later changed that name to “The Revuers.”  They scrounged for material at first and when they couldn’t find things that were appropriate for them, they began to write it themselves. Among them was an unknown pianist named Leonard Bernstein.

Judy’s talent for comedy and Comden and Green’s talent for writing was quickly recognized, and the group subsequently appeared for thirty-two weeks on an NBC radio show. With Judy Tuvim’s career burgeoning, she adopted a new name, Judy Holliday (tuvim is the Hebrew word for holiday). In 1943 The Revuers left for Hollywood.  There were no Hollywood contacts thrown at them for the first bit, but they ended up playing The Trocadero Club where movie producers spotted Holliday. To everyone’s disappointment the major studios were more interested in the girl with “the natural gift of comedy” than the group as a whole, and Holliday alone was offered a studio contract.  She refused to enter films without her friends, but reluctantly she finally did with the caveat that The Revuers have a part in her first film, Greenwich Village, starring Carmen Miranda and Don Ameche. The Revuers sadly ended up on the cutting room floor, but Judy went on to have small parts in six additional films as per her contract.

The Revuers circa 1939

She garnered a nice review for her turn in Winged Victory, but the gleam of the Hollywood life wore off and Holliday, released from her contract, returned to New York in 1945.  Comden and Green, however, had gone on to write a big hit on Broadway, On the Town. They encouraged Judy to audition for a new Broadway show called Kiss Them for Me.  In March of 1945, Holliday landed that starring role, playing the first of her many dumb but good-natured characters. This turn was the beginning of her short but stellar career.

Born Yesterday

From there she leapt to her signature role, Billie Dawn, the loudmouthed girlfriend of a boorish tycoon with political ambitions, in the Broadway premiere of Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin. Kanin had originally written the role for Jean Arthur. Arthur had notorious stage-fright and dropped out of the project on very short notice before it opened in Philadelphia. Holliday was tapped to play the role which she learned in 3 days, and rode it all the way to stardom. When the film was set to be cast, Columbia Pictures was reluctant to cast Holliday, still a virtual unknown in tinsel town. In his book Tracy and Hepburn, Garson Kanin mentions that when Columbia bought the rights to the film Born Yesterday, studio boss Harry Cohn would not consider casting the Hollywood-unknown. Kanin, along with the director George Cukor, Spencer Tracy, and Katherine Hepburn, conspired to promote Holliday by offering her a key part in their film Adam’s Rib, in which she nearly stole the movie from Hepburn and Tracy. She garnered so much praise and attention that the studio finally relented and offered her the role in the film version of Born Yesterday. The role won her the best-actress Oscar in 1950, over Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The Billie stereotype was an inspired invention of Holliday’s.

Judy Holliday

In real life, Holliday was a ferocious Scrabble competitor and crossword-puzzle demon, reputed to have a genius I.Q. of 172. During her first stint in Hollywood as a day player at Fox, she reputedly stood up to the aggressive sexual overtures of the Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. Her agent had scheduled her for the notorious ‘4 o’clock meeting’ with Zanuck and ordered her to stuff her bra. At the meeting, Zanuck locked the door, unzipped his pants and pushed Holliday onto the couch as he grabbed her breasts. He said, “You belong to me.” Judy reached into her blouse, removed the pads from her bra, threw them at him and shouted, “These belong to you. I don’t.”

Holliday was also no stranger to the political side of entertainment. The content written by her group The Revuers was quasi-political sketch comedy with a decidedly liberal slant. Born Yesterday was a scathing critique on ignorance and apathy. And Adam’s Rib, the film that got her Hollywood career started, advocated for the equal treatment of women in all parts of society. It is no surprise then that Holliday was a target of the inquisition of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. (HUAC)

In 1950, Judy Holliday’s name appeared in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Activities in Radio and Television, along with the name of playwright and director Garson Kanin. Combining anti-Semitism and racism, anti-communists targeted Holliday because of her family’s roots in socialism and her support for a range of progressive causes, including the Civil Rights Congress, an organization that campaigned internationally to defend African Americans convicted of crimes, especially in cases involving the death penalty, and of course, her “questionable choice of material.” When Holliday proved reluctant to cooperate with the Bureau (instead of providing names or admitting to her guilt, she gave them a sworn statement that she had never been a member of the Communist Party), a “security investigation” was initiated of Judy Holliday’s mother and uncle, Helen Gollomb Tuvim, aka Mary Tuvim, and Joseph Gollomb, in order to intimidate her.

Red Channels and the creation of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was formed in 1951 and was led by Senator Pat McCarran. The secondary blacklist had a decidedly anti-immigrant tone to it, with McCarran using Hollywood and the theater to justify anti-immigrant legislation that he was trying to push through Congress, limiting the ability of Eastern European immigrants to come into the United States, and deporting the ones who were already here.

Called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, Holliday, who had resented being typecast as a dumb blonde throughout her career, was advised to play the dumb blonde for all it was worth. Like Lillian Hellman had done before her, she took an approach known as a “diminished Fifth” and refused to answer questions about anyone but herself. As it turns out, she gave one of the best performances of her life for the committee. Hiding her sharp mind, Judy convinced them that she was similar to her dim Billie Dawn character. She pretended not to understand many of the questions and with ditzy word play, she confused the committee into dismissing her. The brilliant move saved her career.

As she put it,

“You think you’re going to be brave and noble. Then you walk in there and there are the microphones, and all those senators looking at you…it scares the shit out of you. But I’m not ashamed of myself because I didn’t name names. That much I preserved.”

Judy Holliday

As her friend and colleague Garson Kanin put it in a memorial,

“Of all those who were harassed in the ugly days of Red Channels and blacklisting, no one was more steadfast or less craven than Judy. Her behavior under pressure was a poem of grace.”

Garson Kanin

Holliday was one of the most talented actresses ever to grace the stage and the screen. Her death at the age of 43 cut short a career for the ages.

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    One response to “Women Crush Wednesday: The Wonder of Villager Judy Holliday

    1. Well written and informative. I’d only known some of the characters, but not the exceptionally talented and loyal woman behind them. Thanks for the enlightenment!

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