- "Something on My Own": Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929–1956
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 " Goldbergsfranchise" (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 toAmerica 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 Goldbergswas 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). [End Page 206]
In Smith's telling, the biographical origins of The Goldbergsemerge 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 performingthe 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-rearing 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...