“Phillipa Fallon?! Phillipa Fallon’s a long way from Ferne Mark!”
-- Shirley Abrams, high school classmate of Ferne Mark aka Phillipa Fallon
Phillipa Fallon was born in Chicago, Illinois on August 14, 1923 with the significantly less flamboyant name of “Ferne Mark.” Her father, Samuel, was a life insurance salesman and her Russian-born mother, Ethel (Fox) worked in Winsberg’s Department Store. Within a few years Ferne had a younger brother named Irwin, her only sibling. The Mark household was a musical one and both Ferne’s mother and maternal grandmother were gifted amateur singers. At Theodore Roosevelt High School Ferne joined the Girls’ Chorus and in 1939 her name appeared in a Chicago Tribune article about a large recital.
According to her senior year yearbook, Ferne was in several other clubs including “Penaspir,” (“PEN” + “ASPIRation”), a group for students with an interest in writing. She was also a columnist for the school newspaper, The Weekly. Unfortunately, according to the journalism department at Roosevelt, copies of the newspaper from this era no longer exist in the school’s archives. We can only speculate about what might have inspired young Ferne’s imagination for her columns. Frank Sinatra perhaps?
Shirley Abrams, a fellow student of Ferne’s at Roosevelt, told CONELRAD: “I remember her very clearly. She was quiet, not one of the popular crowd.” When told of Ferne’s later stage name, a surprised Abrams exclaimed, “Phillipa Fallon?! Phillipa Fallon’s a long way from Ferne Mark!”
Ferne graduated from Roosevelt in June of 1941 and wasted little time hanging around the old home town. Shortly after earning her diploma, she was on her way to Hollywood. Gloria Fox, Ferne’s first cousin, told CONELRAD that she was visiting the Mark home the night before Ferne boarded a train for California. “She had all of these hats and she didn’t know what to do with them.” Ms. Fox added, “Ferne was always very dramatic.”
When asked why she thought her cousin had made the bold decision to move so far away at such a tender age, Fox replied that Ferne wanted to become a professional singer. “She just wanted to get out of the house and she wanted to be famous.” Fox recalled her cousin to be a driven and determined young woman, but one who was also very private. According to Fox, Ferne’s parents were not happy about her leaving, but they accepted it. Another likely reason for her decision to move is that her father, an alcoholic, was, at times, physically abusive. This fact may help explain Fox’s belief that Ferne's uncle, on her father’s side, may have helped her financially with the trip west. Dr. Reuben Mark was a successful physician/psychiatrist and nine years younger than Samuel. He was, perhaps, uniquely suited to have sympathy for his niece’s desire to flee the dysfunctional family.
It is not exactly clear what Ferne did immediately upon arriving in Hollywood with all of her hats in tow. She did have relatives who lived in Los Angeles and Ms. Fox had given her the telephone number of an L.A.-based singer named Sylvia Hollander who was a member of a group called The Barry Trio (not to be confused with the better known Barry Sisters). By 1944 she was living in a room or an apartment at 6515 Franklin Avenue in Hollywood (now the Trylon Hotel). What, precisely, she was doing with her time during this period is still a mystery, but presumably, like most aspiring singers and actresses, she was working a day job and going out on auditions. But Ferne’s life was about to change radically once again.
According to Gloria Fox, Ferne first met the comedy writer Bill Manhoff at a party held at the home of the aforementioned Sylvia Hollander. Manhoff is perhaps best known today for his 1964 stage play The Owl and the Pussycat that was later adapted into the 1970 Barbra Streisand film of the same name. Fox is not sure when the meeting at Hollander’s house would have taken place, but it must have been sometime in 1944 – the year Manhoff was brought out from New York to Hollywood by Ed Gardner and Abe Burrows to write for their enormously popular radio show Duffy’s Tavern. 1944 was also the year that Manhoff and Ferne were married.
Wilton David “Bill” Manhoff was born on June 25, 1919 in Newark, New Jersey and attended Jamaica High School in New York City where he wrote short stories for the school’s literary magazine. He graduated in January of 1937 and began courses at City College of New York the following month. He had planned to study law, but found writing to be more fun.
During his senior year Manhoff sold a radio script and left school believing that the sale was a sign from heaven that a career in radio awaited him. In a 1965 issue of Playbill magazine, Manhoff explained his delay in becoming an overnight success: “It turned out heaven was putting me on. For four years I worked as a truckloader, bellhop, paint sprayer in a compact factory, liquor clerk and finally drifted into publicity – writing gags for columns. This brought me to the attention of Henny Youngman and other comedians who can smell a gag upwind at twenty miles.”
By 1944 Manhoff was a young writer on the rise (he would succeed Abe Burrows as head writer on “Duffy’s Tavern” in 1945 when Burrows left the show; Burrows’ son, James, born in 1940, is a television director best known for co-creating Cheers) when he met Ferne Mark at the Hollander party. Gloria Fox recalled for CONELRAD that the family gossip was that Manhoff bought Ferne a convertible automobile as a present to commemorate their apparently swift engagement.
On September 29, 1944 Bill and Ferne were married in a civil ceremony performed by a municipal court judge with a clerk acting as a witness. The marriage license lists Ferne’s occupation as “actress” in “motion pictures,” but there is no evidence that she had had any screen roles to her credit at this point in time. The newly minted Manhoffs set up housekeeping in Bill’s North Fuller Avenue apartment where he would also often conduct writing meetings for Duffy’s Tavern.
COMING NEXT: THE LARRY GELBART CONNECTION