Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Nellie Paulina Burgin, 14 July 1930, Knoxville TN; d 20 September 2014, Southbury CT) Singer, actress, businesswoman. She won an Emmy in 1957 for her TV portrayal of torch singer Helen Morgan, but a better-known actress (Ann Blyth) was chosen when a film was made, whose voice had to be dubbed (by Gogi Grant). Bergen was nominated for another Emmy 50 years later for her guest role in the TV comedy “Desperate Housewives".

She began as a teenager singing country songs on the radio, and was soon discovered by Hollywood. Early film credits included a western Across the Rio Grande (1949; she played a saloon singer) and three films with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Many of her films were unmemorable, but highlights included the thriller Cape Fear (1962, opposite Gregory Peck as they were stalked by the psycopath Robert Mitchum) and The Caretakers (1963, an inmate in an institution ruled by evil nurse Joan Crawford). Light comedies included Move Over, Darling (1963, with Doris Day and James Garner) and Kisses for My President (1964, as the nation’s first female president).

Her Broadway debut was revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1953) with Hermione Gingold, Billy De Wolfe and Harry Belafonte, but she tried too hard, strained her voice and had to undergo surgery. Hers was not a strong voice, but she had a way of putting over a certain kind of song, like the prettiest girl in the room singing just for you; her initial fame playing a torch singer was apt. Her albums did well: Little Girl Blue mentioned in an obituary was probably the same as Polly Bergen, a 10" LP on Jubilee in 1955; then she was signed by Columbia for Bergen Sings Morgan and The Party's Over, both released in 1957, Polly And Her Pop (a country-pop album with her father), and My Heart Sings in '58, All Alone By The Telephone '59, Sings The Hit Songs From DoReMi and Annie Get Your Gun '61, Act One - Sing, Too '63, most of these having Luther Henderson as music director. Bergen Sings Morgan was a top ten album in Billboard, while The Party's Over was a selection of the Columbia Record Club.  

She was a panelist on the TV game show “To Tell the Truth” 1956-61, and hosted her own variety show in the late 1950s. Her business career began in the mid-60s: she started a cosmetic company which she later sold to Fabergé, as well as jewelry and shoe lines. She wrote several self-help books, including I’d Love to, But What Will I Wear?, and was an advocate for women, especially on reproductive rights. But like many another successful woman, she had husbands who spent her money; during her third marriage she went from being a millionaire to being broke. She went back to TV, reunited with Mitchum in The Winds Of War (1983) and a sequel War And Remembrance (1988, where she earned more Emmy nominations. A few later films included John Waters's wacky comedy Cry-Baby, about juvenile delinquncy in the 1950s, where she played an uptight matron.

She did a number of TV shows, including an episode of “The Sopranos”,and meanwhile she finally had opportunities to sing again, appearing at Feinstein's in the Regency hotel in 2000, and in a highly praised Tony-nominated performance as an aging showgirl in the 2001 revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, where 'I'm Still Here' belonged to her. This was followed by an off-Broadway revival of Cabaret in 2002, and a short-lived duet with Mark Hamill, Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks on Broadway in 2003.