Emerson was one of the most visible individuals in the early days
of U.S. television. A "television personality" (meaning talk show
and more), her omnipresence during the infant days of TV made her
one of the most famous faces in the nation and earned her the unofficial
titles of "Television's First Lady" and "Mrs. Television."
television settled into stricter genre forms, when prime time was
dominated by more presentational types of programming, "personalities"
prospered. Variety shows abounded, as did low cost, low key talk
shows which took advantage of TV's intimate nature. While the hosts
of some of these shows were men--Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, and Arthur
Godfrey are among the better known "personalities"--the majority
were female: Ilka Chase, Wendy Barrie, Arlene Francis, and others.
Emerson had been a marginally successful film and stage actress
before she embarked on her second career in television. A talent
scout offered her a contract with Warner Brothers, when she was
noticed in a local theater production, and she starred or co-starred
in various "A" and "B" movies. Her career took an up-swing in 1944
when she married a second time, to Elliot Roosevelt, son of the
President. The studio's publicity machine used this union to bring
her greater fame and expanded Emerson's non-acting opportunities.
As a "first daughter-in-law" she took part in presidential ceremonies
and, with her husband, staged a successful trip to the Soviet Union
in the late 1940s. She also acted on Broadway and on radio.
made her first television appearance of note in 1949 as a panelist,
with her husband, on a game show. Her quick wit and breadth of knowledge---which
upstaged her husband to such a degree she apologized on his behalf
on air---made her something of a sensation. Later that year, actress
Diana Barrymore was forced by illness to drop out of her soon to
premiere local New York talk show. The producers phoned Emerson
to take over and she accepted.
Faye Emerson Show premiered in October 1949 and went national
over CBS the following March. It quickly gained a following, snagging
an average 22 rating. One month later, Emerson began a second talk
show this time on NBC. This made her one of the first people to
have two shows simultaneously on two networks.
late night talk show of its day, Emerson frequently welcomed celebrity
guests (actors, authors, other personalities). Sometimes the show
was more free form. Sometimes it was simply Faye talking about her
life and goings on about town.
retrospect, Emerson seemed a natural for early television, a medium
which had to bridge the gap between the art of live drama and the
appeal of wrestling. Emerson's combination of Hollywood good looks
and social connections, along with her old-fashioned common sense
and pleasant personality and friendly conversations about peoples,
places and parties made audiences want to welcome her into their
homes. Adding to her appeal were her much talked about designer
gowns featuring plunging necklines. It was believed this helped
her attain much of her male viewership. (One wit would later say
Faye Emerson put the "V" in TV.) The topic was such hot copy for
a time that it inspired fashion/photo spreads in Life and
other magazines. Finally, to move past it, Emerson brought it to
a vote on her show. She asked viewers what she should wear. Ballots
ran 95% in favor of Emerson's style staying as it was.
Emerson was more than just window dressing. During the height of
her fame she was a frequent substitute host for Edward R. Murrow
on Person to Person and for Garry Moore on his show. She
took part in so many game shows that a magazine once labeled her
"TV's peripatetic panelist."
omnipresence as a television performer should not be under emphasized.
Before cable and satellites the average household was lucky to receive
a handful of channels. Hosting various shows on various networks
for much of the 1950s meant that even the most infrequent of audiences
had to be aware of her as one of TV's first citizens. A viewing
of Emerson's work today reveals a pleasant, largely unflappable
but somewhat stiff talent. Still she radiates glamour and remarkable
In 1950, after divorcing Roosevelt, Emerson announced on her evening
program her plans to marry musician Lyle C. "Skitch" Henderson.
(It is believed she was the first person ever to make such an announcement
on television.) In 1953, the two teamed for the show, Faye &
Skitch. Earlier in 1951, Emerson began hosting one of the medium's
most expensive programs, Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town, in
which she traveled the country and profiled different cities.
As the 1950s came to a close "TV personalities" found themselves
with fewer opportunities. Some, like Arlene Francis, brilliantly
reinvented themselves; others found themselves relegated to guest
appearances before moving into retirement. Emerson was in this latter
group. She continued to make TV appearances until 1963 when, rich
and weary of show business, she sailed off for a year in Europe.
Finding it to her liking she seldom returned to the U.S. and died
abroad in 1993.
Faye Emerson, "Mrs. Television," did not endure on the small screen
while her masculine counterpart, "Mr. Television" Milton Berle did
can be ascribed to several factors. Perhaps most important was the
fact that the TV personality never had a single marketable trait:
neither comic nor singer, they were more like the good host or hostess
at a private, intimate party and by the late 1950s, as talk shows
left prime time, the party was over. TV production moved out of
New York and left their kind of glamour behind.
Today, the lack of a clear lineage for the TV personality makes
a full understanding of Emerson's appeal hard to grasp. Who today
does exactly what Emerson did--Joan Rivers, Kathie Lee Gifford,
the women of MTV? But as TV was beginning, it needed a friendly,
unifying factor, a symbol to initiate audiences into its technology--and
for millions of viewers that envoy was Faye Emerson.
EMERSON. Born 8 July 1917 in Elizabeth, Louisiana, U.S.A.
Married 2) Elliot Roosevelt, 1944; 3) Lyle C. "Skitch" Henderson,
1951. In films from 1930s; in television from 1949 as host,
guest performer, panelist. Died in Majorca, Spain on 9 March
1949-52 With Faye
1950 The Faye Emerson Show
1951-52 Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town
1953-54 Faye and Skitch
Bad Men of Missouri, 1941; Juke Girl, 1942; The
Hard Way, 1942; Find the Blackmailer, 1943; Destination
Tokyo, 1943; Air Force, 1943; The Mask of Dimitrios,
1944; Crime by Night, 1944; Danger Signal, 1945; Nobody
Lives Forever, 1946; A Face in the Crowd, 1957.
O'Dell, Cary. Women Pioneers in Television. Jefferson, Norh
Carolina: McFarland, 1996.