Polly Bergen, American singer, actress, TV show host and entrepreneur, has passed away from natural causes at age eighty-four in her home in Southbury, Connecticut, surrounded by friends and family, according to her publicist Judy Katz. She kept her career active for sixty-two years, beginning with singing on the radio, moving on to record albums, and to play leading roles in films, TV dramas, and Broadway shows. She later wrote three advice books, created a successful beauty product line and company, and became a panelist on a popular game show. She had battled emphysema and other ailments in the late 1990s, a result of fifty years of smoking.
Born Nellie Paulina Burgin in Knoxville, Tennessee on July 14th, 1930, to a working class family that often found itself on welfare, Polly took up radio singing as a teenager after the family moved to California. “I was fanatically ambitious,” she recalled in a New York Times interview in 2001. “All I ever wanted to be was a star. I didn’t want to be a singer. I didn’t want to be an actress. I wanted to be a star.” Stardom came to Bergen early in her life. She won her first Emmy in 1958 for playing Helen Morgan, a tragic singer featured on the anthology series Playhouse 90, making Bergen a household name though she was just a twenty-something at the time. In 1989 she was nominated for best supporting actress in the TV miniseries War and Remembrance.
Her fierce ambition was apparent throughout her life. When she considered her film roles inadequate, she walked out on early contracts with MGM and Paramount. She struggled against the lack of sex equality in the workforce when she became president of her cosmetics company, the Polly Bergen Company. In 2001, she was refused an audition for the revival of Broadway show Follies, so she contacted composer Stephen Sondheim herself. After he auditioned her, she received the role of a dwindling star, and sang “I’m Still Here,” a song about the fickle nature of show business. Her performance earned her a Tony nomination. Bergen’s definition of success, noted in 1968 while talking to women in a business group, was “when you feel what you’ve done fulfills yourself, makes you happy and makes people around you happy.” Her family, children Peter Fields, Pamela Fields, Kathy Lander, and three grandchildren, survive her and ask that donations be made to Planned Parenthood in lieu of flowers. R.I.P. Polly Bergen.