Greenwich has been home to many famous celebrities. Among these was Victor Borge, who was known for his comedy and piano playing. He lived in Greenwich (Belle Haven) from 1965 until he died in 2000. Although he arrived in this country with only $20 in his pocket and a single change of clothing, he went on to become one of the most successful entertainers of all time.
Victor Borge (left) and Sergio Franchi.
Victor Borge was born Borge Rosenberg on January 3, 1909 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Both parents were musicians. His mother was a piano teacher and his father was a violinist, who played with the Royal Danish Philharmonic. He began taking piano lessons at age 3. When he was 9, he won a scholarship to the Royal Danish Academy of Music. Borge gave his first performance at age 10. He was indeed a child prodigy. He was a concert pianist from 1926 to 1934. In 1933 Borge married American Elsie Chilton, whom he met in Denmark. He then began performing a revue act in local night clubs. At one point, he was accompanying a singer on stage when he began perfoming his comedy. Surprisingly, he was a big hit! Borge ended up appearing in 6 Danish films right before World War II. He was very critical of the Nazis and never passed up an opportuniy to ridicule them. This, combined with the fact that he was Jewish, got him blacklisted. Borge was playing in Stockholm when the Germans invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940. He and his wife Elsie fled to Finland. They decided to immigrate to the United States, and had to make special arrangements to get to a boat in France. Borge was the last passenger to leave on the USS American Legion - the last boat to leave northern Europe for the United Staes until the end of the war.
When Borge arrived in the US on August 28, 1940, he couldn't speak a bit of English! He started to watch films to learn the language, and would go to the movie theater to watch movies for 15-cents. Borge watched the movies over and over until he could speak fluently. He also changed his name to Victor Borge. His piano teacher had been named Victor, so as a sign of respect, he adopted this name. He used his given name for his surname. Victor was concerned that people would think he was German if he didn't change his name. By this time, he was 31-years-old and teaching piano.
Since he was a gifted pianist, it wasn't long before he became successful. In 1941, he began warming up the audience for Rudy Vallee's radio show, and Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall. He was such a big hit that he ended up giving 54 performances! In 1942, Borge was named the best new radio performer. He had his own radio show from 1943 to 1951, which aired on the NBC, ABC and Mutual networks. His success was complete when he debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1945.
Victor acquired his American citizenship in 1948. He and his wife adopted twins. Unfortunately, they were divorced in 1951. Apparently undeterred, he married his business manager, Sarabel (Sanna) Scraper, in 1953. They ended up with 5 children and 9 grandchildren!
A review of the Price & Lee City Directories indicates Victor Borge lived in Belle Haven from 1965 until his death on December 23, 2000. Although he had homes all over the world, his home in Greenwich was considered his main headquarters. The very spacious home on Long Island Sound had an enormous music room with 2 grand pianos. He was known for his great philanthropy. In 1963 he created a "Thanks to Scandinavia" scholarship fund for students interested in health care. This was offered to students from Scandinavia and Bulgaria in thanks for their help in World War II. While living in town, he played in the Greenwich Symphony Benefit for many years starting in 1986 to raise money for the local orchestra. In 1990, he appeared at the Palace Theater in a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth.
Victor Borge received many honors during his lifetime. At the Kennedy Center honors in 1999, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award. He received 7 Honorary Degrees from several colleges. He was knighted 5 times, by each of the five Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland). Borge was also honored many times by the United Nations and US Congress. The highest (unofficial) honor may have come from his appreciative fans, who nicknamed him "The Great Dane", "The Unmelancholy Dane" and "The Clown Prince of Denmark".
Victor Borge died in his sleep from heart failure on December 23, 2000. He was 91. You can spot his burial place in Putnam Cemetery by the statuette of the Little Mermaid - a tribute to the story created by Hans Christian Anderson. This is a fitting tribute to a man who used humor to interest children of all ages in music.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Victor Borge (right) with Sergio Franchi.
Gavin, Karen: Great Lives in History: Jewish Americans; accessed online through Biography Research Center database (iConn.org) on December 6, 2013.