Our Favorite Jews: Madeline Kahn

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Best-known for playing the Marline Dietrich-esque saloon singer Lili Von Shtupp Blazing Saddles, as well as Frankenstein’s monster’s love interest in Young Frankenstein, Madeline Kahn was a scene stealing comediac giant, who appeared in some of the funniest movies in history, and is remembered as one of the all-time funny ladies in show business.

Born September 29, 1942 in Boston, Madeline Gail Kahn was the oldest child of Paula Kahn and Bernard Wolfson.

According the Jewish Women’s Archive, Paula and Bernard were high school sweethearts and Paula gave birth to Madeline when she was only 17 years old. Kahn later recalled her Jewish mother as “a Bohemian—in the good sense of the word. A searcher.” This searching was evident in her mother’s experiments with a variety of religions throughout Madeline’s childhood.

Shortly after his return from World War II, Bernard left the family, and Paula took her daughter to New York so Paula could pursue her dream of being an actress. While her mother worked on her career, Kahn attended boarding school for five years, where she began to act and sing herself. She went on to Hofstra University where she trained as an opera singer and starred in several campus productions, ultimately earning a doctorate in her chosen field.

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Kahn made her film debut in the 1972’s What’s Up Doc? and in 1973 she earned her first Oscar nomination, in the supporting actress category for her role as Trixie Delight in Paper Moon. But it was in her collaborations with Mel Brooks that Kahn truly achieved her fame.  In 1974, she appeared Lili Von Shtupp, a cabaret singer, and was nominated again for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Although her mother was Jewish, Kahn was not raised in an observant household; she once said in an interview that her mother “investigated various religions.” When Kahn took on the role of Gorgeous, however, her mother proved to be very helpful, finding women in her community who allowed her to videotape their rituals. With wonder, Kahn reflected that “These people observe the Sabbath and enjoy it and were sweet enough to send me the tapes so I could study them. So that is how the Jewish tradition was passed along in our family.”
In September 1998, Kahn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer though she didn’t announce her condition until November 1999. She battled the disease for over a year and in October of 1999, she married her longtime companion John Hansbury. Ultimately, however, on December 3, 1999, at the age of 57, she succumbed, like her close friend Gilda Radner, to ovarian cancer. Her last film was the 1999 release, Judy Berlin.