|Born||Helen Brown Nichols
April 13, 1916
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
|Died||November 25, 2006
New York, New York, U.S.
|Other names||Phyllis Cerf Wagner|
|Occupation||Actress, writer, book publisher and socialite|
|Spouse(s)||Robert F. Wagner, Jr. (1975-91; his death)
Bennett Cerf (1940-71; his death; 2 children)
She was born as Helen Brown Nichols in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother was Verda Virginia Owens, daughter of Walter and Saphrona (Ball) Owens, who were of Welsh ancestry. Her two maternal aunts were Jean Owens, wife of radio actor Vinton Hayworth (uncle of Rita Hayworth), and Lela (Owens) McMath, mother of Ginger Rogers. Not long after her birth, her mother moved to Oklahoma City, where Fraser resided until age 16.
At 16, she went to live with her aunt, Lela, and first cousin, Ginger, in California. There, Ginger, who would later be known as actress Ginger Rogers, thought up her new name and introduced her to the Hollywood scene. Between 1932 and 1939, Phyllis Fraser appeared in several movies, most notably Winds of the Wasteland (1936) with John Wayne, and Little Men (1934). In 1932 Fraser had a featured role, later deleted, in the RKO film Thirteen Women.
In 1939, she abandoned Hollywood for New York City to pursue a career in advertising at McCann Erickson. Soon after her arrival, she was introduced by The New Yorker editor Harold Ross to publishing magnate and Random House co-founder (and future What's My Line? panelist) Bennett Cerf, whom she married on September 17, 1940. They had two sons, Christopher Cerf, an author and composer-lyricist who has contributed numerous songs to Sesame Street, and Jonathan Cerf, the author of Big Bird's Red Book and the 1980 world champion of Othello, the board game. She wrote The ABC and Counting Book, a children's book, and co-founded Beginner Books, which is the Random House imprint for young children, along with Ted Geisel, more often known as Dr. Seuss, and his wife Helen Palmer Geisel.
After Cerf's death on August 27, 1971, she married the former New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. on January 30, 1975. They remained married until Wagner died on February 12, 1991. She lived for the last half of the twentieth century, with each of her husbands, in a five-floor townhouse at 132 East 62nd Street. Despite an undistinguished façade, Denning & Fourcade did the décor. "It’s cozy and grand at the same time, but not elaborately fussy."
Phyllis Fraser Wagner died in Manhattan in 2006 following a fall; she was 90 years old.
- Born April 13, 1916 as per Social Security Death Index under the name Phyllis C Wagner
- Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, NY (1991). p. 108.
- Abelson, Max. "Wendy's Warren". The New York Observer. February 12, 2007; retrieved September 27, 2007