“From birth to age 18 a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35 she needs good looks. From 35 to 55 she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash.”
For a full decade, from 2002-2012, I supervised and babysat a staff of fifteen 20 to 30-year-olds in order to have a paycheck. They were, by turns, entertaining and exasperating. These kids were all sharply skilled using smartphone, but they had no frame of reference for 20th century pop culture. I remember that I attempted, in vain, to explain Vaudeville and Burlesque to my young wards, even as these art forms were enjoying a sort of renaissance in Portland, Oregon. I said, here’s a Sophie Tucker joke:
“My boyfriend Abe came to me and said, ‘Sophie, I’m tired of waiting for you – I’m going to get myself a 30-year-old girlfriend’. And I said, ‘Go ahead. I’m going to get myself a 30-year-old boyfriend. But just remember, 30 goes into 70 a lot more times than 70 goes into 30’.”
The joke was met with blank stares from those pierced faces.
Sophie Tucker was incredible. It would be hard not to love her. She was brash, bold and sexually bodacious. She was in the rare and rarefied world of women of that era who wanted it their way. Black blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were doing the same sort of thing, except they were women of color during a time of segregation. It was more unusual for a white woman to be as bold, provocative and self-defining as Tucker.
She was born Sonya Kalish to a Jewish family en route to a new life in America from Ukraine in 1887. Tucker would eventually become one of the greatest and most beloved entertainers of the 20th century.
Tucker was a singer, comedian, television, film and radio personality. Born on a ship taking her Orthodox Jewish parents from Ukraine to Hartford, Connecticut, she grew from humble roots; her family ran a kosher restaurant in Hartford. In addition to helping run the joint, Tucker began singing for tips at an early age and discovered her powerful voice and knack for making people laugh.
When she was 16-years-old, Tucker married married Louis Tuck and soon gave birth to a son. The marriage was volatile and motherhood showed Tucker a bleak future if she chose to be a housewife and give up on her dreams of success in showbiz. Tucker left her child to be raised by her younger sister and she split for New York City. With just $90 and a whole lot of pluck, Tucker was determined to make it big in the theatre and find the success that would allow her to send money back to her family.
Tucker found work singing in Vaudeville and Burlesque. Being pegged “too fat and ugly” to perform as herself, she was forced to appear in blackface as a “coon shouter”. She found success with this act. Yet, when she accidentally left behind her makeup kit one day in 1909, Tucker went on stage as a full-figured white girl in a sequined ball gown. She then stunned the crowd by saying:
You all can see I’m a white girl. Well, I’ll tell you something more: I’m not Southern. I’m a Jewish girl and I just learned this Southern accent doing a blackface act for two years. And now, Mr. conductor, please play my song.
The audience approved even though she did pretty much the same act of ragtime and blues tunes, and African-American jokes of the era that she had always performed in blackface.
She gained the title: “Last Of The Red Hot Mamas”, with a ribald reputation for loud risque songs and stories. Tucker appeared in The Ziegfeld Follies, but while the audiences loved her, she wasn’t loved by the other female Follies stars and they refused to go on stage with her. She suffered a lot of bullying because of her appearance and bawdy style. She always celebrated her healthy sexual appetite and she emphasized her fat girl image. Tucker’s songs included I Don’t Want To Be Thin, Nobody Loves A Fat Girl But Oh How A Fat Girl Can Love.
In 1921, Tucker hired pianist and songwriter Ted Shapiro as her accompanist and musical director, and he stayed with her throughout her career. Besides writing songs for her, Shapiro became part of her stage act, playing piano while she sang, exchanging banter and wisecracks with her in between numbers.
She became a huge superstar on stage and radio. Tucker was especially popular with her recordings, like My Yiddish Momme and Some Of These Days (also the title of her popular 1945 memoir). She appeared in several films during her long career, including one of the first talking movies Honky Tonk (1929), and she played opposite Judy Garland in Broadway Melody Of 1938. She was a mentor to the young Garland who idolized Tucker.
A lot of stage stars were wary of recording technology, they thought it would undermine their stage act, but Tucker adapted. She was able to adjust her singing style to the invention of the microphone, the decline of Vaudeville and the arrival of the Jazz age. She was really prescient in the way she anticipated the new jazz phrasing. Tony Bennett said Tucker was “the most underrated jazz singer that ever lived“.
She was friends with many of the black stars of the era, including Josephine Baker and tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who started in Vaudeville at the same time as Tucker. In the 1920s, Tucker threw a party and invited Robinson as her date. The doorman of the hotel told her she could come in, but Robinson would have to use the kitchen entrance. She announced to her entourage waiting to enter: “Okay… everybody goes through the kitchen“.
She never took sides politically, she loved both the Democrats and Republicans, yet she worked for many progressive causes. She helped Jewish families leave Nazi-occupied European countries, and she tried to bring attention to Adolf Hitler‘s murdering of Jews to Congress.
She smoked so much that a parrot, belonging to one of her friends, would cough every time her name was mentioned. She greeted King George V, in her 1934 Royal Command performance, with the salutation: “Hiya King!”
After a concert, she would set up a card table to sell copies of her autobiography. She wrote everybody’s name and address down in her binder, and before her next tour she sent postcards to let them know she’d be in town. By the time she died, she had collected over 10,000 addresses in this way. Tucker was savvy about marketing and business. Early in her career, she took out ads for her shows in magazines, and endorsed products, from laxatives to exercise equipment.
Tucker was close friends with Christine Jorgensen, who made headlines with a sex-change operation in the 1950s, and she coached Jorgensen in her nightclub act. She wrote kind letters to her gay fans. My guess is that the gays of her era loved their Sophie Tucker.
She counted among her other friends: Franklin D. Roosevelt, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Charlie Chaplin, J. Edgar Hoover and his boyfriend Clyde Tolson, Al Capone, Jerry Lewis, Helen Keller, Golda Meir and Frank Sinatra. She showed that it was possible for a female artist to get to the top of show business on her own terms. Her bawdy, brash, highly sexualized style paved the way for Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga.
Tucker’s personal life was messy. Her relationship with her son was complicated and her three marriages all ended in failure. Tucker said that the reason was” “no red-blooded man would stand to be a Mr. Tucker“. She had affairs with several women in her life, including maid and companion Molly Elkins, and her personal physician Margaret Chung.
She had a nice, long run; Tucker entertained audiences from 1896-1966. In 1966, in Tucker’s final moments, she called for her nurse, and she said: “Bring me my chiffon hanky, bring me my wig“. Then she did some of her act, and then she died. She was taken by that damn cancer in the end.
There is some uncertainty about the date of her birth. It’s now thought she was born on December 25, although Tucker later decided her birthday was January 13. She said:
I don’t want to share my birthday with any other god…
She is celebrated in the documentary The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (2014) currently streaming on Amazon.
I get what I want, I do what I want, I am the boss.