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“Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own bills, running your own show, you’ve done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call ‘a pal’ and ‘a good sport,’ the kind of woman they tell their troubles to. But you’ve cut yourself off from the orchids and the diamond bracelets, except those you buy yourself.” — Sophie Tucker
Sophie Tucker was one of the most popular entertainers of the first half of the 20th century. She was born in what is now Ukraine, on January 13, 1886, to a Jewish family who emigrated to Boston shortly after her birth, and which eventually settled in Hartford, CT, where her parents ran a restaurant.
Young Sofya loved hanging around the tables, and when she discovered her talent for singing, she would entertain the customers, and earn small tips. She later said, “[I] would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing with all the drama I could put into it. At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.” When she turned 17, she eloped with and married Louis Tuck, the driver of the local beer cart, but the couple divorced shortly after the birth of their son, and Sofya left the baby with baba and deda. She moved to New York, taking the name “Sophie Tucker” with her for all time.
After a year or two of very slim pickings, basically reprising her youth, singing for tips in restaurants and beer gardens, Sophie debuted at an amateur vaudeville club, and she spent the next two years touring the eastern United States, performing in blackface, and singing songs of the South. She didn’t like it much and must have been relieved when her makeup kit was lost somewhere between performances sometime in 1909, and she was “allowed” to go on stage in wearing her natural complexion.
There’s no doubt that, were she alive today, Sophie would be a leader in the “body positivity” movement. She was a robust young woman who enjoyed “fat girl” songs and humor. Some of her earliest hits, like “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, but Oh, How a Fat Girl Can Love,” (Jim Croce version) dealt with the social pressures, even then, which seemed to prefer the petite, delicate, and feeble over the more strapping and amply endowed.
By the early 1920s, Tucker had her act together and a stable accompanist and musical director in Ted Shapiro, who’d stay with her, becoming part of her act on stage, as they’d wisecrack and sing their way through performances.
She rode the wave of vaudeville all the way to the end, with success on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1926, she had her biggest hit, “Some of These Days,” which stayed at #1 on the charts for five weeks. As vaudeville wound down, she made the transition to movies and radio (she had her own, thrice-weekly show in 1938-39), establishing her persona as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” a woman with an earthy, sexual side to her performances that was uncommon (in decent establishments) at the time.
She died in New York of lung and kidney failure at the age of 80, on February 9, 1966, only a few months after her last performance in the Latin Quarter. She had married twice more after the Louis Tuck episode, but both those marriages were of short duration and ended in divorce.
She was prone to attribute her matrimonial failures to her independence and her self-sufficiency, distilling the problem down to the quote at the top of this post.
Was she right to do so?