So Big and Ugly

Sophie Tucker: The Bette Midler of her time 

Throughout half a century in show business, Sophie Tucker (born Sonya Abuza) was a wanderer; she called herself a “gypsy of the footlights.” From cafe supper clubs to vaudeville, burlesque, musical revues, nightclubs, and concert stages, she toured the United States and Europe. This gypsy of the theater was actually born on the road—her seventeen-year- old mother gave birth to her somewhere on the “long rutted track” out of Russia across Poland, on her way to the Baltic and then to America, to join Tucker’s father, who had run away from the Russian military service. Tucker arrived in the United States in 1884 when she was three months old.

After settling in Boston, where they spent eight years, Tucker’s parents, Charlie and Jennie Abuza, moved to Hartford and opened Abuza’s Home Restaurant . . .. Tucker contributed to the family business by drumming up customers and entertaining them with her singing. Although Jennie Abuza appreciated the tips Tucker brought in, she called her daughter zovarecha (wild animal) because she rushed through her household chores to get out of the house. Tucker was already being lured by Hartford’s amateur theaters and vaudeville shows; some of Abuza’s customers, like Yiddish stars Jacob Adler and Boris Tomashevsky, noticed Tucker’s talent and tried to convince her parents to let her join one of the Jewish companies. But neither they nor Tucker, already accumulating experience in amateur shows, was interested; Tucker recognized that Yiddish theater was losing its appeal to the more popular “American” theater. Yet she was beginning to think in earnest about a show business career: “Suppose you could earn a living by singing and making people laugh,” she asked herself, “wouldn’t that be better than spending your life drudging in a kitchen?”

Her mother no doubt wished better for Tucker than her own life of domestic toil—she even bought her a piano with her savings but sold it after Tucker, complaining that her stubby fingers could not play scales and arpeggios, refused to practice—yet her advice was traditional. “After you are through school,” she told Tucker, “then you must look around for a good, steady young man and get married. . . . Don’t have anything to do with traveling men, or with show people. There are too many grifters and grafters among them. They have no real homes; no sense of responsibility.” They were like gypsies who used to wander through Russia, “Thieving and making trouble.”

In no time at all, Tucker did find a man to marry, a handsome neighbor, Louis Tuck, a beer-wagon trucker, who made the awkward overweight girl feel like a desirable belle of the ball. A week after her high school graduation, they eloped, although Jennie insisted on an Orthodox wedding when the couple returned. Tucker became pregnant almost immediately; when her son, Bert, was born, the Tucks moved in with the Abuzas, and she found herself back in the restaurant kitchen, chopping vegetable and washing dishes.

Tuck left her when she insisted he work harder to support the family; Sophie then ran off to New York to try her luck as a singer, leaving th0e baby with her parents. Although in her autobiography she doesn’t dwell on her emotions at leaving home, she does describe the condemnation she experienced and her pangs of guilt. When she returned for her first visit after two years away, her mother’s hair had turned white and her son barely recognized her; he called Tucker’s sister “Mama.” Tucker learned that though her family had forgiven her, the neighbors had not. “They said only a bad woman would do such a thing. I must be a bad woman- -a whore, in the unvarnished language of the Scriptures.” Her sister and son were ridiculed because Tucker “wore paint on her face”; because she had gone on the stage and left her child, she was considered “no good.” Tucker vowed not to return to Hartford until she had become a star, and remained away for more than five years.

Her autobiography. Some of These Days, does not dwell on these hurts, focusing instead on her rise in show business. At every turn, she stresses the need for independence, preparation, and determination. At age seventeen, Sophie changed her name to Tucker, which seemed more melodious, and began her career by talking her way into appearances at Greenwich Village restaurants. Wherever she went, she cultivated friendships with producers, stagehands, waiters, and customers, which she knew could be useful to her. Before long she was playing in trendy rathskellers, earning $100 to $150 a week—substantial sums in 1906, and ones that allowed her to avoid prostitution, a trap into which many young performers on their own descended. She assuaged her conscience by wiring much of her pay to Hartford.

As Tucker tells her life story, luck plays as large a role as strategy. Her first triumph was as a blackface performer, for example, but it was only “by accident” that she donned the disguise. When the manager of the amateur night at a Harlem theater spotted her preparing to go on, he shouted to an assistant: “This one’s so big and ugly the crowd out front will razz her. Better get some cork and black her up.” Although she protested, within weeks Tucker was booked on the small-time vaudeville circuit; for the next six years, from 1906 to 1912, she was the World-Renowned Coon Shouter, Sophie Tucker, the Ginger Girl, the Refined Coon Singer, and Sophie Tucker, Manipulator of Coon Melodies. For Tucker, one of the first female entertainers to use blackface, the mask worked as well as it did for Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, who were Jewish, and for Bert Williams, a West Indian. Audiences accepted her southern accent (“as thick and smooth as molasses,” she described it) and her appearance; after a while, she began to use “high yellow” rather than jet black. “When I would pull off one of my gloves and show that I was white there’d be a sort of surprised gasp, then a howl of laughter” So she began interpolating Yiddish words, “Just to give the audience a kick,” she joked, but perhaps to declare as well who she really was.

If Tucker resented the blackface, it was because it prevented her from appearing as herself, like the prettier girls; blackface denied her femaleness, not her ethnicity (in fact, with her hearty deep voice, critics used to refer to her as a “male impersonator”). She had little to say about the racial stereotyping endemic in the costumes, gestures, and lyrics that were part of her act. The style was ubiquitous in vaudeville, inherited from the popular minstrel shows of the nineteenth century, although by the turn of the century newer forms of burlesque had begun to replace it. For ethnic entertainers eager to show that they were “real” Americans, “coon” singing had guaranteed benefits. With African Americans the butt of their humor, immigrant vaudevillians demonstrated that, however “foreign” their own cultures might be viewed, blacks (with their supposed emotionalism and crude physicality) were even more inferior. Yet as some scholars suggest, blackface also embodied a plaintive note expressing the pain of rootlessness so deeply a part of the immigrant experience.

Although blackface molded Tucker’s performance style, enhancing the physicality of her performance and introducing her to the modern syncopated style of music that would facilitate her later embrace of jazz, she chafed at its restrictions and denial of her femininity. Yet she was afraid to go on stage without it. The opportunity to discard blackface arose when a Brooklyn theater manager, pretending that her trunk was lost, sent her on without it. Then another “accident” occurred that would redirect Tucker’s career. Dressed one night in a tightly laced black princess gown (like a “boloney in mourning,” Tucker recalled), with a long train of red chiffon ruflles, she slipped during her bows and caught her heel in the ruffles of her dress: “Down I went on my fanny like a ton of bricks.” The applause was deafening; even the cast shrieked with laughter. Tucker, the comedienne, was born.

Another transition in Tucker’s career came when she began to incorporate “double entendre” songs into her routine. Years before, a songwriter had told her that because she was “big and gawky, and entirely lacking in ‘allure,'” she could sing sexy material that, if used by attractive performers, would seem salacious and offensive. Soon her routine was set—first a “lively” rag, then a ballad, a comedy song, a novelty number, and finally the “hot” or sexy song, which would leave the audience “laughing their heads off.” (“She sings the words we used to write on the sidewalks,” Eddie Cantor once commented.)

Tucker insisted that her songs, however off-color, were “all moral”; they had to do with sex, not vice. But the secret of her success was that they were all in the first person, poking fun at her own sexual mishaps. As she learned when she slipped on her backside, audiences found personal distress funny; they laughed, but with the knowledge that they too could suffer from romantic misfortune. By hinting at her own sexual experimentation and revealing the details of her romantic life (after Louis Tuck there were two more husbands), she liberated her audience’s imagination.

So Tucker—the overweight immigrant girl from Hartford—became the doyenne of the innuendo song, famous for her wiggles and shakes and for songs with titles like “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl But How a Fat Girl Can Love,” “That Lovin’ Soul Kiss,” “Everybody Shimmies Now,” “Vamp, Vamp, Vamp,” and “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle When Rip Van Winkle Was Away?” Once she was hauled into court in Portland, Oregon, for obscene gestures— she had run her fingers suggestively down her body—but the case was dismissed. Other shows were canceled because “sizzling” songs were on the playbill.

Just as she had fashioned every new departure in her career. Tucker used her size and unattractiveness to construct a “red-hot” persona that defied cultural expectations. At a time when vaudeville and burlesque were becoming increasingly subdued as they reached out to a broader family audience. Tucker managed to elude censorship; her “ugliness” was a new mask, one that gave her the freedom to transgress. Using humor and self-mockery, she sang her “hot” torch songs about women’s sexual passions and romantic agonies: all women, even “big, ugly ones,” needed sex and love; it was men’s failures in bed and marriage that denied women their due. Inattentive as lovers, unreliable as husbands, the men she sang about were not very different from the shlemiels and paskudnicks her mother used to warn her against. In this way, at least, Tucker was her mother’s daughter

Tucker’s routines may have been comic and ribald (some would have said vulgar), yet they reveal her as an early champion of women’s liberation. Exposing the inevitable pathos of love and romance, she insisted upon women’s right to sexual fulfillment and portrayed them as strong, indomitable, and independent. “Make Him Say Please,” “You Can’t Deep Freeze a Red-Hot Mama,” “I’m Living Alone and I Like It,” and “I Ain’t Takin’ Orders From No One” were among the songs that brought her message to receptive audiences, especially after 1916, when she began playing evening supper clubs rather than family-oriented vaudeville, which eschewed risque lyrics.

But it was not only as a self-styled raunchy blues singer—a “Red-Hot [American] Mama”— that Sophie Tucker reached the height of stardom. At the start of World War I, with her eye, as always, on marketability, she surmised that the American public might respond especially well to songs with emotional appeal. For this reason, she introduced the ballad “M-O-T-H-E-R, the Word that Means the World To Me” into her act. She did not introduce her most famous song, “My Yiddishe Mama,” into her repertoire, however, until 1925, a few months after her mother’s death.

Jennie Abuza’s influence over Tucker had continued even after Tucker became a star “No matter how set up I was with myself, the minute I set foot in Ma’s house I had to fall in line with the rules of an old-fashioned, religious household,” she recalled. “I had to stop being the headliner and the boss, and remember I was just a daughter . . .” After Tucker became famous, her mother’s friends made peace with her apostasy in leaving home, but they too treated her like a little girl. “You yell just as loud in the theater as you did in the restaurant,” one of them told her.

Tucker’s visits never lasted long. Instead, she showered her mother with gifts, including a pair of diamond earrings that Jennie traded on the streetcar for a pair of bigger blue stones that turned out to be glass. She brought Jennie to New York to see her show, treating her to the best restaurants, although Jennie refused to eat because the food wasn’t kosher. One time, the waiter brought twelve sterling-silver teapots for Tucker’s party. Jennie thought they wouldn’t miss one, and slipped a teapot into her coat pocket. Sophie played a joke by asking the manager of the restaurant to call her mother and tell her she would be arrested for theft. Remembering the Cossacks, Jennie was terrified.

But there was no question that Tucker saw her mother as a forceful, courageous figure. She starts her autobiography, in fact, by describing her mother’s guts, her dreistige. But although Tucker’s respect for Jennie was deep, it was mixed with not a little guilt and perhaps some resentment. Jennie died when Tucker was crossing the Atlantic, returning from an engagement in London where she had become a superstar; Tucker was grateful that, as she lay dying, Jennie had asked that the funeral be delayed until Tucker arrived. Tucker realized that in suspending her Orthodox beliefs (which called for immediate burial), her “darling yiddishe mama” was demonstrating “how much she loved me and how well she understood my love for her.” But that she could not say goodbye because she was off like the show business “gypsies” her mother had hated may have left a “stinging mark.” Jennie’s will divided her possessions among Tucker’s brother and sister and a neighbor. But “to my daughter, Sophie, who gave me everything,” she gave “nothing because she don’t need anything.” Was this another “slap,” a reminder of Tucker’s disobedience as a daughter? Or a recognition of Tucker’s show business success?

Tucker suffered a nervous breakdown after Jennie died and was unable to work for months. On stage at a benefit for the Jewish Theatrical Guild at the Manhattan Opera House, she stood “paralyzed.” Tucker stayed in bed for weeks, her self confidence gone. “I had a feeling I was done for as a performer,” she remembered. Not long after that, Lou Pollack and Jack Yellen, her longtime songwriter and accompanist, wrote “My Yiddishe Mama” for her. She sang it first at the Palace Theater in New York in 1925, and after that everywhere there were Jews. She sang it in English and, for Jewish audiences, in Yiddish as well, and its effect was cathartic. Combining “Victorian sentiment with Tin Pan Alley,” as one observer noted, the appeal of the song was universal. Mainstream American audiences appreciated its sentimental motherhood motif; in Yiddish the song commented even more specifically on the bittersweet experience of assimilation.

“Yiddishe Mama” was a nostalgic celebration of the ghetto mother’s nurturing warmth and love, her generosity and forgiveness. Its poignancy came from coupling this emotion laden tribute with the recognition that the child, however grateful to her mother, still had to leave home, to be caught forever between the pull of loneliness and the necessity of independence. The Yiddish mama, as Tucker sang her, existed in a world where parents controlled their children’s destiny and offered love with discipline; but it was a world of the past that was vanishing even when Tucker herself was growing up. A plaintive, mournful song written in a minor key, it perfectly expressed the predicament of second-generation Jews. Unlike Al Jolson’s buoyant “Mammy” and other tributes to mother love by musical comedy performers, it was a song of grief. The other side of the steely determination and breezy humor reflected in Tucker’s autobiography, “My Yiddishe Mama” mourned the family closeness that immigrant children lost as they set off on their own paths.

Just as Tucker’s “red-hot” number, “Some of These Days,” served as her theme song in the United States, “My Yiddishe Mama”—her “Jewish song”— became her signature song in Europe, where it became an anthem for Jews and a target for anti-Semitism. After Hitler came to power, her recordings of the song were ordered smashed and their sale banned throughout the Reich. The song remained a regular part of Tucker’s performances through the 1960s, when she was still giving command performances in London and drawing enthusiastic crowds to New York’s famed nightclub the Latin Quarter. But the more removed the song grew from the realities of immigrant life, the more sentimental, old-fashioned, and purely nostalgic it became. Not so with Tucker’s “hot” songs. Tucker retained her sexual brazenness throughout her long career, enchanting audiences with exuberant, bawdy performances that ridiculed conventional gender roles and championed sexual liberation. Enticed by the singer’s frank and sultry lyrics, which seemed to promise a freer world for both women and men, a generation of young Americans grew up listening to her records, often in secret. The last of the “red-hot mamas,” Tucker died in 1966; although not a “nice Jewish girl” by the standards of her mother’s generation, she was one of America’s earliest and most influential “popular culture” feminists.

The above essay is excerpted with permission from The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century, written by Joyce Antler and published by The Free Press, 1997.

“Life Begins at Forty” (Sexy Sophie)”

“In the twenties and the thirties
you’re just an amateur,
but after you’ve reached forty
you become a connoisseur
Then it isn’t grab and get it,
and a straight line for the door—
you’re not hasty, you’re tasty,
if you enjoy things so much more.
For instance, a novice gulps his
brandy down, he doesn’t
observe a connoisseur, the way he
holds it in his hands-
how he strokes the glass, fondles
it, warms it as he should,
smacks his lips, slowly sips: boy it
tastes good.”

Last of the Red Hot Mommas

“Cause I’m the last of the red hot mommas,
I’m gettin’ hotter all the time.
Said I’m the last of the red hot mommas,
they’ve all cooled down but me.
I don’t peck, I only neck’em,
I’m one momma who loves to reckon—
I can make em sizzle, make ’em fry
and fizzle,
and if you want to know the truth,
I can warm the coldness and give the old
back their flaming youth.
Right now I’m in loving prime-
others don’t know what it’s all about—
say, when I kiss men, they feel they’ve had
their tonsils taken out.
‘Cause I’m the last of the red hot mommas,
‘m getting hotter all the time!”