Review of Andrew L. Erdman's "Queen of Vaudeville"





Richard Canedo currently teaches history at Simmons College in Boston. His dissertation examined vaudeville's place in American culture.

Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay

by Andrew L. Erdman

Cornell University Press, 2012

 

In 1910, the most famous and highest paid woman in the most popular entertainment medium in the United States, vaudeville, was a leggy but not particularly attractive singer-dancer-comedienne who had no special talent for singing, dancing, or comedy. Appearing in an unkempt mop of blonde, curly hair and wackily flamboyant costumes, Eva Tanguay raced, pranced, skipped, and whirled across the stage, dancing hyperactively, telling jokes, and singing songs, often about herself, in a high-pitched, almost screechy voice that seemed always on the verge of breaking into her cackling laugh. Preceded and followed by wild publicity wherever she performed across America, she billed herself modestly as “The Girl Who Made Vaudeville Famous.” And today she is all but forgotten.

 

It is surprising that Andrew Erdman’s book is Tanguay’s first biography, popular or academic. Even the mid-twentieth century nostalgia industry, bent on making a profit from memories of “the good old days” all but overlooked Tanguay. Erdman discusses the biopic of 1952, “The I Don’t Care Girl,” starring the immortal Mitzi Gaynor but, as he rightly notes, the film not only makes a hash of her life, it was much more about Hollywood than it was about Tanguay. This book, in contrast, goes to great and admirable lengths to get the story right. In the end, however, like Eva Tanguay’s signature song and her act in general, The Queen of Vaudeville leaves us wondering why we should care.

 

Tanguay was born in Quebec in 1878, but grew up in the mill town of Holyoke, Massachusetts, a place that saw its share of late 19th century theatrical troupes, circuses, medicine shows, and variety performers. She took up performing as a child at amateur nights and local stage presentations, and began touring professionally at age 10 as the title character in a theater troupe’s version of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Tanguay’s activities in her teen years remain difficult to discern: she seems to have worked in various performing groups, and Erdman argues convincingly, if from circumstantial evidence, that she had an illegitimate daughter, born when Tanguay was around 18, who was then raised by her brother. Tanguay rose into public notice in the frothy popular musical stage shows when she was in her early to mid-twenties, playing flighty, bubbly characters. In these shows, according to Erdman, Tanguay discovered “the powerful appeal of freakish, kinesthetic energy mixed with a useful show of leg and curve.” (p. 55) In 1904 a producer decided to build a show around Tanguay called The Sambo Girl. The show was successful, and Tanguay scored a great hit with the song, “I Don’t Care,” that defined her stage persona for the rest of her life:

 

I don’t care, I don’t care,


What they may think of me,


I’m happy go lucky,


Men say I am plucky,


So jolly and care free . . .

 

She took the song into vaudeville after 1906 in her (usually) one-woman act, and was recruited into the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909. By 1910 Tanguay was one of, if not the biggest, “headliner” in vaudeville, reported paid an astonishing $3500 a week in those days before income tax.

 

One of Erdman’s challenges in accounting for Tanguay’s success is that, in terms of talent, she paled beside contemporaries like Sophie Tucker or Fanny Brice. (In the one recording of “I Don’t Care” that we still have, Tanguay almost screeches rather than sings the song. This may have been calculated, but hers is clearly not one of the great voices of her generation.) What Tanguay did have, however, was stage personality and showmanship. She created a persona that was based in large part on sex appeal, but the key element was that her stage character was unpredictable, full of joyful abandon, and borderline crazy. Her most popular songs thus fit this persona and follow the pattern set by “I Don’t Care”: “It’s All Been Done Before, But Not the Way I Do It,” “I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me,” and “I’d Like to Be an Animal in the Zoo.” To highlight these wild songs, Tanguay wore an endless series of flamboyant and outlandish dresses: the first costume made by her mother was a converted old umbrella; within a year of the introduction of the Lincoln penny, she appeared in a dress made entirely of the coins, which allowed her to peel off enough coins to reveal skin, create excitement, and toss them into the audience; a dress made entirely of flags, and so on. Her performances were described in terms — “a dynamo,” “cyclonic,” “volcanic” — that suggested how energetic and hyperactive she was on stage.

 

In tracing Tanguay’s life— or perhaps “tracking down” her life is more appropriate — Erdman has done yeoman, even heroic, work. Erdman’s research in widely scattered theatrical, personal, and photo archives is impressive. The photos, most never published before, are wonderfully illustrative of both her life and her public image. Still, for a woman who was as widely famous as she was in her time, Tanguay left little behind through which we might know who she “really” was. Indeed, another of the unavoidable problems in telling Tanguay’s story is the dearth of personal sources from Tanguay herself that might reveal how she felt about her work and celebrity. There are few letters, no diary, and no completed memoir. Moreover, press agents or Tanguay herself consciously manufactured much of the publicity about her in the press, the intent of which was not accuracy or insight, but promotion of her image. Erdman thus had to be careful to weed through a great deal of press-release pap and publicity-stunt silliness. Still, he neither could nor should weed it out entirely, since a fair amount of Tanguay’s behavior — throttling rival chorus girls, cancelling engagements in disputes over the size and placement of her name in advertising, throwing stage hands down stairways — though perhaps “real” in the sense that it actually happened, was part of her non-stop “performance” of her “crazy” persona. Still, Tanguay truly was capable of extreme acts of pettiness, pique, and even cruelty; she managed to alienate at one point or another almost everyone in her life, including fellow performers, business associates, and family members. Tanguay once committed the unforgivable show biz sin of demanding that a song in the Ziegfeld Follies be taken from another performer, the up-and-coming Sophie Tucker, and given to her. Tucker nevertheless became Tanguay’s friend (even paying for a cataracts operation Tanguay could not afford) until the latter’s death, which says considerably more about Tucker’s character than Tanguay’s.

 

Tanguay’s heyday lasted a little more than a decade, from 1906 to the late ‘teens. Along the way, she made and spent a fortune, married and divorced, and wowed audiences across the country. She made two films and made at least one recording, but her energetic stage persona did not translate well into film without sound or into recording without visuals. In 1918, she turned 40; perhaps predictably, since her act was based on youth, energy, and sex appeal, her career went into a decade-long decline. In 1927 she got married for a second time, to her piano accompanist, who was 23 years younger than she. It was a publicity stunt, and when it failed to revive her flagging box office, she divorced him as well. She lost much of her fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, retired from performing in the 1930s, and died in 1947 at age 68.

 

The Queen of Vaudeville is a valuable chronicle of a performer whose success indicates much about the complex sexual and gender politics of popular culture in the early 20th century. It is not simply that Tanguay’s career suggests that the limits of female public expression might have been broader than we might have suspected: Alison Kibler’s Rank Ladies (1999) and Susan Glenn’s Female Spectacle (2000) have explored this terrain with great insight before. Erdman’s assiduous research has uncovered the careful and canny testing of the limits in a focused case study, suggesting what was and was not possible, permissible, and even lucrative in popular culture. Still, one wishes that Erdman would examine more closely why Tanguay’s inevitable loss of her youth was the ultimate limit on her sort of appeal. Again, the contrast with Sophie Tucker is instructive: Tucker’s act often used sexually suggestive performance elements; she more than earned her nickname of “Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Tucker’s appeal, however, was both earthier, so it aged better, and broader, depending more than Tanguay’s did on brilliant comic timing and real singing talent.

 

There is an odd tension in the writing style throughout the book. Erdman clearly wants scholars and academicians to read his work; the depth of the research and the documentation of it in the footnotes will be welcomed by others pursuing theatrical and cultural history. At the same time, Erdman reaches for a popular audience; he refers, for instance, to his subject throughout as “Eva,” not as “Tanguay.” It is possible to thread this popular/academic needle: David Nasaw’s Going Out (1993) comes to mind as a serious work on popular culture that is wonderfully accessible to the general reader. But Erdman resorts to colloquialisms one moment (“When Eva later uncovered the scheme . . . she went ballistic.” p. 51) and shortly after falls into “academese” (Tanguay “developed the art of the performer as an autonomous agent even within the artifice of narrative.” p. 55)

 

More positively, while Erdman writes from a posture of affection for his subject, he does so while including Tanguay’s many “warts,” such as her temper tantrums, her poor choices of male companions, and, above all, her terrible management of her money. Still, Erdman’s attempts to “spin” Tanguay’s faults into endearing foibles, or even into virtues, strains the reader’s credulity at times, especially when he claims Tanguay’s antics were feminist in nature – or something like that. For example, Erdman describes Tanguay’s plastic surgery procedure in 1924 as ”courageous,” for she was “a daring adventurer” leading other women toward “enjoying a newfound freedom.” He claims that “Rather than being seen as a the result of inner virtue and purity, beauty was now something a woman was expected to go out and buy.” (pp. 216-17) The (at best) double-edged sword that such consumerism represented, not to mention the class biases that paying for such “freedom” implied, go unexplored in Erdman’s analysis.

 

Informative and lively as Queen of Vaudeville is, it fails to make a convincing case for why we should care about Tanguay or recognize any substantial contribution she made to American culture or theater. The book concludes by encouraging the reader to “deepen your awareness the next time you take in a Lady Gaga concert, watch a Madonna video, listen to a Cher single, spin a Janis Joplin record, or enjoy an old Mae West movie. If you do, you are almost certain to detect the spirit of vaudeville’s onetime cyclonic wonder.” (p. 216) Elsewhere Erdman invokes Tanguay’s influence on other performers current and past, such as Joan Rivers, Bette Midler, and Sarah Silverman. (One wonders why he leaves out Ethel Waters, Gypsy Rose Lee, Imogene Coca, Martha Raye, and Tina Turner.) Thus, for Erdman, “Her legacy permeates the work of talented, iconoclastic women (and some men) of the entertainment world whether they are aware of possessing Eva’s artistic DNA or not.” (p. 19)

 

This kind of reasoning, without evidence of actual links or even consciousness, is an example of the post hoc fallacy. Any performer who came after Tanguay and shared some element of her performing style — flamboyance, lack of inhibition, “brassiness” — must have been inspired by her. This assumes that we could somehow trace the genealogy of every distinctive performer to find the first one whom all the others have been copying all this time, even unconsciously. To his credit, the honesty of Erdman’s own account betrays this thesis. He spends some time examining Tanguay’s theatrical predecessors whom she resembled in various ways, such as Fanny Kemble, Adah Isaacs Mencken, and Lydia Thompson. (To this list he might have added vaudeville pioneer Maggie Cline, renowned for her boisterous songs and often-bawdy humor).

 

Finally, simply claiming that Tanguay was unique and uniquely influential also means giving short shrift to her contemporaries, like Millie DeLeon, Sophie Tucker, and Fanny Brice, who enjoyed both longer careers and often more distinct legacies. Even the exception to these lapses — Erdman gives due consideration to Mae West — helps highlight the problem with his central thesis. West publicly acknowledged that as a young performer both she and her mother noted and imitated Tanguay’s style and appeal. In this case, then, Erdman is on firm ground in crediting Tanguay with inspiring a later performer. West found success, however, only after she stopped being a latter-day Tanguay and developed a distinct performance persona. Where Tanguay was energetic and rapid-fire, West was slow and suggestive. While both women used sexual innuendo in their performances, the innuendos were played out, verbally and physically, in divergent ways. West acknowledged a debt as well to, no surprise, Sophie Tucker.

 

Andrew Erdman has done fine work in excavating the life of Eva Tanguay and in turning the spotlight of history back onto her. As to exactly what her life tells us about what was changing during her heyday, how she shaped her times or they shaped her, or what her legacy might be, readers have much new material here from which to draw their own conclusions.


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