When I started in show business, the biggest headliners in the world were Eva Tanguay and Nora Bayes, who was touring with her hubby Jack Norworth.
Nora Bayes and her second of five husbands.
That beautiful bitch changed men more often than she changed her stockings, but at that moment in time Jack and Nora were unstoppable. Jack’s gone now but lives on during the seventh inning of every baseball game, having written “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Nora and Eva mostly live on in my memory as the women who got me fired from the Ziegfeld Follies.
Sheet music for Take Me Out to the Ball Game
By 1909, I’d written a letter every other week for four months to Flo Ziegfeld, master of the best Vaudeville show on Earth. I’d had a great time touring with Harry Emerson’s troupe, but now that I was getting laughs without the ridiculous makeup I refused to settle into burlesque for life. Being a relentless pain in the ass paid off, because Ziggy finally sent me a telegram in May.
Sophie’s telegram from Flo Ziegfeld.
Maybe Mr. Ziegfeld was interested, or maybe his secretary told him she’d quit if she had to open one more of my envelopes. Whatever it was, he must have quietly attended one of my shows because I received a contract in the mail to become a member of the Ziegfeld Follies at the rate of a hundred clams per week. Harry Emerson was less than thrilled about giving up his number one act, however, and sued me for $1,500.00 for breach of my burlesque contract. Eventually we settled for $150.00 over a couple of egg creams and we parted as friends. I didn’t want any enemies out there who knew I had to use baby oil to squeeze into my gowns.
I was hired by the Follies to sing just a couple of songs during a big set change before the end of the first act, and for now, that was just fine with me. I would’ve hummed “The Star-Spangled Banner” while sweeping up after the animal acts as long as my name was in Ziegfeld’s program.
I reported to the rehearsal hall in Atlantic City a few weeks later and I was instantly surrounded by so many gorgeous chorus girls I thought I’d stumbled into a mannequin factory. It was a big cast with at least forty luscious women, tons of scenery, and two big stars: Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. I spotted Mr. Ziegfeld standing in the middle of all the chaos, marched right up to him, and stuck out my hand.
“Hello, Flo, I’m Sophie Tucker. What do you want me to do?”
People have asked me over the years whether or not I really called him Flo right to his rich old face, and I’m always perplexed by their question. What should I have called him? Irving? I was twenty-two and I’d never been big on formalities. Flo, on the other hand, looked at me like I was a fly in his soup and one of his army of stagehands whisked me backstage and parked me in a chair.
After four weeks of rehearsal I’d never been so well-rested in my life. I reported to my chair backstage every day at nine in the morning and sat there until six in the evening when everyone broke for dinner. Between naps, I watched the intricate process of putting together a big production number. Three days out from the first show, I could tell you where every single chorus girl had to stand for the big finale but no one seemed to care that I was there.
When I wasn’t napping, I was palling around with a maid I’d met named Molly Elkins. I felt instantly close to her, but little did I know then that Molly would end up becoming one of my best bosom buddies. She took pity on me one day when I was going crazy with boredom and we got to chatting. She’d had something of a stage career herself, touring with one of the all-black review companies in her younger years. But the pay stunk and the gigs were rough, so she ended up taking a job dressing one of the stars on Ziegfeld’s bill.
It was Molly who jiggled me awake when, two days before the show was scheduled to open, someone hollered my name a couple of times. It was finally my turn to report to the stage.
“Good morning,” clipped Julian White, the stage manager. “I don’t have a lot of time to talk you through this. We’ve got a big set change for the final number at the end of the first act, so we need you to sing three songs and sing ‘em good and slow, because the boys have a lot to do back there. We’ll run through whatever you’re gonna sing at the dress rehearsal. The orchestra knows every song you’ve ever heard.” With that, he rushed me back off the stage and brought on the dancers. I returned to my chair where Molly was now snoring.
As the chorus line kicked up their long legs, I overheard an argument between Ziegfeld and White about whether or not the show needed one more big number to close the Follies. Julian thought it was spectacular enough (and I thought he’d pull out what was left of his hair if he had to stage one more act) but Ziegfeld wanted to close things out with a bang, and he didn’t earn his name on the marquee because he had bad instincts.
For the second time that day, Julian howled my name from the stage. Now I was to be the lead singer in a closing scene called “Moving Day in Jungle Town.” Our recently retired president Teddy Roosevelt had just returned from one of his famed African safaris and Ziegfeld got it in his head that it’d be funny to close the show with me in a leopard skin suit singing atop an elephant—which was actually eight burly stagehands sweating inside an enormous costume. I’d wear whatever Flo asked, but I was pleased as punch that for once I wasn’t going to be on stage as the elephant.
Sophie with Eleanor Roosevelt, Teddy’s niece.
They fitted me for my new jungle attire and I tried it on the next day during dress rehearsal. It buttoned, but I looked like a leopard that had swallowed an entire antelope for lunch. The music wasn’t ready yet, so all we could do was walk through the scene and hope to God the number would work out. I was about to take the stage in the Ziegfeld Follies without anyone having heard me sing so much as a note.
That was the Ziegfeld way: gigantic, chaotic, and lucky. He was so confident in himself and the performers that he’d invited a full audience down to Atlantic City for the preview performance. We’d be doing our show for the first time in front of a crowd that included all the bigwigs of Broadway, like Dillingham, Harris, and my old friend Irving Berlin. As usual, Irving had come through and had written me three new numbers especially for my spot before the end of Act One.
I was shaking in my boots all through the first act. Molly had to shove me out onto the stage when it was my turn to sing, but the miracle that happens whenever I hear my music happened again that night. Just like always, the footlights melted my nerves and I blew the roof off the joint. At the end of my third number, Julian frantically signaled for me to do another. Let me tell you, he didn’t have to ask twice. I kept going for a fourth, fifth, and sixth song. The audience was standing, mad to hear one more. But the scenery was up for the first act finale and Julian motioned me off. Molly met me with open arms and we hugged and jumped up and down, silently celebrating how I’d wowed them when it counted.
There wasn’t much time to gloat, however.
Nora Bayes was in a lather. She was outside her dressing room door screaming at Mr. Ziegfeld and pointing like a lunatic in my direction. Molly, who had been around divas her whole life, looked at me and mimed a noose. My goose wasn’t just cooked; it was burnt to a crisp.
I returned to my shared dressing room backstage and waited for the other shoe to drop. Nora was a lamb onstage with an enormous group of loyal fans who turned out to see her every night, but offstage she was a snake. In all my years in show business, I’ve still never met a single soul who called her a friend. Molly patted me on the shoulder and tried to comfort me.
“Child, if Mr. Ziegfeld fires you, you thank him and smile. You’re too young to burn any bridges,” she said. In my head, I began writing a letter to Harry Emerson requesting his best fricassee recipe for all the crow I’d have to eat to get back on the Wheel.
Flo didn’t fire me, thank God. He told me I wasn’t going to be singing any numbers while they changed the scenery, but I was still going to close out the show on top of the elephant. I was so relieved I grabbed him by the lapels of his tuxedo and kissed him right on the lips. After that, Flo ran whenever he saw me coming. I guess even back then my kisses were deadly.
Nora had no interest in my silly little jungle number. She just didn’t want any other singers sharing her spotlight and I was more than happy to oblige. I still had a job with the Follies and I still had my paycheck, which was now more important than ever because I was helping to put my brother Moe through law school at New York University.
Sophie and the cast of the 1909 Ziegfeld Follies. Tucker is first on the left, holding a handbag.
Over the next few weeks of performances with the Follies in New York City, I learned not to take Nora’s temper tantrum too personally. She blew up about everything and everyone. I grew to understand that to get to the top and stay there, you have to protect yourself. I resolved that when I became a headliner, I was going to be so unique it wouldn’t matter who else was on the bill. There was no reason to intentionally hurt a newcomer’s chances—unless they tried to show me up, in which case I had a few tricks up my sleeve just in case I needed to squash someone like a bug.
By the third week, Nora had so many disagreements with Ziegfeld that she up and walked. Bayes left us high and dry during the dog days of August and it was hard for Flo to find a replacement. We were one of the only shows running through the unbearable heat. The only reason we could stay open at all was because our stage was on the roof of the Riviola Theater on Broadway and we performed outside. This was long before air conditioning and the outdoor stage was the only way to keep the chorus girls from dropping like flies.
Come September, though, we needed a headliner. Enter Eva Tanguay, the “I Don’t Care Girl.” If ever a billing was on the money, it was hers. Eva came out wearing three fig leaves and, for thirty-five minutes straight, she sang, danced, and defied the laws of gravity. If you look up sex in the dictionary, you’d see her picture.
Eva Tanguay, the ‘I Don’t Care Girl’.
Eva was the kind of headliner who’d worked her way up from the chorus, so she was a good deal friendlier than Nora. Too friendly, in fact. She’d take anyone for a ride: man, woman, or, as it turned out, elephant. One day I came in to find she wanted my spot in the finale and, after just eight weeks with the Follies, I was out of a job.
It turned out Eva did me a favor that day, however unintentionally. One of the bigwigs who’d come to our Atlantic City dress rehearsal was the up and coming William Morris, who was then the owner of ten theaters around New York City and Chicago. He came to the Follies on the lookout for new acts, so when he heard I was free he wired me to talk about coming to work for him.
Eva turned out to be an okay gal, too. Once I became a headliner I would see her here and there and she was always friendly. The press had an ongoing debate for years about who popularized the hit song “Mother,” which we both sang and recorded. One night, decades after the Follies, I was playing the Palace and I got word that Eva was up in one of the V.I.P. boxes. She’d dropped in just to see me sing. In the middle of my act, I told the audience to give Eva a big hand and asked her to say a few words.
“Sophie, there are a few things I borrowed from you over the years without your permission. One was the song ‘Mother,’ and the other was an elephant. If you sing one, I’ll return the other,” she said with a smile.
We were fast friends from that day on. Sadly, as it so often happened, Eva was such a hard party-er that she ended up ill, alone, and broke in her later years. She’d blown all of her money on so-called friends who only hung around until her parties stopped. I got a few of us old-timers together to do some benefits in her honor, and we managed to find Eva some decent doctors and get her set up in a nice cottage in Hollywood for the rest of her life. She was a good old dame.
The same, however, cannot be said for Nora Bayes.
As the years went by, my star kept rising and Nora’s naturally began to fall. She was forever a headliner, but she eventually toured as a nostalgia act. Whenever our paths would cross, she’d roll her eyes and always pretend to forget my name. It seemed to cause Nora pain to have to acknowledge my existence. Whenever she got the chance, she’d try to upstage me. The only time we actually performed together was at benefits and even then, even when it was for charity, she’d insist on bumping me down the roster so she could close the show. She did it so often she had some special material worked out exactly for that situation.
“Wasn’t Sophie great?” she’d ooze. “Many of you may not know this, but Sophie Tucker used to demonstrate songs for me in Tin Pan Alley.” Nora loved inflating the one time I sang “Shine on Harvest Moon” for her into a story that made me sound like I’d been her personal servant.
After seven years of her mean-spirited digs, I got fed up. I had opened a nightclub in New York City in 1926 called Sophie Tucker’s Playground. Around the same time, I got a call from Eddie Darling, the booker at the Palace, asking me to appear at the National Variety Artists benefit, which was one of the biggest shows of the year. He wanted me to close the show, but I’d heard that before.
“But Eddie, what about Nora? I really think she deserves to close the show,” I said, sarcastically.
“No way,” said Eddie. “She’s been an even bigger pain in my ass than usual. The management here at the Palace voted her the Grand Poobah of the I.O.M.F.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The International Order of Motherfuckers,” Eddie chuckled. With that, we arranged a scheme to sink Nora Bayes and her horrible attitude for good. Eddie leaked it to the press that I might not make the benefit that year because of all the urgent business I needed to attend to at my brand new nightclub. The papers reported that Eddie had promised me I could go on whenever I pleased, just as long as I showed up. All the while he was cooing in Nora’s ear that she’d have her precious closing spot.
The night of the benefit, I had a packed house at the Playground. Per usual, a couple of my good friends popped in to join me on stage. That night my guests were Georgie Jessel and Eddie Cantor.
From left to right: William Morris,
Eddie Cantor, Sophie, and Georgie Jessel.
My two buddies barged on stage after I finished one of my big numbers.
“Sophie, you have to get to the Palace!” shouted Cantor. “The N.V.A. needs you!”
“I’m sorry, but my job is here, Eddie,” I said, taking a deep bow and gesturing out into the audience. They were eating up the obvious theatrics, since the gossip pages had been trumpeting will-she-or-won't-she updates for days about my performing at the benefit.
“Don’t worry Soph,” said Georgie, elbowing me in the ribs. “I’ll watch the place for you.”
“Someone lock up the liquor!” I shouted back to the bartenders. “Ladies and gentlemen, do you mind if I step out for a moment? I have a little bit of business to attend to at the Palace.”
With that, I hopped in the car I had waiting at the stage door and darted across town to the theater. When I got there, Eddie Darling took me by the arm and we strolled slowly to the stage in time to hear the emcee announce the final act, Nora Bayes. We watched Nora’s stale material from the wings. She caught a glimpse of me as she took her first bow and walked off stage. True to form, the Grand Poobah had a few choice words for Eddie.
“No fucking way, Eddie,” she hissed. “If that blimp sings after me I’ll never play this dump again!”
Eddie was cool as a cucumber. He took her by her bony old shoulders, spun her around, and booted her back out on stage to take her final bows. I went on last that night and it was a huge success. And Nora? She never closed another major benefit or played the Palace again.
My revenge was somewhat bittersweet. She hung on playing second-tier houses for a few years until she got sick with cancer and decided to move up to her cabin on Lake George to live out her remaining days.
I’ve always been a sucker for someone on the circuit when they are approaching their real final bow. When I heard Nora was going to drive through the city one last time on her way up to her cabin, I called in a favor from Eddie and the Palace crew. I got her driver to agree to pass by the theater on Broadway, where she was greeted with a display of every one of her life-size cutouts propped up on the sidewalk outside the Palace and her name displayed proudly on the marquee one more time. I was told she blew a kiss out the window of her car.
Nora Bayes, 1881-1929
Nora, though, was determined to get the last word. Four months later, my Warner Brothers debut film Honky Tonk was set to premiere in New York City. It was a big to-do with a red carpet, limousines, and a parade of starlets in their best furs.
Opening night of Honky Tonk in New York City
This time everyone from Warner Brothers was in the audience, but I’d already seen the picture and I knew it was a real stinkeroo. Variety was going to tear me to pieces in the morning.
When I woke up the next day and unfolded the paper, however, what I saw made me laugh until I cried. The front page screamed the news that Nora Bayes had passed away during the night, which bumped the story about my crummy picture way off the front page. True to form, the head of the I.O.M.F. had managed to upstage me one last time from beyond the grave. It was the one and only time Nora, my showbiz nemesis, did me a favor.
Born Eleanor "Dora" Goldberg to a Jewish family in Joliet, Illinois, Nora Bayes was performing professionally in Vaudeville in Chicago by age 18. She toured from San Francisco, California to New York City and became a star both on the Vaudeville circuit and the Broadway stage.
In 1908, she married singer-songwriter Jack Norworth. The two toured together and were credited for collaborating on a number of compositions, which the pair debuted in Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies of 1908 and 1909. Bayes and Norworth divorced in 1913.
After America entered World War I, Bayes became involved with morale boosting activities. George M. Cohan asked that she be the first to record a performance of his patriotic song "Over There." Her recording was released in 1917 and became her biggest international hit.
"Moving Day in Jungle Town" was written especially for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909 with lyrics by A. Seymour Brown and music by Nat D. Ayer. The Hoosier Hot Shots recorded "Jungle Town" in 1950.
The same team of Brown and Ayer wrote one of the biggest hits of the twentieth century just a few years later, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.”
Eva Tanguay, a Canadian singer and entertainer, possessed only an average voice but commanded such stage presence with her enthusiasm and suggestive songs she became one of Vaudeville’s highest paid performers. She earned as much as $3,500 a week at the height of her fame. She is remembered for brassy, self-confident songs that symbolized the emancipated woman, such as "It's All Been Done Before But Not the Way I Do It," "I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me," "Go As Far As You Like," and "That's Why They Call Me Tabasco." In showbiz circles, she was nicknamed the "I Don't Care Girl", after her most famous song, "I Don't Care."
Tanguay spent lavishly on both publicity campaigns and costumes. A manager told Tanguay early in her career that money made money, and she never forgot the lesson, buying huge ads at her own expense. On one occasion Eva allegedly spent twice her salary on publicity.
Comedian and entertainer Eddie Cantor, born Edward Israel Iskowitz, was regarded almost as a family member by millions because his top-rated radio shows revealed intimate stories and amusing anecdotes about his wife Ida and five daughters. His charity and humanitarian work was extensive, and he is credited with coining the phrase "The March of Dimes" and helping to develop it.
Cantor’s eye-rolling song-and-dance routines eventually led to his nickname, "Banjo Eyes." His two biggest hits were "If You Knew Susie" and "Makin' Whoopee."
"You’ve Gotta See Mama Every Night" was recorded in 1923 with music by Con Conrad and lyrics by Billy Rose. It reached #6 on the Billboard charts and was another career-defining song to help cement Tucker’s racy stage persona. Conrad would go on to write a mega hit for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers called The Continental. Billy Rose would end up a great Broadway producer, the second husband of Fanny Brice, and coincidentally share all the major international newspaper obituary pages with Tucker on February 10, 1966.