Chapter 11

She Knows Her Onions

The S.S. Anchoria

It was no easy task to become Sophie Tucker, Vaudeville headliner and international star, but Sophie Abuza, the Jewish immigrant with the Italian name, had an even more complicated journey.

To start with, nobody has a clue when I was born. The only thing everyone agrees on is that, true to form, I entered the world wailing at the top of my lungs. Most people think I was born January 13, 1884. However, if you went to Ellis Island today and found the boat manifest for the S.S. Anchoria, it says my mother, brother and I arrived in New York City from Glasgow on September 26, 1887. I’m listed as approximately half a year old. My actual date of birth was December 25, 1886, as best as anyone in my family can remember.

Manifest of the S.S. Anchoria, which lists Jacka (Jennie) Abuza, 30, Inna (Phillip)
3 years old, and Sonia (Sophia), ½ year old, traveling from Odessa to New York City.

Work papers Sophie filled out in 1937 to work for MGM Studios. Note that Sophie
wrote that her birthday was 12/25/1887—admitting the correct month and day,
but giving herself a second 49th year.

I had to fudge things a little in 1906 when I got to Manhattan since Tiny from the German Village told me I had to be at least twenty-one to work in a beer hall. The birthdate that has stuck, January 13, 1884, is the one I wrote on my first set of working papers in New York City. I chose that year because it made me older and I picked the month of January on a whim, but the number thirteen was a tribute to Papa’s rotten luck.

Aside from my birthdate, my whole family history was always shrouded in a little bit of mystery. Papa loved to retell a few tales about when I was a baby, but whenever I asked Mama how we got to America she would order me to scour pots. It wasn’t until the end of her life that I convinced her to finally spill the beans about how the Kalishes got to America and became the Abuzas along the way.

Here were the things I knew as a child: Mama was born around 1850 to the Lestz family in Tolchene, Russia. Her father had turned his back on his family’s lucrative silver and diamond business to marry a farm girl and start a little country store that sold produce, dry goods, and jars of my grandmother's goulash. My life’s an open book, but the one secret I’ll take to the grave is my grandmother’s goulash recipe.

My father, Zachary Kalish, was born in 1855 in a village near Tolchene to a family of horrible tailors and worse gamblers. If she were still alive today, Mama would brain me for revealing the fact that Papa was five years her junior, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a lady calling up a player or two from the minor leagues.

Papa insisted he ended up marrying Mama because their fathers were friendly in the old country and used to play cards in Grandpa Lestz’s store. Papa swore that his father bet his only horse on a hand of cards and lost to Grandpa Lestz, who had no use for livestock but needed a husband for his oldest daughter. If you believe Papa, you could say that I owe my existence to Grandpa Lestz’s winning pair of deuces. It never took much to beat a Kalish at cards.

However they met—and Mama rolled her eyes to the ceiling whenever Papa told that story—six years later, my brother Phillip was about two and I was on the way. Grandpa Lestz had closed the grocery by then and was living with Mama and Papa in their small house out in the country, where Papa spent most of his time hiding to avoid being conscripted into the Russian army. This became a valuable skill later on in Papa’s life when he lost big at his own poker table on the second floor above the restaurant. He’d disappear like a ghost and Mama would be left to yell at the wind.

With each Cossack rampage, there was only one thing that saved my parents’ house from being burned to the ground and that was the famous Lestz goulash. Word had gotten around amongst the Russian soldiers the Kalish house was off limits as long as there was enough bubbling goulash to go around. Still, one morning when my mother was out at the market, a brand new young Russian soldier came to the house looking for able-bodied men to enlist. Grandpa Lestz offered him a seat and promised that he’d have a lunch to write home about if he’d just wait for my Mama to return. The impatient young Cossack decided Grandpa’s hospitality was a trap and shot him in the stomach, leaving him to bleed to death on the kitchen floor.

Mama returned from the market to find her father at death’s door, sprawled out next to the big pot of goulash on the fire. She cradled his heavy head in her lap.

“Smells like you need to add more onions,” croaked Grandpa Lestz.

Those were his final words. My father and all the other young men in the village came out of hiding the next day to bury Grandpa, believing that even the Cossacks would never stoop so low as to ambush a funeral. They were wrong. Papa and the others were in a prison camp by sunset.

Mama, having just lost her father and now her husband, had had enough of Mother Russia and her army. She loaded up our family’s few valuables into our cart, hitched up the horse, dressed little Phillip in his warmest sweater and coat and drove off into the night toward the forest where she knew Papa was being kept. She’d even made sure to pack a kettle of goulash for the road.

It began to snow as Mama and my brother bumped down the dark dirt road. I must have had a craving for a hot bowl of goulash on such a cold winter night, because I kicked up a storm in Mama’s belly all the way to the front gate of the prison camp. She told Phillip to creep into the back of the cart and not to make a sound, grabbed her kettle of goulash, and dug out Grandpa Lestz’s old rifle from under a pile of blankets. She stashed the gun behind a tree on the way to the guard shack, where she knocked softly on the door.

“Igor, is that you in there?” she whispered, recognizing one of her farmhouse regulars through a crack in the planks of the door. “It’s Mrs. Kalish. I’ve brought you and the other men dinner.” She cracked the lid of the kettle and let the oniony aroma of her cooking work its magic.

The door flew open. Igor and a second guard stood in the doorway, equal parts hungry and terrified that Mama would get them killed by their Cossack captain. “Mrs. Kalish,” Igor pleaded, “you have to get out of here.”

“I just want to kiss my husband goodnight,” Mama said, as the delicious fumes floated toward Igor’s nose.

Igor’s shivering body began to thaw in the cloud of steaming stew. He grabbed the pot from her and motioned for the second guard to unlock the big gate. When Igor ducked back into the shack to put down the heavy pot, Mama reached for her gun. The other guard turned his back to Mama and shouted Papa’s name into the prison yard.

With one shot and a ruthless lunge of her bayonet, Mama liberated the whole camp. The men streamed out through the gate and took off for the woods. My mother found Papa and they ran for the cart. Just as Mama was about to slap the horse into motion, my father told her to wait a moment and took off running back toward the guard house.

When he returned, he was holding the kettle of goulash. I’m sure Mama must’ve been tempted to unload another bullet right into his behind, but I’m with Papa. Wasting good goulash is an unspeakable crime!

Jennie Abuza, formerly Jennie Kalish, née Jennie Lestz.

According to my father, after my pregnant mother liberated him from the Russian army in December 1886, my family headed west in our cart until I decided to make my big debut somewhere in the wilderness between Ukraine and Hungary. Papa kept the cart bumping along until Mama’s hollering started to spook the horse. He tugged the old mare to a halt in front of the first farmhouse he saw and dragged my big brother with him up to the door, but they were greeted by a farmer’s shotgun barrel and what sounded to be a whole lot of cursing in a language they couldn’t understand.

Thank heavens Mama had hauled herself out of the cart and waddled halfway up the path. The farmer’s wife threw her husband out of the way, ran out to meet my mother and led her right into a bedroom in the little farmhouse. Papa and the farmer found a common language in cards and the universal appeal of Papa’s terrible luck. A hair-curling geshray signaled my entrance into the world and luckily kept Papa from losing his pocket watch.

After that, the next story Papa liked to tell took place a month later, when my parents had traveled from the little farmhouse all the way to Budapest. They found their way to the Jewish quarter by stopping stranger after stranger until they found one who spoke Yiddish. It was getting dark as they rattled down the crooked little streets looking for a safe place to park their cart for the night. As they rounded a bend, they found the lane up ahead was blocked by an angry woman. She was throwing rocks up at a man, clearly her husband, who was hanging out of a second story window and screaming that she’d been making eyes at someone named Lipschitz. The wife hollered back something not so nice about the husband’s limp noodle.

The woman eventually got fed up and took off down the block. The husband continued hurling insults at her back until he noticed Mama and Papa sitting in the cart with their mouths open.

“What?” he yelled at Papa.

“We didn’t mean to intrude, we were just looking for a place to sleep,” shouted Papa.

“And I’m looking for a cook who doesn’t shtup all my customers!” said the man, gesturing down the block at his wife. “Looks like we’re both out of luck.”

“If you have a bed for us, I can cook,” Mama chimed in. “And I’ve only got eyes for this schmendrik.”

“Can she really cook?” the man asked Papa.

“Look at me! Does it seem like I’ve ever skipped one of her meals?” he laughed, opening his coat to reveal his belly.

The man came downstairs and introduced himself as Vladimir Rabinski. He was in quite a pickle. The rabbi’s daughter was getting married the next day and the entire congregation expected a huge banquet in the hall that Vladimir owned and operated. His wife was supposed to cook all the food, but Vladimir wasn’t looking forward to the idea of crawling on his hands and knees to his mother-in-law, begging the witch to send her daughter home after their fight. To save face, he was more than willing to take a chance on Mama’s cooking in exchange for letting my family snooze in the pantry that night. Papa said that I slept like a log on a mattress made entirely out of unpeeled potatoes.

Mama rose at dawn and sprang into action. She cooked so fast her hands were a blur. Papa helped Vladimir clean and drag all of the big banquet tables into place. I supervised the whole operation from my baby basket. In between raving about Mama’s goulash and setting up chairs, Vladimir would sneak over to tickle my belly, which was already my most prominent feature.

The hall was picture perfect by sunset. Mama had cooked everything in the kitchen, down to the last green bean. Vladimir joked that Mama had cleaned out his cupboard so thoroughly in preparation for the wedding feast, she’d even thrown his boots into the chicken soup pot to give it some more flavor. Papa said it sounded like an oncoming freight train when the crowd of starving Hungarians tore down the street from the ceremony in the synagogue to the hall. After the dust cleared hours later, there wasn’t a morsel left uneaten.

Vladimir was so happy with the Kalish family caterers he tried to convince Mama and Papa to stay on in Budapest and work with him as equal partners. My parents were determined to get to America, though, so even Vladimir’s offer to split his business thirty-seventy wasn’t enough to get them to stay. Vladimir loaded up our cart with food and handed them a wad of money to help make their journey a little more comfortable.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” offered Papa.

“How could I leave all this? I’d miss my farbissen wife too much, and it wouldn’t feel like spring without a good beating from the soldiers. But if you get to America, send me a new pair of boots to replace the ones Jennie fed to the rabbi!” joked Vladimir.

Sophie revisits Budapest in 1931.

In 1931, my third husband Al Lackey and I spent our honeymoon retracing the route my family took from Russia all the way to the United States. Al was a buffoon and I spent most of our relationship rolling my eyes at his harebrained ideas, so it seemed fitting to honor Mama and Papa, the comedy duo who originated that particular routine.

I wanted to find out for myself if the places my father had described over and over again really existed, so when we arrived in Budapest I did just like Papa and inquired around until someone could point us to the Jewish quarter. My nose led me to a little bakery where I bought a few pastries and asked the old woman behind the counter if there was still a big hall where a wedding reception might take place.

“The old hall was just down the street, but it was demolished in the war,” the little old lady said sadly.

As we talked—and I inhaled her baked goods—she revealed that she’d even eaten Mama’s cooking at the rabbi’s daughter’s wedding back in 1887. I couldn’t believe the story was true. Forty years later, her only complaint was that there hadn’t been enough food.

We put up with as much of the village gossip about the rabbi’s grandchildren and their husbands as we could stomach, and then we asked her to point us toward a good restaurant for lunch. She directed us toward an odd little café that used to be a stable back in the eighteenth century, the owner and sole waiter proudly explained. Al, always a joker, insisted we skip the meat unless we wanted to end up munching on a distant cousin of Man o’ War, but I was hardly listening. The smell coming out of the kitchen was intoxicating.

Man o’ War, a famous racehorse of the 1920s.

 “What’s cooking back there, Pops?” I asked the elderly owner.

“That’s our world-famous goulash,” he explained, gesturing to a little old woman in the kitchen who gave Al a big wink. “The recipe goes back decades.”

When in Hungary, I decided, do as the Hungarians do, and I was awfully Hungary. The little old man took our order for two bowls and two beers and walked back into the kitchen, where we could hear him bickering with his wife.

“I saw that wink. Why don’t you just go serve yourself to him on a platter, you old tramp?” hissed the man.

“I’m gonna serve my fist to your face if you don’t leave me be,” spat his wife.

We pretended not to have heard anything when the waiter came back with our food. The smell was so nostalgic it brought me right back to my parents’ restaurant. So eerily familiar was the sensation of eating this particular goulash, I had to call back the old man.

“Your name wouldn’t happen to be Vladimir Rabinski, would it?” I wagered.

"Yes. Should I know you?" he asked warily.

"I think my mother gave you the recipe for this goulash."

After a few seconds of thought the man broke into an enormous grin.

"Baby Sonia!” he said, pulling me into a hug.

Vlad sat with us for the rest of our meal and I filled him in on thirty years of family history. After we’d had coffee and dessert, Vlad proclaimed he’d saved the best for last and slammed his foot up on the table.

The bottom of his boot was stamped “Made in the U.S.A.” Mama had kept her promise to send him a pair of new boots when she reached the United States, and had quietly sent him a new pair every year as a thank you for his kindness. That was my Yiddishe momme.

Extras

Sophie’s song "I Ain’t Takin’ Orders From No One" could easily be considered a tribute to the moxie her mother, Jennie Abuza, possessed. It was written by Ted Shapiro and Billy Rose in 1927.