Chapter 17

Me and My Shadow

The day I got canned from the Follies, my new pal Molly Elkins walked out the door with me. She was tired of doing the dirty work for nasty headliners who thought they could push her around just because she was a Negro, when in fact Molly could out-sing and out-act half the performers up on stage. We made a good team and we figured she would come along with me, wherever I landed.

Molly Elkins

 My release from the Follies made page three of Variety. William Morris, then still a theater owner and a stranger to me, sent me a letter right away requesting that I perform at a private benefit he was throwing at some fancy mansion out on Long Island.

The benefit wasn’t going to take place for a few days, though, so Molly and I found ourselves with some unexpected time off. We were thrilled to finally do some of the fun stuff nine-to-fivers did every weekend.

First, we took a trip down to Coney Island to spend a day at Luna Park. We laughed ourselves silly, squeezing our extra-large bottoms onto the roller coasters and taking in several of the city’s finest freak shows. I remembered that my pal Jimmy Durante was working as a singing waiter at Feltman’s, one of the restaurants on the boardwalk, so we strolled by to say hello. Molly spotted him before I did.

“Schnoz!” she yelled, and ran up to give him a hug.

“Molly! Soph! You two know each other?” he laughed.

Coney Island, 1909

Sometimes I forgot how long Molly had been in showbiz. She’d done tons of shows with Jimmy’s performing partner Eddie Jackson in the Harlem reviews when she was younger, so the three of them had socialized quite a bit.

 “Sorry to hear about the Follies, Soph,” said Jimmy as he slipped us a few hot dogs. “I heard that you have something brewing with William Morris, though. He’s the real deal, and a good fellow to boot. If you can get in with him, you’ll be on your way.”

“If you say he’s good people, I’ll believe it. I trust you, Jimmy,” I said.

“Better not!” he howled, taking a big bite out my hot dog and sending us off down the boardwalk before he got caught.

Eddie Jackson, Sophie, and Jimmy Durante.

Molly insisted we visit her favorite palm reader before we headed back into the city. I’d seen ads for fortune-tellers in the paper, but I always felt guilty wasting a quarter on some gypsy hogwash when I could send it home to help Annie and the kid. Molly, however, dragged me to the fortune-teller’s table and thrust my palm into her hands.

“You’re going to have some trouble. Two women, I see,” she moaned.

“That’s old news, honey. Bayes and Tanguay have already done their worst,” I laughed. “I think you got yesterday’s edition of my palm.”

“Well…you’ll be coming into some money,” she said.

Molly sat down next and, strangely enough, after a failed bunch of guesses the swami told her she too would be coming into some cash. Unlike yours truly, Molly bought her act hook, line and sinker, and insisted that we spend the next day out on Long Island at Belmont Park to celebrate her forthcoming fortune. I didn’t know Belmont Park from Central Park, so when Molly told me there would be lots of grass and a couple of nags, I thought we’d be having a picnic with some of her old friends.

The next day, we packed a lunch and took off for Long Island in Molly’s Model T. I’d only been in an automobile a few times, so it still hadn’t lost its thrill. Molly must’ve been able to see that I was eating it up because she pulled the car over just after we got across the Brooklyn Bridge. She pointed out which pedal did what and, after my first and only driving lesson, she let me take the wheel. I zoomed down the highway as fast as a Model T could zoom—which was just slightly faster than we could walk—and my love affair with automobiles was born. I still can’t get enough. I’d have given up any of my three husbands before I gave up my keys.

Hell, I’d have given them all up for free, but that’s another story.

Imagine my surprise when Belmont turned out to be one of the most famous horse tracks in the country. Molly and I might’ve only been friends for a few months, but she could already see that I had “Sucker” written on my forehead, just like Papa. I was hooked from the first race.

Belmont Park, 1909

Molly knew everyone at the track. She was friends with the jockeys, the owners, and most importantly, the touts who spied on the horse trainers and passed on inside information. Those were the fellas you really needed to snuggle up to. She introduced me to a handful of her most colorful touts, all nicknamed after the things she bought with the winnings from their tips: Wilbur Washing Machine, Jimmy the Icebox, Mr. Model T, and on and on.

We got a hot tip and went to place our bets. While Molly was up at the window, I ran into an old Abuza’s customer named Harry Cooper. He was now a vaudeville accompanist and occasional emcee who, it turned out, would be hosting Mr. Morris’s big shindig. He promised to make sure I got a good spot in the lineup in exchange for a free plate of chopped liver the next time he was in Hartford. Without my Follies paycheck and one measly benefit show lined up, it was all I had to offer.

The night before the big benefit, Molly and I were back in Manhattan and stopped in to see my old friend Delilah, who was off her back and working as the madam of her own high class establishment. After a short gossip session, Delilah told us one of her hoity-toity johns had given her two tickets for the Metropolitan Opera. She didn’t want to go, so Molly and I took them off her hands.

"We gotta do this right," said Molly. "Are you game?"

She took me to Lady Symone’s, a shop that rented secondhand society dresses for the night. Molly and I picked the gaudiest old gowns we could find and coiffed, powdered, and rouged ourselves until we looked like a couple of floozies crashing a debutante ball.

We hoped to dazzle the crowd when we walked into the Metropolitan Opera, but we were willing to settle for scandalizing an old lady or two. Instead, no one even looked at us twice.

New York City Metropolitan Opera House in 1909

Somewhat discouraged, we fluttered our fans and walked to our seats, hoping at least to enjoy a good show. When the music started and the big soprano started to wail, we looked at each other in shock. It was the first opera for the both of us, and neither she nor I had realized it wasn’t going to be in English.

“You know, where I come from we call this drek,” I whispered to Molly when I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Yeah, up in Harlem we have a name for this too. Horseshit!” giggled Molly.

An usher overheard our cackling and came to quiet us down.

“But we don’t understand what anyone is saying!” I yelled.

“It’s in German!” he hissed.

“What a dirty trick!” Molly exclaimed, wagging her finger at him.

“Ma’am, you must lower your voice!” he hissed.

“Somebody get the hook! This broad’s a snore!” I exclaimed, pointing at the stage.

Before we knew it, the usher had grabbed me with one hand and Molly with the other and was dragging us up the aisle toward door. We made such a ruckus, even the fat lady on stage couldn’t keep her eyes off of us.

“Not much of an entrance,” hooted Molly, “but what an exit!”

That was our last night of freedom, so I was happy we didn’t end up in jail. The next day we had to get down to business preparing for William Morris’s big benefit show that evening. I needed a new song but didn’t have the cash to buy anything fresh down on Tin Pan Alley, so Molly volunteered to teach me one of her old numbers from her days on stage. Even better, since we were the same size, she still had an assortment of costumes that fit me like a dream. I vowed to keep Molly around forever, if only for the spare outfits.

We picked a few gowns, packed up the Model T, and headed back out to Long Island. I told Molly I couldn’t afford to pay her to be my dresser, but she just laughed me off.

“This one’s on the house, girl. When you hit the big time, you can pay me back plenty.”

I stuck out my hand. “That’s a deal, Mrs. Elkins.”

At the estate we were greeted by an honest to goodness butler, straight out of a murder mystery.

“Hey Jeeves,” I said as he lead us through the mansion. “Have any of your butler friends ever done it?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, ma’am, but my name is Elwood. And have any of my friends every done what?”

“You know, in mysteries it seems like it's always the butler who did it. Have you ever done it, Ellie?"

"Not yet, madam."

We arrived in the back garden, where they’d set up a stage and a big tent behind it to serve as our dressing area. Just inside the tent I spotted Harry Cooper, the emcee, and he gave us the lowdown on the benefit. The extravaganza was sponsored by one of the Vanderbilts in order to raise money for an orphanage. William Morris was hired as a producer, for which he’d earn a hefty sum, and he called in acts to perform in exchange for promised future bookings at one of his theaters.

I was a little bit nervous when I looked out at the lawn and saw two hundred empty chairs sitting in front of the stage with the mansion towering behind it. It felt fancier than Poli’s.

“Harry, do you really think this is gonna be right for me? This seems like a crowd that’s used to pheasant under glass and all I’m serving is brisket.”

“They’re going to love you, just like every other audience does. Sing your guts out like you usually do and you’ll be fine,” he promised.

It was time to get dressed and Molly helped me into one of her beautiful gowns. Then, at the last moment, she surprised me by putting a real diamond necklace around my throat.

"If you're gonna be a headliner, you gotta know what the real stuff feels like,” she said.

"Oh my God! Where did you get this?"

“From one of my Belmont pals. It pays to know Jerry Jewels!” she giggled.

Given my new accessory, I had second thoughts about which dress I wanted to wear. Molly put on one of the others so I could compare, but just as I decided I wanted to switch costumes I was called to the stage.

Sophie, in a particularly elaborate costume.

"And now ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to bring out one of the biggest voices in Vaudeville. Straight from the Ziegfeld’s Follies, please welcome the incomparable Miss Sophie Tucker!” shouted Harry.

I got a big round of applause, but as soon as I hit my mark I could tell the crowd was confused. They were expecting one of those typical, slim Ziegfeld girls. Despite my wavering confidence, I did the only thing I knew how to do, and that’s sing. I reeled them in with a couple of peppy tunes and by the end of the second song, they were mine. However, I also realized I’d forgotten to pin a fake rose to my dress, which I needed as a prop for my last number. I gestured at my right lapel to Molly on the side of the stage and she bolted for the tent.

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. You’re such a wonderful audience!”

Thanking the audience was a sure bet to kill a few seconds with some applause, but when it died down there was no sign of Molly returning to the stage.

“What an honor to be invited to perform at such a beautiful place. You know, when I was a girl growing up in my parents’ restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut, I could hardly have pictured that I’d end up here with all of you! If you should happen to pass through Hartford, say my name at Abuza’s, the best kosher restaurant in town. That’ll get you an extra matzoh ball in your soup, on the house.”

Crickets. I was right—this wasn’t the right crowd for my usual jokes. The Vanderbilts certainly didn’t know from kneidls.

Thank God Molly came to my rescue. She sauntered out onto the stage with the rose and quickly made a bit out of trying to pin it on my dress. The conductor picked up on our ad-lib and gave her a drum beat as she moved the rose around my dress, trying to decide where it should go. To my relief, the audience loved it.

When she finally pinned the rose on my shoulder, though, she accidentally snagged the sleeve of her own flowing dress. I thanked her and, not realizing that we were pinned together, she began dragging me along with her as she turned to walk off stage.

“Molly! Molly!” I yelled, but she couldn’t hear me over the audience’s roars.

We tried to yank ourselves apart but the orchestra had already started the introduction to my final song, so we looked at each other, took a deep breath, and launched into a synchronized rendition of the old number Molly had taught me earlier that day. Fred and Ginger had nothing on us!

We were the hit of the benefit. By the time we got ourselves unhooked and changed into our street clothes, someone was waiting for me next to Molly’s Model T.

“Hello, Miss Tucker,” said William Morris, a short, balding man holding his straw hat in his hands. “I wanted to introduce myself and tell you how great I thought you were tonight. I think you’ve got real headliner potential. I’d love to talk with you, but unfortunately I have to be in Great Neck in forty-five minutes for another engagement.”

I hadn’t heard anything past the word “headliner.”

“Molly, you’re going to have to drive home by yourself tonight. I’ll meet you in the city tomorrow. The Boss and I have to talk,” I said.

“Boss?” asked Mr. Morris, confused.

“If you make me a headliner, I’m going to be calling you ‘Boss’ for the rest of your life.”

“Okay then, Sophie, let’s take a ride to Great Neck,” he said, chuckling.

The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the front seat of William Morris’s Reo, and the only thing speeding faster than the car was Morris’s mouth. He talked a mile a minute about his ideas for my career, all the while munching on a knish. I would eventually come to find out that he always had a stash of knishes somewhere, but back then during our first meeting, I took it as a sign that Morris was the man to guide me to the big time. It was hard not to trust someone who loved a knish as much as I did.

William Morris’s favorite food, the knish.

He finally took a deep breath before he mentioned his only reservation.

“I heard there’s a son,” he said.

“How did you find that out?” I asked.

“We have a lot of mutual friends.”

“Which one told you?

“Ten of them told me. They also told me you send money home every week to your parents and sister to take care of the baby, you’re never late, you’re loyal to the end, and everyone loves you except for Nora Bayes. Oh, and most of all, you love a good sour dill pickle.”

I was astounded. “Okay then, what’s your story?” I asked.

“I would say that except for your pipes and your extra fifty pounds, you and I are the same person,” he said with a laugh.

There is a hell of a lot of people I could take or leave, but I’m nice to everyone simply because it’s easier to have friends out there than enemies. If you’re lucky, though, once or twice in your life, you might find someone as special as William Morris. When you meet that person, you can instantly feel your whole life charging forward like a brand new automobile with the pedal floored. Just make sure you hold on tight, because they’re about to take you on the ride of your life.

Extras

One would think the public would have gotten tired of Sophie singing about how she’d finally found the perfect man, but her 1928 song "He Hadn't Up ‘Til Yesterday" was another hit that did precisely that. This song mentions Ronald Colman, one of the biggest heartthrobs of the day, and suggests he would willingly give up his Bible for an evening with Sophie.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were some of the most iconic dancers of the silver screen.  They made ten movies together throughout the 1930s and 1940s and were notorious perfectionists, once demanding forty-seven takes to perfect a single dance sequence.  Their precision and style can be seen in this performance from the 1936 movie Shall We Dance.