After my rotten visit to Hartford in 1908 I swore I wouldn’t go back until I’d made it big, but by 1909 I was feeling homesick. I’d missed the last four of Albert’s birthdays and, regardless of how many letters we wrote back and forth, I was dying to see Annie face to face.
I’d also kept in touch with my old schoolmate John Sudarsky over the years, sending him a letter every month or so with some of my press clippings. He was working at the Hartford Courant and managed to publish a story that said I was headlining the Ziegfeld Follies—a minor exaggeration, sure, but it turned me from a bum into a bit of a hometown hero. John also conveniently forgot to publish a follow-up report that I’d been canned. Annie told me the good press had taken the heat off of her and the family, so she thought the coast might be clear for me to come home for another visit.
She was right, for the most part. I didn’t get any dirty looks at the train station or on my walk to the restaurant. That honor was reserved for Mama, who was still angry I left home, and Albert, who refused to say hello from behind Annie’s skirt.
"Come here, Bert! I've got a gift for you,” I said, holding out a box filled with candy and toys.
He inched toward me to snatch his present and I grabbed him into a hug, but he squirmed and cried until I let him go. Even while he was throwing a fit, Bert somehow managed to get away holding his gift. The kid was turning into a full-fledged brat. The little Duke of Wails screamed whenever he didn’t get his way, particularly around Papa, who was Albert’s easiest mark. He’d immediately fork over whatever Bert was blubbering for, whether that was a bar of chocolate before dinner or a toy he saw in a window downtown.
One of Bert’s school photos. He’s marked with an “x,” just to the left of the teacher.
Mama was upstairs scrubbing some clothes in the washtub and muttering under her breath in Yiddish. I greeted her with a peck on the cheek, and she asked me to pass her a new bar of soap.
"Thank God I took an early train so I could be here to hand you the soap," I kidded.
"Come here," my mother said with a big smile.
Who could resist that? I leaned over and Mama smacked me right across the face.
"Welcome home," she said.
At least Phil, Moe and Annie were all smiles. They greeted me with hugs and kisses and all the recent neighborhood gossip. Phil also reintroduced me to his new wife, Leah, who was cowering behind him in the entryway. We’d grown up together and even been in a few of the same classes at school, but I don’t think I’d ever heard her make a peep. It didn’t look like that was going to change any time soon, either, as she silently stuck her hand out for a shake and then scurried off into the kitchen like a mouse.
Annie and Phil both agreed that Leah’s biggest problem was she couldn’t figure out how to get a word in when the loud Abuza clan got to yakking. She was afraid to interrupt, and she was even more afraid of saying something stupid. Every time she opened her mouth, she felt like she was being thrown to the lions. And then there was Mama—even though Leah was an excellent cook, Mama would never let her help out in the kitchen. Mama had no time for a wallflower who flinched every time she clanged a pot lid.
Phil asked if I would have a word with Mama about being kinder to his wife.
"Do I look suicidal?” I asked. “I’d rather talk a grizzly bear into being kinder to a salmon—at least we both like lox!"
I’d planned my visit to coordinate with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when I knew the restaurant would be closed. It was easier to catch up with my family when we didn’t have to worry about whether table four had gotten their matzoh ball soup. Mama cooked us an enormous dinner every night and everyone enjoyed themselves, even though we had to talk over Bert’s screaming and brace our coffee cups every time he kicked the table in a tantrum. Over dessert, I had a brilliant idea.
“A friend of mine in New York mentioned a wonderful school that might be Bert’s ticket right into Harvard or Yale. It’s called the Peekskill Military Academy,” I said.
“They take six year olds in military academies?” said Annie, dodging one of Bert’s fists as he grabbed a cookie off the plate in the middle of the table.
“Don’t you think that’s kinda rough for a little tyke?” asked Phil.
“Don’t you think you should mind your own goddamn business?” I asked.
Mama was in the kitchen washing dishes, but when she heard me get mouthy with Phil she flew out to the table and smacked me across the face with one of her soapy hands. I’d been away for three years and had made my own way through show business, but I forgot that nothing had changed. Phil was still my older brother and in Mama’s house, we were to respect the men—even though we all knew Mama ran the show. Besides that, she was still mad as hell that I’d left home in the first place. As far as she was concerned, I gave up my authority over Bert when I left him with Annie and got on the train to New York. The truth was that Sophie Tucker never gave up her authority to anyone, but I just bit my tongue. There was no arguing with Mama.
Bert at age six in his military academy uniform.
Sophie won this argument.
Thankfully, we were interrupted by the sound of a loud Chinese gong.
“Don’t ask,” said Moe without even looking up from his strudel. Papa, it seemed, hadn’t given up on inventing the perfect doorbell. I ran to answer it, eager to leave the table.
“If it isn’t the Queen of Broadway,” said my dad’s old pal T-bone, who was standing on our stoop with Sammy the Socket and Deaf Davey. "Is your father upstairs? I'm feeling lucky tonight.”
“Sorry boys, no cards today. It’s the Jewish holidays,” I said.
The guys were disappointed, but they each gave me a hug and wished me well. Before they left, T-bone reminded me that if I needed anything at all while I was in town, I could give him a shout. Neither he nor I ever forgot that time the cheating butcher “fell” on his meat cleaver.
Leah (fourth from the left) hides in the background at one of
Sophie’s public engagements in 1931.
There was one errand I needed to take care of before I left town. Somehow, Louis Tuck had tracked me down in New York and sent me three threatening letters asking for cash in exchange for steering clear of Albert. Louis was no genius, but he had figured out that I would pay anything to keep him out of the picture. I had no choice but to drop in on Tuck during my last night in Hartford.
"Well, look who's here,” said Louis when he answered the door. “I see in the funny papers you've made it to the big time."
"And I see in the obituaries you're not dead yet."
We stared at each other for a long moment like two dogs getting ready to fight. I swear, I almost growled. Instead, I threw five twenty-dollar bills at his head, which startled him so badly he tripped over one of the floorboards on the porch and fell flat on his back. He tried to turn his head to count the dough, but I pinned his throat with the sole of my shoe so he couldn’t move.
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear the last time I saw you. So, let me repeat: no more letters, no more threats, nothing. If you so much as think about me or Albert, you are a dead man,” I hissed. I pressed my foot down on his throat harder and harder until Tuck turned bright red and gasped for air.
“Do you understand?” I asked.
The bastard nodded. I released him and said goodbye with a swift kick to Little Louie. Hopefully, the ice he’d have to keep down his pants for the next couple of days would be a good reminder to keep his distance.
With that, I nearly gave up on the idea of ever coming home to Hartford again. Sure, I’d taken care of Louis, but each time I visited it pained me to see Mama and Papa still working their fingers to the bone. Earlier that week, I accidentally caught sight of them both struggling to pull down a big bag of flour from a high shelf. It struck me how old they were getting, and as long as Mama refused to spend the money I sent home there was no retirement in their future. The way she saw it, I’d given up a picture perfect family life in order to run around with gangsters and actors and whores—all of whom were lovely people, contrary to popular opinion—so there was no way she’d ever spend a dime of my money.
So, rather than kissing Hartford goodbye, I decided that I’d have to find an indisputable way to prove I was successful enough for them to sell the restaurant and take a load off.
First, though, I needed cash. I set my plan in motion in February of 1910, when I asked the Boss to meet me at Reuben’s. When I told him I needed a quick thousand dollars he nearly spit his seltzer across the table. Once he realized I was serious, we put our heads together.
"If you go to New Jersey and record a couple of those new cylinders, I can get you two hundred bucks. Then, if they sell, I can get you eight more for another hundred each. How does that sound?" he asked.
“Great, but I need all the cash up front, Boss.”
“It can’t be done, Sophie. The guy won’t even pay Caruso in advance and he’s twice as big as you are.”
“Maybe he’ll pay me by the pound,” I joked, picking a strand of sauerkraut off my dress. “Order me a dozen knishes and I’ll have my grand in no time.”
“Take it up with the head honcho at the record company, Sophie. If you can talk him into an advance, I’ll eat my hat between two slices of pumpernickel.”
Before a matinee in Newark a few days later, I enlisted Molly and her Model T to take me to South Orange to pay a visit to the record man himself, Thomas Edison. Our plan was to get to the Edison recording studio first thing in the morning so I could finalize the contract, sing my two songs, convince Mr. Edison to give me a thousand clams, and get to the theater with time left over for lunch.
Edison’s studio in South Orange, New Jersey.
When we arrived at the studio, we were directed to a prim little man at a desk just outside Edison’s office. His plaque read “Clyde Kuperman, General Manager, Edison Phonograph.” It was polished to gleaming.
“Good morning,” he greeted us. “How may I help you?”
“Hiya Clyde, I’m here to sing a couple of songs for Mr. Edison, but first I have to work out a few details about some money he owes me. Wanna go play matchmaker and introduce us?” I asked.
Clyde could not have been less entertained. He rifled through a stack of papers and slid my contract and his pen across the desk as distastefully as if he was offering a hanky to a tuberculosis patient. I signed and flung it back to him.
“So how about me seeing Mr. Edison, Kuppy?” I asked.
“You don’t call him Tom?” he snipped. “I’d appreciate it if you would address me as Mr. Kuperman, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind! How’s that gonna sound in the morning? ‘Don’t forget to make the bed, Mr. Kuperman?’” I razzed.
“Madam, please,” he sputtered. “Mr. Edison is engaged and will be all day. And he never talks to any of our recording artists.”
“You hear that Molly? Kuppy thinks I’m an artist. How about I come back later and you, me, and Mr. Edison paint the town red?” I flirted.
“Miss Tucker, Mr. Edison is busy before any of us arrive in the morning and he’s busy until well after we all leave. As a matter of fact, he’ll be busy for the foreseeable future,” he said, ignoring all my advances and escorting us to the recording studio. Molly just shook her head and laughed.
A studio was a hectic place back then because everything was in one room: the musicians, the singer, the recording equipment, all of the technicians, and the wax cylinders onto which we recorded. I was positioned in front of a giant metal horn and told to sing into the hole, which seemed simple enough.
Sophie in a recording studio.
The first number I was supposed to sing was an old tune called "That Lovin’ Rag." When the technicians began recording and the orchestra played the introduction, I took a deep breath, stepped up to the horn and let ‘er rip. All five technicians jumped out of their chairs yelling and waving their arms for me to stop.
“Miss Tucker, you just melted the wax off our cylinders. Could you take a few steps back and please sing a bit softer?” said one technician. “We’ll try it again as soon as my ears stop ringing.”
It took eight tries and I ended up on the opposite side of the room, but we finally got it. The only catch was that I had to do that same thing twenty-three more times. In those days, each master cylinder would wear out after pressing ten thousand copies of the final record. So, with two songs, I actually had to cut forty-eight cylinders that day, which was tiring even for my tonsils. Because it took us five hours, Molly had to fly all the way back to Newark so I could close out my matinee. After that, I took a three hour nap and barely made it through my evening performance.
However, I mustered just enough energy to hop into Molly’s Model T and high-tail it back to South Orange, arriving just before midnight. The gates were open but the whole complex looked dark.
“If I’m not back in thirty minutes,” I whispered to Molly, “meet me at the South Orange pokey!”
I took off toward Mr. Edison’s office. I thought I heard someone stirring behind the giant oak door so I took a deep breath, knocked a few times, and then barged in.
I’ll never forget how the room was lit up like a Broadway marquee. I wasn’t used to seeing so many little electric light bulbs in one place. There were all kinds of gadgets on the majestic mahogany desk at the back of the room, but no Edison. I figured I might as well have a look around and then leave a note asking about my money, so I took my time investigating the contents of his shelves. There sat the first stock ticker, the first light bulb, the first cylinder player and several gizmos that were too scientific for me to identify. The walls were full of framed patent certificates, awards, and photographs of Edison posing with a slew of different big shots. I leaned in to examine a few smaller photographs.
“That’s President Theodore Roosevelt,” said a shrill voice behind me. “But I haven’t got a clue who you are or what you are doing in my office.”
“I’m sorry, I knocked but no one answered. I’m Sophie Tucker, sir. I work in Vaudeville? Maybe you heard me sing today?”
“Miss Tucker, everyone in New Jersey could hear you sing today,” Edison said with a grimace. “What are you doing here after midnight? I thought I was the only one who worked this late.”
“To be honest, my pal Clyde out there at your front desk tipped me off to your late hours. I wanted to talk to you about a business proposition, so I decided to take a chance and have my friend Molly drive me back here tonight after my second show in Newark.”
Edison softened. He seemed at least a little bit impressed that I’d worked as many hours as he had that day. He insisted I invite Molly up from the freezing cold car and offered to make us some tea while we talked. I stuck my head out Edison's second-floor window, put two fingers in my mouth, and let out a long whistle.
"Hey Molly, come on up! Tom wants to meet you!"
Over tea, I laid the groundwork for my proposition, explaining that I wanted him to advance me the money for eight future records even if it wasn’t his usual practice.
“I’d like to think I’m a good businessman—” started Edison.
“We heard you’re a stingy bastard!” interrupted Molly. Thank god, he laughed.
“Now wait a minute,” replied the inventor, “one man’s stingy bastard is another man’s savvy investor. It just doesn’t make sense for me to give out cash in advance when I can’t be sure you’ll sell anything. I only grant second recording sessions to artists whose first records sell 20,000 copies apiece.”
“Well, what if a certain singer sells 15,000 copies of each of her first two records and promises to deliver you a bonafide living legend? One that you’ve never been able to record? If she did that, would you agree to advance her $800 in exchange for a meeting with…”
I paused for dramatic flair.
Edison’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor. He shook my hand on the spot.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d actually put my grand plan into motion a year before I met Edison, shortly before I was fired from the Follies. A whole lot of A-list stars streamed in and out of Flo’s backstage dressing rooms, visiting him and his headliners. George M. Cohan, Helen Hayes, and Mary Pickford all came to visit Nora Bayes, and each time a celebrity came by I grabbed a chorus girl and we planted ourselves just outside her dressing room door. It looked like we were having very important conversation, but we were just stargazing.
The original Yankee Doodle Dandy,
George M. Cohan
Helen Hayes, one of just fourteen actors to win an
Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award
silent film actress Mary Pickford.
One night, Ethel’s handsome brother John Barrymore stopped by to say hello and suddenly every chorus girl in the Follies had the same idea. They were lined up outside Nora’s door just to get a glimpse of the notorious dreamboat of the silver screen. I gave up and stood in the back of the dressing area next to a white-haired older gentleman. He seemed tickled by the spectacle and we got to talking. It turned out we were both from Connecticut and neither one of us had high expectations of taking John Barrymore home that evening.
We ended up going out for a bite to eat to escape the chaos backstage. Sam, as he introduced himself, was in town to deal with his lawyers. It turned out that a crook had tried to make off with about $125,000 of his money.
“That’s a lot of smackers!” I yelled. “What is it you do exactly, Sam?”
“You could say I profit off of my misspent youth, I suppose. I wrote a couple of books about it. And some others,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Sam, your last name doesn’t happen to be Clemens, does it?” I said, lowering my sandwich from my mouth. He nodded, and I dropped my roast beef on rye so hard I spattered his white suit with splotches of Russian dressing.
Sophie's new friend Sam
"Please, Sophie, keep it down,” he laughed, dabbing a napkin on his lapel. “The last thing I need is another lunatic to realize who I am and dream up some cockamamie idea to steal even more of my money.” Every day, he said, someone knocked on his door in Redding, Connecticut with some fly-by-night scheme. This was on top of the dozens of letters he’d received from the biggest thorn in his side, Thomas Edison, who wouldn’t stop writing to ask if he would come make a movie at his studio.
“What do you think? Am I the next big matinee idol? Do I look like I belong on the silver screen with those swashbucklers?” he asked, miming some swordplay with his butter knife.
We had a few more fun dinners while he was in town and kept in touch over the next year while I traveled. I considered him a good friend and hoped desperately that he would now come through for his new pal Soph.
Sophie, reading, in 1937.
First, though, I had to fulfill my end of the bargain with Edison and sell 15,000 copies of each of my first two records. Just like Mama kept a little leather notebook of English phrases when she got to America, since 1906 I’d been keeping a notebook of names and addresses of every friend I made on the road. My list was up to 2,486 names by 1910. I printed up thousands of penny postcards and Molly and I addressed them to my buddies until our hands were so cramped we had to stick them in the icebox for relief.
Dear friend, good news! Edison Phonograph Records has decided to record and sell two of my hit songs. If you and your friends buy these new cylinders then I will get to make eight more. In return for your purchase, the next time I play your town there will be a free ticket waiting for you at the box office. Tell everyone you know the same deal applies for them. Thanks for your support. Love, Sophie Tucker.
We sent them out and then all we could do was wait, and hope I had enough friends across the country to make my ridiculous plan work.
By March 31, 1910, my records had been out for a full month. The suspense was killing me, so I called Clyde for a sales report.
“What’s the good news, Kuppy?”
“I told you, it’s Mr. Kuperman, Miss Tucker. Let me take a look,” he said, and he placed the phone down for a moment. I could hear him rustling papers on the other end. “All I have are the East Coast sales figures, and I’m seeing 16,283 copies sold.”
I frowned. “Well, that’s a good start. It’s only been a month. I’m more than half way home, Clyde,” I said with a sigh.
“No, Miss Tucker, you misunderstood me. That’s just for the first record,” said my favorite little stick in the mud. I think I could even hear a hint of excitement in his voice. “The other one’s about the same. You’ve made your 30,000 copy sales goal. Actually, come to think of it, you’ve broken our sales record for most copies sold in the first month after release.”
“Kuppy, I could kiss you right now!” I yelled into the phone.
“I’ll take a raincheck on that, Miss Tucker,” he said, and hung up.
An early promotion for Sophie’s records with Edison.
The next crucial part of my plan involved throwing a big Sixtieth birthday party for my mother in May of 1910. I’d written Annie weeks before and asked her to convince Mama and Papa to close the restaurant for the day, and she managed to do it with a minimum of flying flatware. I came to town the Saturday before the party to work out a few final details.
When I arrived at the house, the birthday girl was in the kitchen peeling potatoes for dinner.
“Hello Mama. Happy birthday! I haven’t gotten your present yet. What would you like?” I asked, giving her a peck on the cheek.
“You, home and married,” she said.
“What’s your second choice?” I asked.
“Core those apples,” she said, gesturing to an enormous bowl on the table.
Mama was notoriously difficult to shop for. What do you buy the woman who wants nothing? Since the sewing machine, no present had even come close to making her smile. Just like the last time I visited Hartford, I was sitting at Mama’s table and biting my tongue—this time, though, in anticipation.
Sophie in the kitchen, 1945
Just before the big celebration dinner on Sunday, I asked Annie to set an extra place for a friend who would be stopping by to meet Mama and wish her a happy birthday. That sent Annie into a tizzy thinking she hadn’t cooked enough food and she took off like a rocket toward the kitchen. I had to fight to get the apron out of her hands. I’d just convinced her to relax when, all of the sudden, the house was filled with the sound of a dozen cuckoo clocks. I looked at Moe.
“You guessed it,” said Moe, eyes on his potatoes. “Papa’s new doorbell.”
I ran to answer the door and came back with Sam, looking dapper as ever in his trademark white suit. I introduced him as my friend, the writer, and then we dug into dinner. Sam even managed to keep up with us Abuzas in both appetite and chattiness. By dessert, we were all stuffed to the gills and nearly hoarse.
Before the cake, though, it was time for gifts. Annie gave Mama a beautiful white lace apron, which we knew she would never use for fear it would get dirty. Moe gave her a pretty brooch, which we knew she would never wear because it was too flashy. Mama’s favorite color was black—navy blue if she really felt like living it up. Leah gave her a beautiful crocheted black blanket. The color was right, but Mama set it to the side without comment simply because it was from meek little Leah. Bert came the closest to making Mama smile because he gave her a wooden spoon, something she was sure to use.
My father presented with great fanfare a bracelet he’d won in a card game off Mr. Szycwick. Mama rolled her eyes and handed it back to him, telling him in Yiddish where he could stick his gambling winnings.
Before it was my turn, Sam got up and presented Mama with a small wrapped gift. She undid the paper to find a beautiful hardcover copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, inscribed inside to “Mrs. Abuza and her beautiful family.” When Mama realized she’d been sitting all night with Mark Twain she spun in circles trying to decide between getting him more coffee and cake, or changing into a nicer dress, or shaking his hand. She clasped her heart and spoke a stream of quick Yiddish.
"What did she say?" asked Sam.
"She's wondering how you could know our family was so wonderful when you wrote your inscription,” asked Annie.
"That's easy,” explained Clemens. “I met Sophie for five minutes in New York City and I knew."
Mama’s sweet moment was interrupted by the chorus of cuckoo clocks going berserk once again. I went to the front door to retrieve my second surprise guest. Finally, it was time for my gift.
“Papa, this is Mr. Thomas Edison. I told him all about your inventions and he insisted on coming here to meet you,” I said.
Papa’s legs turned to jelly in front of his idol. He wobbled over to Edison and shook his hand, weakly, for a full minute.
“I’m terribly sorry to interrupt your birthday party, Mrs. Abuza, but I come bearing a gift. Mr. Abuza, Sophie told me all about your one of a kind doorbell designs. Well, it just so happens that I’m expanding my company into manufacturing unique doorbells, and I’m here tonight to make you an offer. I’m prepared to pay you $800 for all your past designs, particularly the cuckoo model I just heard coming in. How does that sound? Do we have a deal?” he asked.
Papa nodded, his eyes as big as two bagels. He was so flummoxed, he didn’t notice me gently elbow Tom’s ribs.
“Oh, yes. There’s one more thing. The only condition,” Edison said gravely, “is that you must never make another doorbell. I can’t have you competing against me. Do you understand, Mr. Abuza?”
He nodded once more, still in awe, and then I think Papa fell into a coma. Before they could shake to make it official, Mama walked over to Edison, grabbed him by the head, and planted a big kiss right on his lips. Papa may have thought she was happy about the money, but we all knew Mama was thrilled she was finally going to get some peace and quiet.
The next morning, I couldn’t believe how well everything had gone. Edison and Clemens got to gabbing over dessert. They hit it off so well, in fact, that Sam invited Tom to visit his estate in Redding and shoot the silent film he’d been begging for, which meant I’d held up my end of the bargain.
I realized it was getting late and I was due to head back to New York, so I asked Mama and Papa to walk me to the train station. On the way, Papa wanted to know when I thought Mr. Edison might get him his money.
“Actually, Papa, Mr. Edison gave it to me already,” I said. I had steered our walk toward Barker Street, where we stopped in front of a beautiful little house. I handed my father a key.
"Your doorbells bought you this house. Now you two can sell the restaurant and never have to work another day."
Edison and Twain.
Papa took off his hat and threw it in the air. There weren't many successes in Papa's life, but for that one day he was the King of Hartford. As he picked up Mama and spun her around, she caught my eye. I knew I hadn’t fooled her—she was onto me and Edison, but she winked and kept it to herself.
And, for once, she really smiled.
This is the only existing footage of Samuel Clemens. It shows him going for a stroll in his signature white suit, smoking a cigar, and playing cards with his daughters Clara and Jean. This clip was shot by Thomas Edison at Clemens’s Redding, Connecticut home.
"That Lovin’ Rag" (1910) was written by Bernard Adler and Victor H. Smalley. This is the first song Sophie recorded for Edison Phonographic Records.