In June of 1910, the Boss scheduled me for another run of shows in Chicago with one major goal: get arrested. It sounded crazy to me, but Morris was convinced that if I pushed the double entendres in my act just a little bit further, I could get some holier-than-thou son of a bitch to raise a stink. Push it a little further than that and he hoped the cops would haul me in for obscenity, which was the best publicity money couldn’t buy. Everyone would pay triple at the gate just to hear the song that sent me to the slammer.
“You know what they call the little row boat attached to the back of a yacht?" the Boss asked with a smirk.
"My escape plan," I joked.
“It’s called a dinghy. How do you think your audience will react if you sing a song called 'My Boyfriend Has the Biggest Dinghy in the Navy'?"
"They'll laugh their asses off. That's not double entendre; that's home run entendre. But that’ll probably land me in the slammer for a year!” I protested.
“No one ever really goes to jail for obscenity,” he said, waving off my concerns. “They’ll just give you a slap on the wrist and you’ll be out in a couple of hours. You won’t even miss your evening curtain.”
“Then go buy yourself a cookbook,” I said. “If you’re wrong, you better have a chocolate cake with a file in it waiting for me in my cell.”
So, I arrived in Chicago an aspiring jailbird. Chi-town was in the middle of the hottest summer on record, with temperatures climbing higher than 110° some days, but the audiences were still coming out in droves. Maybe they thought it was a good deal. They’d hear some songs, laugh at some jokes, schvitz for two hours and leave the theater five pounds lighter. I kept on doing my regular old act while I waited for newer, bluer numbers to arrive in the mail from the Boss.
One night, though, something else arrived in the middle of my set. Between songs, one of the comedians from the first half of the show pushed a piano right out on stage. He adjusted his stool and started to play a rag.
“Hey, hey, hey!” I yelled, truly clueless as to what was happening. “I’m in the middle of my act here. What’s the big idea?”
“Sorry to interrupt, Miss Tucker. You and the audience might remember me from the first half of the show. My name’s Frank Westphal and I’ve got a brand new song here for you, hot off the presses,” said the comedian.
“And I suppose you want to play it now?” I asked, going along with his routine for the sake of the show.
“Here are the lyrics,” he said, handing me the sheet music.
“I like the title, at least. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to hear the debut performance of 'Give Me Back My Husband, You’ve Had Him Long Enough'.”
I found out later that this Frank fellow stormed the stage on a dare from Lester Rose, our juggling act. I hadn’t even noticed Frank had joined the troupe, but Frank had definitely noticed me, and Lester noticed Frank standing around in the wings each day, watching my act and looking moonstruck. When Lester got word that my new risqué song had arrived from the Boss, he bet Frank five dollars he wouldn’t interrupt my act and deliver the song right then and there. That was all the encouragement Frank needed to break the ice.
Westphal was wild through and through. I got a new high school diploma when Frank introduced me to hashish, cocaine, and opium, all of which I had the good sense to use in moderation but goddamn, we had some crazy parties. I was young and stupid and Westphal was even younger and stupider. And, like all the other men I ever got serious about, Frank was four inches shorter than me. I guess I liked to know that when push came to shove, I could push and shove my fellas right out the door.
Frank pointed out that I was a better entertainer when I had an accompanist who could double as my straight man. After Frank’s first interruption we came up with a few other ways he could bust in on my act. Sometimes Westphal would break onto the stage with a fiddle and we’d do a little jig. Other times, he pretended to be a drunk looking for a bartender.
Even better, Frank taught me how to put over those new double-entendre-filled songs the Boss was sending my way by the dozen. At the time, there was a big hit by George M. Cohan called "My Wife's Gone to the Country." Westphal taught me how to knock ‘em dead with "My Husband's in the City," to wild success.
The best of the bunch, though, was a sly little number called "The Angle Worm Wiggle." We rehearsed my wiggle both on and off stage—and under the stage, and in the alley behind the theater—so I was ready when I got a telegram from the Boss telling me I had a whole slew of dates on the West Coast. I should’ve been over the moon about touring out west for the first time, but all I could think about was Frank. My new beau wasn’t part of the deal.
Westphal was so upset he proposed to me for the first of fifty times that week. Over the years we knew each other, Frank would go on to pop the question on stage, in restaurants, in parks, at the beach, on a sailboat, a roller coaster, on a Ferris wheel, on a bicycle built for two, on a seesaw and in the front, back, and rumble seat of a car. I turned down each proposal, but I always found a way to soothe his rejection. Maybe that's why he kept asking.
As far as I was concerned, there were two big reasons not to get married. The first was that we were Vaudeville performers on different circuits. We’d never see each other. The second was that I was still legally married to Louis Tuck. There were only a handful of people in show business who knew about my marriage and about Bert, and I decided to make Frank a member of that small club. I thought the truth might cool his engines, but the day I clued him in he proposed two more times—once over breakfast, and once while I was brushing my teeth before we went to bed. He got a particularly minty rejection that time.
At the last minute, I sent a telegram to the Boss and asked if he could also book Frank on my tour. The answer came in a telegram a week later.
I knew Frank had bad habits, but I was shocked it’d reached the Boss’s ears. For that to have happened, he must’ve caused trouble at a theater. The only thing I knew for sure was that Morris had my best interests at heart, so I took his advice. Nothing, not even a good love affair, was going to derail my career. I never told Frank about the telegram. Instead, I said my goodbyes and took off.
The West was mesmerizing. I managed to hit a few of the tourist spots on the way to my first date. I saw the view from the top of Pike’s Peak and I even rode down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a donkey. After bearing my load for eight hours, I’m sure they had to shoot that poor beast to put him out of his misery. It’s a rare thing to get to kiss your own sorry ass goodbye.
Sophie and her donkey are marked with an X.
Our country sure is beautiful. You’ve gotta see those crazy red rocks out in Utah, or Yellowstone Park. In my third grade class, Frankie Meyers held the record for being able to spit and hit a target six yards away, but that Old Faithful geyser had Frankie beat by two hundred feet!
My first stop on the Western Pantages Circuit was Portland, Oregon. The Boss had gotten me $350 a week for my whole tour, a fact he’d leaked to the local papers in order to boost ticket sales before anyone had even heard me sing a note. Just like in burlesque, my biggest responsibility was to astonish the audience at my first show. If I did, the customers would leave the theater on Monday afternoon excited to spread the good word, which would have audiences lined up down the block for the rest of the week.
I did not disappoint. The people of Oregon were the same as anywhere else, and everybody loved a suggestive song. Both the audience and the newspaper critics ate up every pound of me. Before you knew it, all my shows sold out. Even the mayor and the town judge invited me to dinner, but my favorite invitation came from Mr. and Mrs. Pence Egbert. They sent a note back stage which read:
We don't want to intrude on your private time but it would be our pleasure if you would join us for a home cooked kosher meal.
The Egberts turned out to be the most interesting people I would meet in Portland. Pence was one of the leading lawyers in town, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and the president of the local synagogue. Estelle was just as smart and the leader of her local Ladies Auxiliary corp.
"How many Jews live in Portland?" I asked.
"About three hundred. It’s not easy when there’s so few of us. Anti-Semitism seems to be a thriving worldwide franchise,” said Pence. “But they usually leave me alone because word got out around town that I win most of my cases. I guess the goyim figure when they get in trouble with the law, having a Jewish friend isn’t so bad.”
I was happy to have at least one home-cooked meal at the Egberts’, because the next day I was off to the Chutes Theater in San Francisco. That big earthquake had nearly leveled the city just a few years earlier and there was construction going on downtown everywhere I looked. The lumber yards were certainly making a killing.
So was I, as a matter of fact. When I met the manager of the theater he had a puss on his face due to my high salary, courtesy of William Morris. He might not have been happy at first, but the crowds were with me and my reception at the Chutes was even better than my reception in Portland. I think it helped that there were a whole lot of rough and tumble construction workers looking to unwind after a long day. I sold out all thousand seats twice a day for two weeks. On Sunday, that same skeptical manager offered me $500 extra to stay another week.
Let me tell you, it wouldn’t have taken more than a buffalo nickel to convince me to stay in a town with a nightlife district like the Barbary Coast. A place that wild was too tempting for a girl like me. I didn’t mind a little dirt under my fingernails, but in the Barbary Coast you could end up with blood on your hands. From the moment I arrived in San Francisco, everyone from the clerk behind the front desk at my hotel to the chorus girls in the opening number at the theater warned me not to go to the Coast.
“Sophie, you’re taking your life into your hands if you go down there,” said a stagehand. “I went there once and now I walk with a limp!”
In spite of his warning, I put a visit to the Barbary Coast at the top of my to-do list. First, I made friends with the toughest son of a bitch on the stage crew. Mike O’Toole was 6’6” and looked like he ate nails for breakfast. When I asked him if he’d be my tour guide, he shrugged and agreed—no one had ever given muscleman Mike a problem in the Coast, or anywhere else for that matter.
After Tuesday night’s show, I got dressed and found Mike waiting for me near the stage door.
“There’s just one thing to remember,” he said as we headed down Pacific Street. “Don’t look anyone straight in the eye. To a man, that means you’re interested in a roll in the hay, and to a girl it means you’re ready to fight. Take everything in, but don’t make eye contact with nobody but me.”
I did as Mike asked and barely looked up from my shoes until he steered me into a joint called the Golden Nugget. Mike ordered us a bottle of whiskey and headed off to take a quick leak. He wasn’t gone five seconds when an angry redhead stormed up to the table demanding my name. I gave it to her without raising my eyes from the table, explaining I was just there with my friend Mike from the Chutes and I wasn’t looking for any trouble.
“Bullshit, sister! The Chutes only has beauties. There’s no way they’d hire a fat cow like you,” she spat. With that, I stood up and looked the cheaply-dressed hooker directly in the eye.
“What’s your problem, Big Bertha?” I asked.
“Michael O’Toole is mine, and I’ll be damned if I let him carouse with a hippo like you,” she yelled.
I don’t remember who threw the first punch, but I do remember a policeman pulling me off an unconscious redhead and carrying me straight out the door. He deposited me on the sidewalk like a sack of potatoes.
“What were you doing in there, Miss Tucker? You could’ve gotten killed,” he said.
“No one calls me a hippo,” I said. “And how do you know my name?”
“I saw you a few nights ago at the Chutes. The missus and I loved it. I’m Officer O’Brien,” he said, smiling, as he offered his hand to help me up off the sidewalk. “You know, that was Mrs. O’Toole you decked.”
“I don’t care if it was Mrs. First Lady of the goddamn United States! No one calls me a hippo and lives to tell the tale.”
Officer O’Brien walked me all the way back to my hotel and, as a thank you, I gave him my Star of David necklace from around my neck. He handed me his St. Christopher medal in exchange.
“Just promise not to punch St. Chris if he gets on your bad side,” he laughed.
Officer O’Brien eventually went
on to become the chief of the San
Francisco police department
and was buried wearing
Sophie’s Star of David.
By the time October 1910 rolled around, I thought I was done with the West and heading home. Little did I know that word had gotten back to the cities I’d already played that my new songs were all the rage. Audiences demanded that I return and sing "Casey Jones" and "The Grizzly Bear" and the tune that would go on to be my lifelong theme song, "Some of These Days." I agreed to reverse my trip as I made my way east, which put me back in Oregon for one of my final weeks in the Northwest.
This song also inspired a dance craze.
I gave it my best in Portland again, but I got more than I bargained for. After doing all my new numbers at the first matinee, a fella in the third row pleaded to hear "My Husband’s in the City" as an encore. As I was singing, I noticed a woman in the front row get out of her seat and walk out the back door of the orchestra section. The door opened again as I launched into the second verse and the same lady came back in, this time accompanied by two police officers. The applause was deafening when I finished my song, but out of the corner of my eye I could see the woman having a heated conversation with the two cops. Something was going on.
"'The Angle Worm Wiggle'," shouted a gentleman in the balcony.
"The song? Or just the wiggle?" I asked.
"The whole song, wiggle and all," yelled someone downstairs.
"Well, all right. I guess we have a lot of wiggle fanciers."
And that’s when all my troubles began. Before I started singing "The Angle Worm Wiggle," there was a little routine I did to get everyone in the proper mood.
"Okay, everybody. I'm gonna need your help. Mr. Conductor, give me a little vamp while I get my equipment on."
I showed the audience how to clap along with the orchestra and I did a funny little hula as I took four big rings out of a pocket in my gown. Exaggerating every motion, I put one ring on each of my index fingers and thumbs.
"Are you ready for the wiggle?" I asked the crowd. As they hooted and hollered, I could see the woman in the back point at me and scream something to the police officers. I ignored the commotion and started to sing:
When I hear that bouncy strain,
I can't help but moan with glee.
Bounce me around the room like a rubber ball please,
Do that angle worm wiggle with me!
The Wiggle was one of the numbers the Boss sent me when I was in Chicago. Frank Westphal helped me work out the dance, and over the last six months I got my little wiggle down cold. But honestly, the secret to the number wasn’t the dance—it was actually the rings. They were nothing but cheap colored glass, but when I moved my fingers at just the right angle, the big stones sparkling from the reflection of the footlights helped accentuate the interesting parts of my body. The illusion of a more scandalous dance than I was actually performing never failed to get me a standing ovation.
That night, however, the two policemen came marching down the aisle just as I was supposed to start my second verse. The orchestra vamped again when they noticed the cops heading up into my spotlight.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Portland Police! Gentlemen, what can I do for you? Are you selling tickets to the Policemen’s Ball? I’ll take two—I eat a lot!” I joked.
"Miss Tucker, can you come with us please?" one of the cops whispered in my ear.
"I'm a little busy right now, officer. How about dinner after the show?"
"No, Miss Tucker. There's no more show. You're under arrest for lewd and obscene behavior," the other cop whispered.
"I'm under arrest for obscene behavior?" I said loud and clear, doing another little wiggle. The crowd went wild thinking it was all part of the show, but off I went to the station house.
Morris had given me my new material hoping for exactly this sort of incident, but I thought I was in the clear after six months of positive receptions. Still, there I was in jail. Since all the press had shown up at that Monday matinee to give me a review, there was no shortage of eye-witness accounts for the morning papers.
SINGER ARRESTED FOR SEXUAL DANCE
MUSCLE DANCER GETS JURY TRIAL
VAUDEVILLE STAR WIGGLES TO JAIL
The police allowed a couple of reporters to interview me in my jail cell and a fellow from the Oregon Gazette gave me the lowdown on the woman who had the officers arrest me. Lola G. Baldwin had been making waves for a few months, trying to close all of the city’s Vaudeville houses for what she considered to be indecent entertainment. I was her first successful arrest.
“All that’s fine and dandy, but which one of you mugs called me a muscle dancer?” I asked.
“That was direct from the horse’s mouth,” answered the reporter, smiling.
“I think you were talking to the other end of the horse. Take this down, boys: Never in my four years on stage have I been so humiliated. I demand a jury trial and I intend to sue the Portland Police Department and Miss Lola G. (as in grump) Baldwin for $100,000 each. They have soiled my good name and now they are both going to pay for it. You got that?"
They got it and so did every paper in the United States. Next thing you know, I got a wire right to my jail cell from the Boss.
I sent a message to my new lawyer friend Pence Egbert, who immediately reached out to the local district attorney and we were all assembled in the courtroom the next day.
"Your Honor, my client, Miss Tucker, is willing to drop her two $100,000 lawsuits if she gets a public apology from the City and Miss Baldwin," declared my attorney.
Lola G. Baldwin
"Judge, as the District Attorney of this city, I have been authorized by the Mayor and the entire City Council to sincerely apologize for any harm caused and will reimburse Miss Tucker for any salary lost,” replied the city attorney. Everyone turned toward the Grump.
“I’ll apologize to that woman when hell freezes over,” she spat. I started to get out of my chair but Pence grabbed my arm.
"Lola, we are all reasonable people here," the judge said, trying to soothe her. "I understand you had a particular problem with just one of Sophie’s songs. Is that true?"
"The whole act was questionable, Judge. But one was outrageously vile."
"And which song was it?"
"'The Angle Worm Wiggle'," replied Baldwin.
"I saw her do that one in July. I still chuckle when I think about it. Who else here has seen 'The Angle Worm Wiggle'?"
Everyone in the courtroom raised their hand.
"Did anyone here besides Lola find this song vile?"
No one said a word.
"Your Honor," Lola steamed, "it wasn't just the song. It was her wiggle dance. It had heavy lewd overtones."
“I object to the word heavy!” I yelled. Everyone bit their tongues trying not to laugh.
"Now, Mrs. Baldwin,” continued the judge, “I saw this act and I don’t recall a dance at all, let alone an obscene one. Sophie, in the interest of fairness, would you mind demonstrating your wiggle dance for me now so I can make a fair ruling?"
I conferred with my lawyer, and then I stood up and approached the bench.
"Your honor, first I reach in my pocket and pull out one ring at a time and put them on my fingers." I took out my props and put them on my hands without any dramatics.
"Then I show the audience the rings."
I turned around and lifted up my hands to the people in the courtroom. This time though, there were no footlights to make them shimmer.
"And then, I do a little dance with the rings on."
As mildly as I could, I shook one hip.
"Your honor, I object!" screamed Lola. “That was nothing at all like the dance she did on stage!”
"Who was there last night?" asked the judge, and nearly everyone in the court raised their hands.
"Is Sophie telling the truth? Is this what she did yesterday afternoon?
All fifty people nodded at the same time.
"Hogwash," blurted Lola.
"Judge," interrupted Egbert. "Maybe Miss Baldwin would like to show us the parts of the dance we all seemed to miss."
"I'd be glad to, your Honor."
Baldwin got out of her chair and walked up in front of the judge, and proceeded to swivel and shake like nothing I had ever seen before. She looked like a witch on a runaway broom. She looked like a bag of sticks in an earthquake. I thought the judge was going to burst, that’s how hard he was trying not to laugh. After a minute or two of bizarre gyrations, Baldwin huffed and puffed her way back to her seat.
“Mrs. Baldwin,” began the stunned judge, “if Miss Tucker did what you just showed us, you would have grounds for arrest. I’m also quite confident that she wouldn’t be making a living on the stage.”
I consulted with my attorney and he stood up.
“Your honor, my client has just informed me that, due to the extraordinary display of dancing we all just witnessed, if Mrs. Baldwin drops her charges, no public apology will be necessary.”
With a defeated nod from Lola, the judge banged his gavel and dismissed all lawsuits with regard to my wiggle or lack thereof.
When I arrived in Sacramento the next week, they were lined up around the block for every performance to see the girl whose wiggling put her in jail. The Boss had hit the nail right on the head. Get yourself arrested and become a star.
That wasn’t the last time I got arrested, however. In 1960, New York City’s Mayor Wagner was trying to crack down on the mafia-run nightclub business. He pushed the city council to pass a new law requiring everyone working in the café industry to be fingerprinted and carry a city-issued cabaret identification card. I thought it was ridiculous to lump the entertainers with all the regular café employees, so I saw this as another opportunity to drum up a little bit of publicity from behind bars. When I got my notice to come in for fingerprinting, I called my columnist buddy Earl Wilson and told him to print that the cops would have to come down to the club and drag me in kicking and screaming if they wanted my ink marks.
At first everyone thought it was a joke, but then some of Wagner's opposition took my side to embarrass the Mayor. Even Bob Hope got in in the action, telling the Daily News, “I can’t be seen associating with the dangerous Sophie Tucker.”
Sophie and Bob Hope.
Right before my show a few nights later in the International Room at the Waldorf Astoria, two embarrassed rookie policemen came to get me. I asked them if it would be all right if we went after I finished my show and they agreed. I guess they didn't consider me a high flight risk. As a return favor, I got the boys in blue ringside seats.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have some exciting news. After the show tonight, I've just been told I'm going to a special singing engagement up the river. Is that right boys?"
I had the spotlight shine right on my two new boyfriends in blue.
"I'm sorry ladies and gentlemen. The officers just informed me I got it wrong. I'm not going to sing. I'm going to Sing-Sing."
After the show was over the cops escorted me to their squad car and I insisted on being handcuffed just like any other prisoner. It made for a much better photo opportunity when they lead me into the police station, which was conveniently surrounded by journalists when I arrived. Someone may have tipped them off while I was backstage changing out of my performing gown.
"Welcome to showbiz, officers!” I laughed.
The next morning my mission was accomplished. In every paper across the country, there was 76-year-old Sophie Tucker's newly issued café card with my smiling mug shot on one side and my thumb print on the other.
Sophie’s cabaret license.
This is the first verse and chorus of the hit of George M. Cohan’s "My Wife's Gone To The Country":
When Missus Brown told hubby, "I just can't stand the heat
Please send me to the country, dear, I know 'twould be a treat"
Next day his wife and fam'ly were seated on a train
And when the train had started, Brownie shouted this refrain:
My wife's gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
She thought it best, I need a rest, that's why she went away
She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
I don't care what becomes of me, my wife's gone away
This is Sophie’s parody "My Husband's in the City", which was her second song recorded by Edison. It was as big a hit as the original.
In Sophie’s mostly fictitious Doubleday autobiography, Tucker perpetuated the myth that her maid, Molly Elkins, was responsible for introducing her to “Some of These Days” composer Shelton Brooks in 1911. It’s true they probably met up during the spring of that year in Chicago, but that was so Brooks could personally thank Sophie for promoting his new song during the previous six months and then recording it with Edison.
In reality, the song first came to Sophie from an agent of the Will Rossiter Music Publishing company in the summer of 1910 while she was playing the West coast Vaudeville houses for the first time. Tucker gave it a try and got an overwhelmingly positive response. This initial recorded version went on to sell over one million copies.
Sophie recorded eight versions of “Some of These Days” during her sixty year career. It also has been recorded by hundreds of others artists, including Barbra Streisand, Benny Goodman, Betty Boop, Billy Holiday, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, Brenda Lee, Cab Calloway, Django Reinhardt, Jimmy Durante, Earl Hines, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, Fats Waller, Gene Krupa, Keely Smith, Leon Redbone, Louis Armstrong, The McGuire Sisters, The Mills Brothers, Miss Piggy, Rosemary Clooney, Vicky Carr, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.
This is Sophie’s 1937 version. It is half the original length and much more enjoyable by today’s standards.
In 1953, Sophie was then sixty-six years old and going as strong as ever. After decades in show business, Tucker was still selling out every night in Las Vegas or whatever city she was playing, fifty-two weeks a year. Part of the reason was because she constantly read the daily papers and keeping up with current events. Then she would suggest song ideas to her writer Jack Yellen based on the trends of the day.
You would think Tucker and her creative team would have run out of ideas on how to repackage her sexy message, but they didn’t. As a matter of fact, Sophie was way ahead of the curve. By the early 1950’s, scientists were starting to do experiments on how to improve male sexual performance. Decades before the discovery of Viagra, Tucker was talking about the future of romance in her song “Vitamins, Hormones and Pills.”
What is also unique about this record is that it is a bootlegged recording from one of her nightclub performances. You can hear her interacting with an actual audience and more importantly, you can hear the genuine reaction of the live crowd. It’s the only recording of its kind where you can truly experience Sophie’s exquisite timing as she milks each line for its maximum laugh.
This scene from the 1936 movie San Francisco starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald nicely illustrates what the Barbary Coast might’ve been like in 1900,