By and large, the fellas in my life have been warm, kind and generous. If I threw a dart at my address book, telephoned the man it landed on, and asked him any outlandish thing that popped into my head, I guarantee you he’d bend over backwards to help out his old pal Soph. And it’s not because we fooled around, either. Sex, I’ve found, is the surest way to kill a perfectly good friendship.
In truth, I’ve really only ever been with a few men other than my schmendrick husbands. That’s right, Sophie Tucker, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas, the duchess of the double entendre, has only had a handful of lovers. And let me tell you, my husbands were enough to send any lady running from the entire male population. My first husband in particular left such a sour taste in my mouth it should’ve been easy to pucker up to someone new, but he nearly put me off men altogether. Sixty years later, I’ve concluded that a juicy steak is always more satisfying than a lousy love affair.
When the Abuzas arrived in Hartford in 1895, they did what every young Jewish couple does and joined the local synagogue. It was the quickest way to find friends and playmates for us children, and eventually to drum up business for their restaurant. It’s a double-edged sword, being in such a tightly knit community. By the time I was a senior in high school there were no secrets left. I knew when the Lipsons got a $500 inheritance from an aunt and that their twelve year old son Milton was still wetting the bed. I knew that Mr. Cherniak, the fish man, sometimes left his thumb on the scale. And the greater Jewish community of Hartford knew that Sophie Tucker was a fat girl with a big mouth whose mama thought she would never find a husband.
For months leading up to my high school graduation, my mother had been nagging me to sing less and work harder on finding a man, but I was already single-minded about show business. Boys were last on my list of things to do. I wasn’t interested in changing diapers, or putting in the pot roast before my husband got home from work, or staying up until midnight to fix holey socks. I wanted to move out of Mama’s house as much as she wanted me gone, but I’d rather have bought my own little dump and lived alone than gotten married to have the Hartford house and family of Mama’s dreams.
“I’m going to be in Vaudeville, come hell or high water! I’ll move to New York and marry the biggest theater owner there!” I recall screaming at her one evening in April. I grabbed a handful of rugelach and marched out of Mama’s kitchen in protest.
"Why stop there?" Annie, then twelve, hollered down the stairs. “Why don’t you propose to Teddy Roosevelt and move into the White House?"
"You could hear me up there?"
"They could hear you in Albuquerque!" Annie said as she slammed her bedroom door.
Secretly, I was panicked. I knew that I was no great beauty, but I was beginning to realize that my looks might keep me from both my dream and Mama’s, equally. If I didn’t look like Nora Bayes, would anyone ever pay to hear me sing? And if no one wanted to hear me sing and I couldn’t make it on the Vaudeville circuit, how could a plain old cow like me catch a husband?
After the dinner rush, I sat out on the curb in front of the restaurant and buried my face in my hands. Besides my husband dilemma, the biggest social event of the year was rapidly approaching. The High River Ball was not to be missed, but I hadn't even entertained the idea that anyone would ask me to go. I sat stewing in my sadness like a big round matzah ball until someone said my name.
“I know you,” I said, looking up at a familiar face.
"Of course you do. I'm Louis Tuck. I’ve lived down the block for the last seven years."
"They called you Louie the Lummox back in grammar school, didn’t they? We both used to be…pleasingly plump back then. At least you grew out of it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I think you look great, Soph.”
I investigated Louis’s face, which was so perfect it looked like it belonged on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. He seemed friendly but I couldn’t fathom why he was talking to me. The last conversation we had was when I was ten and he and my older brother Phil got in a fight over a game of marbles. I knew—through the Jewish grapevine, of course—that he was working as a deliveryman for a local beer distributor. Tuck was famous for his snazzy duds and his good looks, and charming lots of girls with both. He had quite a reputation.
"Did my brother Phil punch you in the nose again? You want me to tell him to leave you alone?"
“No, I wanted to know if you’d like to go to the High River Ball with me. I think we could have some fun together.”
“Fun? I’ve heard about your idea of fun. Besides, you could have any girl in town. Why me?” I asked suspiciously. Even in the days before I was a comedian, I understood that every joke has a punchline. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to be his.
“I’ve already dated every girl in town, Sophie. They’re all boring. Maybe you’re the one I’ve been looking for and you’ve been right under my nose the whole time. Whaddaya say?”
"The girls all say you're fast," I said, after a long pause.
"I've got a lot of plans. I have to be fast. What's your plan? Fast or slow?"
My mother didn’t say much when I told her about Louis’s invitation, but at least she put a halt to her nagging. I knew she was happy, though, because I caught her humming an old Yiddish tune once or twice as she chopped onions for the goulash. Our parents were friends, of course, and both families were thrilled with the match. Louis always dated the wrong type of girl, so his parents couldn’t have been happier that he finally was interested in a hardworking gal who looked like she was built to pump out a whole Jewish baseball team. While Mama may have been pleased, I knew that all the girls in town were whispering behind my back about why Louis Tuck would want to take me to the ball. I found that pastrami sandwiches with extra mustard were a great way to dull nasty rumors.
Mama stayed up late for a week before the dance, pedaling away on the Singer to make me a gorgeous white lace dress. Louis showed up in a neat gray wool suit and a matching hat, a pink rose pinned to his lapel and another for me in his outstretched hand.
I don't remember what made me happier: dancing with Tuck all night or watching my classmates try to puzzle out how Sophie Abuza ended up with Louis Tuck at the biggest social event of our young lives. I think I actually heard a head or two explode when, during the last dance, Louis tilted my head up and planted one right on my kisser.
After that first smooch, Louis became my professor of hi-dee-ho. I was his star pupil all semester, but I refused to take the final exam. No ring, no hanky-panky. He bellyached and moaned, threatened to leave, bargained with me, and repeated over and over that he’d never gone with a girl for longer than three weeks without sealing the deal.
One starry Saturday night in May of 1903, a year after our first date, we found ourselves on a blanket behind the boathouse at Riverside Park. As always, I’d tagged him out at home base and Tuck was sulking.
"I can't afford to get you a diamond right now," he whined. "I want to, but I just don't have enough saved up yet. But, I was thinking…"
I braced myself for his nightly snake oil sales pitch on the healing wonders of Tuck’s Erotic Serum.
"Let's just get married. Let's get in my truck, drive up to Massachusetts and get hitched right now."
"You want to elope?" I gasped.
"Exactly. C'mon. Marry me. We'll have lots of fun."
Louis hadn’t lied—so far our relationship had been lots of fun. I’d practically forgotten how much I wanted to join a Vaudeville troupe, instead spending most of my time mooning over my dreamboat beau. Besides, whenever I did mention my showbiz dreams, he seemed to turn a blind eye, or chuckle, or pat me on the head. Better that kind of a husband than some plumber who wanted five sons.
I grabbed Tuck in a bear hug and said yes.
It was too late to go that night, so we planned to run away the following weekend. The only person I told was Annie, who helped me come up with a good story for Mama as to why I would be gone all day the next Sunday. Supposedly, Louis was taking me to his annual spring company picnic which included a late night of fireworks.
When the big day came, I snuck out of my house with my little cardboard suitcase and got into the passenger seat of Tuck's Phelps Runabout, breathing in the romantic aroma of motor oil, Tuck’s cologne, and the stink of old beer. We chatted at first, like usual, but as we approached the state line we both fell silent. I guess I must’ve been swept off my feet, because I never bothered to consider why I should pay for the license, judge, bouquet, a cheap bottle of champagne, and our room at the Springfield Lodge. By the time we got there I had fifty-eight cents left. Luckily, the rest of the day's activities were free.
The back of this picture is dated May 14, 1902 and reads
"Our wedding day.” It is likely cut from what was once a
shot of Sophie and Louis together.
By that evening, any lingering thrill over my elopement and our brief consummation had disappeared so quickly it felt like Moe had cleared the table in my brain. With every mile we drove closer to Hartford, I grew increasingly more scared about facing Mama. We got back to my house a couple of hours later than planned and found Mama still awake and sewing up in the parlor. I knew I wouldn't have the guts to spill the beans, so Louis agreed to do the talking.
"Mrs. Abuza, we have some wonderful news for you. Sophie and I love each other very much, so we went to Massachusetts today and got married," he mumbled.
Mama didn’t say a single word. Her needle hovered above one of Annie’s dresses, shaking ever so slightly with rage. Her face turned an alarming shade of crimson. She froze like that for a minute, then set down her sewing and slowly left the room. She returned dragging Papa by his arm.
"Tell him,” said Mount Vesuvius.
"Louis and I got married today,” I whispered.
Papa’s face broke into a goofy grin. He moved to give me a hug but Mama, even more infuriated, smacked his arms down.
“You’re not married until I say you’re married,” she hissed.
She began pacing the room, detailing all of the ways I had disappointed her—we weren’t truly married, even if it was legal, because we hadn’t yet had the big Jewish wedding of Mama’s dreams. Eventually it was decided that if Louis valued his heir-producing equipment, we would announce a proper engagement and have a wedding ceremony in the synagogue three months later.
Louis was less than thrilled with all the religious rigmarole, but now that we were officially married I found other ways to keep him occupied. Our second ceremony was beautiful and no one ever knew (well, until now) that we’d eloped. Annie was as good as a jewel safe for my secrets, just like I was for hers. Louis and I moved into a new little apartment after the wedding celebration which had been decorated with extra furniture from both sides of our family.
It should have been an omen for things to come: when we got to our front door, Louis tried to carry me over the threshold and threw out his back. The doctor said he couldn’t work for a month.
I guess you could say that's when the fun stopped. As Louis’s one month recuperation grew to three, I needed to go back to work at the restaurant for food and rent money. I started to get suspicious when Tuck declared himself healthy enough for extracurricular activities but too weak to drive his route. In bed, he could do a high wire act. Out of bed, I had to chew his food for him. He finally went back to work in November and that extra fifteen dollars a week should have meant I could cut back on a few shifts at the restaurant. Instead, he blew his money on new suits and nights out with his chums before the money ever came home.
By the time we reached our first wedding anniversary, it had become quite clear Louis was in charge of living the high life and I was in charge of paying for everything. Louis had married me to get his family off his back and he had little interest in being a husband or contributing to our small household. I pleaded with him to look for a higher paying job or to ask for a raise and, to his credit, he got another five dollars a week. Unfortunately, all that raise paid for were more hats and more highballs. I never got a dime to help pay the bills.
If it wasn't for Annie, I would have gone batty. The Abuza gift for girth had somehow passed her over and she was growing into a beautiful young woman—and a sympathetic sounding board for all of my marital woes. When we weren't working together at the restaurant, she would come over to my apartment to do her homework and listen to me complain about my hapless husband.
One afternoon in June of 1904, Louis came home early, so we had dinner together before I was due at Abuza’s. I was washing the dishes and my genius hubby was reading the funny papers when a heard a knock to the rhythm of “Shortnin’ Bread” on our front door.
"Come on in, kid!" I yelled to Annie from the sink. “Why so formal with the knocking?”
"I saw Louis's truck parked out front,” she said as she entered. “You two are still newlyweds. Who knows what's going on in here? I was just on my way home from school so I thought I would stop by and say hello. Hi, Mr. Tuck."
Louis grunted from behind his newspaper and Annie and I smirked at each other.
"What smells so good?" asked Annie.
"Me," replied the hidden Tuck.
"It’s leftover filet mignon," I told her, rolling my eyes at Tuck. "Louis has a friend on his route who works at a fancy restaurant. You want some?"
Annie was thrilled to try such an expensive cut of meat. I plated the remainder of the filet and plopped it on the table in front of Annie as I made a beeline for my coat.
"Sorry I have to run, Annie. Mama needs me to peel. You better dash over yourself as soon as you’re done. You’re on shmutz patrol tonight. I’ll see you later, Louis.”
Another grunt rumbled out from behind the Hartford Courant.
"Before you go, Soph, do you have a steak knife?” asked Annie.
“Louis, reach in the drawer behind you and get Annie a knife,” I asked as I stepped out the door. Louis growled and threw down his paper. At this stage of our marriage, my husband was turning even the most minor task into a full song and dance number.
"Don't dilly-dally, Annie. Your shmutz awaits," I said as I left.
As I hustled down Front Street from one kitchen to another, I thought about how easy it would be to run over to Poli’s Theater to catch the end of the Vaudeville matinee. Maybe Mr. Elliot would be on the ivories and he would let me sit in the balcony like old times. That seemed like heaven compared to peeling potatoes for eight hours while Mama relentlessly asked when I was going to have children. Of course, I went directly to the restaurant. The theater may have been just a few blocks in the other direction, but it might as well have been on Venus.
If I thought things were bad then, they got worse over the next few months. I was far from skinny, but even Mama noticed that I’d started to look a little swollen around the middle. My worst fears had come true—I was stuck with a little Tuck on the way. By the end of the pregnancy, I looked like I’d stuffed my dress with so many pillows I could give birth to a sofa.
When the big day came, Louis was, of course, in Atlantic City on a gambling trip with his pals. I held Annie’s hand through the whole five-hour labor until little Albert made his debut appearance. He had Louis’s good looks from day one but I prayed that he’d inherited the Abuza common sense.
Before I realized it, Albert was nine months old and I was approaching my nineteenth birthday. Louis was no more than a boarder in our household. Any love he felt for me at the beginning of our courtship had long since flown the coop and he showed about the same interest in the baby. The only thing that changed was Albert's diaper, eight times a day, seven days a week. I found myself praying the kid would get constipated but he was as regular as Big Ben.
Believe it or not, working in the restaurant was the thing I looked forward to. I’d drop off the baby with Annie and she’d manage the fertilizer factory upstairs while I slung schmaltz and sang for tips. Eugene and Willie Howard, the two Vaudeville comedians I’d met backstage with Mr. Elliot, came to the restaurant each time they were in town to get a fix of chopped liver and to harass their favorite singing waitress. They tipped even more generously than they applauded. I’d started to build up some savings and, by August of 1905, I had squirreled away almost a hundred dollars where Louis couldn’t get his paws on it.
"Get a load of Chicken Fat Girl!" said Willie after one of my numbers. He never let me live down his nickname, even years later when we were on the MGM lot together. “Your voice is as good as your mama’s stuffed cabbage. You should be on the circuit already.”
“What are you after, free latkes?” I said, gently punching him on the shoulder.
“He’s right. You’re never going to get anywhere singing for their suppers,” Eugene said, gesturing to the diners. “Let Mr. Beer Driver watch the kid and head out on the road with us.”
"The only thing Tuck is good at watching is skirts," I said, frowning.
"Well if you ever change your mind, look us up and we'll get you in with all the right people." Willie and Eugene looked uncharacteristically serious.
"It's a deal."
Because of that conversation I couldn't sleep for weeks. How could I have fallen for slick suits and hats when the guy wearing them was such a bum? I’d had enough. I came up with an idea to fix my dead end situation and enlisted Annie to help me put my plan into motion.
After yet another silent dinner, Louis retired to his overstuffed armchair in our tiny parlor and hid behind his newspaper. I finished cleaning up, took off my apron, sat in the chair directly opposite Tuck and stared at him. I thought about how I’d wasted two years of my life on that no good schmuck and gave him the stink eye until he finally lowered his paper. I’m surprised my glare didn’t burn a hole right through it.
"You can go now," I said coldly.
"My poker game doesn’t start until nine,” he said.
"Listen very carefully. I want you to go to your poker game tonight and never come back. You've done all the damage I’m going to let you do. It's time for you to walk out of my life before I fix it so you can't walk at all."
"You're kidding, right?" he said, a dismissive smirk spreading across his mug.
I jumped out of my seat. I must’ve looked like an angry bull in a dress, snorting and getting ready to charge. My fists clenched. Louis realized I wasn’t kidding. He quickly gathered his coat and hat and made for the door.
"I'll go, but can I ask you one last thing?"
"How much?" I had anticipated his request and reached into my bank through the top of my blouse.
"Five will get me where I'm going."
"Here's ten. Just make sure you stay when you get there."
I slammed the door on my old life and immediately prepared for my new one. I gathered up all the baby’s things and put them in a small bag. The next morning, I wrapped Albert in a warm blanket and grabbed my cardboard suitcase, which I’d packed a week earlier in anticipation of this moment. I took one last look at my newlywed apartment and tried to dredge up even a few romantic feelings about my married life, however brief. Instead, I felt like a parolee looking back at a prison.
We arrived at my parent's house a little before six on that chilly September morning. All the lights were out except for the lamp in Annie's second story window. I thought I had whispered her name up toward her room, but my sister threw open her window and hushed me.
"Did you ever consider hiring yourself out as a steam whistle?"
"Come down already so I don't miss the seven o’clock train!”
Annie met me outside on the stoop of the restaurant and gently took the baby from my arms.
"How did he take it?" she asked.
"Are you sure about this?"
"I’ve been sure for six years, minus Tuck’s interruption." I paused and looked her in the eye. “I’ll send money as soon as I get my first job. Every week, I promise.”
"Don't worry about us," she smiled.
Albert grabbed Annie’s nose and they both laughed. I couldn’t muster anything but guilt for asking my fourteen-year-old sister to take care of a baby while I went out on the road. The fact was, though, I could help Albert and the whole family a lot more by becoming a headliner. Albert would be able to go to the best schools and I could see to it that Mama and Papa could quit the sixteen hour days and retire. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit I was also leaving town because of my overwhelming ambition to become famous and rich, in that order.
"Everyone's going to say you abandoned your family," Annie predicted.
"Everyone can go fuck themselves,” I said, drawing myself up tall and straightening my coat. “The same know-it-alls will give me a standing ovation when I'm headlining at Poli's."
Sophie, Albert and Annie 1905
“I Ain't Got Nobody” was written by Spencer Williams and Roger Graham in 1915. It became a perennial standard, recorded many times in styles ranging from jazz to country. Many artists had hit records with the song, starting with Marian Harris in 1916. Other popular versions were recorded by Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway, Wingy Manone, Chick Webb, Emmett Miller, Merle Haggard, Bob Wills, Coleman Hawkins, and Rosemary Clooney. But before all of them, it was one of Sophie’s early Vaudeville numbers. She also recorded her own version.