Chapter 6

Why Do They Call ‘em Wild Women?

According to Harry Von Tilzer, I was an unknown heavyweight. I wasn’t about to give up noodle kugel, but I’d be damned if I was going to stay an unknown. After a month of throw money and daily trips to Tin Pan Alley, it was Jimmy Durante—then an unknown himself, though his nose had quite a reputation—who helped me get my first break.

Sophie with Jimmy Durante and his famous schnozz.

It's not surprising that most of my closest friends in show business were just like me, a little too funny looking to be a star. You could dress me or my pal Fanny Brice in the fanciest gold lamé gowns on earth, but you know what they say about a silk purse and a sow's ear. Yet give that sow a personality the size of Cleveland and a set of pipes? That’s an act people will pay to see.

One afternoon in the middle of October of 1906, I went to visit Jimmy in the Alley where he worked part time as a demonstrator. All the acts would go from room to room and ask to hear the newest tunes, and young pianists like Durante would play number after number from their publisher’s stock. Pianists were a dime a dozen but a pianist like Jimmy, who could charm a penguin out of his tuxedo, had a job for life.

"Hiya Soph,” Jimmy greeted me. “I’ve got some great new songs that just came in.”

"Save it for the customers with more than two cents to their name," I said.

“As a matter of fact, I did hear about a job…but I’m not sure if you’d want it,” Durante hedged.

"I’m singing for sandwiches, Jimmy! I’ll take any gig that pays."

“I heard there's a place up on 41st street looking for some new singers. But…how can I put this delicately? It's an establishment of ill repute."

"A whorehouse?" I yelled.

"Not so loud! You’ll get me canned! They have a couple girls who just sing, upright and clothed,” hissed Jimmy.

“That I can do,” I said.

  I may have been a mere nineteen years old but I already knew all about brothels. Papa’s short-lived Boston Hotel was a few doors down from one of Deaf Davey’s whorehouses, which was managed by a formidable old broad named Madame Jeanette. When I asked Papa why men came and went from her hotel at all hours of the day and night, he explained that it was a club for rich men who could afford certain favors. When I pressed the issue I got a smack in the mouth and was sent to wash every window in the entire hotel. It was finally my friend Dora Pearlman who filled me in at school. I haven’t got a clue where Dora ended up, but I’ll bet you she’s working at the United Nations—at the International Sexual Relations desk.

I went up to 41st Street that evening to check out the joint, which was called the German Village. As I walked up Broadway, I noticed that the higher the street number, the better the women on the street were dressed. It had never occurred to me until that moment that I should feel self-conscious in the clothes my mother made me.

The ground floor of the building where Jimmy had directed me looked like a typical beer hall, except there were pretty girls everywhere. Some carried trays full of overflowing steins, and some sat on the men’s laps laughing loudly at whatever they said. Another was singing on a small stage toward the back of the room. I took a seat at an empty table near the stage to try to get a feel for her job. It wasn’t long before a swollen old drunk fell into the chair beside me with a wet thud.

"You are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," he slurred into my ear.

"Not interested," I replied.

"Then why are you here?"

"To get a singing job."

"I’ll give you five smackers if you sing me a song upstairs, somewhere private," he said, his tongue stumbling stupidly over the words.

"I don't sing that kind of song," I said, shoving him off of me.

"Let me teach it to you,” he whispered.

Before I could stop myself, my tablemate was on the receiving end of one of Mama’s uppercuts and all hell broke loose. A crowd pushed in close to see if there’d be any more action but my admirer was down for the count. One small plump girl stepped out of the crowd and patted me on the shoulder.

"Nice work, honey. The Chief has had that coming for weeks."

"Chief?" I asked.

"Chief of Police," she said with a smile.

A giant man came careening through the crowd, practically throwing girls to the side to get to where the Chief of Police lay motionless. He screamed at no one in particular to explain what was going on.

“He must’ve slipped on a piece of ice, Tiny. No one ever sweeps up in here. Pretty soon all the girls are gonna need skates!” said the plump girl, unafraid of the mound of muscle seething in front of her.

Despite the girl’s excuses, Tiny zeroed in on me.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Sophie Tuck. I came about the singing job."

"You trying to get me closed down? Delilah, take your chunky friend here and get the hell out. You’re fired!” 

Before I knew it I was out on the chilly sidewalk with Delilah, who was weaving a blanket of profanity thick enough to keep us both warm. When she finally stopped to take a breath, I apologized for getting her fired. She giggled and explained that Tiny, despite his bluster, fired her about twice a week and always took her back since she was one of his highest earners. She even treated me to dinner for knocking her most annoying customer flat on his ass.

We traded life stories over big bowls of goulash. Delilah was an orphaned Jewish girl with no family. With her hair, her beautiful dress and her expensive rouge and powder I would’ve thought she was thirty, but she was actually a few years younger than me. She had a sailor’s sense of humor and we hit it off immediately.

Delilah swore she’d get me a job as a singer at Tiny’s brothel. The next night, in fact, she borrowed a dress from one of her fellow working girls and wedged me into it, then coiled my hair up in the latest style and painted my face with buckets of her makeup. When I looked in the mirror I was astounded to see the same kind of girl looking back at me that I first viewed from the balcony at Poli's.

I sauntered into the brothel looking like a million bucks. Just like Delilah taught me, I wiggled my way through the room winking at the men and smiling at the working girls. Delilah had told the ladies that I’d be coming in, so they could make sure the crowd was friendly. Tiny was at the bar and I pretended we’d never met, hoping my makeup would erase the memory of last night’s K.O.

"Hey bub, are you the manager? I’ve come about the singing job."

"You're in luck,” he said, after giving me the once-over. “I've got an opening for a girl on the second floor. It pays fifteen dollars a week plus tips. You interested?"

"When can I start?"

“How about tonight?”

I was so excited I nearly skipped over to the stairs, but caught myself and remembered to saunter. Tiny stopped me right before I turned the corner.

"Hey,” he hollered, “You can sing, right?”

"You won't be sorry," I assured the big galoot.

"Good. Just do me a favor. Remember that in this establishment, girls drink punch. They don’t hand them out like Gentleman Jim Corbett. You understand me, Tuck?”

So much for putting one over on old Tiny.

World Heavyweight Champion
Gentleman Jim Corbett

The German Village had three floors. The second floor, where I started, was where gentlemen came to pick their lady for the evening. The men who made a beeline for the second level weren’t there to have a drink or hear me sing. The girls had appropriately nicknamed this floor the Shooting Gallery—once a man picked his target, she was flat on her back in a second.

Most of the regular customers preferred to stay on the lively main floor, and it usually took a year or two before a girl got promoted to that stage. But the real place to be was downstairs in the rathskeller, where the drinks were twice the price and so were the tips. I intended to skip the main floor entirely and get right to work in the basement, but I wasn’t yet sure how I’d pull that off.

As I learned the ropes at the German Village, I grew close to Delilah and the other ladies. It was easy for me to overlook their profession once I realized how much we had in common. Many of them came to the big city to make money to send back home to their families, and to a woman we all agreed that motherhood was for the birds. Even those of us who had kids winced at the thought of living as a housewife again. We had all decided to take a pass on days full of dirty diapers and nights with shitty husbands who snuck out to visit women like us.

It seemed like a good idea to hitch my wagon to Delilah, because it was clear she wasn’t going to be in the German Village forever. She was a born leader. Tiny relied on her to rally the women together when he needed them on his side because she could work her magic on anyone, man or woman. By the end of the month, Delilah even arranged a room for me in her boarding house, where a lot of the girls lived. Even though I was the only resident doing any plain old-fashioned sleeping in her bed, I was welcomed as an equal. Instead of a twenty block walk after work, I was now thirty seconds away from a good night's sleep.

About a week after we became neighbors, Delilah told me another one of the Village’s singers, a girl named Ellie Redford, was moving on to Vaudeville. Although Delilah was happy for her, this left her in a real spot. You see, Redford was the bank. Each girl received her fee plus tips from a john, which they were expected to deliver to Tiny after every trick. He’d give them their pay at the end of the night, and they’d take home only a small portion of what they actually earned. In order to beef up their income, they’d each slip a few bucks to the bank before they reported back to the big galoot. That way each girl got her stash back from the bank in addition to the pittance she earned from Tiny.

Delilah wanted me to be the new First National Bank of the German Village and I was honored to do it. In return, my new friend worked out a plan to get me down into the rathskeller. We talked it over on our walk to work, which included a customary detour to see Officer McDougal, a beat cop Delilah fancied. Every night we would casually run into the officer so Delilah could flirt with her dreamboat. I wasn't quite sure if he knew where we worked, but for my friend’s sake I hoped he did and didn’t care.

The night went by normally. I usually sang my last song around one in the morning, just as the rathskeller was starting to come alive. At around two, Delilah motioned to Ellie—who was in on our plan—to bring me up on stage.

"Well boys,” cooed Ellie. “Some of you might have heard that after eight years in this stinkin' shithole, I'm off to the big time."

"Where, Leavenworth?" heckled a regular.

"Not the big house, you dumb fuck, I’m talking about Vaudeville! But before I go, I want you to hear a little lady I've been listening to upstairs. I'm looking around this room and I don't think you assholes deserve to hear her. But, against my better judgment I'm gonna let you. So be nice. Come on up here and let 'em hear your pipes, Sophie!"

I killed with my first song and, at the audience’s request, followed up with four other numbers. At the end, I earned a big standing ovation and from that night on I was a Rathskeller regular.

After closing time, all of the ladies of the German Village decided to go back to the house to celebrate one bank moving on to bigger and better things and another one taking her place. I guess the party got a little out of hand when Delilah and the girls decided to honor me by singing some of my songs as loud as they possibly could. One of the neighbors must have had enough of the noise, because in the middle of the festivities we were raided by the police. They marched us all out onto the sidewalk and, though I know it sounds serious, we were all laughing so hard it was difficult to panic until the paddy wagons showed up. Luckily, Officer McDougal was driving one of the vans and quietly saved Delilah, his damsel in distress, and me, her portly sidekick.

Once my rathskeller money started rolling in I began sending fifty dollars home per week. I wish I could’ve been there to see Mama’s face the first time she opened one of those envelopes. I was making at least a C-note per week even when business was slow, so I had money left over to buy a few stage costumes and a dress or two for my time off. I could see how a girl might get comfortable working in the rathskeller, but even when I was flush I forced myself down to Tin Pan Alley during the day. Durante and the others would let me have some of the best new songs in return for a nice necktie or a complimentary introduction to some of Delilah’s comrades in arms (and legs, and other unmentionables). I think that's when Jimmy's nose grew to its full size.

It couldn’t go on forever, though. Officer McDougal and some of the small-time politicians who came through the Village let us know that the winds were changing down in City Hall. The new mayor’s office had its sights set on the beer hall district and, one way or another, they were going to turn it into a respectable neighborhood. I kept my eyes open for an escape route into Vaudeville, where I knew I belonged.

Just as I suspected, Delilah was destined for bigger things. After hearing that same scuttlebutt, she decided to open her own joint in a different neighborhood with the backing of a few of her richer clients. She became the madam of one of the most notoriously fun brothels on the East coast. For years, I’d stop in to see her and we’d split a sandwich and a beer in her lush office, laughing about how I knocked out the Chief of Police all those years ago.

It may not have been the most illustrious venue in the world, but I learned a lot at the German Village. Watch me on stage singing a bawdy song like my life depended on it even when I’m sick, tired, or feeling just plain old, and it’s no surprise I perfected the art of performance amongst a pack of happy hookers.

Extra

There’s very little information available about the song “Aren’t Women Wonderful.” The music was written in 1935 by the accomplished composer Ted Shapiro, but the lyrics are attributed only to “Scott.” Ted Shapiro wrote dozens of special songs for Sophie in addition to scores of others that were covered by many headliners. “If I Had You,” possibly Shapiro’s best known hit, was performed by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Diana Krall, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.