Chapter 8

You’d Never Know that Old Town of Mine

I've been snubbed by the best of them.

A few years back, I was invited to the opening night of my good friend Carol Channing’s star turn in Hello Dolly! on Broadway. We’d been pals since I saw her first act in Vegas, in which she did a spot-on impersonation of me. When I met her backstage she told me she wanted to grow up to be just like me. I told her she was doing just great as Carol Channing, but she should ax the Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead impressions and do a few more minutes as yours truly. After that, whenever we played Vegas at the same time we would meet up in the El Rancho Hotel kitchen late at night, after our shows were over, to get the first crack at their freshly baked bread. I have no idea how Carol could eat a whole loaf and never gain an ounce. I guess I was gaining for two.

Sophie and Carol Channing

So, after Carol’s opening performance of Hello Dolly! there was a party at a club called Arthur’s filled with all of the A-list stars of the day. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were seated at the prime table and Burton drank heavily all night. Every performer in the room got up to do a song in honor of Carol, and when it was my turn she insisted on hearing “Some of These Days.” After I was done and the praise died down, Burton stood up.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

"Ladies and gentlemen, up until now I thought my wife was in charge of butchering the English language, but I must admit I was wrong. Tonight I have witnessed the Empress of Butchery. Long live the Queen, Miss Sophie Tucker," he slurred. He was the only one laughing as he staggered back to his seat. I was a little miffed, but it was hard to be too offended by a man so drunk he couldn’t appreciate that he was sitting next to the most beautiful woman in the world, Elizabeth Taylor, who shot me a quick look of apology. The next day, I received a telegram.

Burton’s apology, 1964.

Like I said, I’ve been snubbed by the best.

I went to Los Angeles in 1918 hoping to break into silent films, even though my only claim to fame was my singing. Who knew what I was thinking? The best I could do was wrangle myself a couple of screen tests with some no-name directors, the last of whom suggested they bill me as the next Clara Bow-vine.

Silent film star Clara Bow

Even so, when an invitation came through from Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille, I thought I was on my way to the top. Her husband was one of the biggest movie producers and directors in the world. I figured if I got to their Beverly Hills mansion and turned on the old Tucker charm, I’d end up on the silver screen in no time.

When the big night came I wore a new gown, put on my best fur and rang the doorbell fashionably late at a quarter past ten. A butler answered the door, but I’d barely set my toe inside when Mrs. DeMille came tearing in from another room, yelling about my tardiness. I lied and said I’d had car trouble. It wasn’t entirely false—getting a taxi in Los Angeles was never an easy task.

Mrs. DeMille instructed Clifford, the butler, to take my coat. However, she stopped me in my tracks as I made my way toward the sound of laughter and tinkling cocktail glasses.

“It’s not time just yet, dear. Why don’t you follow Clifford to the kitchen and fix yourself something to eat. I’ll call you when we’re ready for you to sing.”

Even Clifford looked at me with pity when he realized I thought I was a guest, but was actually unpaid entertainment. I may not have been hobnobbing with royalty at this point in my life, but I’d been singing for the rich and famous in New York City and this just wasn’t how things were done. Mrs. DeMille fluttered back into her party and I snatched my fur back from Clifford. He gave me a wink and opened the door.

“Mr. DeMille’s gonna have to find someone else to sing for his supper,” I joked, patting him on the arm. “I wouldn’t be in one of his pictures now even if he cast me as Cleopatra. So do me a favor, Cliff, please tell old Cecil he can kiss my fat asp!”

 

I didn’t give up on Hollywood after that, though. I was bound and determined to be snubbed by the biggest and the best in the industry. I ended up making a two-reeler in New York in 1919, but the brilliant director had me sing my hit “Everybody Shimmy Now.” I guess he forgot silent films were really and truly silent. My soundless performance went over like a lead balloon.

Since I was still the biggest act in Vaudeville, I was approached again in 1923 by representatives of Dr. Lee DeForest, who claimed he had invented talking movies. Three years before Al Jolson introduced talkies to the world, Dr. DeForest offered me the chance to be the first. The only hitch was that everyone seemed to think he was a head case.

Dr. Lee DeForest

I turned down DeForest’s invitation at first, but he hounded me for months. He was on a mission to start his own studio and sign a stable of stars. Finally, despite all the stories I’d heard from Hollywood about the mad scientist, my curiosity got the best of me and I went with a small group of friends to meet the lunatic himself. Imagine my surprise when I found a warm, soft-spoken gentleman genius who played me an honest to goodness talking film.

The Boss, William Morris, had a lot of meetings with DeForest after that. We were on the verge of signing a deal when I ran into Jack Warner—of the Hollywood Warner brothers, whom I’d met when they were only running a Vaudeville theater in Youngstown, Ohio—at Club Morocco one night.

Jack Warner

He pulled me aside and begged me not to sign with DeForest for the sake of my career. Turns out, DeForest had shopped his technology around to all of the major studios but no one was willing to pay his unreasonable leasing price to use it. Los Angeles was now full of studio-financed scientists trying to mimic DeForest’s process and Jack swore that they were close to being able to sidestep him and debut their own talkies. Warner warned me that anyone who signed with DeForest would be blacklisted from the major studios for life.

My heart broke for the kind scientist. Despite my size, I’ve always felt like a little guy and fought for the underdog. But this time, the threat of being cut out of the motion picture industry was too scary, even for me. I backed out of my agreement and, I suppose you could say, snubbed someone else.

Six years later, what went around came around. Warner Brothers did come calling after Al Jolson made a splash in The Jazz Singer and they were after every famous singer in the country.

I went to Los Angeles with high hopes, with New York and Vaudeville in my rearview mirror. The week I got there, I arranged a special performance at the Rialto Theatre to showcase my talent to all the Warner executives. I sent out special invitations to Jack and his brothers and every Warner vice president, and reserved the first three rows of the theater for them. When the public found out about my one-night show, the rest of the tickets sold out in a matter of hours.

The day of the performance was electric. My accompanist Ted Shapiro and I planned a unique set of songs and we rehearsed harder than ever for the big event. I got over two hundred telegrams from all of my friends from New York to California. This was going to be the final curtain call for Sophie Tucker’s Vaudeville career.

My intro music started, the crowd applauded wildly, and I bounced out onto the stage. As a tradition, I always waved to each section of the balcony first. Then I would wave to each section of the orchestra level from left to right. The gallery above waved back enthusiastically and so did the left bottom section. But when I turned to the center of the theater, I saw that the first three rows were completely empty.

It was the most colossal snubbing of my life. Not one of those momsa Warner executives showed up. Luckily, my trusty poker face kicked in and the crowd never knew I was dying inside. Hollywood had invited me out as a nod to my fame, and for my loyalty when DeForest came knocking, but there was never going to be a big movie career. No one knew what to do with a middle-aged, fat singer when it seemed like there was a Mae West everywhere you looked. After one flop of a film, I generated about as much Hollywood buzz as a dead bumblebee.

Thank God for Vaudeville. I spent a few days holed up with half a dozen cheesecakes and my foul mood, but by the following week I was back on stage and loving my life again.

 

Sure, I was snubbed by entertainment royalty, but I was also snubbed by some of the most powerful politicians in the world. When I was touring with the musical Lemaire's Affairs in 1923, my pal Ted Lewis and I were told that Calvin Coolidge had personally invited us to tour the White House. Ted Lewis is an entertainer who was hugely famous for his catch phrase “Is everybody happy?” Calvin Coolidge was the president of the United States and wound up being famous for diddly-squat.

President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge

Lewis and I did our best impressions of respectable socialites that day, trading our stage makeup for smart suits and getting to the White House promptly at nine. That meant we’d both gotten about three hours of sleep after the previous night’s late show and weekly poker game. Meeting the President was a great honor but a Vaudeville poker game never, and I mean never, got canceled.

When we got to the Pennsylvania Avenue gate, Ted announced us to the guard and we were shown to the East Room where a crowd of a hundred men, women, and children had been parked to wait for their “private” audience with President Coolidge. We were instructed to be silent as we waited and, if he did arrive, we were by no means permitted to approach him in any way.

We stood like monks for the better part of an hour. Even the babies were afraid to cry. I can promise you, waiting in the White House was the longest I went without saying a word in my entire life.

The door finally swung open and a small entourage swept into the room, clearing a path for the President. He bustled by the small crowd without even turning his head. Ted and I had been positioned next to a second door, toward which he was clearly making a beeline. When I realized old Silent Cal was going to zoom right past us without so much as a glance, my tongue got the better of me.

“Hey Cal! How about a handshake for a loyal taxpayer?” I bellowed. The Secret Service stopped in their tracks. Silent Cal nearly wet his presidential pants.

We were whisked so quickly into another room I nearly lost my hat. A young man from Coolidge’s entourage dragged Ted and me away from the East Room and out to the front of the building. I was convinced there would be a firing squad waiting for us on the lawn, but instead, the serious young man gave us a warm smile and turned into a pussycat.

“Miss Tucker, I just wanted to tell you that I’m a huge fan,” he gushed. “I’ll be at your show every night this week!”

“You mean you’re not hauling us to jail?” said Ted.

“Are you kidding? The only thing that prick has done right since he got elected was appoint me the head of the Bureau.”

“Which bureau, your mother’s? You look like you’re about twelve. What’s your name, sonny?” I asked.

“J. Edgar Hoover, ma’am,” he said, pumping my hand nearly off of my arm.

The future director of the F.B.I. J. Edgar Hoover

“That’s an awfully big name for such a young man. I think one name is plenty for a pipsqueak like you, Jedgar,” I joked. “Listen, I’m going to put your name on my list so you can visit me backstage this week, okay? I figure I owe it to you for not charging us with treason.”

He was overwhelmed and blubbered his thanks over and over. He took me up on my offer every night that week, though he spent most of his time backstage admiring my sequined gowns. Before we left the White House that day, I asked him to take a picture of Ted and me to prove to our friends that anyone, even two bigmouth degenerates, could get to meet the President if you had fans in the right places.

Sophie and Ted Lewis at the White House.

My royal snub is perhaps the crown jewel in my tiara of brush-offs.

I made three trips to England during the Twenties with the hope of winning over a new set of fans across the pond, but also because I thought it would be a gas to hobnob with the royals. Imagine me, the goulash waitress who used to sing for tips in a whorehouse, rubbing elbows with kings and queens? Sure enough, my first fan in the Windsor clan came to see the American everyone was talking about at one of my dates at London’s Metropole Club.

"Soph, you'll never guess who just walked in," the Boss said, nearly tripping over his feet with excitement as he charged into my dressing room. "The Duke of York!"

King George VI, whom Sophie met
when he was the Duke of York.

I’d met some bigwigs in my time, but in 1922 George, the Duke of York, was second in line to be King of England. Talk about a case of the nerves. I left my dressing room and stepped out onto the small set of stairs that led down to the stage. While trying to spot George, I tripped on the hem of my long gown and landed on my biggest asset smack in the middle of the stage.

"This is your fault, Mr. Duke of Yorkshire Pudding," I joked from the floor. "Everything was going fine until you showed up!"

Dukie and I actually went on to develop a very close friendship over the next decade. Other aristocrats were horrified that I called him “Dukie,” but fun-loving George wouldn’t have it any other way.

"Soph, you are one of the few pe-pe-people who treat me like an equal instead of the p-p-poor stuttering P-P-Prince. If you stop calling me D-D-Dukie, we will cease to be friends,” he insisted.

Before he became King, Dukie had a little more leeway to do things like disguise himself and meet me when I got off the boat at Southampton in 1931. He loved the theater. One time, I even snuck him in to watch my musical, Follow a Star, from the wings. Every once in a while I would glance over and sneak a wave and Dukie looked as happy as a pig in royal shit.

Sheet music for Follow a Star.

That first night we met, though, in 1922, George invited me to join him at his table when I was done with my act, despite my less than graceful introduction. He personally introduced me to his entire party, which included a beautiful young woman named Edwina, who was newly engaged to the prominent Lord Mountbatten. Our first meeting was nothing special. Everyone was fawning over the Duke of York and Edwina hardly said a thing. She was shy back then since she was still so new to royal life. However, she would occasionally let slip a diabolical little laugh that let on she was more interesting than she seemed.

By 1924, Edwina had been married for two years and was a full-fledged party girl who knew she could get away with murder. When I returned to England that year I played two shows a night at the posh Kit Kat Club and Edwina and her entourage were there for every performance, cheering me on. Afterward, she would kidnap me and we’d sneak off to various royal hideaway flats where the liquor flowed and little wisps of opium smoke wafted out through the keyholes. It seemed like everyone with a title had a secret den of iniquity, each more luxurious—and more outrageously sinful—than the last. Some of the things going on in those apartments could curl your eyebrows.

I was thirty-six and I thought I was indestructible, but a few weeks of cavorting around with Edwina left me with a diagnosis of severe physical exhaustion. At the end of that run I lost my voice and had a fever of 103°. I was ordered to a month of bed rest. And who was my nursemaid? Lady Edwina Mountbatten. Since she felt personally responsible for getting me sick, she visited me at my hotel suite morning, noon and night. If I was sleeping, she would just sit by me until I awoke. If I was hungry she would order soup and feed it to me. Somehow, there were never any doctor bills. Clara Barton had nothing on the Lady.

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross

As close as we were back then, it was my 1928 transatlantic trip that bonded Edwina and me forever. She still showed up every night at the Kit Kat Club, but we only spent a couple of late nights each week at someone's digs. By then I was over forty and the Lady’s ways were earning her bad publicity so we had to take our partying down just a bit. Even that didn’t spare her a weekly royal scolding for her devil-may-care ways.

Sophie, Lord Sefton, Edwina Mountbatten, and someone named Peter Murphy.

Toward the end of my trip, I got a telegram from Jack Warner finally offering me a contract to come to Hollywood to film a talkie. Jack didn’t need me for a couple of months so I was in no hurry to get home from England, but a week or two later Edwina asked if I’d consider sailing back with her to the States. It seemed the Crown was trying to rein in their resident wild child by forcing her to do a diplomatic tour of America, under the strict supervision of the royal staff. She wanted me to come along as her partner in crime, someone to help her play hooky and have a little fun every now and then.

That was easier said than done, because those Windsor handlers were attached to the Lady with everything but handcuffs. We still managed to sneak away here and there for a couple of wild pajama parties. Our favorite part of the voyage was hiding in my cabin and listening to the head of the diplomatic corps scream at his staff for losing track of Edwina. Oh, how we howled!

The press was waiting at the dock when we arrived in New York. Either of us would’ve been enough to cause a stir but this was like the Beatles at Kennedy Airport.

The Beatles press conference at JFK Airport in New York City 1964

The Lady was permitted by her handlers to pose for pictures, but under no circumstances was she supposed to speak. Thankfully, I had no such restrictions.

"How was England, Miss Tucker? How's the Queen?" shouted a reporter.

"Now boys, ‘Queen’ is so formal. You can still call me Soph," I retorted.

"What are your plans now that you’re home in New York? Are you and Lady Mountbatten going to be seeing a lot of each other?” shouted a gossip columnist.

"I should think we’ll be seeing tons of each other,” I said with a wry smile. “When the Lady gets back from Newport she’ll be staying with me in my suite at the St. Regis. We intend to paint the town red every night.”

A photographer begged to get a picture of the two of us together, and I invited him to go ahead, provided he could get through Edwina’s Beefeaters.

Before they could stop it, twenty newsmen were flashing away with their cameras. As Lady Mountbatten smiled her devilish smile she turned to whisper something in my ear.

“Sophie, when the King and Queen see this picture they’re going to shit their royal pants.”

Sophie and Edwina on the dock in 1924.
Note the royal handler’s gloved hands entering
from the left to break up this photo opportunity.

 With that, Edwina was whisked off to Rhode Island to start her diplomatic tour of the United States and her handlers did damage control by feeding quotes to the reporters denying our friendship. I knew that this snub wasn’t coming from my friend, so I decided to have a little bit of fun with it. When the papers denied that we even knew each other, I invited all of my reporter friends up to my suite at the St. Regis for a little press conference of my own.

“Sophie, are you feeling slighted by the English monarchy?” asked my pal from the Post.

“Not at all, Randy. If Lady Mountbatten had a change of plans, I’m sure it’s because something much more important came up. Besides, whenever we’re away from each other, I have this memento of our friendship to give me comfort,” I said, gesturing over to a framed photo of Edwina. She’d inscribed it To Sophie, I love you, Edwina.

A week later, I got a private note from Edwina, which I made sure didn’t make the papers:

 

Dearest Sophie,

Sorry about the bad press. I hope you believe I had nothing to do with it. Somehow I will see you on your opening night at the Palace.

Love,

Edwina

 

The night of my opening at the Palace Theater, I arranged for an aisle seat right up front in the orchestra section to be reserved for Edwina. The press had built up our “feud” to such a frenzied pitch I suspect most of the audience was there just to see if she’d show up. If the Lady turned up at my show she was a regular chum, a good egg amongst the royal chickens. If not, she was a two-faced princess who’d snubbed America’s best pal, Sophie Tucker. I knew how much Edwina and I actually meant to each other, but even I was curious to see whether or not she’d come. It wasn't easy to ditch the British monarchy. The last time someone wanted to get out from under their thumb it took the Declaration of Independence, and you know how that turned out.

I waited a few extra minutes before I nodded to Teddy Shapiro to begin my intro, but Edwina’s seat remained empty as the house lights dimmed. I took the stage and had just began waving to the balcony when the back doors of the theater flew open and, out of the light of the lobby, Edwina appeared in all of her elegant glory. The audience went cuckoo and I encouraged them into a standing ovation as Edwina took her seat in the front row.

“If this is what it feels like to be snubbed by the hoi polloi,” I said when the crowd settled down, “I hope it happens to me every night for the rest of my life!”

 

I’ve been snubbed by royalty, politicians, and most of Hollywood, but hell hath no fury like a hometown scorned. Nothing compared to my first visit home to Hartford in 1907, about a year after I ran away to New York City. By then I’d been on the circuit for about six months and my salary was up to a whopping thirty-five dollars a week. It wasn’t what I was making at the German Village, but I could still send money home to Annie for little Albert. I had promised myself I wouldn’t stop in Hartford until I was headlining at Poli’s Theater, but an engagement in Boston made me rethink that plan.

When we hit Boston, I made a point of letting my relatives know I was in town. Many of my mother's family had settled in Beantown and seeing some kin turned out to be a great remedy for a homesick twenty-year-old. Uncles and aunts and cousins galore came to my shows and, perhaps even more importantly, invited me back to their houses for the first home-cooked meals I’d had since I left Abuza’s. Because of my warm welcome, I made plans to head home to Hartford as soon as I could. I had talked myself into believing my hometown would treat me even better than Boston had.

Boy, was I wrong. From the moment I stepped onto the empty platform at the Hartford station, the message was clear. No one wanted anything to do with me. I walked half a mile to my family’s house and people I knew ignored my hellos. I’d been so singularly focused on headlining I’d forgotten that back at home, I was still considered a hussy who left her husband and child to take off for the big city. Because of my cosmopolitan clothes and makeup, even my family had trouble remembering I was still the same old Sophie.

Sure, they welcomed me when I came through the front door, but there was no mistaking the chilly wind that blew through the Abuza household. Albert was now walking and talking a little, but every time I'd reach out toward him he would go scurrying to Annie. What could I expect after he hadn’t seen me in so long? My mother looked like she had aged a hundred years. Her hunchback, the result of chopping too many onions over a low counter for decades, was worse than ever.

The one person who hadn’t changed a bit was Papa. He’d had years of practice ignoring Mama’s wrath when he lost at the poker table, so it was easy for him to make believe my mother wasn’t furious with me for leaving home. He gave me a big hug and kiss when I found him tinkering away upstairs. He needed a new doorbell after his last model failed miserably. The idea had come to him when he won his postman buddy's uniform right off his back at the poker table. Much to Mama’s dismay, he purchased a parrot and spent months wearing the uniform and training the bird to alert the whole house when he saw a mailman coming.

He parked the parrot in the window and, like clockwork, when the mailman walked up the steps toward the door, the bird went berserk screeching, “Letters, you have got! Letters, you have got!” in a thick Yiddish accent.

Just like the cowbell door system, the parrot began to drive my mother bonkers. Papa had trained the bird by feeding it, and before long it acquired the insatiable Abuza appetite and began squawking its alert every time it wanted a snack. With the bird screaming about letters every hour of the day and night, it wasn’t long before Mama suddenly developed a love for cats. Papa’s dream of training a thousand feathered mailbox alarms was swallowed alive by a stray that somehow got into the house. Bye bye, birdie.

I got the latest news about the family from Annie, who was the only person besides Papa who was warm to me on that first visit home. I could always count on her to be on my side. She also filled me in on what was happening in Hartford and I learned that things weren’t going so well at Abuza’s Family Restaurant. My brother Phil had married a quiet girl named Leah and they were expecting a baby, so he’d left the restaurant for a more stable job sorting mail at the post office. To replace him, my parents had hired (and fired) a series of lazy, thieving employees. The money I sent home every week would’ve helped the situation but Mama was keeping all of it “in the bank,” as she said, which meant it was stashed away in the toe of one of her old shoes. She was convinced that I’d need it when my show business dreams failed and I came crawling back home.

The night before I left, I sat down with Mama in her sewing room like old times. The Singer we bought her was humming as she repaired Annie’s dresses and Papa’s shirts. She didn’t say much at first, but eventually let it slip that the year I’d been gone had been hardest on Annie. She quit school to watch Albert and work full time at the restaurant. Little Albert often stayed with Leah, but when Annie had a few hours off she gladly took him back. She’d take him to the park for a walk but all of the other women with children shunned her entirely. The whole synagogue wrote off the Abuzas the minute I left for New York City. Customers who’d come to the restaurant every week for years refused to eat even a crust of bread that came out of our kitchen.

Mama finally stopped her sewing and looked me in the eye for the first time since I left home.

“It’s too late to change the past,” she said with a cold stare. “You do whatever it is you’re doing now but you better save up to give Annie a big wedding someday, you hear me? She has earned it. And you always provide for Albert, understand?”

“Yes, Mama.”

With that, she silently turned back to her sewing.

I decided to walk myself to the station the next day, quietly slipping out of the house without causing myself any more sadness. Shortly before my train was scheduled to arrive, I heard a familiar voice say my name. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

“What the hell do you want, Louis?” I asked my former husband without even glancing over at him.

“I heard you were in town and the least I could do is say hello. Thought you might be glad to see me again, spending all that time alone on the road. Seeing as how I was the only one in this town good enough to marry you, I figured you might have a few bucks of your big stage money to toss my way,” he said, sliding down the bench until he was right next to me.

“Listen, you son of a bitch,” I boomed, jumping to my feet. “I’m gonna give you five seconds to get out of my sight or you’re gonna need an ambulance, you hear me? When I told you to beat it, I meant for good.”

Louis put on one of his most evil smirks and walked away with a nasty chuckle. I hoped the back of his slick jacket and hat was the last glimpse I’d ever get of that asshole. 

That was the last straw. I could give the cold shoulder as good as I’d gotten it from my hometown. I decided Hartford wasn’t going to see me again until I’d made it as a full-fledged headliner, performing as myself. I was still stuck in the middle of the bill performing in blackface. Even if my own family and friends refused to recognize the old Sophie Tucker, the least I could do would be to make the whole damn country get to know the real me.

Extras

"There'll Be Some Changes Made" was written in 1921 with music by Benton Overstreet and lyrics by Billy Higgins. A very young Ethel Waters was the first to record it, but her version went relatively unnoticed. Sophie stumbled on it a few years later, probably in one of the Harlem jazz clubs she frequented in the mid-1920s. She recorded it in 1927 and this recording captures the full force of Tucker’s powerful voice.

In the prime of her singing career, Sophie Tucker could belt out a ballad as well as anyone in show business. Some of the torch songs Sophie would end up recording with great style were "Sophisticated Lady" by Duke Ellington, "The Man I Love" by George and Ira Gershwin and this 1929 classic called "Moaning Low" with music by Ralph Rainger and lyrics by Howard Dietz.

This is an excerpt from Carol Channing’s last one woman show, The First 80 Years Are the Toughest. She was one of the legion of young comediennes and performers inspired by Sophie Tucker’s legacy.