As a kid, I always threw a fit whenever I was asked to wash dishes at the family restaurant, so it serves me right that as an adult the only place where I can think straight is in front of a sink. I’m nearly seventy-nine and fading fast, so I’m mostly stuck in a wheelchair these days, but at night when I can’t sleep I still wheel myself over to the sink and scrub a few glasses until they sparkle. Writing down all these stories has kept me up more than a few nights. To ease my nerves, I’ve even taken clean plates out of the cabinet and washed them again just for the calming ritual of suds, rinse, and dry.
Of everything I’ve done, the little lies here and there, leaving my family behind, constantly touring for most of my life, I only have three real regrets. Their names are Al Lackey, Frank Westphal, and Louis Tuck. If I had one of those H.G. Wells time machines, I’d run from the altar so fast the newspapers would report a small buffalo stampede. Otherwise, by and large, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t change any of my other of decisions.
Especially when it came to Tuck, who just couldn’t seem to resist being a pain in my ass.
Sophie, communing with dishes.
The most important batch of dishes I ever washed were in Mama and Papa’s kitchen sink back on October 26, 1913, during my biggest return to Hartford. It had been seven years since I’d left home, and that particular night was so gut-wrenching it required an extra-large stack of shmutz-filled dishes to calm my frayed nerves. I’d just made the most important decision of my life—bigger than leaving home, or ditching Frank to head out West, or pushing Albee’s buttons—and, though I know I was right, I haven’t told a soul what I did until now. I think about it to this day while I’m standing at the sink.
I survived my little spat with Albee and he did in fact book me on a national tour of the entire Keith chain. Better yet, at my request, I got to start at the Keith’s newest acquisition: Poli’s Theater in Hartford Connecticut. When it was confirmed, I once again enlisted my old pal John Sudarsky. John was climbing the ranks at the Hartford Courant and he promised that there would be front page articles about yours truly every day leading up to my arrival at the train station. John suggested that he also hang a banner from every streetlight saying “I Told You So!” but I vetoed that idea. I was pretty sure I’d make that point with the parade he’d organized, which would lead me from the train station, up Main Street, and to the theater.
Now, I've had a lot of spectacular welcomes in my time. When I agreed to be one of the first headliners to play gangster Bugsy Siegel’s brand new Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, he arranged for fifty fire trucks to line the route to his casino, each spraying an arc of water over my limousine as it drove down the strip. Talk about extravagance! It was better than being in an Esther Williams movie.
There we were in the middle of the Nevada desert, where water was more precious than gold, and Siegel was spritzing the streets just to impress me and the people of Vegas. They say the Syndicate bumped him off for his out of control spending. I just hope that my personal Niagara Falls wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back—or Bugsy’s neck.
Even with welcomes like that, nothing ever beat my parade in Hartford. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I pulled into the station. There must have been over five hundred people waiting for me and waving signs. A band was playing "For She's A Jolly Good Fellow" and everywhere I looked I found a banner blazing a message of love. “Welcome Home Soph!” “Brown School Loves You!” “I Got a Pucker for Tucker!” And perhaps the most ridiculous of all, You Were a Sure Thing!
"Sure thing, my ass," I said under my breath. As sure as seven years of clawing, scratching, starving and making my own lucky breaks.
I spotted a grinning John Sudarsky on the train platform and gave him a big hug and kiss. He’d arranged the articles and the parade, but the crowd and the banners came from real, true fans. He had nothing to do with that part. I made my way through hundreds of handshakes and back slaps to a big car which took me downtown to a hastily built stage that could easily double as a gallows if the crowd didn’t like my act. My family, a dozen or so town notables, and the mayor himself were seated on the big platform.
"Mama looks thrilled," I whispered into Annie's ear as I hugged her hello. My mother was either irritated down to the tips of her sensible black shoes by such a silly display, or she had a serious case of constipation. Little Bert, now eight, was busy greeting the crowd with his peashooter. At least Papa and my brothers were all smiles, and even mousy little Leah threw her arms around me when I greeted her. I’m sure she was happy just to be included.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are here on this beautiful October day to welcome home one of the biggest headliners in all of Vaudeville, Hartford's own, Sophie Abuza Tucker!” announced the mayor. “Most of you know Sophie started her career right over there in Riverside Park. She went on to become Hartford’s most famous—and only—singing waitress.”
“The chopped liver’s on me tonight, folks!” I yelled.
“And now after seven years of hard work and playing the brand new Palace Theater in New York City, Sophie Tucker returns to where her dream began, Poli's Theater. Soph, on behalf of Hartford, I want to welcome you home and present you with this golden key to the city."
"I only have one question Mr. Mayor,” I said, when the applause died down. “Does this key open the front door to the Chipanic’s ice cream parlor?"
“There’s more, Sophie,” chuckled the mayor.
"What? It opens Mrs. Landi's bakery too?" I said, grabbing my chest as though I was having a heart attack.
"We’ll get you as many doughnuts as you like, Sophie, but in honor of your return, you can eat them in your complimentary Presidential Suite at the Hartford Hotel."
This was my cue to crank up the old Sophie Tucker charm. John and I had worked out this little routine before I arrived to make sure the crowds knew I was still the same old Sophie that used to clear their tables and sing for their pocket change.
"Thank you very much, Your Honor. And thanks to my friends, family, and all the rest of you for this unbelievably warm welcome home. I will never forget it as long as I live. I hope I'll be seeing all of you again this coming week at Poli's. I can promise you this. If you come, you also will have an experience you will never forget as long as you live.
I would also like to thank the management of The Hartford Hotel for their generous offer of their Presidential Suite. Unfortunately, I must graciously decline. After seven years on the road, my greatest wish is to go home and eat my mama's cooking. What could be better than that?"
The crowd burst into applause. Luckily, they didn’t notice a patented Jennie Abuza eye-roll that would go down in the record books.
"But Mr. Mayor,” I continued, “can you do me a favor? Please tell the manager at the hotel to hold my room just in case? If my mother asks me to peel any potatoes, I'm a-comin’!"
As the crowd burst into one final round of applause and John hopped down off the stage to pull his car around, I noticed a lone man standing across the street, away from the crowd. He was wearing a white shirt, white pants, and even a pair of gleaming white shoes. The guy was impossible to ignore, especially because he was waving both arms trying to get my attention. He took off his white hat and smiled. I couldn't make out his face, but that shit-eating grin could only belong to my biggest mistake, Louis Tuck.
Here we go again, I thought.
As soon as we were safe inside the two-year-old Barker Street house, everyone flopped down on the new sofas and chairs. Mama had finally begun to tap into the money I’d been sending home all those years and was warming to the idea of my success. At last, she’d begun to believe I wouldn’t be crawling back home any time soon to wait tables.
With no restaurant to worry about, my mother’s pace had slowed to a crawl. Annie had used a few of my more recent money orders (fat from my new Albee salary) to buy my mother a whole new wardrobe—entirely black, of course. This meant Mama had nothing to mend at night on her Singer. And, since Mama was only cooking for three, she was at the stove a mere hour per day, even if she still insisted on making everything by hand.
While all the leisure time gave Mama schpilkas, Papa relished his retirement. No more hours standing at the register or squabbling over the price of onions. With Bert living at his military academy for most of the year, Papa had all the time in the world to nap, and read, and play cards with the extra money that I slyly sent him on the side. The only thing he wanted from me was my Keith contract, so he could have it framed and hang it on the living room wall. To him, it was more impressive than a Harvard diploma.
I arranged for Molly and Frank to stay in a small hotel close to Poli's, explaining that Jennie Abuza had a heart of gold and a poison tongue. To Mama, either you were Jewish or you were out of the club. I could only imagine the bigoted Yiddish slang my Mama would let loose if I brought Molly, a black woman, to her house for dinner. There was no way I would subject my best friend to treatment like that. Mama’s mouth was also a good excuse to get rid of Frank for a few days. I still hadn’t gotten around to dumping him and he was still angry that he was making a measly $150 per week.
"Don't worry,” I assured him as I gave him his weekly allowance. “It's like you’re getting a raise. The liquor is cheaper outside New York City."
“Why didn’t you just drop me off at the Hartford dog pound, Soph,” he said, looking around his small hotel room.
“What happened to the lovable fella I met in Chicago?” I asked, throwing up my hands. “We used to have so much fun.”
"You threw him out like the trash! No, come to think of it, your garbage has it better. You have to take it out once in a while,” he said, slamming the door.
This couldn't go on much longer. I was on the verge of calling it quits with Westphal, at least for a while, because I understood his problem. My boyfriend really did have some talent. When we met he already had an act that could make him a nice living as a second banana in Vaudeville or burlesque. But he would never be a headliner. He just didn't have the magic. Even if we could get spots on the same bill, because of our huge salary difference there was no chance we’d live happily ever after. Most importantly, I was hard at work even in my dreams. Frank, on the other hand, dreamed solely about whiskey. We were doomed.
When I got to Poli's Monday morning, for old times’ sake I walked down the same alley where I used to hand out flyers for our restaurant. The same old stage door was still open a crack. I took a big breath and opened it to find, to my surprise, the entire stage crew and cast of that week's bill was there to welcome me. As if that wasn’t enough to make me blubber like a baby, the group parted to reveal the Howard Brothers. I was never so happy to see those two nudniks in my life.
"Flatbush was booked this week," said Eugene.
"So we got stuck coming here," finished Willie.
"Well, their loss is my gain. Just what I need – more dead weight.” I joked.
"Is that how you explain those extra pounds?" asked Willie.
"Be nice to the girl. She's a headliner," said Eugene.
"You mean she can get us run out of the business now?" gasped Willie.
"Maybe, but you're doing a nice job of that all by yourself," laughed Eugene.
The Howard brothers had rearranged their whole schedule to join me in Hartford for the week, though they nearly turned around and headed back to the Midwest Circuit when they heard that Abuza’s Family Restaurant had closed.
“Is it true?” Willie asked. I nodded, and he faked a swoon.
“Bite your tongue!” shouted Eugene.
“That’s the only tongue you’re gonna bite around here,” said Willie from the floor.
“Have no fear. Mama Abuza always cooks for the Howard Brothers!” I said, picking him back up. “She’s so bored without the restaurant, she’d probably fill your luggage with kasha varnishkes if you asked.”
Willie sprang up from the ground and gave me a big hug.
I took a quick detour through the lobby before I went to my dressing room. It looked exactly the same as I remembered, when I used to stand there as a kid and dream of this very day. The only difference was an easel smack in the middle of the room, holding one of the biggest, gaudiest gold frames I had ever seen. Papa had pulled a fast one on me when he asked for my contract. It would be impossible for anyone entering the theater not to see how much I was making.
I knew this week was going to be perfect.
Promotions for Sophie’s appearance at Poli’s.
Unsurprisingly, all my shows at Poli’s got a huge response. As always, my entrances and costumes were unique to each performance, but more importantly, everything was polished from the very first note until the curtain fell. At the last second I decided to revive my old rose number so I could perform with Molly. Just like the old days, she came out from the wings and pinned the flower (and her sleeve) to me, exactly like she did four years earlier so we could do our synchronized routine. My heart swelled knowing my old friends and family were enjoying my new life, and new friends.
My favorite audience of the week didn’t show up until Thursday night, when my mother's synagogue sisterhood took up the first eight rows of the orchestra section. When I got going with some of my loudest songs, those altacockers stuck their fingers in their ears and screwed their faces up in pain like I was torturing them.
"You're telling me these people pay you $1,500 a week to stand up there for forty-five minutes and scream at the top of your lungs?" clucked Mrs. Frankel when the ladies visited me backstage after the show. "Are you sure this Mr. Albee knows you’re hurting people's ear drums? If this ringing in my head doesn’t stop, he’ll be hearing from my son, the lawyer."
"Oh, why don’t you just go see Mrs. Goldberg’s eldest?” shot back Mama. “You know, her son, the psychiatrist.”
A review of Sophie’s show in the Hartford Courant.
My last shows on Sunday were sure to be a headache, with Molly and me packing up between the matinee and the evening performance in order to make the late train to Boston for my next engagement. That meant that my last chance for one more of Mama’s meals was between my Saturday shows. I put away bowls of her goulash like I was a squirrel hiding it for winter.
"Mama, why don't you come with me on tour?” I said, ladling more on my plate.
"What would I do? Be a dance tapper?"
"I think Mama would do better with soft shoe," added Annie.
"What's this soft shoe?" asked my mother.
"There's no clickity-clicks in soft shoes," explained my father. "You just dance soft. Let me show you." Papa got up, grabbed Mama and did a waltz around the table that would rival Fred and Ginger.
"I’ll stick to tapping-dancing," deadpanned Mama as Papa returned her to her chair. "And only as a solo act."
Jennie Abuza, circa 1913.
I went straight to my dressing room from my parents’ house and was surprised to find Frank, not Molly, sitting in one of my chairs. He had been writing something on a piece of paper but when he saw me, he crumpled it up and tossed it in the garbage. That’s when I noticed his suitcase was next to him.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I was writing you a note,” he explained. “I was hoping I’d be gone before you got here. I’m heading to St. Louis. I can’t sit around forever playing second fiddle. Or, second piano, I guess,” he chuckled.
“But I don’t want you to go!” I said, surprising even myself with the truth of that statement. I didn’t want him to leave. He may have been a complainer and a boozehound and a magnet for trouble, but deep down I still loved him. He was my mistake.
“Listen Soph, it’s time we stopped kidding ourselves. The way we’re going, if we spend five more minutes together we’re going to ruin any chance for a happy future.”
“You really think we have a future?” I whimpered.
“No doubt about it," said Frank, "I’ve got a surefire plan. I have a lot of great new bits I'm going to polish. I’m going to be bigger than Eddie Cantor, you hear me? Then, after I become a headliner at the Palace, we'll get back together and tour the world. How does that sound?"
"Great," I blubbered.
"I’m not kidding, Soph. The partnership of Westphal and Tucker is to be continued. You can count on it for life. I’m going to go now.”
I grabbed him and held him tight.
“But before I go, I only have one more question," said Westphal. “Will you marry me?”
“Write and ask me tomorrow,” I looked up and smiled. “Who knows?”
And with that, Frank was gone. When I look back at that biography they churned out in the Forties, I know that it’s mostly filled with bunk and a whole lot of sloppy sentiment. But there was one thing they managed to get right:
“Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own bills, running your own show, you've done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call 'a pal' and 'a good sport,' the kind of woman they tell their troubles to. But you've cut yourself off from the orchids and the diamond bracelets, except those you buy yourself.”
Frank was the closest I came in my life to real romance, but he kept a few mistresses besides me—his career, his resentment of my success, and booze, to name a few.
I’d like to believe that things are changing for women, that I’ve made it a little bit easier for a big lady with a bigger paycheck and an enormous mouth to have a little bit of love in her life. But the truth is, I just don’t know. Men can be real schmucks when it comes to matters of the heart.
Sophie and Frank (standing).
Molly joined me in the dressing room a few minutes later and when she figured out what had happened insisted we take a walk to calm me down. Mostly we just ambled along in silence. Words weren't really necessary. Molly knew me better than I knew myself. I showed her Riverside Park and the little stage where it all started. Then we sat on the bench where Annie and I used to sell Coca-Cola. Molly tried to assure me that Mr. Right would be coming soon, and I told her she was probably right. He might have been on his way right that very moment. The problem was, by the time he got there, I’d be in Boston.
Molly dropped me back off at the theater and left to take care of an “errand,” which is what she called placing a bet with my old pal Tommy T-bone. She had a hot tip for the sixth race at Belmont. No matter where we were, Molly had an uncanny knack for finding the local bookie before she even found the hotel.
Sophie and Molly Elkins, center.
The show had already started by the time I got back to my dressing room, but that meant I still had a good ninety minutes to collect myself and get ready to take the stage. I took off my coat and hung it in the closet, then sat down at my makeup table to clean the mess I’d made of my face with all my tears.
"Hiya Soph," came a voice from behind me that startled me so badly, I drew my lipstick sheer across my cheek. I whirled around and sure enough, sitting in the back of the room was a man in white pants and white shoes, holding a newspaper that covered his face. I grabbed a towel, wiped the lipstick off my face, and pitched it straight through his paper.
"I thought we had an understanding,” I hissed.
“No Hello Tuck? You’re looking good, Tuck?”
“How about What the fuck are you doing here Tuck?” I spit back.
“I just wanted to come by and congratulate you on your big success, Soph,” oozed Louis. His charm was so oily I’m surprised his fingers didn’t turn his newspaper see-through.
“You’ve got one second to get out of here, you son of a bitch!" I screamed, picking up a jar of cold cream and aiming it at his melon.
“Calm down, I was just leaving. But, before I go, I was thinking maybe you could spot me a few bucks for old time’s sake.”
“Why would I give your sorry ass another penny?”
“I thought you might change your mind after I showed you this,” he said, producing a folded piece of paper from his pocket. He started to pass it to me and I snatched it out of his hand.
Instantly, I recognized Albert’s birth certificate.
That single piece of paper held two dark secrets, only one of which Mama and I had been in on all these years. The first was that the birth record listed Bert’s mother as Annie Abuza, age thirteen. That much we had known, and that much I had been willing to keep hidden. I’ll never forget the day when Annie came home sobbing from school, so wracked with tears that Mama and I could hardly understand her when she told us she was pregnant.
We never asked who knocked her up. Instead, over the next nine months, Annie’s friends thought she was only gaining weight, while I stuffed my dress with pillows pretending with all my heart that I was pregnant. It was my first real acting job and I nailed it. To this day, I’ve never lied when I said Annie kept me company in the hospital room on the day of Albert’s birth. I just never told anyone that it was Annie doing the pushing.
“So all this time you knew Bert wasn’t ours?” I whispered to Tuck, slamming shut the door to my dressing room.
“How should it be?” he smiled. “You cut me off a year before he was born.”
“Wait a minute. How did you manage to get this from the hospital?”
“You missed something, Soph. Read it again,” he said, as cool as a cucumber.
I stared down at the paper and finally realized what he was hinting at. It didn’t just say Albert Tuck, it said Father: Louis Tuck. I looked up. Louis was smiling a grin so big I thought his cheeks might bleed.
“Annie never told you, did she? Guess she didn’t like to kiss and tell,” he said with a smirk.
With all of the willpower I could muster, I icily asked Tuck how much he wanted to keep his mouth shut and get lost, this time forever. The sleaze promised he’d keep mum for ten thousand dollars, and as a final insult he demanded I deliver the cash to him that evening in my empty Presidential Suite at the Hartford Hotel. I knew I could take the money from the stash at my mother’s house and wire it back in a couple of weeks, so I agreed. What else could I do?
“As long as you have the room, maybe we’ll have a go at it for old time’s sake,” he suggested.
I shoved him violently out the door just in time for him to pass Annie, Mama, Papa, and Bert coming down the hall to wish me luck on my performance. Tuck didn’t even look at them. He was probably daydreaming about how he’d blow my money. I asked Papa to take Bert to his seat and pulled Mama and Annie into my dressing room and closed the door.
“What did he want?” whispered Annie, white as a ghost.
Bert, age eight, 1913.
Annie began to shake and I fought back my own tears.
“All these years,” I managed to choke out, “I thought it was some boy from school! But it was my husband? I know that scum is handsome, but still, how could you? You’re my sister!” I cried.
Mama looked confused until Annie nodded her head, shamefully. They both went to the sofa and sat down. Mama was stiff and angry, and Annie was slumped over the arm, sobbing into her sleeve.
“I had no choice,” she whispered in a strangled, hiccupping voice. “That night I was alone with Louis—when you gave me that fancy leftover steak—he—he forced me. After you were gone—he took the steak knife out of the drawer, put it to my throat and raped me.”
The power of Annie’s revelation nearly knocked me to my knees.
“That fucking bastard!” I exploded. Mama was so red I thought she might burst. I’d never seen her so angry.
“No matter who the father was, I won’t go on lying!” sobbed Annie. “For eight years I’ve had to listen to everyone say what a horrible wife and mother you were, abandoning your family. And all for what? Because I was so stupid. I should never have stayed alone with Tuck in the first place! I’m sorry, Soph, I’m so sorry.”
I ran over to Annie and swooped her up into a big hug.
"Go ahead, kid," I said. "Cry for the last time and then forget it. There’s nothing for you to be sorry about. It wasn’t your fault. Listen, I’m going to fix this. The day you were born, Mama told me you were the only baby sister I would ever have and it was my job to take care of you. That’s what I did, and that’s what I’m always gonna do. Someday you’re going to find your Prince Charming and get married and live happily ever after. This secret will never leave this room. It’ll go to our graves, okay?”
"But what about Tuck?" she sputtered.
"Him?" I laughed. “As long as they keep printing two dollar bills, I can keep him quiet. Now go find Papa and the kid and get ready for my act."
Annie gave me one last hug and left me with my mother.
Mama got up slowly from the couch, smoothed out her dress, and cleaned off her little round spectacles. She walked toward the door and, just before she left, turned around and stared directly into my eyes.
“Break more than a leg, Sonya. Do you understand me?” she said coldly, and left.
Sophie and her mother.
I barely remember doing the show that night, and soon I found myself backstage with Molly, once again getting out of my costume and wiping off my makeup. My pal hadn’t noticed how preoccupied I was because her hot tip on the horse had paid off big and T-bone was on the way to deliver her winnings. I futzed around, packing up whatever I would need for one more night at my parent’s house, until T-bone arrived.
"Well if it isn't my favorite star and her lucky assistant,” crowed Tommy as he walked into the dressing room and handed Molly a wad of cash. She giggled with delight and gave us both a big hug.
“Let’s go to Charlie’s! I’m buying,” Molly offered.
“You go ahead. I want to catch up with my old friend for a few minutes,” I smiled. As soon as I heard Molly’s footsteps skip joyfully to the end of the hall, I closed the door. T-bone and I caught up with all the local gossip for a bit, until finally I had the guts to bring up what was really on my mind.
"Hey, Tommy. Do you remember that old favor you owe me?”
"Name it,” he said, his eyes narrowing to icy little slits.
Like I said, the most important pots I ever scrubbed were the ones I cleaned when I got home from the theater that night. I was so on edge I filled the sink with suds and washed every plate, bowl, and serving platter I could find. Still uneasy, I took Mama’s delicate good china down from the sideboard and washed that too. By the time I’d dried and replaced the last saucer, I knew T-bone had completed the favor I’d asked. I doubt he had nearly as much trouble sleeping that night, or any other, as I still do to this day. That’s why I find myself washing plates almost every night since, wondering where T-bone dumped the body of Louis Tuck and whether it would ever come back to haunt me.
Maybe I’ll stop worrying about it some of these days. Until then, pass the dish soap.
Jennie, Sophie, and Annie Abuza.
What better exit music than this wonderful version of Some Of These Days recorded during World War II in 1943?