Queen of Vaudeville

Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay

ANDREW L. ERDMAN
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.cttq43rs
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  • Book Info
    Queen of Vaudeville
    Book Description:

    In her day, Eva Tanguay (1879-1947) was one of the most famous women in America. Widely known as the "I Don't Care Girl"-named after a song she popularized and her independent, even brazen persona-Tanguay established herself as a vaudeville and musical comedy star in 1904 with the New York City premiere of the show My Lady-and never looked back. Tanguay was, at the height of a long career that stretched until the early 1930s, a trend-setting performer who embodied the emerging ideal of the bold and sexual female entertainer. Whether suggestively singing songs with titles like "It's All Been Done Before But Not the Way I Do It" and "Go As Far As You Like" or wearing a daring dress made of pennies, she was a precursor to subsequent generations of performers, from Mae West to Madonna and Lady Gaga, who have been both idolized and condemned for simultaneously displaying and playing with blatant displays of female sexuality.

    In Queen of Vaudeville, Andrew L. Erdman tells Eva Tanguay's remarkable life story with verve. Born into the family of a country doctor in rural Quebec and raised in a New England mill town, Tanguay found a home on the vaudeville stage. Erdman follows the course of her life as she amasses fame and wealth, marries (and divorces) twice, engages in affairs closely followed in the press, declares herself a Christian Scientist, becomes one of the first celebrities to get plastic surgery, loses her fortune following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and receives her last notice, an obituary in Variety. The arc of Tanguay's career follows the history of American popular culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Tanguay's appeal, so dependent on her physical presence and personal charisma, did not come across in the new media of radio and motion pictures. With nineteen rare or previously unpublished images, Queen of Vaudeville is a dynamic portrait of a dazzling and unjustly forgotten show business star.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6572-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Most Famous Performer in America
    (pp. 1-20)

    IN 1905, Eva Tanguay was appearing at a vaudeville theater in the small city of Vincennes, Indiana. She played before a “fashionable” crowd, according to a journalist who was there, trotting out songs from her recent hit Broadway musical, The Sambo Girl. Vincennes, a municipality of some 10,250 souls, lay on the banks of the Wabash River by the Illinois border. It had a proud history stretching back to the eighteenth century when it was a fur trading post and fort in the French Louisiana Territory. The French-Canadian nobleman for whom the city was named was unfortunately burned at the...

  5. 1 Freak Baby and the Paper City
    (pp. 21-46)

    EVA TANGUAY once claimed that her father was a Parisian doctor who had set out for the New World from the Old, conquering the rigors of frontier life and thereby reinventing himself. But like other assertions she made, this one appears largely false. She may have fabricated such a tale about her father in part to distance herself psychologically from him. Or she may have been employing a tactic popular with other actresses of the day, who revised their true backstories to make themselves appear more interesting. Adah Isaacs Menken long claimed that her father had been a Jewish merchant...

  6. 2 The Sambo Girl in New York
    (pp. 47-65)

    IN 1901, Eva got the chance to move up the professional ladder from notable itinerant performer to praiseworthy supporting player when she was cast in a Broadway show called My Lady. Although billed as a musical comedy, My Lady in fact fell somewhere in between loosely cobbled vaudeville fare, relying heavily on recognizable personalities doing their signature specialties, and a scripted musical revue. The “musical comedy” of our era, based on a clear, cause-and-effect narrative, had not yet risen to popularity. Back then, the form was a tasty yet inelegant stew of blackface minstrel show (which was itself made up...

  7. 3 I Don’t Care
    (pp. 66-87)

    EVA RODE out the remainder of The Office Boy, touring and taking her salary while learning what she could from the masterful Frank Daniels. But she yearned for more. The Chaperons had shown her a first twinkling of stardom and she liked it. Though catchy songs and hit musicals had a breathtakingly short shelf life in the days before recording technology, somehow her edgy “Sambo” number was still popular. Noting this fact, some canny backers decided to build a spin-off production around the song and its quirky chanteuse. But they had to act fast, lest “Sambo” die and its corpse...

  8. 4 The Cyclonic Comedienne; or, Genius Properly Advertised
    (pp. 88-105)

    EVA FINISHED out her 1905–1906 Keith obligations and now found herself in a new sphere of budding stardom. She had become an established name in vaudeville, an intrinsic part of the genre, each shaping the other’s style and popularity. Everything about Eva’s career, from her paychecks to her increasingly lavish tastes to her first scandalous romance, indicated that she was a bona fide celebrity. With the transition to vaudeville, Eva also learned to marshal the apparatus of publicity and image making to heighten her appeal in the marketplace. More and more, she became an individual worthy of fascination. She...

  9. 5 Riding Salome to the Top
    (pp. 106-120)

    WITH HER star rising in 1908, Eva could have simply maintained the act she had perfected, a combination of lively topical songs based around “I Don’t Care,” combined with some jokes and pitches to the audience. She had achieved in less than two years what thousands of other vaudevillians longed for in vain: a mass following and a schedule of appearances as full as her body could stand. But for Eva, standing still was not an option. She had recuperated from her breakdown, which now seemed a thing of the past, never to return. Now she focused on her next...

  10. 6 Rivals, Imitators, and Censors
    (pp. 121-134)

    AS HER FAME GREW in the wake of Salome, Eva struggled to maintain her personal and professional equilibrium. She would face this challenge throughout her career: trying to push herself to the limit—physically and emotionally—without flaming out and crashing. But balance was never Eva Tanguay’s strong suit. Her will, determination, and talent at pleasing audiences and promoting herself had paid off handsomely with Salome. At the edges, however, she was beginning to fray. She increasingly saw the world around her as a battleground full of rivals and opponents. To be sure, there were dozens if not hundreds of...

  11. 7 Follies and Fortunes
    (pp. 135-153)

    BY THE FALL OF 1909, Eva may have imagined the world around her swirling with threats and rivals. But the truth was quite different. She inhabited a lofty sphere of success and celebrity enjoyed by few others. As far as vaudeville was concerned, she commanded a following, a salary, and a degree of artistic freedom hitherto unknown. As the first decade of the twentieth century wound down, Eva Tanguay was not so much a player in vaudeville as she was the definition of it. If she could hold herself together—physically, emotionally, professionally—there was no limit to what she...

  12. 8 Men and Other Travails
    (pp. 154-173)

    NOT LONG AFTER ALEXANDER P. MOORE’S marriage proposal, Eva was in New York playing a Keith house. She fired off her usual salvo of songs, including “I Don’t Care,” and dressed herself in outrageous costumes, one fashioned to look like tree branches, another resembling a chandelier. Romance, she would later claim, was the furthest thing from her mind. The truth was a bit more complex. As her success grew, so too did Eva’s appetite for sexual companionship—along with her deep-seated aversion to being part of anything like a traditional male-female couple. With notoriety came the opportunity to be seen...

  13. 9 Mrs. John Ford
    (pp. 174-193)

    AMID THE COMEDIANS, musicians, and chorus girls of the rambling Eva Tanguay Vaudeville Company—not to mention its eponymous star—was an entertainer named John W. Ford (no relation to the famous film director of westerns such as Stagecoach and Rio Grande). Neither in Eva’s company nor in his vaudeville career up to then had John Ford distinguished himself as headliner material. But he was resourceful enough to know what might please a crowd along the way. Perhaps more important, he understood how to hitch his star to someone else’s when the opportunity presented itself, and, just as important, when...

  14. 10 The Wild Girl
    (pp. 194-205)

    AS HER MARRIAGE skidded to an official end, Eva breathed a sigh of relief. She was finally rid of the abusive drunk who was reliable only when it came to hitting her up for cash. To be sure, she had fallen into the mess of her own accord, even though she had never much fancied the idea of a mate for life, never mind one like Johnny Ford. The whole thing left her drained, financially and spiritually. Somehow, a marriage she had never wanted to be in held her captive for five years, from ambivalent vows to messy divorce. During...

  15. 11 Knockdowns and Comebacks . . . and Knockdowns
    (pp. 206-229)

    THOUGH SHE did not make the transition from vaudeville stage to movies, Eva could not help but feel the westward drift of U.S. entertainment. The nation was enjoying unprecedented prosperity, and the fledgling Hollywood studios were doing their best to meet heightened demand. Between 1922 and 1928, U.S. industrial production swelled by 70 percent, the gross national product went up 40 percent, and per-capita income rose 30 percent, while corporate profits and real earnings for wage laborers shot up 62 percent and 22 percent, respectively, during approximately the same period. The nation’s workers also had more leisure time, as the...

  16. 12 Death and Other Endings
    (pp. 230-243)

    THE 1920S had not been good to Eva Tanguay. She had dabbled in plastic surgery and Christian Science, chosen yet another toxic, money-draining mate, and fumbled powerlessly over both a body and an entertainment format whose best years had come and gone. By contrast, the United States, her adoptive country, rode high until it famously hit the skids, and hard. After nearly a decade of unfettered economic growth, the U.S. stock market, as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, peaked at 381.17 on Tuesday, September 3, 1929. Then it started to slide. On what would become known as Black...

  17. Epilogue: George Jessel and Darryl Zanuck Don’t Care
    (pp. 244-260)

    EVA’S DEATH IN 1947 caused many nostalgic journalists and entertainment-industry watchers to declare, predictably, that along with the cyclonic one’s passing, an era had died. Vaudeville could now finally be laid to rest. The golden yesteryear of B. F. Keith, Trixie Friganza, Salome dancing, and the myriad marvels of two-a-day lore were now surely ready to retire for good into the pages of scrapbooks and the recesses of popular memory.

    The need to relegate a commercial art form to the quaintness of the past, however, usually says more about those doing the relegating than it does the object of their...

  18. Eva Tanguay Chronology
    (pp. 261-264)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 265-292)
  20. Sources and Select Bibliography
    (pp. 293-302)
  21. Index
    (pp. 303-310)