Last fall when making the round of local used record stores, I came across an album by Sophie Tucker. "I'm Bigger and Better Than Ever," Sophie seemed to be shouting, her 80-ish year-old face open wide on the cover. For $8, it was even autographed. Clearly Sophie was past her prime, but since albums weren't around during her vaudeville days, I gave it a shot. Shortly thereafter, the gutsy model of ahead-of-her-time-feminism became my hero. What some would no doubt call novelty or camp was music to these ears: songs like "You've Got To Be Loved To Be Healthy," "Aren't Women Wonderful," and "I'm Living Alone (And I Like It)."
My quest to learn everything led me back to 1884 when a three- month-old, Russia-born, Sophie Abuza made her debut in America. Settling in Hartford, Conn., her parents opened a small restaurant and Sophie grew up working there, occasionally singing for tips. At 16, she eloped with Louis Tuck and later gave birth to a Bert. Unfortunately, Louis never got around to getting a job. Once their money ran out, Sophie ended up back at the restaurant, supporting all three.
Working in a restaurant, however, wasn't Sophie's calling. Divorcing Louis and leaving Bert to her parents' care, she fled to New York to try her hand at entertaining. Pretty radical for an orthodox Jewish woman at the turn of the century. Her first break came in 1906, sometime after changing her surname to Tucker. She was offered a small-time theater slot on one condition: because she was so "big and ugly," she had to appear in blackface. Fairly desperate, Sophie agreed and ended up touring the vaudeville circuit as a "coon shouter." Though successful, she continually tried to ditch the blackface act. So when her costumes and makeup failed to arrive in time for a show one night, Sophie risked going on without a disguise. Fortunately, the crowd loved her.
Bigger parts opened up. After a stint with the Ziegfield Follies, Sophie began headlining her own shows. Before long, she was The Red Hot Mama. Like Mae West, her humor was aggressively sexual. But unlike Mae, Sophie was considered unattractive. Audiences laughed at Sophie rather than with her and she capitalized on it. Not surprisingly, then, she's been dismissed as playing up a stereotype - the fat old woman who foolishly fancies herself sexy.
It's true Sophie's sexuality didn't appear much of a threat; and when a doctor told her to lose weight, she refused for image's sake. But it was this unthreatening image that allowed her to take pride in, (hell, advocate!) being independent, sexually active, and over-weight (NOT ugly. Sophie went to great lengths to look and dress her very best). Her approach differed from that of most female performers, who made themselves palatable via infantalization (Fanny Brice, Juliana Hatfield), self-effacement (Marie Dressler, Juliana Hatfield) and acting stupid (Gracie Allen, Juliana Hatfield). She stood the "I'm a loser" complex on its head and, while allowing the audience to feel superior, proclaimed her fat/old/gawky self the hottest.
In "You've Got To See Mama Ev'ry Night," for example, sex-hungry Soph tells an absentee lover: "You've got to see Mama ev'ry night or you can't see Mama at all " As the typical undesirable wife/mistress, Sophie's threat is a joke. No one would want to see her. On the other hand, someone who empathizes with Sophie finds a bold statement of independence echoed throughout her repertoire: If you can't please me, get lost!
Bolder still is "Me and Myself:"
I want to take this opportunity to tell you folks That me and myself are real pals. I wake up every morning, fresh as a lark, No one around swearing about a collar button; Take my little exercise, Skip over the the mirror and say, Greetings, Sophie. The mirror smiles back and the day is started right. Then at breakfast, when there's only one piece of toast left, I don't have to grab for it. Myself sez to me: Soph, old girl, finish the toast. You must be hungry. And I say to myself: I don't mind if I do. No arguments at all.
As Sophie pointed out in her autobiography, the song was a club favorite because it wasn't read at face value; as she put it, because "an audience enjoys hearing you make fun of yourself."
Throughout Sophie's career, her fame remained centered on stage. After becoming a vaudeville legend here, she swept Europe and, upon returning from her first trip to Berlin in 1925, caused a national scandal when she landed wearing pants. ("Yes, it was Sophie Tucker and not Marlene Dietrich who introduced pants in the U.S.A. They got me into the headlines and the newsreels and were good for laughs any place.") When vaudeville started losing ground to radio and film in the late 1920s, she packed for Hollywood and made eight films. Unfortunately, her unattractiveness didn't engender her to the big screen. Her film career never took off (part of the reason she is much lesser known today than Mae West), supposedly because she couldn't act (though that didn't hurt Mae). Also, the new media were too restrictive for Soph. As she told one radio interviewer, "You can't do this, you can't do that. I couldn't even say 'hell' or 'damn,' and nothing, honey is more expressive than the way I say 'hell' or 'damn.'"
She did, by the way, marry and divorce twice more before promising in song, "There isn't going to be a fourth Mr. Ex / and I'll be darned if I'm paying anymore alimony checks / I'm living alone and I like it!" The song, "I'm Living Alone," was typical of the even brassier direction Sophie took in her later club days where she was not only pro-sex (which in itself wasn't so rare) but all-sorts-of-taboo. Sophie denounced marriage, even monogamy, but focussed not so much on men's weaknesses (again unlike Mae West, who only inverted the "men's" game, where one chases other, where one is in control) but inequality in relationships. "I'm Living Alone" is largely gender- neutral, allowing both men and women to relate to its sentiments:
I'm a one-ticket gal, free as the breeze I go where I like, I do as I please When I lock up my apartment, I've got all the keys I'm living alone and I like it. If I wanna play gin, I stay up and I play gin I come home when I want to and when I walk in There's nobody growling at me, "Where the hell have you been?" I'm living alone and I like it.
The song also refuses to buy into the gold-digging trap, a stereotype that only re-aligns itself with gender inequality:
No man buys my dresses or pays for my minks If I get a new hat trimmed with posies and trinks There's no darling husband yelling take it off it stinks I buy it, I wear it and I like it!
Though Sophie never actually said, "my sexuality was going to be packaged for me so I did it myself," this is exactly what she did. Nearly 50 years before Madonna or Liz Phair opted to create their own sexuality, Sophie used her "un-sexuality" to challenge gender norms. These women broke into the mainstream by accommodating mass views (Liz spread-eagle in the not-quite-centerfold pages of Option, Madonna as "boy toy,"* Sophie playing up her undesirability). Though such an approach limits the potency of any subversive message, it's arguably necessary to reach beyond the already converted. What's interesting is how Sophie's turn-of-the-century, did-it-herself image is eerily relevant today; like politically shy performers of the 90s (men as well as women) Sophie made her case through irony.
Go to Stay Free! #6 Table of Contents.