If the United States is characterized as the land of dreams, those dreams belong to the countless waves of immigrants that have come to populate its shores, as well as the dreams of those brought to that country in bondage. Early European settlers dreamt of religious freedom; the founders of the United States dreamt of autonomy and self-governance. Some immigrants dreamt of an escape from prejudice, others an escape from authoritarian governments, others still an escape from poverty. Perhaps the history of the United States could be profitably narrated by detailing the aspirations—fulfilled and denied, dreams realized and dreams deferred—of these seekers, not forgetting, unfortunately, that one must also document the ways in which earlier waves of immigrants sometimes (all-too-often) sought to derail the dreams of later waves, immigrants that they found objectionable for religious or cultural reasons, or simply because they had come late to the table.
These dreams were siphoned by necessity or opportunity (in short, by what we often blithely term destiny) into specific channels. In the case of the wave of Jewish immigrants from eastern European countries, those dreams often manifested in the realm of entertainment. While Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century found it difficult to penetrate the establishment’s hold on Ivy League education, country clubs, and the more prominent business firms, the often casual and sometimes open anti-Semitism of US society proved less of a barrier in the entertainment world. Composers such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, singers such as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, and producers such as the Shubert brothers in theater and the Warner brothers in film came to play a prominent (if not dominant) role in the field.
These figures generally strategically downplayed but did not deny their Jewish heritage and they served as a somewhat paradoxical symbol of success within the immigrant community—being an entertainer was considered a lowly occupation, unless you were (as these men were) a resounding success. In the midst of this aspirational set, determined to be a success in her own right, stands the brassy and redoubtable Sophie Tucker, herself exuding a paradoxical combination of frank sexuality (bolstered by her moniker as the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”), the comforting allure of nostalgia (as evidenced by the “Last” within that moniker), and the warm promise of familial bliss (as embodied in one of her most celebrated vehicles, “My Yiddishe Momme”). In her new book, Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker, historian Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff attempts to re-present the ambitious singer and entertainer to a world that has largely forgotten her. Sklaroff’s strategy here is to designate Tucker as presciently involved in many of the same concerns that occupy women and feminism today. Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that largely fails.
Sklaroff posits Tucker as a stark feminist, despite the fact that Tucker avoided being associated with the women’s movement (“I am no suffragette,” she declared), and repeatedly asserts that we must be cognizant of Tucker’s career because of the utter pervasiveness of her impact on later generations of female performers. One can always and endlessly trace genealogies of influence. Q influenced R, who in turn influenced S, all the way down to Z (the historian’s equivalent to “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”). Thus, Sklaroff holds that even if they never heard of Tucker, figures such as Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift owe a portion of their performative style and popular reception to the inroads made and personality developed by Sophie Tucker. I’m not convinced such exercises are all that useful, revealing, or persuasive. The fact remains that outside of scholarly interest and the occasional historical exhibition or minor documentary, Tucker remains a largely neglected persona belonging to an age that, for most, persists only in the form of the soap-opera-esque entertainment found in a series such as Boardwalk Empire (where Tucker occasionally crops up as played by Kathy Brier). By trying so hard to make Tucker relevant, Sklaroff is forced to erase the contextual differences that made Tucker’s brand of feminism (if that indeed is what she was proffering) an operative force in the early twentieth century. Our access to the rich textures of her approach to the politics of femininity is foreclosed if all we are told is that it is strikingly similar to the modern feminism (itself no monolith) with which we are more familiar.
Red Hot Mama dutifully marches the reader through Tucker’s chronology. Sklaroff chronicles the events of her life—her vexed relationship with her family, the landmark moments of her career, the halcyon days of the beginnings of her marriages and the miserable nights of their demise—with what I can only imagine is the relatively limited exactitude allowed by the surviving documentation and resources. In general, the details are rather sparse, but in the account of Tucker’s tenure as president of the American Federation of Actors and her embattled efforts to clear a colleague of charges of fraud, they threaten to obfuscate the overarching picture. Sklaroff’s narrative here gets mired in a welter of data assembled without much in the way of clarity. For the majority of the book, however, a reader is provided with a working overview of Tucker’s life. The problem is that it’s dreadfully dull—not the life, of course, but rather the narrative.
Sklaroff delivers a workaday rehearsal of events without much in the way of interpretation. She clearly admires her subject and attempts to preemptively shield her from readerly censure. Tucker divorced her first husband and abandoned her child, Bert, in order to attempt to establish a career in New York City—behavior considered beyond the bounds of morality in her social milieu. This move led to a severe strain with her family and ostracism from the community of Hartford, Connecticut, where she was raised. Some townsfolk were comfortable enough in their outrage to refer to Sophie as a “whore” in conversation with her mother. Bert was left in the care of his grandmother and aunt and had little direct access to his mother. While Tucker was exceedingly generous with her money, she could be rather miserly with her time and attention. In later years, Bert attempted to forge his own career as a dancer and singer; he trained himself by mimicking the gestures and delivery that had secured his mother’s fame. At first, Tucker openly supported this endeavor with what appeared to be maternal pride, even appearing with Bert on stage in a mother/son act. She soon soured on the idea, however, concerned that audiences seeing the two of them together would become increasingly curious about her advancing age.
Sklaroff approvingly documents Tucker’s self-presentation as a mothering figure to up-and-coming actors and singers but it’s difficult not to discern a quotient of hypocrisy here, given her treatment of her son. Sklaroff shrugs most of this off by simply recounting the facts of the matter and dismissing Tucker’s callousness as deriving from the complications of the relationship—complications arising, of course, from Tucker’s decisions and actions. The point is not that Sklaroff need condemn Tucker’s actions—there are several possible lines of explanation—but rather that the matter warrants more careful consideration than the book provides. In the age of the internet, most of the facts presented in this volume are readily available; a biography ought to cultivate deeper insight.
Perhaps the most disappointing element of the book, however, is Sklaroff’s bid for relevancy on Tucker’s behalf via her purported feminism. Throughout, Sklaroff touts Tucker as a deeply progressive force for female empowerment. Sklaroff suggests that songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Thin” promote a body-positive outlook, while “Life Begins at Forty” speaks to “her firm belief in women’s self-acceptance,” and the double-entendres that suffuse her humor “encouraged women to feel less ashamed of their autonomy” (4). Sklaroff fails to mention in that context that Tucker also sang “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” and when the song is referenced later in the book (170) it is set aside as a “self-pitying” aberration of her earlier career; the song remained a staple of her performances, however. Furthermore, Tucker seemed to be deeply ambivalent about her relationship to the sexual mores of entertainers. This hesitation to embrace non-traditional gender roles became increasingly prominent as she aged. As Sklaroff documents, Tucker was scandalized by “the frequency of Hollywood divorces” (despite having had three of her own) and even declared in an interview that “she sang ‘off color’ songs only because it was good for business.” She went so far as to insist on the man’s traditional role within the household, advising women not to try to “wear the pants” (186-87). Sklaroff dismisses this seeming contradiction by claiming that she was “adjusting her act for her audiences, these statements were most likely geared toward one interview intended for rural New Hampshire readers” (187).
This points to one of two rather serious flaws in this biography. Sklaroff oversimplifies her difficult subject. Tucker can certainly be seen as a force for feminist empowerment but she is a problematic one. She avoided any political association with the burgeoning feminist movement, publicly disavowed any connection to the suffragist movement, and her self-deprecating humor regarding her weight was not uncharacteristic of the comedy of the time and I’m not convinced it should be regarded as a widely liberating bulwark against body shaming. The situation is far more complicated than a simple reduction to the categories today’s feminism would allow. Again, the point is not to diminish Tucker as a possible feminist icon, but we must come to grips with Tucker’s situatedness within an emergent political struggle toward which she was so obviously ambivalent. A central piece of “evidence” for Tucker’s anti-normative take on gender roles is her raucous and raunchy humor, of course. Sklaroff cites a supposedly representative joke: “My boyfriend said to me, ‘Soph, if you could learn to cook we could fire the chef.’ I said to him ‘Ernie, if you could learn to fuck we could fire the chauffeur!” (170) But this joke belongs to Bette Midler, not Sophie Tucker. As is well documented, at this stage in her career, Midler used the figure of Tucker to “get away” with the vulgar jokes she feared would be too much if she did them in her own voice. Even Boardwalk Empire presents Midler’s material as though it were actually derived from Tucker’s act, apparently to Midler’s great amusement. One might argue that Midler’s image of Sophie Tucker proved an important feminist force in the late ’70s but that is a far more complicated (and interesting) argument than is provided here.
The second troubling flaw in Red Hot Momma is that it provides no real examination of Tucker’s artistry. Several songs are mentioned but none are discussed at any level of depth. The overwhelming focus of even the slightest reference to a song tends to be the lyrics. Now, this is a tricky issue. On the one hand, Tucker didn’t write these songs (the lyrics or the music) and so some of the claims Sklaroff makes on their behalf may seem dubious. On the other hand, Tucker certainly took an active role in choosing songs that would cultivate her image, navigating the changes in her career that she found necessary. One potential pitfall for Sklaroff’s narrative is that she underplays the changes in Tucker’s career, seeing her instead as a fairly unchanging force of feminist power. But Tucker seems to have recognized quite clearly that variety was key to her success; the bawdy innuendo (and it was always innuendo—never the blatant and wonderful vulgarity of Midler) was always counterbalanced (and eventually overwhelmed) by the overtly wholesome and the sentimental.
The glaring omission here is the lack of any considered discussion of Tucker’s actual approach to performance. We read of certain gestures she made while on stage but there is no treatment of her striking manner of delivering a song. But surely Tucker is worth remembering primarily for her artistry. Listen to her performance of her signature song “Some of These Days”. She recorded the piece several times over the course of her career and all of them have nuances worth unpacking. However, for the moment, let’s think specifically about her first recording, a 1911 cylinder pressing she released through Edison Records. After a short flourish by the band, Tucker delivers the verse in that interstitial manner between singing and talking that was so characteristic of her and other singers of the time, such as Al Jolson. It is as though she refuses to fully commit to the song; the verse becomes a stylized, almost kitschy rendering of the lyrics. At one point, she nearly breaks from melodiousness altogether (“I love you honey best of all”) and her barbed rhythm grates against the accompaniment. Then the tempo breaks (“Just as he went to go”); the song loses all vitality or, better yet, any vitality the song may have is held in reserve, is deferred by this teasing manipulation of time and attention. Tucker drags the words “Some” and “of” out to such an extent that there no longer remains a sense of musical time; we are held in a void, suspended in an ever-expanding Now, expectation stretched to its limits. And then, with “these days,” Tucker lurches back into the ruling tempo with a sense of fatality that makes the song far more moving than the slight simulacrum of a cry that she affects in her voice.
The ambivalence that I have claimed characterizes Tucker’s feminism is also one of the more salient aspects of her performative strategy. Does she mean this song or is it all a kind of a goof? Is she playing a role or revealing some emotional truth? There’s an element to Tucker’s characteristic delivery that calls attention to itself as performance; we are constantly reminded by her tendency to fall away from song toward speech and her various asides not to take the whole thing too seriously. It’s almost as though Tucker wants to stand aside from the performance so we can appreciate it all as spectacle, as something she has produced and we are to admire. And yet, despite all of that vaunted ambivalence, she manages to catapult the listener into some genuinely emotional core residing deep within the song. Even this “falling into the depths”, of course, is self-evidently calculated to occur at the outset of the refrain, specifically at the intonation of the title of the song. Her delivery is both blatant emotion revealed to be pretense and pretension discovered to be deadly serious.
Of course, this is the intriguing paradox that resides in the heart of all protestations of authentic emotion. As soon as I say I’m serious, I’m obviously performing that seriousness; I make the gestures and employ the inflections connected with profundity and conviction. There’s no bypassing the manner of my presentation in order to access the emotion I insist lies behind that presentation. The only access we have to the authenticity of the other is the pretense of the other’s social displays (manners of speaking and gesturing). Perhaps Tucker can best be remembered for her paradoxical performance of authenticity. Her power resides in her ability to puncture the screen we have erected between the sincere and the feigned, to assure us that even if our only access to authenticity is ultimately via artifice, the carefully executed performance can still reveal the shimmering reality of our emotional connection to each other.