In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Dec. 1 2009 7:04 AM

Vanishing Act

In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

(Continued from Page 1)

I don't care, I don't care
What they may think of me
I'm happy go lucky
Men say that I'm plucky
I'm happy and carefree
I don't care, I don't care
If I should get the mean and stony stare
And no one can faze me
By calling me crazy
'Cause I don't care

The effect was heightened by Tanguay's outré appearance and performance style. She had a pudgy face and reddish-blond hair that stretched upward in a snarled pile. (She sometimes dumped bottles of champagne over her head onstage.) She was of average height and a bit lumpy, but athletic; she squeezed herself into gaudy costumes that flaunted her buxom figure and powerfully muscled legs. She delivered her songs while executing dervishlike dances, complete with limb-flailing, leg kicks, breast-shaking, and violent tosses of the head; often, she seemed to be simulating orgasm. Tanguay suffered severe cramps from her performances—backstage, she instructed prop directors to unknot her calves by beating them with barrel staves. She told reporters that her goal was "to move so fast and whirl so madly that no one would be able to see my bare legs."

Then there was Tanguay's voice. She sang in a slurred screech punctuated by yaps and cackles, ricocheting seemingly at random between her upper and lower registers. Beneath the hiss of the 87-year-old "I Don't Care" recording, you can hear the maniac's grin that Tanguay wore when she sang.

"I Don't Care" was a sensation. Tanguay soon moved onto her first headlining stint, at Hammerstein's Victoria, a theater famous for featuring freak-show performers—a good fit for the singer's musical P.T. Barnum routine. She was a star now. Her act caught the imagination of fans from across the class spectrum and drew bombastic praise from critics, for whom she seemed to sum up the exuberance and vulgarity of the young century. (Her nicknames told the story: "The Evangelist of Joy," "The Electric Hoyden," "The Queen of Perpetual Motion," "The Modern Mystery," "Miss Tabasco.") Critics marveled at the brazenness of songs like "Go As Far As You Like, Kid" (1909) and "I Want Someone To Go Wild With Me" (1912). They raved about her "cyclonic" energy, her "animalistic" abandon, and her hair, which seemed "so charged with electric vigor that no amount of combing or brushing could alter its assertive unruliness." (One of her hits, "Tanguay Tangle," winked at the disorderly coiffure.) To Aleister Crowley, Tanguay was "exactly and scientifically … the Soul of America at its most desperate eagle-flight." Tanguay, Crowley wrote in 1912,

is like the hashish dream of a hermit who is possessed of the devil. She cannot sing, as others sing; or dance, as others dance. She simply keeps on vibrating, both limbs and vocal chords without rhythm, tone, melody, or purpose. … I feel as if I were poisoned by strychnine, so far as my body goes; I jerk, I writhe, I twist, I find no ease. … She is perpetual irritation without possibility of satisfaction, an Avatar of sex-insomnia. Solitude of the Soul, the Worm that dieth not; ah, me! She is the Vulture of Prometheus, and she is the Music of Mitylene. … I could kill myself at this moment for the wild love of her.

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The Vulture of Prometheus may have been pushing it—but Crowley was right about the singer's distinctive Americanness. In Tanguay, old-fashioned Yankee individualism joined hands with the nascent 20th-century religion of showbiz and star power. "Personality, personality," she sang in one of her signature numbers, "That's the thing that always makes a hit/ Your nationality or your rationality/ Doesn't help or hinder you one bit."

With the help of her publicists, Tanguay writ her personality large, and in boldface. She concocted publicity stunts ("Eva Tanguay, the Only Actress in the World Who Ever Made a Balloon Ascension"); threatened to retire before making splashy "comebacks"; contrived tell-all confessional interviews for magazines; and struck an ironic attitude toward these machinations, confessing her lust for attention in songs like "I'd Like To Be an Animal in the Zoo" (1911). Like Madonna a century later, Tanguay was businesswoman-provocateur—an indefatigable plotter of new looks and fresh succès de scandales. A 1910 editorial cartoon in the New York Review, titled "A Tanguay Resting," showed the star scribbling with a giant pencil, surrounded by a growing mountain of notes for new schemes: "Bright Thoughts," "Original Ideas," "New Song," "New Act," "Manuscripts," "Offer," "Contract."

She was a clothes horse, famous for her lavish wardrobe budget, whose details she leaked to the press. Her performances were fashion shows as much as concerts; in the course of a 30-minute vaudeville appearance, she would change outfits 10 times. The costumes, which Tanaguy claimed to have designed herself, were avant-garde and architectural: hats that rose several feet above her head, constructed from ribbons, bells, leaves, ostrich plumes; gowns made of feathers, beads, dollar bills, seashells, coral. A particular cause célèbre was Tanguay's "$40 dress"—a garment fashioned from 4,000 pennies. (It weighed 45 pounds.) When "Salome-mania" swept vaudeville in 1908, Tanguay made sure that her Dance of the Seven Veils was the raciest, her dress the skimpiest. "I can fit the entire costume in my closed fist," she told reporters.

For diva notoriety, her only equal was Sarah Bernhardt, and like Bernhardt, she knew that her performance didn't end once she'd left the stage. She kept newspapers busy with tales of her marriages, divorces, and affairs. She brought lawsuits against vaudeville circuit bosses and astrologers. She turned up for theatrical engagements and refused to play when she discovered that rival performers were on the bill. In 1905, Tanguay was fined $100 by an Evansville, Ind., theater manager for sleeping through a matinee. That evening, Tanguay took her revenge, shredding the stage curtain with a dagger. A 1909 performance in Louisville, Ky., ended with a backstage melee when a young stagehand, Clarence Hess, mistakenly stepped in front of Tanguay as she hurried to her dressing room. Tanguay produced a hatpin, and stabbed the youth in his abdomen three times. The star was arrested and taken to the police station, where, according to the New York Times, "Miss Tanguay produced a roll of bills and cried: 'Take it all and let me go, for it is now my dinner time.' "

Even when Tanguay kept her hatpins sheathed, she thrived on "beef." She staged high-profile feuds with Ethel Barrymore and vaudeville star Gertrude Hoffman. In 1918, the drama critic for the New York Tribune, Heywood Broun, slammed Tanguay for performing "La Marseillese" in a skimpy dress made entirely from French tricoleur flags. She took out a full page ad in Variety, and responded in verse: "Now you who have slandered, you are dirt beneath my feet/ For I have beaten you at your game, and it's a hard game to beat."

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