In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.
Once Tanguay does come into focus, you can't unsee her. Her impact is, in certain cases, a matter of historical record. Mae West began her career as a Tanguay impersonator. Sophie Tucker cited her as an influence; so, surprisingly, did Ethel Waters. It's difficult to hear much Eva in Ethel, the blues queen famous for her queenly diction. But perhaps Waters transmuted her lessons from Tanguay to her own most famous fan, Billie Holiday? Can we detect in "Billie's Blues," the song that the Holiday swiped from Waters in 1936, a trace of the slurry sound pioneered three decades earlier by a vaudeville heroine? That may be a stretch, but consider some other names: Betty Boop, Lena Lovich, Cyndi Lauper, Gwen Stefani, Björk—a lineage of screwball songstresses that descends directly from Tanguay.
Today's pop feels more than ever like one big reiteration of Tanguay's career. The braggarts and battle-rhymers of hip-hop—who can doubt that Tanguay got there first in "Eva Tanguay's Love Song" (1904), "Tanguay Rag" (1910), "Egotistical Eva" (1910), "If I Only Had a Regiment of Tanguays" (1917), and other haughty "songs about herself"? The divas that dominate the pop charts and tabloids, with their shape-shifting makeovers, extravagant song-and-dance routines, and multiple costume changes? Lady Gaga's wild headgear? In 2009, Tanguay is nowhere and everywhere. She's forgotten, but not gone.
For a star of Tanguay's stature, though, forgotten is worse than gone. Her decline was precipitous. As late as 1922, the year she recorded "I Don't Care," Tanguay's weeklong stand at Loew's New York State Theater raked in record box-office grosses. But tastes were changing, along with technology; radio and Hollywood talkies dealt a deathblow to big-time vaudeville, and Tanguay's bookings dried up. She lost her fortune in the 1929 stock-market crash, a few years after she had definitively lost her stranglehold on the zeitgeist to the sirens of the jazz age. By the mid-1930s, she was living in Los Angeles, crippled by arthritis, half-blind with cataracts, and nearly destitute. In 1934, she wrote a letter to Henry Ford, begging him to give her an automobile.
This letter is from Eva Tanguay (of the stage). I hope you remember me, once you were in the audience when I played Detroit—and anyone who has seen me before the footlights is interested in me. … I was thinking in the generosity of your heart could give me a car. … I have always had a car having owned eleven, but now have nothing. I live off a sort of an alley in a small house which is set in back of a big one, there is no view other than the backyards of other houses. … It is very sad to have had so much and be cut down to poverty, but my illness prevents me from doing any work. Although I could sing on radio if the programme was without the audience viewing the entertainer, I have earned thirty-five hundred a week, three thousand and most always twenty-five hundred, so you may know I'm no tramp, having lived the very best, my home consisted of gold glasses silver plates and everything that meant refinement, now I'm alone and cut off entirely from my world I so loved. If I had a car I could go out afternoons and might connect some way with managers, agents—and find something to do.
This sob story failed to move Ford, whose secretary wrote to Tanguay expressing regret that her request could not be met. In her final years, Tanguay scraped by on her meager savings, and by selling her old stage costumes out of a storefront on Hollywood Blvd. Her name would turn up in the press occasionally, when reporters pilgrimaged to her home for a "Where are they now?" interview. In a Life magazine profile published shortly before her death, she complained bitterly that her legacy and—her word—"artistry" had been ignored. It seems Eva Tanguay did care, after all.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.