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.

Eva Tanguay. Click to launch slide show.

Click here to view a slide show about Eva Tanguay.

To begin, a few facts. The singer, actress, and vaudeville star Eva Tanguay was born in 1878 in Marbleton, a small town in Quebec, Canada; grew up in Holyoke, Mass.; and died on Jan. 11, 1947, in Los Angeles, where she lived her last years in a style that some suggest was the model for Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard—in a Hollywood bungalow festooned with yellowing newspaper clippings and memorabilia from her heyday.

Tanguay made just one recording, a version of her anthem, "I Don't Care," released on a 78 rpm disc in 1922 by the Los Angeles label Nordskog. By rights, this song should be as familiar as "Over the Rainbow" or "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Rapper's Delight." And here we arrive at the crucial fact: For roughly two decades, from 1904 until the early 1920s, Eva Tanguay was the biggest rock star in the United States.

To call Tanguay a "rock star" is anachronistic but appropriate. She was not just the pre-eminent song-and-dance woman of the vaudeville era. (One of her many nicknames was "The Girl Who Made Vaudeville Famous.") She was the first American popular musician to achieve mass-media celebrity, with a cadre of publicists trumpeting her on- and offstage successes and outrages, and an oeuvre best summed up by the slogan that appeared frequently on theatrical marquees: "Eva Tanguay, performing songs about herself." She was the first singer to mount nationwide solo headlining tours, drawing record-breaking crowds and shattering box-office tallies from Broadway to Butte. Newspaper accounts describe scenes of fan frenzy that foreshadowed Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theatre and Beatlemania. At the height of her stardom, Tanguay commanded an unheard of salary, $3,500 per week, out-earning the likes of Al Jolson, Harry Houdini, and Enrico Caruso.

Eva Tanguay, in her feather outfit. Click image to expand.
Eva Tanguay, in her feather outfit
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If you read the press and popular literature of the first quarter of the 20th century, Tanguay is inescapable. Edward Bernays, the celebrated "father of public relations," called Tanguay "our first symbol of emergence from the Victorian age." The journalist and playwright George Ade dubbed Theodore Roosevelt "the Eva Tanguay of politics." One of her hits was titled "They'll Remember Me a Hundred Years From Now." To Tanguay's contemporaries, it must have seemed less like a boast than a foregone conclusion. A century later, though, Tanguay is forgotten—vanished from the pages of pop music history. No one has written an Eva Tanguay biography, although biographies exist for many of her vaudeville contemporaries, all of them lesser stars. Tanguay herself claimed at various points to be working on her memoirs—in 1910 she told a reporter that she was writing an autobiography entitled A Hundred Loves—but she left behind no manuscript. A clunky Hollywood biopic, The I Don't Care Girl (1953), erased more than it commemorated, presenting an unrecognizably toned-down version of Tanguay's radical stage act and ignoring the facts of her raucous love life, including her rumored romance with black vaudeville star George Walker. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music has a 288-word Tanguay entry, and she gets a passing mention in Russell and David Sanjeks' American Popular Music and Its Business. But in the standard pop music histories, Tanguay's name does not appear.

Just about the only person to find a place in the canon for Tanguay is Ralph Bakshi, who included "I Don't Care" in his 1981 animated film American Pop, alongside the likes of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Pretty Vacant." It took the director of Fritz the Cat and other X-rated cartoons to draw a line across the decades connecting Eva Tanguay and Johnny Rotten. Indeed, the self-proclaimed "I Don't Care Girl" and the self-proclaimed antichrist have quite a bit in common—the main difference being that Tanguay was considerably more punk rock.

Little is known about Tanguay's childhood. Her family moved from Canada to Massachusetts in the 1880s, and by the age of eight, Eva was playing child leads in summer-stock theater companies. She arrived in New York at age 19 and found work on the variety stage. That same year, her name surfaced in the newspapers: She was appearing in a production called Hoodoo, and when a fellow chorus girl accused her of hot-dogging onstage, Tanguay turned and choked her cast mate until the girl's face turned blue and she passed out. It was Tanguay's first taste of notoriety and her first big backstage altercation. There would be more of both in her future.

Tanguay's breakthrough came in 1904, in the musical comedy The Sambo Girl. Playing the lead "brownface" role, she stole the show with a new song, a lurching mid-tempo ballad by songwriters Jean Lennox and Harry O. Sutton. The tune was not written expressly for Tanguay, but it may as well have been. For the rest of her career, she merely enlarged on the character-sketch in "I Don't Care": a madcap woman on the verge, trampling the conventions of demure femininity, polite society, and musical theater. "They say I'm crazy and got no sense/ But I don't care," Tanguay sang. "They may or may not mean offense/ I care less."

The song was broadly comic but shocking nonetheless in 1904, when Victorian notions of female propriety prevailed. Blasting out "I Don't Care," Tanguay gave voice to an anarchic feminism that claimed the old stigma of female "hysteria" as a badge of honor—the Victorian neurasthenic recast as a liberated, libidinous 20th-century wild-woman:

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.

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."

Tanguay had many imitators. Decades before the first Elvis impersonator slicked up his pompadour, vaudeville was chockablock with performers donning Tanguay's outfits and belting out her songs. She took on the copycats in "Give an Imitation of Me" (1910):

If you are broke without a sou
And really don't know what to do
Just take my tip, go on the stage
And you can be the season's rage
Watch me while I'm on the bill
Then jump into vaudeville
And give an imitation of me
Rush around the stage and fuzzle up your hair
Get a pair of tights and holler "I don't care."

American audiences had never encountered such bluster. (As one journalist noted, Tanguay's "whole performance is of herself, for herself, and by herself. She is motive, cue, subject and sub-subject.") But Tanguay's shtick was based on self-deprecation as much as self-aggrandizement. In the press and in song, she belittled her talent, framing her act as an elaborate spoof of virtuosity and professionalism. Critics called her singing "unlistenable," "awful," "a hairshirt to the nerves"—and she professed to agree with them. "I can't sing, I don't how to dance. I am not even graceful," she declared. She elaborated on the point in "I Don't Care":

My voice is what you'd call a freak
But I don't mind it …
If teachers rates I could afford
Or I had studied hard abroad
I'd now be working for my board
And that's why I don't care
I don't care, I don't care
If I'm not Queen of Song
And while I am shouting
You may all be doubting
And hoping it won't last long …
My voice may sound funny
But it's getting me the money
So I don't care

Tanguay's voice did sound funny. But does that mean she couldn't sing? On the contrary: She sang very well, in a style that burlesqued the practice of "normal" singing. Which is something Tanguay knew how to do. She had played straight roles in musicals, both as a child actor and in her early years on the New York stage; at the height of her fame, in 1915, she had a huge hit with an unironic tear-jerker, "M-O-T-H-E-R, a Word That Means the World to Me." What we hear in "I Don't Care" is not a Progressive Era William Hung but a vocal stylist in command of her instrument, deliberately deploying comic effects: drawling, squeaking, and mixing straight-ahead singing with a kind of proto-rap patter. In "I Don't Care," Tanguay bragged about this technique: "Some lines I sing, some lines I don't sing/ I don't care."

It was a sound of and for its time. The public's fancy was turning from old-fashioned music—sentimental parlor ballads and Viennese light opera—to the buoyant melodies and jagged syncopations of ragtime. And now Tanguay was waging her own revolt against 19th-century musical values and hoity-toity high culture. In concert, she interspersed songs with poetic recitations that parodied flowery Victorian verse. (An example can be heard at the end of the "I Don't Care" record.) In 1911, when she appeared on the same vaudeville bill with the Danish ballet star Adeline Genée, Tanguay brought down the house with a slapstick sendup of prima-ballerina dance moves. She kept the bit in her act for years, belting out "When Pavlova Sees Me Put It Over" while staggering through pliés and arabesques.

Tanguay's vocal style, meanwhile, mocked the Europhile emphasis on formal training, clear diction, pure intonation, and squarely hit notes. Think of her boast in "I Don't Care": "If teacher's rates I could afford/ Or I had studied hard abroad/ I'd now be working for my board." In other words: Roll over, Beethoven. (Or maybe it was: Step aside, Victor Herbert.) Vernacular pop culture was winning the day, and paying handsomely. In a country being remade by modernity—by new machines and new immigrants, by rising skylines and rising hemlines—Tanguay's madcap screech was audibly, if not scientifically, the soul of America.

This is where the received history of popular music begins to crack open. The standard pop music narrative regards vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley as quaintly pre-historic—the sepia-tone showbiz that was swept aside by "gritty" roots music and the triumphal rise of jazz and rock 'n' roll. But how do we account for Eva Tanguay, whose spectacular performances anticipated so much 20th century pop, and predated nearly all of it? If Tanguay tells us anything, it's that turn-of-the-century variety stage, where popular song first was transformed into mass entertainment, was rowdy and transgressive—as "rock 'n' roll" as rock itself. How did such a big star, such a heady period, slip from our view, and slide out of the history books?

In part, it's an issue of semantics. In the first decades of the century, when Tin Pan Alley songwriters counted on vaudevillians to break their new tunes, theatrical comedy and popular music were one and the same. The term "pop singer" had not yet been coined, and the period's top hit makers, like Tanguay, were referred to as actresses and comediennes. To the extent that Tanguay has been studied, it's been by historians of the stage and investigators of "the theatrical roots of modern feminism." These theater specialists fail to connect Tanguay and her vaudeville fellow travelers to the broader story of American popular music; most music scholars, meanwhile, remain indifferent to the pop pioneers who lurk on variety theater bills and in sheet music cover photographs.

The methodological mess is exacerbated by a dearth of the usual primary sources. In Tanguay's glory days, the recording industry was in its infancy. The period's wax cylinders and 78 discs were primitive and rackety, and the musical aesthetics—the broad comedic gestures and booming voices, raised to reach the theater rafters—were ill-suited to a medium that would come into its own with the invention of the microphone and the rise of dulcet crooners. Some big name stars, like Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker, left behind a decent body of recordings, but many others made just a few records, or none at all. Why bother with the rinky-dink record business, when the big money and the big glory waited on the vaudeville proscenium? Tanguay didn't bother stepping into a recording studio until the very tail end of her run. We can be thankful that she did—imagine how doubly obscure she would be without that "I Don't Care" 78.

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 a Slate contributor.

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