When Sophie Tucker made her first return visit to her hometown of Hartford, Conn. — two years after slipping away to make a go of it as a singer in New York — she wasn’t exactly greeted with a hero’s welcome.
“The women turned their backs,” she later wrote. “The men stared and tittered.”
Not that you can blame them, really. When she’d left, late in the summer of 1906, the story was that she was headed to her sister-in-law’s in New Haven for two weeks, possibly to patch things up with her estranged husband. Instead, she hightailed it to Tin Pan Alley, leaving an infant son in her unwitting parents’ care.
But time, as they say, heals all wounds, and 100 years is a lot of time.
This past June, with a gala opening that featured a zaftig, bejeweled Sophie Tucker impersonator, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford launched a loving exhibition devoted to the bawdy, brassy entertainer, in effect unfurling the red carpet that the city’s Jewish community kept rolled tight during Tucker’s 1908 visit. With letters, photographs, ornate costumes, video clips and even an old banjo, the exhibition proves that, in Hartford today, Tucker — who famously sang that “Some of these days, you’re gonna miss me baby” — is, indeed, sorely missed.
“When we started doing the research, we just became mesmerized by her,” said Estelle Kafer, the historical society’s executive director. “She was such a character — and she used such rich language.”
Long before she assumed the saucy persona that carried her into her 80s, Sophie Tucker (née Sonia Kalish) was born in 1884 as her parents were in the process of leaving tsarist Russia. According to Tucker’s 1945 memoir, “Some of These Days,” her mother literally went into to labor on the road: “Mama never could remember exactly where.” The family made its way to Boston, and, when Tucker was 8, moved on to Hartford and ran a kosher restaurant popular among visiting actors.
It was there that the young Sophie got her first taste of showbiz. “I would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing,” she wrote. “At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” As a teenager, she took up with Louis Tuck, a beer vendor and bon vivant from across the street. They married, but the union never gelled. (Nor would two subsequent attempts at married life. “I’ve had three matrimonial wrecks,” she later sang. “And there’s not going to be any fourth Mr. Ex.”) All Sophie really took from her first marriage was her husband’s name, or at least the modified version of it that became her moniker the night of her first New York gig: singing for food at a restaurant in what would today be called Manhattan’s East Village.
Her name wasn’t all that she had to alter for the sake of the stage. A break of sorts came her way when she was picked to perform at one of impresario Chris Brown’s amateur nights. Before she went on, Tucker later recalled, Brown called to one of his assistants: “This one’s so big and ugly, the crowd out front will razz her. Better get some cork and black her up.” At the time, singing in blackface was not uncommon among Jewish performers. Indeed, as Emory University historian Eric Goldstein has argued, blackface, by rooting the racial landscape in black and white, offered Jews the chance to slip into the mainstream without drawing attention to their own brand of otherness.
Tucker sang in blackface for about two years. How she stopped came quite by chance. While in Boston for a gig, she lost the trunk that contained all her makeup. She went on undisguised, and brought the house down all the same. She never “blacked up” again.
Before long, Tucker hit the big time. By the ’20s, her repertoire of songs at once risqué and sentimental — her standards included such titles as “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love” and the ballad “My Yiddishe Mama” — made her a staple on the vaudeville circuit.
In a career that spanned more than half a century (though her fabled pipes had grown rusty by then, she was still hamming it up on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the ’60s), she headlined four Broadway musicals and appeared in 10 films. She shared bills with Judy Garland, Jack Benny, Will Rogers and Fanny Brice.
And yet, for all her successes, her toughest critics remained those at home. Tucker’s grand niece, Doris Golinsky, 83, may have been born once Tucker was already a star, but to hear her tell it, Tucker’s status in the family was never all that high. “My grandfather [Tucker’s first husband’s brother] used to call her a bum,” she told the Forward. “In those days, who was theatrical? Bums! They drank and smoked and did all that kind of thing. My zayde called her ‘The Bummike.’”
Which is not to say that Tucker didn’t try to make things right. Throughout her life, she gave generously to Hartford’s Jewish charities and never missed a chance to give her hometown a plug. “Yes, she couldn’t wait to get out of Hartford,” said Elizabeth Lewis, an exhibit designer with the Connecticut Historical Society who worked as a consultant on the exhibition. “But she was incredibly sentimental. She’d often talk about Hartford in interviews. She would speak of herself as the city’s ambassadress.”
“A funny thing happened,” Tucker used to sing. “I nearly died. I sat down on an egg, got up, the egg was fried. I’m the last of the red hot mamas. They’ve all cooled down but me.”
Stodgy old Hartford never felt so hip.
The exhibition Hartford Remembers: Sophie Tucker, the Last Red Hot Mama will be on display in the gallery of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford until November 30.
Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.