You could call her the Lady Gaga of her time.
With her flamboyant costumes, outsize personality, undeniable talent, and equal opportunity approach to love, Sophie Tucker (1886-1966) was the greatest diva of the early to mid-20th century — as a matter of fact, she practically defined the term.
If modern audiences know Tucker at all, it’s because Bette Midler has often used Tucker’s jokes as part of her act, with full credit. But now everyone will have a chance to know her better, thanks to a new documentary film (opening today) and book, plus an in-the-works Broadway musical.
The documentary, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, chronicles her career as a bold and brassy entertainer who delighted audiences with tawdry songs and jokes from the turn of the century through the 1960s, performing in vaudeville, on Broadway, in films, and on television. It also portrays her as a woman ahead of her time in many ways, giving attention to her close relationships with other women, which may well have been romantic and sexual.
“We’re not sure, but we’re pretty sure that she had had it with men after the third husband,” says Lloyd Ecker, who with his wife, Susan, spent eight years researching Tucker’s life. The Eckers are producers and narrators of the documentary and authors of the new book I Am Sophie Tucker, billed as a “fictional memoir.”
While Tucker’s sexual orientation is open to speculation, she certainly was what we would now call a gay icon, and the straight couple’s interest in her was sparked by contact with another gay icon — Midler. Their first date was seeing her in concert in 1973 at Ithaca College in upstate New York, where they were students at the time; Lloyd was in charge of booking entertainment for the school, and he asked Susan to attend the show with him. Midler did many of Tucker’s jokes in the show, and after the concert, the Eckers’ first date extended into dinner with Midler and her accompanist, a guy named Barry Manilow.
The experience made the Eckers devoted Midler fans — and, a few decades later, led them to Sophie Tucker. After raising a family and running businesses, they had sold their latest venture, a successful Internet company, for a sizable sum. As they were discussing what to do with the rest of their lives, Lloyd said to Susan, “Let’s find out who this Soph character is.” So began their research in the summer of 2006.
There had been only a couple of superficial biographies published on the star, along with her own largely fabricated autobiography. One of the biographies mentioned scrapbooks of hers at the New York Public Library. The Eckers looked at a few of them there and discovered there were hundreds more, mostly stored in the library’s basement. Once they saw those, “we realized we had a treasure trove,” Susan says.
They eventually perused more than 400 of Tucker’s scrapbooks at the library and at Brandeis University. They visited 14 archives and interviewed many of Tucker’s relatives and friends, including entertainers who had worked with her, such as Carol Channing, Shecky Greene, and Tony Bennett. Those three and many others appear in the film; Bennett was one of their biggest “gets,” they say, along with Barbara Walters, whose father, Lou, ran nightclubs in Florida where Tucker appeared. Also featured in the movie are interviews with some gay celebrities who appreciate Tucker — comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and musician Michael Feinstein. William Gazecki, an Oscar nominee for the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, directed the film.
The Eckers’ research revealed Tucker as a woman always determined to go her own way. She was born to Ukrainian Jewish parents on the boat that was taking them to America, where they ended up opening a kosher restaurant in Hartford, Conn. When she was old enough to work, Sophie started waitressing there. But that was not the life she wanted; she loved performing, and after a short-lived marriage and the birth of a son, she began singing in cafés in New York City. Vaudeville stardom quickly followed, “vaudeville” being the presentation of a variety of acts — singers, comedians, even acrobats — in theaters around the nation. The decline of vaudeville in the 1930s led to her find other venues, including Broadway, radio programs, and films, although the latter arena was one she failed to conquer.
Tucker apparently never lacked for love. Besides the three husbands, there were numerous women in her life, including maid and companion Molly Elkins, who may well have been a lover as well, and physician Margaret “Mom” Chung, also likely a lover. “‘Anything goes’ was her attitude,” Lloyd Ecker says.
Along the way, she met and befriended pretty much everybody who was anybody in her era: Albert Einstein, Queen Elizabeth II (for whom she gave royal command performances), Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover (and his lover, Clyde Tolson). And although she never took sides politically, being friendly with both Democrats and Republicans, she worked for many progressive causes. She helped Jewish families leave Nazi-occupied European countries, and she tried to make U.S. politicians aware of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal operations. She was a friend and supporter of African-American entertainers such as Bill Robinson and Josephine Baker. That Elkins and Chung were both women of color — African-American and Chinese-American, respectively — likewise says something about Tucker’s view of racial issues.
The Eckers further note that Tucker was close friends with Christine Jorgensen, who made headlines with a sex-change operation in the 1950s, and counseled Jorgensen to be true to herself. She wrote kind letters to gay fans. She also helped impoverished fans with gifts of money or necessities like winter coats or coal for heating. And she saved their thank-you letters, with many of them found in her scrapbooks.
But if this all makes her sound like St. Sophie, it’s important to remember that she was first and foremost an entertainer, and all about showing audiences a good time. The “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” as she was dubbed, paved the way for other flamboyantly sexy women, like Mae West (a protégée), Marilyn Monroe, and Midler, as well as those whose appeal was of a more emotional nature. One of her film roles was playing the mother of a teenage Judy Garland in Broadway Melody of 1938, and she was something of a mentor to Garland, who was reportedly impressed with Tucker’s ability to sell a song.
And she continues to impress young entertainers today. The Eckers recently attended a concert by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, and backstage afterward, they told Gaga about the documentary; she recognized Tucker’s name and expressed eagerness to see it. With her ornate costumes and commanding stage presence, they say, Gaga is like a modern-day Tucker — if she gained 100 pounds, she’d be ideal to play the diva in a Broadway musical they’re working on.
In addition to the musical, they plan two more volumes of “fictional memoir” if the first one is a success. It’s basically a historical novel about Tucker’s young adulthood, narrated by her in the first person, as they felt they had come to know her voice so well. They’d love to do a movie musical and a TV show about her too.
In the meantime, there’s the documentary about the woman Lloyd Ecker calls “the real-life female Forrest Gump of the world.” It opens today in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider opening planned the following week, and a video on demand release August 11.