Before Lady Gaga, before Madonna, Cher, Lucy. Even before Mae West. In fact, Mae West started out in the shadows of the original cyclonic comedienne, Eva Tanguay (1879-1947). Andy Eerdman unearths the lost legacy of one of the most famous women in her day in this compelling history, Queen of Vaudeville, just released by Cornell University Press.
Raised in a typical New England mill town, Miss Eva Tanguay made her home the vaudeville stage. As a single woman, she amassed fame and fortune as a one-woman theatrical spectacle touring across the nation. Not exactly pretty. Couldn’t really sing on key. Her effervescence and sprightly antics in skimpy narrative trappings wearing outlandish and bizarre costumes comes back to life in the pages of Erdman’s thick description based on his exhaustive research of theatrical archives and local historical societies.
Eva’s star power increased as she made “I Don’t Care” her signature song. Mary Brett Lorson and the Soubrettes rcently released a CD with a new recording of Eva Tanguay’s most requested tune. You can listen and hear this new remix of an old vaudeville classic. The lyrics offer a basic zen philosophy: smile more and expect less.
It is in this signature song that the person and the persona of Eva Tanguay come into conflict. As Eva’s identity became defined by this single song more than anything else she sang, said or did, her penchant for temper tantrums and moodiness increased. She did care about things. And she desperately wanted people to care about her. The narrative arc of Tanguay’s larger than life tragicomedy is well developed by historian Andrew Erdman. Eva marries twice, both times as more publicity stunt than matter of the heart.
Never substantiated though thoroughly investigated, Eva may have had an illegitimate daughter very early in her career with the man who married her sister. Eva’s brother raised the girl, Ruth, as his daughter and Eva maintained a distant though affectionate relationship with her nieces. The inclusion of a family photo of Eva and her sister Blanche with Blanche’s daughter Lillian and Ruth is persuasive evidence. A successful career made it possible for Eva to provide financially for her family and friends. But as her star fades and the Great Depression hits, the end of an era of American entertainment comes to pass.
What Erdman shows the reader is the way in which Eva Tanguay’s personal charisma and the live audience created a synergy that could not be replicated in “the talkies.” Her performances packed the houses and brought in crowds twice daily. Vaudeville came to the end of an era as Eva neared the end of her career. Her final performances, despite the objections of her former husband and manager, in a has-been revue of vaudeville stars is a tragic denouement to an incredible comedic career.
The wonderful thing about Erdman’s biography is that the character of Eva Tanguay is made ever more complex in the telling of her lifestory. Unencumbered by academic references and obfuscating language, Erdman lets the story tells itself in the exploration of her character and soul. That she became a Christian Scientist when all the fad to follow Mary Baker Eddy, moved to California, frequently took lovers, kept her personal life private, and brokered her own contracts demanding top dollar and top billing, commanded my respect as Erdman situated her behavior in its historic context as radical. I only wished I’d known about her before this as she is a star in the history of American stage and theatrical entertainment. Once you know her story, you can’t forget about her.
In one of the most clever book trailers I’ve seen, Andy Erdman successfully intrigues readers to get the book to learn more. And while Eva’s allure pulled me into her story, I learned so much more history about that generation that lived from the turn of the 20th century through the Great Depression but didn’t live through the end of the Second World War. This is refreshing historical non-fiction and the kind of work that revitalizes the genre.