Perhaps the name Eva Tanguay (1878-1947) rings no bells now, but a century ago familiarity with the “Cyclonic Comedienne” would have conferred considerable cultural capital. She was the most famous vaudeville star of the early 20th century and, as Andrew Erdman notes in his fascinating portrait of Tanguay, an ambitious and tempestuous tour de force who was “cyclonic” on many levels. Tanguay was an immediate influence upon Sophie Tucker and Mae West, though in their heydays neither was as renowned as Tanguay. (West’s public persona was modeled on Tanguay’s in much the same way that young Bob Dylan channeled Woody Guthrie.) Erdman also connects Tanguay to Madonna and Lady Gaga in that she was the template for an exuberant female performer who dictated her own terms and built an image centered on sexual innuendo and strategically exposed flesh.
As the late historian Warren Sussman (1927-85) observed, the early 20th century saw a cultural shift in which one’s character mattered less than one’s personality. This was the very foundation of a celebrity culture that’s often anchored more in likability (or notoriety) than socially significant achievement. Celebrity is also more malleable, and Tanguay was one of the first to understand that it is an invention and, if one seeks to stay in the public eye, a series of reinventions. Erdman presents Tanguay as an unlikely candidate for celebrity. She was born in the English-speaking Eastern Townships of Québec, but moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, when she was six. The family struggled when paterfamilias Joseph, a doctor, died when Eva was just eight. His death indirectly led to her stage career; Eva entered a Holyoke amateur contest to compete for its one-dollar first prize. She won wearing a dress fashioned from an umbrella, the first of many outlandish costumes for which Tanguay was noted. From that point on, Tanguay was also considered a Holyoke native daughter, and the city reveled in her successes and periodic homecoming performances.
Erdman presents Eva as a girl whose ambition vastly outstripped her talent. By most accounts, Tanguay was hardly the best singer, dancer, or comedienne on the circuit, nor was she beautiful—“striking” would be a better descriptor. After 1902, though, she became a full-fledged star, after paying her dues as a soubrette and chorine. She first gained renown as the “Sambo Girl” when she donned burnt cork and sang “coon songs” that came to vaudeville via minstrel shows. In 1909, though, she first sang the number that brought her ever-lasting fame, the mildly saucy “I Don’t Care,” which happened to debut at a time in which the “New Woman” was busy dismantling residual Victorianism. Among the many delights of Erdman’s book is his attention to cultural history and his understanding that the first two decades of the 20th century saw numerous borders blur. By then, minstrelsy, vaudeville, burlesque, musical theater, and Broadway were often hard to distinguish. Erdman also knows where the walls remained.
Tanguay embodied many of promises and limitations within an era in which the New Woman was still decades removed from Second Wave feminism. Fame came at a cost. Although Tanguay neither smoked nor drank, made enormous sums of money, and dictated terms to impresarios ranging from B. F. Keith to Florenz Ziegfeld, it was still a man’s world. Like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Tanguay probably passed off an illegitimate daughter as her sister—the child the product of the first in a series of bad relationships. Male businessmen tolerated Taguay when she filled theaters, but when her looks faded and movies began to supplant vaudeville, she found few willing to put up prima donna attitudes she had honed during her several decades of stardom. In her final days, Tanguay often relied upon the largess of one-time rivals Tucker and West. Timing, in history and on the stage, is everything—Tanguay never made the transition to movies and her star eclipsed just as the Great Depression hit.
Queen of Vaudeville is a wonderful read that takes us inside vaudeville at its height and into its decline. This entertaining biography is at once a work of popular culture, gender dynamics, and social history. Erdman’s book would work well with upper-level undergraduates who can connect the dots between Eva Tanguay and Lady Gaga.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst