“She came on like a meteor, but there is a lasting quality. What is that quality? Radium? Electricity? Sheer nerve? Or, as Eva Tanguay herself comically suggests, madness?”
— Ashton Stevens, Chicago Examiner, 1911
If anyone embodies the spirit of vaudevillianism, of the triumph of personality, originality and sensationalism, not only over discipline and craft but even over beauty and talent, that person was Eva Tanguay. She was essentially a rock and roller; one would be hard pressed to identify many differences outside of the lack of amplification. Billed as an “eccentric comedienne”, her act—essentially—was that she was nuts. A bad singer, and a graceless dancer, with hair like a rat’s nest, the homely, overweight Tanguay would put on outrageous outfits, sing provocative self-involved songs, commissioned especially for her, and fling herself around the stage in a suggestive manner. Her theme song went:
They say I’m crazy, go no sense
But I don’t care.
They may or may not mean offense,
But I don’t care.
You see, I’m sort of independent,
Of a clever race descendant,
My star is on the ascendant,
That’s why I don’t care
All of it was true, including that rising star. She was to be vaudeville’s biggest headliner for 25 years.
She was born on the Canadian frontier in 1878. Her father, a Parisian doctor out for adventure died in her early childhood, leaving the family destitute. At age ten, she started working for the Redding Stanton Repertoire Company, playing Little Lord Fauntleroy type roles for five years. As a teenager, she worked as an acrobat and as a chorus girl. In the latter capacity she soon found herself working shows for the likes of Hammerstein and Weber and Fields.
She first tried her antics in a Weber and Fields show in an exaggerated attempt to get over. Though just a member of the chorus, she shimmied and shook and otherwise bounced around the stage out of control. Immediately she was recognized for her pep, and called by critics “cyclonic”, “volcanic”, “a dervish.”
After strutting her stuff in a show called Hoodoo, another chorus girl had the temerity to criticize her for her showboating, so she choked her until her face turned blue and she lapsed into unconsciousness. In her next show My Lady with Eddie Foy, one of the girls threw back a bun tossed onstage by a heckler. Afterwards, Tanguay knocked the girl’s head into a brick wall. Tanguay was now good copy, and as such started getting good parts and salaries as befits someone the public recognizes.
She self produced hit shows like The Office Boy (1903), and The Sambo Girl (1904) and started working regularly at Hammerstein’s Victoria, the perfect venue for her, as it was known as a showcase for freak acts. Tanguay was looked upon at as a curiosity like the “wild man” in a circus side show, which was the same sort of appeal that Janice Joplin and Tina Turner later had in the rock era.
She first sang “I Don’t Care” in 1905, and it quickly became her signature. The rest of her subsequent career was a sort of elaboration of the character she established in that song. It wasn’t so much that she was sexy, it was that she didn’t care, she flaunted the conventions of polite society generally, and – much like the old woman in the nursing home – she didn’t much care if her tits were inside her gown or if they happened to fall out.
Sure, sex was part of it. She did sing songs like “I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me” and “Go As Far As You Like.” She did introduce in 1909 a Salome/Dance-of-the-Seven-Veils act, which scandalized because of her near-nakedness. She did appear to be simulating orgasm at times during performance. Edward Bernays called her ”our first symbol of emergence from the Victorian age.” Yet her gyrations were like a burlesque dancer’s on the one hand, like a lunatic’s, on the other. Her sexuality was an id sexuality, like Harpo Marx’s, like that of the two year old. just as when Harpo Marx chases a blond we have no idea what he’ll do with her once he catches her. One imagines Tanguay shaking her ta-ta’s and attracting men just so she can put them in a headlock and break a vase over their heads.
Her racier numbers were accepted because she was not reducible to sex. She was just crazy. Her costumes screamed as much. She once wore a costume made of Lincoln pennies; another time she threw peanuts out to the audience. Too often for it to have been an accident, she wore conical dunce-cap-looking hats that accented a “village idiot” impression. Once she dressed up in French flags and sang the Marseilles. That’s not just crazy, that’s vaudeville.
Like a jazz age rapper, she introduced dozens of songs about Eva Tanguay, her real and imagined exploits, and how much money she made. These songs were vehicles for herself alone, so naturally they have not withstood the test of time. Song titles included: “Personality” “Oh, You Money”, “Egotistical Eva”, and “An Animal in the Zoo” (which described how people looked at her).
There’s a method in my madness,
There’s a meaning in my style.
The more they raise my salary,
The crazier I’ll be.
This abandon spilled over into her offstage behavior, and she was careful to exploit her misadventures for the added publicity. She blew off shows if she felt like it; had fisticuffs with girls in the chorus, and even picked fights with entire audiences, as in 1914, when she called the town of Sharon, Pennsylvania “a lot of small town saps” when they weren’t sympathetic enough to her onstage complaints about her dressing room. Once she threw a stagehand down the stairs when he got in her way. He sued her for $50 and the judge ruled in his favor, so she calmly took out a roll of $1000 bills, peeled off one and gives it to him. She swore like a truck driver. The musicians had to be on their toes, if they flubbed their part, she was capable of smashing an instrument over their heads. In 1905, she slept through a matinee performance and was fined by the stage manager. She responded by chopping up the stage curtain with a dagger. But her ire was no respecter of persons and it wasn’t only her underlings who felt the sting of her wrath. She once stuck John Philip Sousa in the rump with a hat pin when he dared to ruffle a curtain backstage while she was performing.
Like all major prima donnas, she reserved the largest part of her warmth and compassion for her dog. In Nashville she once called off a show because she was worried about her ailing pooch. She summoned her vet from New York in the middle of the night. The dog died anyway—she kept his heart in a glass jar for years.
She began billing herself as “The Girl Who Made Vaudeville Famous”. In 1909, she was booked to replace Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth in the Ziegfeld Follies. She also made films, such as Energetic Eva (1916) and The Wild Girl (1917). But her true métier was vaudeville. Unfortunately, in the late twenties, both health and fortune failed her. In 1928 an almost unbelievable barrage of health problems kicked in: cataracts, Brights disease, a bad heart and debilitating arthritis. The following year was 1929: she lost her entire fortune of $2 million in the stock market crash. It was probably the loss of her savings that inspired the creation of pulp novels like this:
When she died in 1947, Tanguay had been living on a fixed income, blind and bedridden for years. “Money”, indeed.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.