In her time, Eva Tanguay was one of the most famous individuals in the world, yet today many don’t remember her name. Touted as the Queen of Vaudeville and the Woman Who Made Vaudeville Famous, she was making $90,000 a week in today’s funds at the height of her fame.
Today, I look at the woman who was the first symbol of the emergence from the Victorian Age.
Eva Tanguay was born on Aug. 1, 1878 in Marbleton, Quebec to a doctor father and his wife. She would live in the small community in Quebec until the age of six when she moved from Quebec to the United States. Her father would sadly die soon after, around the same time she was becoming interested in the performing arts. At the age of eight, she would make her first appearance on stage, during an amateur night that had a prize of one dollar, something the family desperately needed. For the performance, she wore a dress made from an umbrella, a sign of things to come with her stage career.
As a child actress, she would spend five years touring in Little Lord Fauntleroy before taking small roles in the stage productions of The Engineer in 1895 and Who is Who in 1899.
In 1901, she had found her way to Broadway, performing in My Lady. She would first appear in newspapers at the age of 19 when she appeared in a production of Hoodoo and a cast mate accused her of hot-dogging on stage, which resulted in Tanguay turning and choking the girl until she passed out. Three years later in 1904, she was in The Chaperons, which helped her gain popularity and the following year she was performing in vaudeville as a solo act. From this point on, she would see her popularity soar. She would soon find herself going from making $350 a week to $3,500 a week.
Her voice was described as average but it was her enthusiasm on the stage, and the fact that she sang suggestive songs, that the audience grew to love her. Many critics could not understand why she was so popular. One critic said her voice was like the wail of a prehistoric diplodocus and had no more music than a buzz saw.
Aleister Crowley, after seeing her perform in 1912, would state
“She cannot sing, as others sing, or dance, as others dance. She simply keeps on vibrating, both limbs and vocal chords without rhythm, tone, melody or purpose. I feel as if I was poisoned with strychnine, so far as my body goes. I jerk, I writhe, I twist, I find no ease. She is perpetual irritation without possibility of satisfaction, an avatar of sex insomnia. Solitude of the soul, the worm that dieth not, ah me. She is the vulture of Prometheus and she is the music of mitylene. I could kill myself at this moment for the wild love of her.”
By 1910, she was at the height of her fame and was selling out shows across the continent. The American Genius, a publication of the time, would write that she was the perfect artist and was starry chaste in her colossal corruption.
She would perform many times in Canada, especially Montreal, and once during Mardi Gras in 1914 in Quebec City.
The songs she would sing were often brassy and confident that symbolized the changing role of women in the United States and Canada. Songs such as It’s Been Done Before But Not The Way I Do It, I Want Someone To Go Wild With Me, Go As Far As You Like and That’s Why They Call Me Tabasco, were huge hits for her on stage.
Her most famous song was I Don’t Care, earned her the nickname The I Don’t Care Girl.
Here she is singing the song in 1922.
Early in her career, a manager told her that money made money. She always remembered that and would spend huge amounts of money on publicity campaigns and costumes. She would often buy large ads with her own money and sometimes would spend twice what she would make on publicity alone.
Another way she generated publicity was through her behaviour. In 1907, she stayed in a hotel with married journalist C.F. Zittel for an entire week. Zittel’s wife discovered the affair after she hired detectives to burst into the room dressed as bellhops. The whole situation was front page news but did not hurt her reputation at all, only helping her gain an immense amount of publicity.
She would also gain publicity for having a champagne baths before performances and riding in hot air balloons, or posing with tigers. Often, she would go through as many as 10 costume changes in one 30 minute performance. These dresses included everything from a dress and headdress made of feathers, to a dress covered in coral. The coral dress weighed 45 pounds and cost $2,000, or $45,533 today.
There was a time when she was nearly always in the newspaper for everything from allegedly being kidnapped, having her jewels stolen or throwing a stagehand down a flight of stairs. On another occasion, she was said to have sliced a fire curtain when she felt her billing wasn’t satisfactory. One time, occasion, a theatre manager fined her $100 for sleeping through a matinee. In the evening, she would shred the stage curtain with a dagger. She would also get made at a stagehand who stepped in front of her as she walked to her dressing room. She took a hat pin and stabbed him three times in the abdomen.
According to the New York Times, as she was taken to the police station she produced a roll of bills and said, “take it all and let me go, for it is now my dinner time.”
Through her costumes, she often made news. In 1909, the Lincoln penny was issued. Tanguay would appear on stage a year later, in a coat made entirely from the new coins.
The frenzy that would follow her around would be the same seen by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
In 1913, Tanguay would marry dancer John Ford, but the couple would divorce four years later and Tanguay would become involved with another dancer named Roscoe Ails, but she would end that relationship when his behaviour became more erratic and violent.
In 1916, she would appear in Energetic Eva, her first movie. On the poster for the movie it said that she was the world’s greatest eccentric comedienne, the only vaudeville star who has played New York City three years in a row, has played more return engagements than any other star in theatre history and held the box office record in every vaudeville theatre in which she has appeared.
followed a year later in The Wild Girl. In the tag line for The Wild Girl, it would say
“Eva Tanguay, the most popular star vaudeville has ever known, brings to the screen in this her first picture, a reputation for entertainment unique in the amusement world. Her dynamic personality and her eccentric comedy have won her fame as The Bombshell of Joy. The Wild Girl is a tremendous picture, made at a huge cost, and every foot of it vibrates with Tanguay thrill.”
She would see her career slowly begin to decline in the 1920s as movies began to take over the entertainment world.
In 1927, Tanguay married 23-year-old Al Parado but had the marriage annulled very early into the relationship claiming fraud because Parado had two different names and she didn’t know which was real. Later it would be discovered that the marriage was a publicity stunt, and when it did not get the promotional press she expected, she terminated the relationship.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Tanguay would lose what some have estimated to be $2 million, or $30 million in today’s funds. In 1931, she was playing four or five times a day in small venues to help bring in some money.
By the 1930s, she had retired from show business as she had trouble adapting to the changing entertainment world. She would lose her eyesight in the 1930s from cataracts and her friend Sophie Tucker would pay for her to get her vision restored.
In 1934, she wrote Henry Ford asking for a free car stating,
“I live off a sort of an alley in a small house which is set in back of a big one, there is no view other than the backyards of other houses. It is very sad to have had so much and be cut down to poverty but my illness prevents me from doing any work. I’m no tramp, having lived the very best, my home consisted of gold glasses silver plates and everything that meant refinement, now I’m alone and cut off entirely from my own world I so loved. If I had a car I could go out afternoons and might connect some way with managers, agents and find something to do.”
Ford would decline to give her a free car.
She would spend the remainder of her life living of her savings and the selling of her costumes. Many would later believe that she would become the template for Norma Desmond in the classic movie Sunset Boulevard. Prior to her death, she would do an interview with Life Magazine, stating that her artistry had been forgotten.
She would die on Jan. 11, 1947 at the age of 68 in Hollywood, blind and in relative obscurity.
In 1953, Mitzi Gaynor would play Tanguay in a version of her life in The I Don’t Care Girl.
Oddly, both the posts for each movie said it was her first movie.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, New England Historical Society, Slate.com, the New York Times, Nepca.ca, Morrin.org