When Sophie Tucker, called “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” died in 1966, the Hartford Courant wrote: “Miss Tucker was more than a Red-Hot Mama; she had a mama's love for people, and her memorial to her hard-working parents was always to remember other people in need.” Throughout her five-decade career, Sophie Tucker was not only a star of stage and screen, but also a dedicated philanthropist, leaving behind a rich legacy of music, television, and film along with one of care, concern and community support.
Sophie Kalish was born on January 13, 1886 in Tulchyn, Ukraine. The Kalish family immigrated to Hartford, Conn., when Sophie was just three months old and changed its name to Abuza. Once settled in Hartford, her parents opened a kosher restaurant on Front Street and started building a life for their daughter. They intended her to marry, have children and succeed in domestic matters. When the young Sophie showed a penchant for show business, her parents did not approve but allowed her to perform at the family’s restaurant for tips from patrons. In 1903, 17-year-old Sophie Abuza married Louis Tuck. The marriage was short-lived but the Tucks produced a son, Bert. Discontent with her husband’s lack of ambition, Sophie Tuck ended the relationship and left her family to pursue a career in show business in New York City. In an attempt to create a new stage persona for herself, she adapted her married name and became Sophie Tucker.
In New York, Tucker began singing in small cafes. When she first took to the vaudeville stage in 1907, she was forced to perform wearing blackface, a common practice in amateur shows at the time. Whether it was because she was considered overweight or because she was Jewish, her managers did not believe that Tucker could win over her audience by appearing on stage as herself. However, one night after her make-up was stolen, she turned skeptics into believers, charming her audience and transforming herself into a true star. She soon became a headliner in vaudeville and burlesque shows. As her popularity grew, Tucker shared top billing with many of the 20th century's most famous stars including Will Rogers, Jack Benny and Fanny Brice. She was invited to perform in London, Paris and other European cities.
In 1911, Tucker recorded "Some of These Days," the song that would become her trademark. She was soon touring with her own band and, in 1921 hired pianist Ted Shapiro as her long-term musical director. Shapiro wrote a series of hits for her including "The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else" and "Red-Hot Mama." In 1925, Tucker sang “My Yiddishe Mama” for the first time. The song later became a Jewish anthem in Europe after it was banned by Adolf Hitler. In 1929, Tucker made her movie debut in Honky Talk. In 1934, she made her first Royal Command Performance and was the only American performer to appear before three generations of British monarchs. She later received critical acclaim for her performances in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937) and Broadway Melody (1938), performing alongside Judy Garland in both features. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, in addition to performing, Tucker was instrumental in unionizing professional actors. She was elected president of the American Federation of Actors in 1938. In 1945, Tucker published her autobiography, Some Of These Days. She continued to work in clubs and on television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including several stints on the Ed Sullivan Show.
During her lengthy career, Tucker became increasingly known for her philanthropy, as well as her independent personality. Her philanthropic interests varied widely, from youth centers and a high school wing in Israel to a theater arts program at Brandeis University, a maternity clinic at Denver's General Rose Memorial Hospital, and Hartford's Emmanuel Synagogue. Tucker was married three times: first to Louis Tuck; then to Frank Westphal, one of her pianists; and finally to Al Lackey, her business manager. She remained close to her family, returning to Hartford each year to celebrate the High Holidays. In 1955, Tucker raised almost $1 million in a benefit performance on behalf of the Hebrew Old People's Home.
Sophie Tucker died in 1966 from lung and kidney disease. She is buried in Emmanuel Synagogue Cemetery in Wethersfield, Conn. Among those who consider Tucker’s comic style a major influence include Mae West, Joan Rivers, Rosanne Barr and Bette Midler.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.