- The Prettiest Girl on Stage Is a Man: Race and Gender Benders in American Vaudeville by Kathleen B. Casey
Kathleen B. Casey's recent contribution to the growing literature on vaudeville is an ambitious study of four now-forgotten, yet extremely significant, individuals. With its focus on the racial and gender boundaries crossed by some of the biggest attractions of the first decades of the twentieth century—performer Eva Tanguay, female impersonator Julian Eltinge, African American male impersonator Lillyn Brown, and singer Sophie Tucker—The Prettiest Girl on Stage Is a Man: Race and Gender Benders in American Vaudeville demonstrates how vaudeville was central to the making of alternative ideologies. It is difficult to emphasize how little scholarly attention these stars have received. Although Tucker and Tanguay have begun to gain some traction among academics in recent years, none of these have the recognition of contemporaries such as Irving Berlin and Al Jolson or black blues queens such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. As a result, Casey has a substantial amount of terrain to cover, and she does so admirably.
Highlights of the book are Casey's nuanced arguments about gender inversion, particularly in reference to Eltinge and Brown. Eltinge's role in [End Page 449] advertising skin creams for women is fascinating. As the only married performer in the study, Brown offers an important counterexample of how those who crossed boundaries on stage were not always unconventional in their personal lives. The coverage of Brown in both the black and the white press reveals the mixed response to male impersonators, and their uneven reception, regardless of the color line. As much as Casey engages with the literature on feminism and performance, she focuses less on ideas about ventriloquism and deception, captured so brilliantly in James W. Cook's The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Mass., 2001). Most vaudevillians, from Pauline the Hypnotist to the boxing Gordon sisters, were spectacles of artifice, and it would benefit Casey to consider whether her study might extend the findings Cook attributed to Jacksonian America.
A huge challenge of presenting four abbreviated biographies is the difficulty of capturing the complexities of a lifetime that may perhaps not fit the author's central paradigm. The study of Tucker centers on her early years as a "coon shouting" performer and remains rather fixed on that concept, even when Tucker spoke against the term and was rebranded by the 1910s (p. 115). Undoubtedly, the "coon shouter" label was tough for Tucker to shed; some listeners believed Tucker was African American. Nevertheless, her career transcended and refuted intentional racial mimicry as she became a spokeswoman for black causes, particularly the Negro Actors Guild. Ralph Bunche spoke at her golden jubilee anniversary for her promotion of racial equality. In addition, Casey's claim that Tucker was "rarely described as maternal" is far off; she was renowned for mentoring young stars, most famously Judy Garland (p. 120). The two women worked together in two films, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) and Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937). Although Tucker devoted less of herself to her own son, her motherly persona is what propelled her success among audiences and industry leaders.
All of this aside, Casey's study is still extremely important in building the vaudeville literature and proving that audiences relished the acts of those who moved across tradition. There is a treasure trove of untapped archival material in this area, and Casey's work signals a positive step in learning more about one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States.