- Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay by Andrew L. Erdman
Andrew L. Erdman’s Queen of Vaudeville stands as an extension of his previous book, Blue Vaudeville. In his earlier text, Erdman examined the disjunction between the refined image of vaudeville put forth by vaudeville magnates and the risqué material often presented on their circuits, with headliner Eva Tanguay as one of several performers challenging vaudeville’s family-friendly label. Queen of Vaudeville is a biography of Tanguay, tracing her life from her Quebecois roots to her death in 1947 and illuminating the characteristics that made her popular with audiences and unpopular with managers, stage hands, and other performers. Above all, Erdman emphasizes Tanguay’s individuality as “a rousing model of human visibility” (14), a powerful charisma that compensated for any deficiency of talent.
The text is divided into twelve chronological chapters, in addition to an introduction and an epilogue. The first chapter covers Tanguay’s birth in 1878 in Quebec and her childhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts, as well as her first public performance. Here, Erdman lays out many of the threads he will follow throughout his book, including her father’s death, her experiences as a Canadian expatriate in New England, and her illegitimate daughter. Chapter 2 focuses on her first major successes on Broadway, My Lady (1901) and The Chaperons [End Page 282] (1902). Here, the author explores the development of Tanguay’s ability to sell her persona to an audience while also marking the first appearances of her professional jealousy and wild romances, both of which would continue throughout her career.
Chapter 3 marks Tanguay’s transition to vaudeville, where she would make her greatest impact, particularly with her trademark song “I Don’t Care.” Introduced in The Sambo Girl (1905), Tanguay would include this song in her vaudeville act, although after many years it became clear that the song “was also a burden” (72), as audiences demanded it at every performance. Her move to vaudeville marked the beginning of a journey that would elevate Tanguay to “the most famous headliner on the North American vaudeville circuits” (75). In chapter 4, Erdman shows how Tanguay learned to harness her image and market it to maximum effect. With her publicist and lover, C. F. Zittel, she created an air of mystery and transgression, drawing audiences to her with astonishing power, most clearly through her staged betrothal to Julian Eltinge, America’s premier female impersonator, which did much to enhance both of their careers.
Chapters 5 through 7 deal primarily with Tanguay onstage. Chapter 5 describes her participation in the Salome craze during the first decade of the twentieth century. Her performance was quite popular, and her efforts to claim sole ownership of the Salome dance only heightened her public persona. Chapter 6 focuses on the rise of Tanguay imitators, most notably Gertrude Hoffman, a competing Salome dancer and very popular comedian in her own right. Tanguay used these imitators to increase her own profile, attacking them and asserting her uniqueness in newspapers. Chapter 7 covers her time in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909, in which she replaced Nora Bayes and used her influence to have a young Sophie Tucker fired. In each of these chapters, Erdman notes numerous affairs—perhaps none more scandalous than an alleged dalliance with black performer George Walker—and run-ins with the police and with other performers. These incidences, Erdman suggests, were a part of Tanguay’s irrepressible individuality, but also alienated her from her colleagues.
Chapters 8 and 9 deal with two of Tanguay’s most disastrous relationships. In chapter 8, Tanguay is wooed by a mysterious man known as “Prince Charming” who turns out to be a conman, taking a great deal of money from Tanguay and leaving her heartbroken. Chapter 9 follows a similarly ill-fated relationship, this one with a dancer named John Ford (no relation to the film director), an alcoholic who took her money and ran off. Along with these tales of romantic woes, Erdman also...