- Sex, Savagery, and the Woman Who Made Vaudeville Famous
After watching Eva Tanguay perform for the first time in Buffalo, New York, around 1912, one critic commented: “Miss Tanguay’s voice contains no more music than a buzz saw, she has no more repose than a mad dog fleeing before a mob of small boys.”1 It is no coincidence that the curious appellations and adjectives heaped upon Tanguay during her long, record-breaking career in vaudeville could have more aptly described a wild animal. Tanguay evoked animality not simply in how she moved or what she sang, but in how she sang. One critic described her voice as “the wail of the prehistoric diploduocus.”2 Tanguay encouraged such comparisons herself by singing “I’d Like to Be an Animal in the Zoo,” in which she extolled the virtues of being a giraffe and an ostrich.
By wearing costumes made of feathers and furs and singing seemingly autobiographically themed material about her primitive nature and animalistic aspirations, Tanguay became “The I Don’t Care Girl,” who was beloved for her defiance of Victorian expectations of white feminine decorum. Using vaudeville—one of the most popular leisure activities of the day—as her medium, Tanguay gave live audiences a preview of the kind of sensationally “primitive” performances African American entertainer Josephine Baker would become famous for in the 1930s.3 Clad in feathers and fruits, Baker seemed to echo Tanguay when she told the press, “People have done me the honor of believing I’m an animal.”4 But Tanguay was a fair-skinned white woman, and this kind of conduct made her a household name beginning in 1903. By linking white womanliness to animalistic savagery at a time when both race and gender were undergoing considerable reconstruction, Tanguay presented audiences with a new ideal of racialized masculine femininity.
In the past five years renewed interest in Tanguay has inspired her first full-length biography, a feature article in Slate, and comparisons to Madonna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Sarah Silverman, and even Kim Kardashian.5 Though scholars have cited Tanguay as the highest-paid performer in vaudeville history, [End Page 87] historians’ critical understanding of her significance remains cursory.6 This is surprising given that, between 1903 and the 1920s, magazines and hundreds of daily newspapers obsessively reported on her performances, fashions, backstage antics, and personal life. The intense level of coverage that followed her everywhere made Tanguay a central icon of a newly emerging celebrity culture, helping spawn a reported 517 female and male imitators.7
This essay expands on the work of other scholars by utilizing a variety of archives, including the Eva Tanguay Papers at the Henry Ford Museum, materials at the Houghton Theatre Library at Harvard, and scores of contemporary newspaper articles. It examines this material through the intersecting lenses of race and gender, contextualizing Tanguay’s performances within dominant cultural concerns that shaped turn-of-the-twentieth-century America. Like Susan Glenn, in her work on female performance, I contend that the nature and reception of women’s performances in popular theater reflected concerns deeply connected to cultural fractures emerging with the New Woman, who attended college, rode bicycles, and sometimes turned her back on marriage and children in favor of education and work.8 However, this essay departs from previous studies in several key ways. First, instead of focusing on the ways in which women’s performances caused changes in women’s social roles, this work deconstructs these performances on the stage, attempting to understand one remarkably successful performer’s unique choices and how and why her performances resonated with audiences and critics. Second, it insists on the centrality of race in understanding this reception and related anxieties about the New Woman, who was, in the end, a racialized figure portrayed as white and middle class. Unlike some New Women Tanguay did not pursue a college education, work in a settlement house, or, as many celebrities increasingly did in the 1910s, advocate women’s suffrage. Yet she played a distinct and highly visible part in major cultural shifts tied to race and gender, using the stage to exploit and experiment with...