In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Dec. 1 2009 7:04 AM

Vanishing Act

In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

Eva Tanguay. Click to launch slide show.

Click here to view a slide show about Eva Tanguay.

To begin, a few facts. The singer, actress, and vaudeville star Eva Tanguay was born in 1878 in Marbleton, a small town in Quebec, Canada; grew up in Holyoke, Mass.; and died on Jan. 11, 1947, in Los Angeles, where she lived her last years in a style that some suggest was the model for Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard—in a Hollywood bungalow festooned with yellowing newspaper clippings and memorabilia from her heyday.

Tanguay made just one recording, a version of her anthem, "I Don't Care," released on a 78 rpm disc in 1922 by the Los Angeles label Nordskog. By rights, this song should be as familiar as "Over the Rainbow" or "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Rapper's Delight." And here we arrive at the crucial fact: For roughly two decades, from 1904 until the early 1920s, Eva Tanguay was the biggest rock star in the United States.

To call Tanguay a "rock star" is anachronistic but appropriate. She was not just the pre-eminent song-and-dance woman of the vaudeville era. (One of her many nicknames was "The Girl Who Made Vaudeville Famous.") She was the first American popular musician to achieve mass-media celebrity, with a cadre of publicists trumpeting her on- and offstage successes and outrages, and an oeuvre best summed up by the slogan that appeared frequently on theatrical marquees: "Eva Tanguay, performing songs about herself." She was the first singer to mount nationwide solo headlining tours, drawing record-breaking crowds and shattering box-office tallies from Broadway to Butte. Newspaper accounts describe scenes of fan frenzy that foreshadowed Frank Sinatra at the Paramount Theatre and Beatlemania. At the height of her stardom, Tanguay commanded an unheard of salary, $3,500 per week, out-earning the likes of Al Jolson, Harry Houdini, and Enrico Caruso.

Eva Tanguay, in her feather outfit. Click image to expand.
Eva Tanguay, in her feather outfit

If you read the press and popular literature of the first quarter of the 20th century, Tanguay is inescapable. Edward Bernays, the celebrated "father of public relations," called Tanguay "our first symbol of emergence from the Victorian age." The journalist and playwright George Ade dubbed Theodore Roosevelt "the Eva Tanguay of politics." One of her hits was titled "They'll Remember Me a Hundred Years From Now." To Tanguay's contemporaries, it must have seemed less like a boast than a foregone conclusion. A century later, though, Tanguay is forgotten—vanished from the pages of pop music history. No one has written an Eva Tanguay biography, although biographies exist for many of her vaudeville contemporaries, all of them lesser stars. Tanguay herself claimed at various points to be working on her memoirs—in 1910 she told a reporter that she was writing an autobiography entitled A Hundred Loves—but she left behind no manuscript. A clunky Hollywood biopic, The I Don't Care Girl (1953), erased more than it commemorated, presenting an unrecognizably toned-down version of Tanguay's radical stage act and ignoring the facts of her raucous love life, including her rumored romance with black vaudeville star George Walker. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music has a 288-word Tanguay entry, and she gets a passing mention in Russell and David Sanjeks' American Popular Music and Its Business. But in the standard pop music histories, Tanguay's name does not appear.

Just about the only person to find a place in the canon for Tanguay is Ralph Bakshi, who included "I Don't Care" in his 1981 animated film American Pop, alongside the likes of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Pretty Vacant." It took the director of Fritz the Cat and other X-rated cartoons to draw a line across the decades connecting Eva Tanguay and Johnny Rotten. Indeed, the self-proclaimed "I Don't Care Girl" and the self-proclaimed antichrist have quite a bit in common—the main difference being that Tanguay was considerably more punk rock.

Little is known about Tanguay's childhood. Her family moved from Canada to Massachusetts in the 1880s, and by the age of eight, Eva was playing child leads in summer-stock theater companies. She arrived in New York at age 19 and found work on the variety stage. That same year, her name surfaced in the newspapers: She was appearing in a production called Hoodoo, and when a fellow chorus girl accused her of hot-dogging onstage, Tanguay turned and choked her cast mate until the girl's face turned blue and she passed out. It was Tanguay's first taste of notoriety and her first big backstage altercation. There would be more of both in her future.

Tanguay's breakthrough came in 1904, in the musical comedy The Sambo Girl. Playing the lead "brownface" role, she stole the show with a new song, a lurching mid-tempo ballad by songwriters Jean Lennox and Harry O. Sutton. The tune was not written expressly for Tanguay, but it may as well have been. For the rest of her career, she merely enlarged on the character-sketch in "I Don't Care": a madcap woman on the verge, trampling the conventions of demure femininity, polite society, and musical theater. "They say I'm crazy and got no sense/ But I don't care," Tanguay sang. "They may or may not mean offense/ I care less."

The song was broadly comic but shocking nonetheless in 1904, when Victorian notions of female propriety prevailed. Blasting out "I Don't Care," Tanguay gave voice to an anarchic feminism that claimed the old stigma of female "hysteria" as a badge of honor—the Victorian neurasthenic recast as a liberated, libidinous 20th-century wild-woman: