January 13, 1884, is the birthdate of the entertainer Sophie Tucker, who, in a career that spanned more than half a century, was unabashed about being Jewish, about being oversized, or about being a single woman with a substantial sexual appetite. And audiences, both in the United States and in Europe, loved her for it.
Sonya Kalish was the child of Charles Polteil Kalish and the former Jennie Linetsky, from the small town of Tulchyn, in what is now Ukraine. (Sources agree on the day but not the year of her birth, which ranges between 1884 and 1887.) She is said to have been born in a farmhouse at which her mother had stopped while on the road, heading to board a ship from which to depart for America.
There, they were to join Charles, who had already immigrated to the United States. For unclear reasons, the family changed its name to “Abuza” on arrival in New York.
Morphing names and identities
The Abuzas were routed by a Jewish aid organization to Boston, where they remained for seven years. From there they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Charles, a tailor by training, and Jennie opened a kosher restaurant and boarding house.
Their children helped with the business: For Sophie, as Sonya had renamed herself while still in grade school, that meant waiting on customers and sometimes singing for them, for tips.
In 1903, Sophie eloped with her boyfriend, Louis Tuck, who drove a beer wagon; they followed up their civil marriage with a Jewish religious ceremony. The union was short-lived, with the couple splitting shortly after the birth of their son, Bert, in 1906. A short time later, Sophie moved to New York to begin a career as an entertainer. She left Bert in the care of her family, and took on the stage name of “Tucker.”
Years later, in her 1945 autobiography, she explained that she “wanted a life that didn't mean spending most of it at the cook stove and the kitchen sink."
After a short time singing for tips at cafes and beer gardens, Tucker began performing in a burlesque theater, where her boss insisted she appear in black-face – as a “coon shouter,” as the persona was pegged -- as she was too “fat and ugly” to play it straight. By 1908, she was in a touring company, and one day, arriving in Boston, found herself separated from her suitcase, and her makeup. For the first time, she was permitted to appear in her own skin, and announced to her audience, “You all can see I'm a white girl. Well, I'll tell you something more: I'm not Southern. I'm a Jewish girl and I just learned this Southern accent doing a blackface act for two years. And now, Mr. Leader, please play my song.”
Happy in herself
In 1909, Tucker appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies; two years later, she recorded her first record, “Some of These Days” (later the name of her autobiography), which became her trademark number, identified with her no less than “My Yiddishe Momme,” from 1925.
Tucker was large and brash, funny and open. Her songs, with titles like “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, but Oh, How a Fat Girl Can Love,” "I'm Living Alone and I Like It," and the 1910 “My Husband’s in the City” – written in response to a 1909 number by Irving Berlin, “My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!) -- were bawdy and bold, independent-minded and not remotely apologetic. She did marry two more times, but divorced quickly in both cases, and didn’t have additional children.
Tucker continued performing until shortly before her death, in 1966. She owned her own nightclub for several years, and had her own radio show. She appeared in film, on TV, and even in brothels, for the female employees, about whom she wrote, "Every one of them supported a family back home, or a child somewhere."
Tucker established a foundation to help her distribute financial assistance to causes she believed in. One of these was Israel, where she created youth centers in both Beit Shemesh and Kibbutz Be’eri, as well as funding a forest near the former. She also endowed a chair in theater arts at Brandeis University.
Sophie Tucker died at her home in New York, of lung and kidney failure, on February 9, 1966.