Sophie Tucker, sometimes called the “First Lady of Show Business” and the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” is a Jewish cultural icon.
Tucker was born Sonya Kalish in 1886 in what is now the Ukraine. Her family immigrated to Connecticut when she was just a baby, escaping persecution against Jews.
When her parents opened a restaurant in their new Hartford hometown, Tucker began singing in the eatery for tips. It was just the first in a career of entertainment jobs.
Tucker made a name for herself as a young woman along the vaudeville circuit. Her style was bawdy and risqué , and her musical performances were almost always imbued with humor.
She toured Europe and the UK with her act, but was perhaps most famous for her appearances at the Lower East Side New York venues.
In 1909, Tucker joined with Ziegfeld Follies, an incredibly famous vaudeville review that is still remembered fondly today—not least of all for its role launching the career of another beloved Jewish star: Fanny Brice.
Tucker left the Follies after a short time and picked up solo shows. She was popular for a routine done in black face, then a customary genre of entertainment. Backers pushed the black face routine on Tucker, insisting she wasn’t attractive enough to appear onstage as her natural self.
Then, one show in New York, Tucker’s makeup case was stolen and she was forced to grace the stage sans black face. The show was a rousing success, and she never wore the costume makeup again.
Tucker made several recordings during her career that exist today as a testament to her bluesy, unique voice, the most famous of which might be her original rendition of “My Yiddishe Momme.” She also appeared in several feature films, and hosted her own radio show in the 40’s. In the 50’s she enjoyed a career appearing on various variety television shows, like “What’s My Line” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Tucker died on February 9, 1966, of lung cancer, and was buried at Emanuel Cemetery in Hartford. She was an influence for many of Judaism’s most loved entertainers, and a precursor for modern Jewish actresses like Bette Midler, Roseanne Barr and Joan Rivers.
She was a woman for the ages, who reinvented herself time and time again.
“From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents,” Tucker once said. “From 18 to 35 she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash.”