Monday, March 30, 2020

The Red Hot Mama & the Supreme

Sophie Tucker's career stretched from vaudeville to TV.

It’s a fascinating little mystery mentioned in a review of a biography of Sophie Tucker. Sophie Tucker was a popular singer for much of the 20th century. Tucker (Sonya Kalish) was born in Ukraine in 1887 and came to the United States with her parents as a child. Like many Jews of that era, they escaped Czarist pogroms. She started singing professionally in 1907, often in blackface. Her career had remarkable longevity. She began in vaudeville and achieved national popularity on the radio in the 1920s, but baby boomers might remember her from appearances on television’s Ed Sullivan Show. Few people would recognize her name today.

None of the foregoing is a mystery. It’s Tucker’s connection to a black teenager that intrigues. That teenager, Florence Ballard, was born in 1943.  She’s best known as a founding member of the Supremes, the greatest girl group of all time. She was the least glamorous of the three Supremes. Diana Ross was the lead and diva. Mary Wilson was a less assertive beauty.  Florence was said to have had the best voice, but she lacked the charisma of the others. Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy is supposed to have pushed her out of the group around 1967.

Tucker’s biography reveals that in 1960 when Sophie was nearing the end of her career, she sent the 17-year-old Florence Ballard an inscribed copy of her autobiography. This was weeks before Ballard had signed a contract with Motown. Why was this old Jewish immigrant writing to the unknown black teen? Could it have been that Ballard was a Tucker admirer and had written Sophie a fan letter? 

Who knows? What we do know is that Tucker admired black music. Her performances regularly covered jazz and blues standards. As her popularity grew, she hired African-American songwriters to fill-out her repertoire. She even called herself “the last of the red hot mamas.

Florence Ballard before her departure from
The Supremes
Sophie Tucker died in 1966 at the height of Supremes fame. Florence Ballard died an alcoholic ten years later, never having recovered from getting the boot from Motown. We can only guess at the connection between these two singers, the long-lived immigrant whose Jewish family fled persecution and the Detroit-born teenager whose career would be cut short.   

Today, Jewish Americans can take special pride in that ancestral generation who arrived at New York Harbor as refugees in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It's amazing how quickly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe adapted to this country. The immigrant generation worked hard and if they did not themselves prosper their children often did.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

One at a Time, Dears.

In this 1906 Life Magazine illustration, Bayard Jones depicts a Mormon patriarch being greeted by several wives on his return from a trip. The Mormon practice of plural marriages prompted federal legislation that forbade entry of "polygamous" immigrants. Young women from European countries with a Mormon mission presence were sometimes given extra scrutiny at Ellis Island. This illustration comes from "The Comedy of Life," available at the Internet Archives.
A Mormon patriarch is welcomed home by his wives.
Inspectors at Ellis Island sometimes suspected that immigrant
women destined for the West were coming to join polygamous 
Polygamy and Immigration
The media recently reported that Utah’s State Senate had passed a bill to decriminalize polygamy.*  Should the legislation be voted and signed into law, the practice of taking multiple wives would be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. The story reminds me of an old Life Magazine cartoon. In “Married Life in Utah” (1906), illustrator Bayard Jones depicts a Mormon patriarch being greeted by several wives on his return from a trip. The traditional Mormon practice of plural marriages earned the ire of Congress in the 19
th century.  Lawmakers passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which President Lincoln signed into law in 1862.

The federal government has also long forbidden entry of "polygamous" immigrants to the United States. Under federal pressure, Mormon leadership issued a manifesto against polygamy in 1890, but the U.S. government remained skeptical. At Ellis Island, young women from European countries with a large Mormon mission presence were often suspect and questioned by inspectors. Back then, Muslims might also have been asked the polygamy question, but they were the rarest of immigrants. Today, immigrants and refugees from Islamic countries are more common, but taking multiple wives is rarer than in the past, particularly among educated arrivals. In sum, immigrants may still be asked if they have more than one wife and barred from entry if they do. Polygamy may also qualify as a bar to citizenship.

In the cartoon, the old man tells his wives, “One at a time, dears.” That seems to be the American consensus. Having more than one spouse is okay, but only if it’s one at a time.  

*Anthropologists use “polygyny” for multiple wives and “polyandry” for multiple husbands.

Turn-of-Century Movers and Shakers

Chauncy Depew had an illustrious career. Long-time attorney for railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, Depew would become a senator for New York State and was widely considered presidential material. In 1900, he was thought by many to be the best-known man in America. Some considered him the most persuasive and entertaining public speaker of his day. He gave the oration for the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. At the time, the statue was called, "Liberty Enlightening the World." Depew has been falsely quoted as referring to Lady Liberty as a stern gatekeeper to America but at the time no one associated the statue with immigration.

While one could hardly call New York State’s Prominent and Progressive Men a page-turner, these two volumes (+1,000 pp.) are an interesting resource on turn-of-century New York Society, providing brief life sketches of the city and state’s most influential men. This was, of course, before women even had the right to vote. This was also the age of immigration, particularly for New York, which received more newcomers by far than any other state. Immigration may help to explain why so many of the biographies delve into the family pedigrees of the mostly Anglo-Saxon gentlemen. America’s Gilded Age was ending and the Great Wave of immigration (1880-1930) was picking up steam.

In fact, steam was in large part responsible for the many newcomers arriving on American shores.  By 1900, the steamship had cheapened and quickened passage across the Atlantic, making it possible for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to make the trip in great numbers. Previously, northern and western Europeans had dominated arrivals. Those “old immigrants” from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia were now greatly outnumbered by the “new immigrants” from such countries as Italy, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Hungary.

Another change was that “return immigration” was now practical. A Sicilian farmer hoping to make enough money to buy a bit of land or to afford marriage could come, work for a year or more, pinch his pennies, and return home with a small fortune. He could become a migrant worker, or, to use the language of the time, a “bird of passage.” Few Americans today realize that a significant share of early-20th century immigrants—in the case of Italy, for example, some 40%--returned to their home countries to live out their lives.

Return migration was much rarer for the old immigrants who had come before the Civil War and the steamship era. Their Anglo-Saxon descendants tended to look upon the new immigrants as inferior people. One way these Americans, particularly the gentry, set themselves apart was to stress their colonial ancestry. They formed organizations like the Sons of the Sires and the Daughters of the American Revolution to validate descent from the pioneering men and women who had founded the nation and established its institutions.

This highlighting of ancestral roots is obvious in the biographical profiles of Prominent and Successful Men. Virtually every profile emphasizes family history. If not of Puritan or Dutch stock, these admirable men, we are told, come from long-established, distinguished roots. Even Juan Manuel Ceballos, though Spanish, is the scion of a family “of the purest blood” and resident of New York for several generations (60).

Nowhere do we get the sense that a large share of New York State’s population was foreign-born. Perhaps this is understandable in a volume dealing with the established elite. One William Nathan Cohen, son of a German immigrant and ostensibly a Jew, is among the very few we might call a minority. His biography evokes the Horatio Alger tales of rags-to-riches success, which he achieved “by dint of hard work, privations, and inflexible determination” (72).

Like any encyclopedia, these volumes are not meant to be read from cover to cover, but perusing them is interesting, especially if one is looking for background on a particular individual and wants to know how the man was viewed in his time and not as history has treated him.  In this light, the biography of Chauncy Depew is particularly interesting. It’s a good bet that virtually no American today would recognize the name Chauncy Depew. And yet, in 1900 he is described as the best-known man in New York--indeed, in America! It just goes to show that fame is indeed fleeting.