May 6, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Saucy Facts About Sophie Tucker, The Last Of The Red-Hot Mamas

Sophie Tucker was a legendary entertainer who left audiences tickled and titillated. Sadly, she was the last of her kind and led a secretly lonely life.

1. Her Life Was Not What It Seemed

For a vaudevillian, Sophie Tucker didn’t have looks or a flawless figure—but she didn’t need them. Her evocative vocals, bawdy humor, and corset-less confidence propelled her into international stardom and made her the “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas”. Tragically, however, Tucker’s real life was full of tragedy.

Sophie TuckerJohn Springer Collection, Getty Images

2. She Was Born On The Run

Sophie Tucker was born Sofia Kalish in 1886 in modern-day Ukraine, then the Russian Empire. From the beginning, her life was dramatic. Shortly after she was born, her family fled in the cover of darkness, arriving in Boston in 1887. But even after traversing half a continent and an ocean, Tucker’s family couldn’t escape their past.

Sophie TuckerSasha, Getty Images

3. Her Father Was A Deserter

Once they arrived in America, Tucker’s family had to undertake more drastic actions to conceal their escape. As it turns out, Tucker’s father had deserted the Imperial Russian Army, likely because of the family’s strong Jewish faith and traditions. They changed their last name to Abuza, hoping that the authorities would lose their trail.

Thankfully, they had a miracle child on their hands.

Sophie TuckerHulton Deutsch, Getty Images

4. She Saved The Family Business

Tucker’s family moved to Connecticut when she was about eight years old and opened Abuza’s Home Restaurant. In between taking orders, Tucker discovered a hidden talent. She would stand in the doorway, singing to passerby to bring them into the restaurant. 

Even at her tender age, she sang with such drama and charisma that it wasn’t clear whether the people were coming for the food or the show. Pretty soon, it wouldn’t matter.

Sophie Tuckerbrandstaetter images, Getty Images


5. She Brought Everyone To Tears

Tucker’s hidden talent turned her family’s restaurant into one of the liveliest spots in Hartford. Her emotive singing left the restaurant’s patrons, as well as her inartistic family, absolutely stunned. As she once quipped, “between me and the onions, there wasn't a dry eye in the place”. With the tips rolling in, Tucker got a clever idea.

Sophie TuckerAl Fenn, Getty Images

6. She Was A Crowd Favorite

It didn’t take long for Tucker to see her potential as an entertainer. But she would need a bigger stage than the floor of her family’s restaurant. With a head full of dollar signs and a heart full of dreams, the curvy girl entered amateur singing competitions. In no time, she became an audience favorite, with crowds shouting, “Give us the fat girl!”

Unfortunately, someone wanted her all to themselves.

Sophie TuckerSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

7. She Married In Secret

Tucker’s first taste of stardom had been electrifying, but a silly teenage decision derailed her burgeoning career. Around 1903, at the tender age of 16, Tucker eloped with a cart driver named Louis Tuck. It’s not entirely clear what, beyond puppy love, prompted the rash decision, but she couldn’t keep her marriage secret for long.

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

8. Her Parents Gave Her An Ultimatum

As soon as she returned home, Tucker’s parents took her rash decision and made it official. Despite their likely disapproval of their teen daughter marrying a man with few prospects, they arranged an Orthodox marriage ceremony for the pair. If the lovebirds couldn't be wise, Sophie's parents insisted they be respectable. 

But another surprise was in store. 

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

9. She Made A Discovery

Being a teen bride wasn't the only twist in Sophie's young life. Soon after getting married to Louis Tuck, Sophie discovered she was pregnant with her first and only child. She had the boy, Albert, in 1905, when she was still barely out of her own childhood years. The strain began to show immediately. 

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images


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10. She Hated Being A Mother

In the end, what should have been the beginning of a quiet family life for Sophie turned into a nightmare of her own making. Louis Tuck did indeed have no prospects, and grinding poverty as well as her own mind-numbing boredom of her family life drove Sophie nearly mad. 

It was time to do something drastic once again. This time, there would be no turning back.

Sophie TuckerKeystone, Getty Images


11. She Abandoned Her Family

Before long, Sophie came to a life-altering realization. She didn't want a child, and she didn't want to be a wife. No, what she wanted was to be a famous entertainer. She stopped at nothing to achieve these dreams: Soon after having Albert, Sophie abandoned her husband and left her son in her family's care.

Then, she headed to New York...and a new kind of nightmare. 

Sophie TuckerDe Carvalho Collection, Getty Images

12. She Struggled To Find Work

Sophie landed in New York with a letter of recommendation from well-known vaudeville performer Willie Howard. She was in for a rude awakening. The letter got her almost nowhere, as many establishments were wary of Sophie's inexperience as well as her bigger size.

She found herself in almost the same position as she had in her family's restaurant, singing in cafes and beer gardens for food and tips. There was an even more heartbreaking side to this, too.

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

13. She Didn't Forget 

Although Tucker had up and left Connecticut and her young family, she hadn't forgotten her loved ones back home. Even on her meager makings from these gigs, she continually sent most of what she made back home to her young son. 

When she did find steady work, it came with a cruel twist. 

Sophie TuckerFPG, Getty Images

14. They Didn't Believe In Her

Tucker made her proper stage debut in 1907 at an amateur night, and began to finally get attention for her act. However, one promoter was worried that audiences would find her too “big and ugly". So he came up with a disturbing plan to make her appearance more "palatable".

Sophie TuckereBay, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Took Up Horrible Work

The manager thought that Tucker could cover up her ugliness with a little face paint. He offered Tucker a regular spot in his troupe—if she agreed to perform in blackface. Running out of money and opportunities, Tucker reluctantly agreed to take the gig. She quickly regretted it.

Sophie TuckerUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Was Ashamed Of Herself

Tucker’s new gig paid her regularly, but it came at a great cost to her personally. Even though she developed a reputation as a first-rate performer in the burnt cork, she hated it. When she toured in Connecticut, mere miles away from her home, she didn’t tell her family so they couldn't see her shame.

After years of this, she finally got her revenge. 

Sophie TuckerState Library of Queensland, Australia, Wikimedia Commons


17. She Revealed Her True Herself

Eventually, Tucker couldn’t take it anymore. Her plan was genius. She developed a bit that left audiences in hysterics and exposed the whole farce for what it was. During her performances, she would slowly remove a glove, revealing her white hand. Then she would rip off her wig, revealing her blonde hair.

The gambit worked better than she had expected.

Sophie TuckerUniversity of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Had A Huge Loss

Tucker had made a fun, humorous bit out of exposing the foolishness of her racist act. But, it still wasn’t the act that she wanted to perform. Luckily, fate intervened. Before a big show in Boston, Tucker's makeup got lost in transit, and she had no choice but to go on stage as herself. Then again, there's another side to the story. 

Sophie TuckerBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Was Clever And Cunning

Although the official story is that Tucker's makeup was innocently misplaced, it's very likely that she got completely fed up with her act and contrived to lose her luggage on purpose. Considering what happened when she finally went up on stage, it certainly seemed like she couldn't have planned it better. 

Sophie TuckerWill Rossiter, Wikimedia Commons

20. She Showed Her True Self

Tucker went on stage that night in the perfect costume: A dress that was too tight for her frame and heels that were too high. It was a deliberate ruse to make audiences laugh. When Tucker inevitably took a pratfall, causing the audience to burst into laughter, she quipped back, “Hey, what are you laughing at? I'm doing the best I can!”

The audience was in the palm of her hand after that, and Tucker got a new idea.

Sophie TuckerUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

21. She Leaned In

Tucker soon figured out that the exact thing that made her bosses nervous—her size—was actually her greatest asset. She developed an act that relied on bawdy humor and physicality, touting herself as a "Perfect 48". Meanwhile, her powerful vocals won her fans in songs like “I Don't Want to Get Thin" and "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love”.

Sophie TuckerEugene West, Joe Gold, & Edmund J. Porray, Wikimedia Commons

22. She Was A Folly

Tucker’s unique act and undeniable stage presence made her an instant success all across the country. In fact, she became so successful that she joined the biggest show in town: the Ziegfeld Follies. She was an instant hit with the audiences, who lapped up her racy sense of humor. 

But not everyone appreciated her rise to fame.

Picture shows the Original Ziegfield Follies with the Ziegfeld girls on stage holding parasols.Bettmann, Getty Images


23. She Was In A Cat Fight

Despite the fact that she was bringing in big box office numbers, Tucker made powerful enemies. At the Ziegfeld Follies, the other women in the revue were overcome with jealousy when they saw how Tucker, not the typical Ziegfield woman, took their spotlight away from them. 

They were so intent on tripping her up, they forced management to oust Tucker from the troupe. But she got the last laugh.

Mae Murray FactsGetty Images

24. She Gained A Powerful Fan

Fortunately for Tucker, someone in the audience at the Ziegfeld Follies had been watching. Someone very powerful and important: William Morris. He was a theater owner and soon to be one of the leading agents in American entertainment. 

He knew what the Follies foolishly refused to believe: Tucker was too big a star to share a stage with anyone.

Sophie TuckerJimmy Morgan and Jack Coogan, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Was A Sensation

With Morris’ support, Tucker recorded several songs. Just as predicted, she became a sensational hit and toured all over with her repertoire of chart-toppers. Her bubbly personality and charisma made her a fan favorite wherever she went. Yet she also had some tricks up her sleeve. 

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

26. She Could Be Ice Cold

In a genius marketing move, Tucker sold copies of her autobiography after her concerts. That wasn't all. If you approached her little set-up and didn't buy the book, she would ignore you. Tucker knew her worth, and she was infamous for her brassy confidence.

But if you did buy her autobiography, you got something else entirely.

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

27. She Befriended Her True Fans

At her post-show merch table, Tucker would give her paying fans marriage advice, honest conversation, and memories to last. She even took down their names and addresses so that she could send them greeting cards whenever she was in town. There was just one person she didn’t want to see again.

Sophie TuckerDenver Post, Getty Images

28. She Outgrew Her Marriage

Tucker’s act had turned her into an international star. But, as her celebrity ascended, her love life collapsed. She had officially divorced Tuck in 1913, only keeping a variant of his surname because she believed it sounded better. Still, Tucker wasn't one to weep over a man for long. 

Sophie TuckerAl Fenn, Getty Images

29. She Dated Her Co-Worker

One of the reasons for Tucker’s divorce was that she had found herself a new man. Around 1913, she began dating her accompanist, Frank Westphal. Especially at first, Tucker and Westphal covered up their personal relationship with their professional one. But there was no covering up their dysfunction. 

Sophie TuckerScreen Archives, Getty Images

30. Her Boyfriend Was Jealous Of Her

As Tucker’s star grew brighter and brighter, she couldn’t help but outshine her male counterparts—including her lovers. To avoid bruising his ego, Tucker agreed to share billing with Westphal. But, by 1916, it was obvious that audiences were turning up solely for Tucker and Westphal bowed out of her act. .

You'd think this might have signaled the end of their relationship too. If only. 

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

31. She Couldn't Save Her Lover

Westphal then tried to open a business, but he was inextricably tied to his lover. The business venture was even called the Sophie Tucker Garage, and despite her famous name it failed anyway. With that out of his system, Westphal returned to touring with Tucker as a separate act, tail between his legs.

Unfortunately, it still wasn't over for the two of them. In fact, it was just getting started.

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

32. She Made Another Rash Decision 

Perhaps moved to pity by Westphal's various showbusiness failings, or perhaps just trying to soothe their rocky relationship, Sophie Tucker married Frank Westphal in 1917. It proved to be a terrible idea. Marriage only made Westphal's resentment about his second billing grow, until it hit a cruel climax. 

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

33. She Was Too Much For Her Husband

Tired of playing second fiddle to Sophie's saucy performances and voluptuous vocals, Westphal was likely relieved when he got drafted into the US Army in 1918 to work as a mechanic. Or at least, he wasted no time cutting Tucker out of his life after going into the service, and filed for divorce the very next year. 

Tucker was alone again, and it wasn't going to get better soon. 

Sophie TuckerPA Images, Getty Images

34. She Tried Again

Tucker didn’t find love again for another decade, and in some ways it was her most tragic relationship yet. This time, she went for someone more like her equal, marrying her manager Al Lackey in 1928. However, once again, Lackey didn’t like being Tucker’s, well, lackey. 

By 1934, they too were divorced, and Tucker's confessions about the split were heartbreaking.

 Sophie TuckerMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

35. She Was Lonely

In her later years, Tucker reflected on her failed love life. She acknowledged the sad reality that most men didn’t want a strong, financially independent woman, lamenting that, "Once you start carrying your own suitcase, paying your own've done something to yourself that makes you one of those women men like to call 'a pal'".

Thankfully, she had some of the best friends in showbusiness. 

Sophie TuckerExpress, Getty Images

36. She Had Famous Friends

Throughout her career, Tucker developed lifelong friendships with jazz legends and Black musical pioneers such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters. Tucker learned a lot from these artists and incorporated jazz into her musical style. But her affinity for Black musicians caused one explosive moment. 

Hattie McDaniel FactsAlfredo Valente, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Broke With Convention

When Tucker threw a big wedding party for her sister in New York, she caused a stir with her color-blind choice of guests. Among the honored guests at the vaudeville legend’s party was the Black music icon Bill "Bojangles" RobinsonExcept when Bojangles showed up at the hall hosting the soiree, everything went off the rails. 

Bill Robinson in gray suit dancingAfro Newspaper/Gado, Getty Images

38. Her Guest Got Snubbed

When Bojangles showed up to the party, the doorman interjected, saying all of the white guests could enter but said that Bojangles would have to use the kitchen entrance. Unfortunately for that doorman, Tucker had no tolerance for intolerance. Her reaction left him stunned.

Portrait of tap dancer and entertainer Bill RobinsonAfro Newspaper/Gado, Getty Images

39. She Had The Perfect Reply

As it happened, Tucker was standing in the entryway when the doorman issued his discriminatory instructions. Her six word comeback was perfection. After hearing the his orders, Tucker angrily shot back, “OK—everybody goes through the kitchen”. 

However, Tucker's brand of fierce friendship extended to some of the most unsavory characters of her era.

Sophie TuckerBettmann, Getty Images

40. She Had Some Weird Friends

Tucker’s friendships with prominent Black musicians were actually her least controversial friendships. The “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” was infamously close friends with men on both sides of the law. On the one hand, she counted Al Capone as a dear friend. On the other hand, she kept company with J Edgar Hoover.

Al Capone FactsChicago Daily News, Getty Images

41. She Wasn't Afraid Of Kings

Eventually, Tucker’s popularity went international. She traveled to Europe, where her libertine act met with even more enthusiasm than at home. Sophie Tucker, however, was her same old brassy self: When she played for King George V and Queen Mary, she yelled out “Hiya King!"

Not all Tucker's bold habits were good for her, however. 

George VI FactsGetty Images

42. She Smoked Like A Chimney

Throughout her career, Tucker smoked like a chimney above an eternal flame. While this may or may not have affected her vocals, it did have one noticeable consequence. Apparently, she coughed so much and so often that a parrot belonging to one of her friends would cough every time someone mentioned her name.

Sophie TuckerGeorge Karger, Getty Images

43. She Watched Her World Die

By the late 1920s, vaudeville was on the decline, and Tucker herself admitted as much. When recalling the final performance at the Palace Theater in New York City before it closed down, she said “The whole place, even the performers, stank of decay". But there was nothing decaying about her. 

Sophie TuckerUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

44. She Tried To Save The Theater

As Tucker took to the stage at the Palace Theater that night, she brought the place back to life. “As I sang, I could feel the atmosphere change,” she said. She threw caution to the wind and delivered a performance that gave the promise of better days. “That's what an entertainer can do,” Tucker summarized. 

In fact, this next phase would literally make her name.

Sophie TuckerTyrad Pictures Inc, Wikimedia Commons

45. She Became The Last Of Her Kind

Sophie Tucker couldn't single-handedly save vaudeville, and the acts died out as the 1930s swung in. But Sophie knew how to save herself. Always a canny marketer of her brand, she began appearing as the "Last of the Red-Hot Mamas," a nod not only to a song lyric of hers, but also to her bawdy vaudeville roots that were now seldom seen in music halls. 

Sophie TuckerBain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

46. She Ventured Into Film

With the end of vaudeville, Tucker ventured into radio and film. She even had a short-lived radio show, The Roi Tan Program with Sophie Tucker, and made popular appearances on TV throughout the 1950s and 60s. On the silver screen, her most memorable role saw her play Judy Garland’s mother in Broadway Melody of 1938.

But she never lost her love for the stage. Or her racy humor.

Judy Garland In Presenting Lily Mars - 1943Clarence Sinclair Bull - MGM publicity photographer, Wikimedia Commons

47. She Dated A Much Younger (Imaginary) Man

Tucker continued performing on stage well into her later years, and she never lost a step. As she got older, she incorporated a pretend boyfriend named Abe into her act. She pretended that Abe had come to her and said, “Sophie, I'm tired of waiting for you—I'm going to get myself a 30-year-old girlfriend”.

Tucker would then say, "Go ahead. I'm going to get myself a 30-year-old boyfriend. But just remember, 30 goes into 70 a lot more times than 70 goes into 30". Sadly, that would be one of her last jokes.

Sophie TuckerDick DeMarsico, Wikimedia Commons

48. She Was An Eternal Diva

As Tucker grew older, she eventually needed a wheelchair to get around. But even as her physical health waned, Tucker stayed true to her moniker “The Last of the Red-hot Mamas”. When Tucker’s friend, Doreen Lewis, visited her in 1966, she recalled that Tucker kept complaining in Yiddish that her nurse had attached chiffon tassels to her wheelchair—ones that didn't match her dress.

Sophie TuckerUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

49. She Had A Homecoming

In 1913, the same year that Tucker divorced her first husband, her whirlwind tour brought her back to her hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. Given her previous shameful performances and the circumstances of her failed marriage, it could have been an icy welcome. She was in for a surprise. 

As she entered the town, a giant billboard greeted her saying, “Sophie Tucker, The Pride of Hartford”.

Sophie TuckerCitizen Mira, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

50. She Had A Disastrous Relationship With Her Son

In the end, Tucker’s career success came at a terrible price. While she counted royalty among her friends, she never did establish a stable, loving relationship with the son she had left back in Connecticut all those years ago. Her sister effectively raised Albert as her own, with Tucker seemingly only contributing financially to his life.

51. She Went Out Like A Star

After a long and exciting career, Tucker knew how to make an exit. Moments before her passing, she called in her nurse and demanded that she bring her chiffon hanky and wig. Donning the costume, she recited some lines from her act and then slowly drifted off into the hereafter, leaving behind a legacy as the “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” but the “First Lady of Show Business”.

Sophie TuckerCloyd Teter, Getty Images

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