Before Lady Gaga donned a meat suit, Madonna strutted in a cone bra, Bette Middler rolled onstage in a mermaid’s tail, Cher bared her navel, Marilyn Monroe got the Seven Year Itch or Mae West asked Cary Grant to come up and see her, there was the original “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker.
Tucker was a trailblazing singer and entertainer who conquered every medium of her day, including vaudeville, radio, movies or television. And now Tucker is the subject of a new “fictional memoir,” I Am Sophie Tucker, by Susan and Lloyd Ecker.
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The project is a labor of love for the Eckers, who are also the producers of a new motion picture biography on the show business legend, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker. During their first date in 1973, the Eckers saw a college performance by Midler, who was just beginning her rise to stardom as a singer and comedienne. As part of her act, Midler did a tribute to Tucker.
Thirty-five years later, the Eckers, long since married, sold a successful business they owned and were looking for something to do for the next chapter of their lives. They looked back to that first date and decided they wanted to find out more about Sophie Tucker. Their journey began with 400 scrapbooks Tucker had left to the New York Public Library and Brandeis University.
“After reading the first four, we realized that we had a treasure trove of wonderful information about this fascinating woman,” Susan Ecker told BookTrib. “Not only was she huge in show business, but she had written to her fans over the years, and they had written to her, and through the letters in the scrapbook, we got to see [our country] through the eyes of Americans over the course of a 60-year period from this living legend of show business. As we got further and further along, we fell in love with Sophie.”
A larger-than-life figure on stage, radio, and the big and small screens, Tucker was a loud, brash and ebullient figure who rubbed elbows with some of the most powerful and influential people of the 20th century, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Lady Bird Johnson, Golda Meir, and a host of international royalty. “She was kind of like the original Forrest Gump,” said Lloyd.
Why a “fictional memoir”? As the Eckers conducted their years of research, they found that it was sometimes difficult to tell where Tucker’s true story ended and her legend began. The account of her life had been embellished by several biographers, according to Lloyd Ecker, who said that “85 percent of I Am Sophie Tucker is actual truth based on stories we have verified with multiple sources in the scrapbooks.
“But,” he said, “there was about 15 percent of stories that we’re still not sure about, and to be honest, she told these stories herself so many times that by the end of her life, she didn’t even know what the truth was.”
Readers of I Am Sophie Tucker will find a remarkable story of a show business pioneer who paved the way for generations of female entertainers. “When Sophie was performing, her goal was to reach the women,” Susan said. “Her message to women was, ‘You don’t have to stay at home and wait patiently and cater to the man. You can take what you want for yourself. You have to respect yourself; you have to stand up for yourself and you can do whatever it is you set your mind to do.’ This was a new idea for women.
“Lady Gaga is doing exactly what Sophie did,” Susan said in comparing Tucker to many female performers who followed her. “She’s testing the boundaries.”