“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker” touches on the queerness of a famous 20th century performer

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Fifty years ago, Sophie Tucker wouldn’t need any introduction. As one of the most famous performers of the early 20th century, Sophie was a touring vocalist and comedian who performed around the world against several odds stacked against her. A large, Jewish mother to a young son, she began singing in amateur vaudeville shows under the condition she would wear blackface, as promoters thought she wasn’t attractive enough for audiences to enjoy her.

Sophie Tucker

It didn’t take long for Sophie to prove she was a crowd-pleaser, though, and she was able to do away with the offensive get-up and sing songs she wrote, including “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.” Throughout her almost 60 year long career, she performed with the Ziegfeld Follies, appeared in 11 films and three Broadway shows. Her friends were her fans and vice versa, and because she kept addresses, cards, letters and photographs in scrapbooks, researchers Susan and Lloyd Ecker and filmmaker William Gazecki have a life’s worth of content to include in their new documentary, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker.

In the latter half of the film, we find out about Sophie’s many “female companions,” as the legendary performer was married briefly but after separating from her third husband, never remarried. Instead, she had several relationships with women, including Chicago journalist Amy Leslie, royal Lady Edwina Mountbatten, her “traveling maid” Molly Elkins, and, most notably, Dr. Margaret “Mom” ChungThe Outrageous Sophie Tucker includes many tidbits from Sophie’s romances, including sweet notes she kept from Margaret, such as “You are so wonderful to come home to” and “You’re an old tyrant but I love you.” Carol Channing shares a story about Sophie complaining that Margaret always ate her snacks.

Lady Edwina MountbattenEdwina Mountbatten

“They fought together like sisters,” Carol said, but echoes a sentiment that most of Sophie’s friends seem to share—she was widely loved and accepted, no matter who her “close friend” may be.

The film also touches on Sophie’s friendship with J. Edgar Hoover, who was well known to be closed off and closeted from most people in his life. But the film says he was open with Sophie, asking to borrow her dresses and bringing his partner, Clyde Tolson, around to spend time with her.

Sophie also took an interest in bisexual performer Josephine Baker, publicly voicing her support when racists threatened to bomb the Florida venue Josephine was set to play at the Copa City Nightclub in 1950. Sophie declared she would introduce Josephine the night of her show, saying, “Well, if they come to blow up the place, they’ll blow me up.” Thankfully, the night went off without a hitch.

Similar to what Bessie Smith was doing for black women at the time, Sophie Tucker was creating a stir around the sexualizing of Jewish women. Both women sang songs about being “red hot mamas,” using a certain familial vernacular to sing about their size and stature, and the power they held as strong women. On stage, Sophie would joke, “Tucker doesn’t follow men. Men follow Tucker.” Despite her lack of interest in men for romantic relationships, she was happy to put them in their place, which was decidedly behind her. She embraced the matronly image, singing songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Thin,” indicating a feminist, fat-positive stance she held throughout her life. (At one point, the film shows, she was said to be getting skinny and immediately went on a strict weight-gaining diet.) 

Diego 13 - 1931 - William couch shot

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker focuses most on Sophie’s successful career with tidbits from her famous friendships and personal life, utilizing artifacts from her personal collection and various film and radio clips to show her in action. A well-loved woman and celebrated performer, the film is a celebration of a life spent persevering and without considering naysayers who may have tried to sway her along the way. But one question I was left with at the end was how Sophie felt about her life. Was she happy at the end? Did she feel like she was dying alone, without a lover by her side? What happened with her relationship with Margaret? The movie may not have satiated my curiosity, but it certainly stirred it. 

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker opens in select theaters this Friday and comes to video on demand on August 11.