Nicknamed the “I Don’t Care Girl,” Eva Tanguay became the highest-paid player in vaudeville during the early 20th century. She was born on August 1, 1878, in Marbleton, Quebec, but six years later her family resettled in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Soon after, her father died, leaving the Tanguays impoverished. After winning an amateur contest, eightyear-old Eva joined the Redding-Stanton theater company and became her family’s breadwinner. She toured with the company for five years, then moved into adult roles in musical comedy. In 1901 Tanguay had her first major brush with celebrity when she had an impromptu fistfight with a chorus girl during a production of My Lady. The resulting publicity helped her land a star vehicle, The Chaperons, in which she sang “My Sambo.” Now a headliner, Tanguay fully established her stage persona in The Blond in Black. Exuberant and carefree, she won over audiences playing “the Sambo Girl.” She was such a sensation that the show’s producers soon renamed the show after her character.
Though now a leading star in theater, Tanguay moved into vaudeville in about 1906. Outrageous even offstage, her personality began to infiuence her stage performances more and more. She delighted in wearing scanty costumes, including one made entirely of dollar bills. Gyrating as she sang, she became famous for her rendition of “I Don’t Care,” a celebration of her lack of inhibition. The lyrics declared, “I don’t care/What people say or do,/My voice, it may sound funny/But it’s getting me the money,/So I don’t care.” In fact, her voice did sound shrill, and it earned her as much as $3,500 a week. Theater owners blanched at Tanguay’s risqué act, but her popularity was so great that they did little to censor her. Though described as “not beautiful, witty or graceful,” she pleased audiences primarily through her disinterest in propriety. In addition to giving them a vicarious thrill, her attitude was a refreshing challenge to outmoded Victorian ideals.
Tanguay had far less success in her personal life. She wed twice; one marriage ended in divorce, the other in annulment. By the 1920s, her health began to fail, eventually to the point that she could no longer perform. Although she earned an estimated $2 million during her career, extravagant spending and the 1929 stock market crash left her with nothing. Desperate for money, Tanguay attempted a comeback in the early 1930s, but soon cataracts left her blind. Stage star SOPHIE TUCKER paid for an operation to restore her sight, but then Tanguay was stricken with paralyzing arthritis. She was forced to retire to her small home in Los Angeles. When she died on January 11, 1947, she was in the process of working on her memoirs, Up and Down the Ladder. She had tried to interest Hollywood in her story, but did not live to see The I Don’t Care Girl, a 1952 musical starring Mitzi Gaynor as Tanguay.
Martin, Linda, and Kerry Seagrave. Women in Comedy. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1986.
Sochen, June. From Mae to Madonna: Women Entertainers in Twentieth-Century America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.