It would be hard to dream up a song title more summarily American than "I Don't Care." A spirited show of daft amenability and defiant pride—it casts out multiple meanings at once. The 1905 song by Jean Lenox and Harry O. Sutton was the calling card for vaudeville superstar Eva Tanguay, who drove audiences to distraction when she sang: "They say I'm crazy, got no sense, / But I don't care. / They may or may not mean offence, / But I don't care."
Queen of Vaudeville
By Andrew L. Erdman
Cornell, 310 pages, $29.95
Famous in her 1910s prime and neglected since, Tanguay sang with a zany bray, sent up the conventions of dance with spastic agitations and made a show of seeming more than a little bit crazy in every way. As author Andrew Erdman presents her in "Queen of Vaudeville," Tanguay was a virtuoso of "mirthful lunacy." She once stabbed John Philip Sousa with a hatpin. She staged a sham engagement to an actor famous for female impersonations, and turned down an airborne proposal from one of the world's most accomplished pilots of balloons. Tanguay took to dancing in a racy dress made of pennies ("marking perhaps the only time in modern memory," Mr. Erdman writes, "when a leering crowd collected the tips at a striptease"). Mr. Erdman argues that her canny sass and formidable business acumen made her a forerunner of contemporary celebrities such as Lady Gaga.
Tanguay was certainly a "new woman," critical of the trappings of marriage ("wedding bells don't sound like music to me," she once said). She devoted her career to scrambling conventions of sex, gender, morality and decorum of all kinds. Yet Mr. Erdman's book reminds us it doesn't always pay to be ahead of one's time. Tanguay's star began to fade as vaudeville lost sway to the burgeoning culture of cinema. She starred in one ill-suited feature film, the 1917 silent "The Wild Girl," and after her 1947 death served as the subject of a bumbling biopic, "The I Don't Care Girl," that consigned her to a fate of being misremembered when she was remembered at all.
Welcome, then, this valuable, vivacious corrective.—Andy Battaglia