Today Eva Tanguay is largely forgotten. But if you were around in Houdini's time, you would have certainly known who she was. By many accounts, Tanguay could neither sing nor dance. But that didn't dampen her enormous appeal. A profile of her at the New England Historical Society (Eva Tanguay, The Lady Gaga of Vaudeville) says:
Her celebrity was no accident, but a well-planned assault on stuffy Victorian convention. She provoked reaction, singing songs with titles like Go As Far As You Like and wearing bizarre costumes like a dress made out of pennies. The tabloids ate up stories about her love life, which included a romance with the African-American vaudeville star George Walker. You couldn’t escape her from 1904 to the early 1920s.
Like Houdini, Tanguay was a headliner on the big time Keith vaudeville circuit, thus they played many of the same theaters. This invited direct comparison. Such was the case in Boston in January 1911 as you can read below:
|Boston Sunday Post, Jan. 15, 1911.
Not only was Eva beating Houdini's attendance records, but she was also surpassing his salary, making as much as $3500 per week. By 1912 Houdini had to put a spin on his claims of being Vaudeville's highest paid performer. Check out the below ad from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in which he now calls himself "the highest salaried male performer in the world."
|Courier Sun, Feb. 25, 1912.
After losing her fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929, Eva Tanguay retired in 1930 and slipped into obscurity. She died on January 11, 1947 at age 68. In another Houdini parallel, in 1953 a highly fictionalized biopic was made of Eva's life, The I Don't Care Girl, starring Mitzi Gaynor. This was the same year as the Houdini biopic with Tony Curtis.
If you'd like to learn more about Eva Tanguay check out the book Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay by Andrew L. Erdman. Below is the only known recording of Eva made in 1922.
UPDATE: Today I went to the 94th Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service at Hollywood Forever cemetery (Rudy being the other big celebrity death of 1926), and I paid a visit to Ms. Tanguay.