Snapshot in Prose: Ruth Etting

This prose snapshot of songbird Ruth Etting might fairly be said to be a doctored “photo”—or at the very least retouched. For this profile, from the April 1935 issue of Popular Songs, makes no mention of Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder, a gangster to whom young Ruth was wed in 1922 and who had a major impact on her career.

After achieving huge success in radio, Broadway, recordings, and movies, Etting divorced Snyder in 1937, having fallen in love with her pianist, Myrl Alderman, who was nearly ten years her junior.

That old saying “Heaven has no fury like a mobster scorned” applies here, as Snyder soon plugged Alderman with a bullet, spending a year in jail before being released on appeal.

The surrounding scandal seems to have pulled the plug on Etting’s career, alas, though she would go on to marry Alderman and, one hopes, live happily ever after.

Nebraska to New York

HEN Ruth left her happy home on a Nebraska farm to go down to Chicago to study art, she hadn’t a thought in the world about cabaret entertaining, torch songs, crooners, radio broadcasting, Broadway song and dance shows, Florence Ziegfeld or Hollywood—yet all of these have played important parts in her eventual life.
She was only 17 years old, a sweet young fraulein with flaxen hair, big blue eyes and a yen to become a commercial illustrator. There was a war going on at the time and things were pretty dull in the little German settlement up in David City, in the heart of the Nebraska wheat fields. Ruth had grown up there, in a hamlet populated almost entirely by the Etting cousins and uncles and aunts.
She wasn’t particularly concerned with the thought of being alone in a big strange city. Even if she had been, she would have gone anyway, for she had plenty of determination.
Not so very long after her arrival in Chicago she landed a job designing costumes for a girl show in a cabaret. Her costume designing was all that could be desired and everyone was enthusiastic over her work, but the manager and, what is more remarkable, the manager’s wife noticed that Ruth was the type he liked for his showgirls.
She was a blonde and much thinner than most of the chorines who seemed to get so much fun out of life and the glamour of the spotlight. When the manager offered her a job in “the line,” she accepted it.
The following weeks were hard on Ruth and harder on the manager. She had never danced before and all she knew about the stage was what she had picked up in the course of delivering costume designs and sketching the girls.
Determined not to disappoint her friend and his wife, she worked long and hard to master the intricate steps of the chorus routines. Again her persistence came to her rescue and in a little while she was dancing like the co-ordinated unit that good chorus girls become.
The singing part was a cinch. All of the Ettings sang, although none of them were professional singers. They sang with the naturalness of all outdoors, aided by their correct postures and the lack of nervousness which comes from a life of carefree comradeship in a small village.
Back in David City, Ruth had had the additional advantage of a few lessons from the local voice teacher, but her aunt stopped them when she found that Ruth’s voice was so low that she couldn’t hit high-C. That didn’t bother Ruth at all, at the time because her she wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a singer for she had her heart set on being an artist.
Now those few early lessons were a big help. The cabaret in which Ruth danced also had a vocal chorus and she was one of the singers. It was a big chorus, with an orchestra and a baritone whom they paid $125 a week to sing solos. After Ruth was added to the singing ensemble the manager of the place noticed that the chorus, and one voice in the chorus in particular, kept drowning out the baritone soloist.
Yes, Ruth was the guilty one, so the shrewd manager fired the baritone and advanced Miss Etting to the soloist’s job. However, she was not a real baritone, so her salary was only $50 a week, but it was a lot of money in those days to the little girl from Nebraska.
Ruth become one of the singers who went to the restaurant early in the evening and sang solo, duet, trio and quartet until the last cash customer went home and the box on the piano was “broken” to divide the tips of the evening. Singing quietly, with her voice pitched low, she had excellent opportunities to become proficient as a crooner.
One evening Thomas G. Rockwell, then recording manager for the Columbia Phonograph Company, heard her sing, “What Can I Say, Dear, After I Say I’m Sorry?” at the College Inn, Chicago. He thought she was swell and signed her to a long term contract. Soon the Ruth Etting records were among the biggest sellers in the country. The same Tom Rockwell is still her manager today.
Irving Berlin and Florenz Ziegfeld listened to her recording of “Blue Skies” one night and the next day Zeigfeld’s general manager was on his way to Chicago to sign her up for the “Ziegfeld Follies” of 1927. She came to New York and stayed for the “Follies” of 1928, “Whoopee”, “Simple Simon” and the “Follies” of 1930 and 1931.
Often, since then, Ruth Etting has been chosen in national radio polls as the best singer of popular songs on the air and has starred in a number of moving pictures and on several commercial radio programs. Currently she is featured on a National Broadcasting Company coast-to-coast hook-up each Thursday evening.

In search of Pat

Maude Ellen Johnson Oakes in 1937

We only knew one of our great-grandparents, our mother’s grandmother Maude Ellen Johnson Oakes, who as a teenager in the 1890s, traveled with her family in a covered wagon from Illinois to Oklahoma. She lived to the age of 92, so in her lifetime, she saw an astonishing number of changes. Think of it—she came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon in her youth and lived long enough to see men on the moon, not to mention the advent of cars, radio, moving pictures, television, women being given the right to vote (she was nearly 40 then), the civil rights movement, and on and on.

Distracted by the tunnel vision of youth, it never occurred to us to ask Maude, who was in her eighties and nineties when we knew her, about her husband, and though we’re not proud of it, we’ve long considered genealogy buffs kind of, well, dorky.

But with the recent passing of our mother and our weekly devotion to Who Do You Think You Are?, the notion of tracking down info on our ancestors suddenly began to appeal. We took, which is featured frequently on WDYTYA?, up on their offer of a two-week trail membership, and began digging.

It’s remarkable, really, what one can uncover in a short amount of time.

Patterson and Maude
in happier times

In 1900, Maude married a man named Patterson Nehemiah Oakes, who was born in North Carolina (as was his father before him; his mother was born in Tennessee). Maude was born in Illinois (Taylorville, we learned from a news clipping published at the time of her death), as was her mother. Her father was born in Ohio.

In 1910, Maude and Patterson lived in a town called Canadian in the Texas panhandle. All three of their sons—Cecil (my grandfather), Herbert, and Elmer—had already been born. Patterson was working as the manager of a confectionery.

In 1920, they were still married and living in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, about 60 miles south of Oklahoma City. Their address was 102 N. Elm Street. Patterson was a civil servant—a rural carrier (which I’m guessing refers to mail). Maude was a saleslady at a dry goods store.

Maude is listed in the 1920 census as being 37 years old, which is a couple of years younger than we thought—we had her as being born in 1881, but perhaps she fudged her age a bit? Patterson was 41.

One additional tidbit of info: According to that census, everyone in the family—Patterson, Maude, and their three sons Cecil, Herbert, and Elmer—could read and write.

We’ve not managed to pin down the date, but Maude and Patterson were divorced sometime relatively soon after that 1920 census was taken. We know it wasn’t long after the census because Cecil, their eldest son who was born in 1904, was still in high school at the time. We may never know why Maude and Patterson (did he go by Pat? Not sure) parted—Granddad never spoke of the divorce or, indeed, Patterson himself to our mother and her siblings.

Now, let’s jump forward to 1930.

Maude and Pepper, greatest
dog ever, in 1970

Patterson is now married to a woman named Ellen, who was born in Indiana (as were both her parents) and was 12 years older than Patterson. In 1920, he is 52; she is 64.

Ellen has been married before (as has Patterson, of course).

They live at 338 East 3rd Street in Oilton, Oklahoma, about 39 miles west of Tulsa, where he is employed as the manager of a filling station. Ellen works as a seamstress out of their home.

They own a radio (yes, that was a question on the 1930 census).

Patterson died in 1948. The date, place, and cause of death we’ve not tracked down, though we’re still on the case. Maude died in February 1972, on our mother’s birthday.

That’s all we have so far. I’d still like to know what came between Patterson and Maude in the early 1920s, but when you consider that, six or seven weeks ago, we didn’t even know a single thing about Maude’s husband—not even his name—it’s not a bad start.