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.

He's so unusual

One of the things we here at Cladrite Radio find most intriguing about pop culture from past decades, from movies to literature to music, are the clues it offers to life as it was once lived. For example, it’s easy to assume, when considering the first half of the 20th century, that societal attitudes were more conservative and old-fashioned.

But were they, always?

Imagine that, say, a contemporary male star like Justin Timberlake decided to record a cover of Fergy’s 2008 hit, Clumsy, and opted not to change the following lyrics:

You know, this isn’t the first time this has happened to me
This lovesick thing
I like serious relationships and
A girl like me dont stay single for long
‘Cause every time a boyfriend and I break up
My world is crushed, and I’m all alone
The love bug crawls right back up and bites me, and I’m back

What kind of furor would that cause? Would the tabloid press rush to print stories questioning Timberlake’s sexual preferences and leanings?

We live in a relatively non-judgmental age, regarding issues of gender and sexuality, and I’m not suggesting it would end Timberlake’s career if he were, in fact, to come out as gay. But assuming he’s not gay (or that he prefers no one know that he is), I can’t really imagine him not switching around the gender-specific references in the lyrics of that Fergy song.

But often, in the 1920s and ’30s, vocalists didn’t bother to make sure the lyrics they sang lined up with a mainstream heterosexual image, and I can’t help but wonder if that was intentional — if they were, like earlier-day Madonnas, winking at the public, intentionally creating controversy.

Or did those unaltered lyrics even create any controversy? Perhaps not, I really have no idea. But it’s hard for me to imagine a female singer of the past forty or fifty years (with a few key exceptions) singing, as Ruth Etting did in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 and in a Columbia recording of that same year, the following lyrics from the Irving Berlin song It All Belongs to Me:

It All Belongs to Me

Rosy cheeks
Red hot lips
A million dollars worth of flying hips
And it all belongs to me

Those lips that I desire
Are like electric wire
She kissed a tree last summer
She started a forest fire

I’m in love
With what she’s got
And what she’s got, she’s got an awful lot
And it all belongs to me

(By the way, we feature that Etting record here on Cladrite Radio, so if you haven’t heard it yet, keep listening.)

Was the song given a Sapphic slant in the Flo Zeigfeld-produced stage review? Was it delivered with a wink and grin from Etting?

I have no idea, but this particular example is hardly the only one.

Another such recording on the Cladrite Radio playlist is Moon at Sea, as performed by Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythms Orchestra (the song was cowritten, as best as I can determine, by Harry Pease, Vincent Rose, and Larry Stock). The male vocalist on the track (I’m not sure who it is, I’m sorry to say) croons the following lyrics:

Moon at Sea

Moon at sea
Keep on shining so bright
Guide my loved one tonight
Moon at sea

You can see
From your watch upon high
As he goes sailing by
Moon at sea

Tell him that my love’s a true love
Though we’re miles apart
Tell him there can be no new love For he sailed away with my heart

Can you imagine anyone short of George Michael or Lance Bass recording that song without changing the lyrics to reflect a heterosexual viewpoint? I can’t, but I’ve heard any number of recordings from roughly 80 years ago in which such lyrics were recorded as written.

Perhaps it was just that the artists of the time were showing respect for the composer in not altering the lyrics, but I’m still surprised that the practice raised no eyebrows on the part of those who strove in those days to control the content of popular culture (and there were easily as many self-appointed censors back then who viewed themselves as guardians of the public good as today).