Etting, Ruth (1896–1978)
Etting, Ruth (1896–1978)
Etting, Ruth (1896–1978)
American singer known as "the radio canary" during the golden age of network radio in the 1920s and 1930s. Born on November 23, 1896, in David City, Nebraska; died on September 24, 1978, in Colorado Springs, Colorado; only child of Winifred and Alfred Etting; educated in local schools and attended Chicago Academy of Fine Arts; married Martin "Moe" Snyder, in 1922 (divorced 1937); married Myrl Alderman, in 1938 (died 1966); children: none.
Began her singing career shortly after World War I as a chorus girl in a Chicago nightclub; went on the vaudeville circuit (1924); made her New York debut (1927); appeared for five consecutive years in The Ziegfeld Follies, where she established her reputation as a so-called "torch singer"; appeared in Broadway musical revues and short films and made her national network radio debut (1930); retired from show business after public scandal involving her ex-husband (1937), but briefly revived her career ten years later; her life formed the basis of the 1955 film Love Me or Leave Me.
Roman Scandals (1933); The Gift of Gab (1935); Hips, Hips, Hooray (1939); plus some 30 musical shorts.
A visitor to the sedate retirement home tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of Colorado Springs in the late 1970s would barely have noticed the slim, well-dressed woman crocheting sweaters or watching sports on television, no different than any of the other elderly residents with whom she engaged in easy conversation. It would have been difficult to imagine that some 40 years earlier, this same woman had been as familiar to millions of Americans as a sister; had had lines of clothing, hosiery, and even ice-cream sundaes named after her; had been voted the most popular woman in America; had been at the center of one of the most notorious scandals to hit the gossip columns of the
time, one that would have destroyed the reputation of a less level-headed celebrity; and had even had a movie made of her life.
There was nothing in Ruth Etting's childhood to indicate such an exalted future. She had been born in November of 1896 in David City, Nebraska, and, except for the occasional trip to Omaha, never left her parents' farm until doctors recommended that her ailing mother seek a cure in the more moderate climate of San Diego. Winifred Etting took her five-year-old daughter west with her, but died shortly after they arrived. Ruth returned to Nebraska, where her father—Alfred Etting, a bank teller—left her with his parents while he sought work elsewhere. Ruth would see little of him from then on, even when Alfred later remarried.
It was her grandfather, George Etting, who taught her what would turn out to be the most important lesson of her life. "Any fool can make money," he told her, "but only somebody smart knows enough to save it." The son of German immigrants who had arrived in Nebraska in covered wagons, George Etting practiced his own advice, for he owned David City's major industry, a textile mill, and was able to give Ruth a comfortable childhood. Etting would also remember going to the opera house her grandfather had built for the town, where circus acts and traveling tent shows would perform every summer.
Nor would her singing in the church choir have suggested what lay ahead. "I sang in a high, squeaky soprano," Etting said later. "It sounded terrible, but I didn't know I could sing in any other range." Ruth gave up the idea of college after graduating from high school with only mediocre grades and, following her grandfather's advice, took a job in an Omaha department store. Fascinated by the ladies' fashions she had never seen in David City, she managed to talk George Etting into letting her travel further north to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied fashion design.
There, one of her professors offered her an interesting assignment. The owner of the Marigold Gardens, a Chicago nightclub, needed someone to draw the costume designs his wife had suggested for the chorus girls, the eponymous Marigolds. Sent to the club and invited to catch the show, Etting was immediately stagestruck—so much so that she asked for a job there and then. At first, she used her chorus girl's $25-a-week salary to pay her school expenses, but show business soon eclipsed the fashion world. She quit school without telling her grandparents and was soon immersed in Chicago's vaudeville life, working with such stars as Sophie Tucker and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. What was more surprising to her was the discovery that despite her experience with the church choir, she could sing when not required to be a soprano. The club's management was quick to make the same discovery and gave Etting her first solo number, "Hats Off to the Polo Girl," which she sang dressed as a man.
In later years, Etting would always claim ignorance of the world she was entering in the Chicago of the early 1920s. It was the world of shady figures in fedoras, toting "pieces"; of mobsters, molls, and drive-by shootings; of political corruption, cops on the take, and Eliot Ness. "All the Chicago clubs were run by mobsters," she told a reporter for a show-business newspaper in 1977. "Working them could be dangerous." A case in point was the fate of comedian Joe E. Brown, who discovered that switching his act from one club to another, which really meant switching allegiance from one mob to another, was a risky decision. Brown had his throat slashed in an alleyway and was left for dead, spending several weeks in a hospital recuperating. Even more at risk was a naive farm girl from Nebraska who couldn't turn for advice to a family ignorant of her decision to quit school, and, worse yet, her entry into show business. Instead, Etting turned to Moe "The Gimp" Snyder.
Also known as "Colonel Gimp," Snyder was a low-level gangster, little more than a bodyguard for mid-level bosses, and, for extra cash, some of the top names on Chicago's nightclub circuit—Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, and Eddie Cantor. His limp was said to be due to the 14 lead slugs lodged in his right leg. One of his favorite hangouts was the Marigolds Gardens, and his favorite chorus girl was Ruth Etting. Despite his crude manners and volatile temper, Snyder developed a protective affection for "the little lady," as he took to calling her, and Etting was only too happy to accept the advice of someone who seemed to know his way around the murky world in which she now found herself. On July 12, 1922, Ruth became Mrs. Martin Snyder.
As it turned out, Moe was also something of a promoter. Before long, Ruth moved—without incident, thanks to Moe—to The Rainbow Gardens, a larger club paying larger salaries. She was hired as one of the headliners for a cabaret act in which she co-starred with Helen Morgan , whose career would parallel Etting's own. The act ran for an unprecedented seven months, with Moe glowing proudly every night from the wings and boasting to his cronies about his "little lady." After the cabaret closed, Etting opened at Big Jim Colosimo's, one of the most popular hangouts for the mob, where she stepped off the stage and sauntered from table to table, singing requests and becoming what was known as a "ceiling singer"—so called because of the demure upward gaze some female singers affected while an audience member slipped a tip into their décollétage. "I did my work, minded my own business, and went home," Etting later said, relying on Moe to keep her away from trouble, apparently so smoothly that Ruth was shocked to find that the man she knew as "Mr. Brown," the one who was known for his especially generous tips, was actually Al Capone. Moe always avoided pointing him out, and it was only when Capone's picture appeared in the newspapers that she made the connection.
By 1925, Etting had signed her first recording contract with Columbia Records and was on the vaudeville circuit—first the Orpheum circuit through the Midwest, and later the Pantages circuit on the West Coast. Reviewers were invariably impressed with her sultry renditions of standard love songs, like the captivated columnist in San Diego who wrote: "Does she have IT? Well, dearie, she positively exudes IT! She makes you think of orchids in the moonlight and other things that leave you absolutely breathless!" By now, it was impossible to hide her career from her grandparents, and she took Moe home to David City to meet them. Apparently, with the help of her growing fame, she convinced George Etting she had made the right decision.
Under Moe's watchful, and increasingly jealous, eye, Etting arrived in New York in 1927, where she sang with Paul Whiteman's band and got a call from Broadway's reigning producer of musical entertainment, Florenz Ziegfeld, creator of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies. Her audition for him was not what she expected. After some small talk, Ziegfeld asked her to walk around his office. "He looked at my ankles, and that was it," she once recalled. "That was my audition. He wouldn't hire anyone, no matter how talented, with thick ankles."
Having passed the ankle test, Etting opened in Ziegfeld's 1927 Follies at $400 a week—nearly 20 times what she had been paid at the Marigold Gardens just a few years earlier. Variety noted that her delivery "leaves a likeable impression right away," but Mae West , who was backstage for Etting's Follies debut, was more to the point. "She had a sex quality that seemed to mesmerize the audience," she said. "And when she finished singing, they kind of went crazy." Ziegfeld would claim that Ruth Etting was the greatest singer he had ever managed, although after seeing her attempts at the tap dance she was to perform after her first number, "Shakin' the Blues," he casually suggested she just finish singing and leave the stage. "I got the message," Ruth said, admitting that she was a "lousy" dancer.
Florenz Ziegfeld to Ruth Etting, after her attempt to end on a dance step">
Ruth, when you get through singing, just walk off the stage.
—Florenz Ziegfeld to Ruth Etting, after her attempt to end on a dance step
By 1930, Etting had become the darling of the national radio audience, appearing on Rudy Vallee's weekly show and, later, Chesterfield's twice-weekly "Music That Satisfies." She became known as "the radio canary" and "America's radio sweetheart." Moe, as usual, looked out for her in unexpected, and unwelcome, ways. While the Chesterfield show was on the air, he would scan the audience for anyone not smoking the sponsor's product, grab the offending cigarette out of his victim's mouth, and offer a Chesterfield "compliments of the little lady." She appeared on Broadway with Ed Wynn in Simple Simon, in which she introduced one of her signature "torch songs," "Ten Cents a Dance," written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. In the 1931 Follies, she sang for the first time what became her trademark number, "Shine On, Harvest Moon," an old vaudeville tune from 1911 to which she gave a new, wistful interpretation. "Every song must be studied separately to find a way to make the audience hear, see, and feel the story it tells," she told a reporter, and her care with her material paid off. By the early 1930s, she was selling an average of 40,000 records for each song she recorded, an immense sales volume for the time. "Miss Etting," said Walter Winchell, "is alone in her field, far outdistancing any of her competitors." An Etting mania seized the country, with perfumes and lines of clothing named after her. A letter addressed to "Ruth Etting, Studio, New York" found its way to her without the least delay.
While Etting was never known for her dancing or her acting, Hollywood was quick to use her as box-office "bait" for some of its most lavish musicals. Sam Goldwyn was the first to add her name on the list of stars for MGM's Roman Scandals of 1933, with audiences piling in to theaters only to see Ruth sing one brief number, "No More Love," before she disappeared from the story altogether. Likewise, she appeared for a few brief minutes in Universal's Gift of Gab withEthel Waters , and her role in RKO's Hips, Hips, Hooray was so ephemeral that one reviewer complained of "another of those enigmas frequently confronting the picture goer."
But the musicals, in addition to some 30 "shorts," paid Etting up to $15,000 per appearance, often for less than a day's work. Even so, she avoided the spendthrift movie-star lifestyle, partly because of her grandfather's advice of years before and partly because of Moe's rough manners and crude treatment of others. "It was easier not to mingle with picture people," she said. "So I either saw non-professionals or New Yorkers, who knew how to take Moe." But even a veteran New Yorker like Flo Ziegfeld refused to put up with Snyder, who accused Ziegfeld of giving Ruth's rival, Helen Morgan, preferential treatment during the 1931 Follies. "You ain't gonna shove the little lady around," he threateningly told Ziegfeld, who promptly had him banned from the theater.
In 1935, Etting shocked everyone by announcing her retirement from show business. "I have been planning it for fifteen years," she told New York's World Telegram in April of that year, complaining that radio was "nervous work," that the glamour had gone out of the legitimate stage with the death of Flo Ziegfeld, and that her film work always ended up on the cutting-room floor. She looked forward to retiring to the home she had bought in Beverly Hills, she said, where she could learn to swim in her new pool and "do so many things I haven't been able to do since I was a kid in Nebraska." Variety claimed that Etting was one of the wealthiest stars in the country, investing her money wisely during the 1920s, cashing out of the market before the crash of 1929, and using the proceeds of some $400,000 to buy land in California and in her home state. Though Etting never did officially retire that year, close friends took it as a sign that she was under a great deal of stress and worried about her acceptance of a role in a London musical, Transatlantic Rhythm, which opened in the West End in 1936. Shortly after, Moe happened upon Ruth and the production's costume designer in the middle of an argument over one of her outfits for the show. Although Etting later claimed it was strictly a professional dispute, Moe took it as another attack on her and beat the costume designer severely enough to require hospitalization. When another argument broke out with the show's producer over delayed salaries, Etting left the show and came home.
In November of 1937, she was granted an uncontested divorce from Moe Snyder, claiming the last straw had been in London when, she said, he beat her legs with a cane. Moe later claimed he didn't contest the divorce because he always thought Ruth would come back to him; but no doubt the large sum of money that Etting settled on him helped ease the separation. His cronies were only too glad to relieve him of the cash when he embarked on a round of heavy gambling in New York, where he claimed that when the money ran out, he'd head for the Hudson River "and keep on walking until my hat floats." Once the divorce became public, Etting destroyed all her sheet music, her press clippings, her wardrobe, gave up the reported $200,000 a year she had been earning, and finally did retire from show business once and for all, moving permanently into her Beverly Hills home with Moe's daughter Edith Snyder , from his first marriage. Edith, too, had grown tired of her father's bullying and gladly accepted Etting's offer to take her on as a secretary. But both women would see Moe Snyder once more, with disastrous consequences.
About three years before the divorce, Moe had hired a new accompanist for Etting, a genial pianist named Myrl Alderman. Though Ruth would later claim that she and Myrl never became lovers until after her divorce from Moe, the two were married in December of 1938, barely a month after the divorce became final. When a gossip columnist leaked the rumor to Moe Snyder, he swore he'd find out the truth. His method was to abduct Myrl at gunpoint from a Beverly Hills parking lot, force him to drive home, and confront a terrified Ruth and Edith, demanding to know if it was true that Etting and Alderman had been married. Before anyone could answer, Moe fired first, or Myrl fired first, or Ruth ran for her own gun. What happened depended on who was doing the explaining, as the police found out when they arrived. The only certainty was that Myrl had suffered a serious gunshot wound to the abdomen, bleeding so profusely when he fell to the floor that both Ruth and Edith were convinced he was dead. It also appeared that Etting had, indeed, attempted to shoot Snyder with her own gun and was prevented from doing so by Edith's intervention. "I would gladly have killed Moe Snyder if I could have held the gun steady enough," she told the reporters outside the Los Angeles courtroom where Moe went on trial, "and I could kill him now if I had a gun."
While he was waiting for his trial to begin, Moe told young Hollywood columnist Ed Sullivan that he was lost without Ruth. "When my money runs out, I'll hit myself in the topper with a couple of slugs and call it a day," he said, and claimed that, without him, Etting's career would have fizzled long ago. Found guilty of kidnapping, attempted murder, and violating California gun laws, Moe was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. His lawyer managed to land a new trial on a technicality, but by then neither Ruth nor Edith would testify against him. "Love is a funny thing to define," Etting told the court at the first trial, and in the end Moe served only a year of his sentence. He and Etting never saw each other again.
Myrl's first wife sued Ruth for $150,000, claiming Etting had broken up her marriage, but lost the case several months later. Once the decision was handed down, Ruth Etting disappeared from show business, selling the Beverly Hills house and moving to Colorado Springs to be with Myrl and his family. (Edith died of complications of rheumatic fever in 1939.) During the next seven years, Etting made only one appearance, at a World War II rally for war bonds in New York.
Shortly after the war's end, listeners to Rudy Vallee's weekly radio show were surprised to hear a familiar voice. Etting had decided to return to the business, but only because doctors had suggested that Myrl go back to writing and playing music as part of his recovery from wartime injuries. In 1947, she opened at the Copacabana in New York, and Time featured her in an article which reminded readers that Ruth Etting had once been "the nation's leading torch singer, rivalled only by Helen Morgan." The reviews of her Copa act were respectful, with Variety reporting that "her figure is still svelte and her song-selling effective if, betimes, she wisely skirts the top notes." But after trying out the business again for two years, Etting knew she'd been right to leave it in 1937 and returned to a quiet life in Colorado Springs. After the film Love Me or Leave Me, based on her years with Moe Snyder, was released in 1955, Etting refused a five-figure contract to return to singing and even decided not to sue the producers of the film, though unhappy with Doris Day 's portrayal of her, to avoid any further publicity. After Myrl's death in 1966, she made only one public appearance, returning to David City, Nebraska, in 1973 for the town's centennial celebrations. Shortly after, she moved into a retirement home.
"My sad story," she told a reporter who visited her there a year before her death in 1978, "is that my first marriage wasn't a marriage at all. It was a mistake." After reminiscing briefly about the old days, she seemed tired and the reporter turned to go. But she had one final thought for him. "If I had my life to do over again," she said, "I wouldn't go into show business."
Eells, George. Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who? NY: Putnam, 1976.
Norman Powers , writer/producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York