Eva Tanguay was born in 1878 in Marbleton, Quebec. Her father was a doctor. Before she reached the age of six, her family moved from Quebec's Eastern Townships to Holyoke, Massachusetts. Her father died soon after. While still a child she developed an interest in the performing arts, making her first appearance on stage at the age of eight at an amateur night in Holyoke. Two years later, she was touring professionally with a production of a stage adaptation of the popular Frances Hodgson Burnett novel Little Lord Fauntleroy. Eva eventually landed a spot in the Broadway musical My Lady in 1901. The 1904 show The Chaperons led to her rise in popularity. By 1905, she was also performing in vaudeville as a solo act, where she would spend much of the remainder of her career.
Although she possessed only an average voice, the enthusiasm with which the robust Eva Tanguay performed her suggestive songs soon made her an audience favorite. She went on to have a long-lasting vaudeville career and eventually commanded one of the highest salaries of any performer of the day earning as much as $3,500 a week at the height of her fame around 1910.
After seeing her perform, English poet and sexual revolutionary Aleister Crowley called Tanguay America's equivalent to Europe's music hall greats, Marie Lloyd of England and Yvette Guilbert of France. "The American Genius," he wrote, "is unlike all others. The 'cultured' artist, in this country, is always a mediocrity. ... The true American is, above all things, FREE; with all the advantages and disadvantages that that implies. His genius is a soul lonely, disolate, reaching to perfection in some unguessed direction. ... Eva Tanguay is the perfect American artist. She is... starry chaste in her colossal corruption."
Eva Tanguay is remembered for brassy self-confident songs that symbolized the emancipated woman, such as "It's All Been Done Before But Not the Way I Do It", "I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me", "Go As Far As You Like", and "That's Why They Call Me Tabasco". In showbiz circles, she was nicknamed the "I Don't Care Girl", after her most famous song, "I Don't Care".
Eva was brought in to star in impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.'s 1909 Ziegfeld Follies, where she replaced the husband and wife team of Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes, who were engaged in a bitter salary and personal feud with Ziegfeld. Eva requested that the musical number "Moving Day in Jungle Town" be taken from rising talent Sophie Tucker and given to her. Despite this, the two later became close friends.
Tanguay spent lavishly on publicity campaigns and costumes. One obituary notes that a "clever manager" told Tanguay early in her career that money made money. She never forgot the lesson, buying huge ads at her own expense and, on one occasion, allegedly spending twice her salary on publicity. Gaining free publicity with outrageous behavior was one of her strong suits. In 1907, Eva shacked up with entertainment journalist and publicist C. F. Zittel in a Brooklyn hotel for nearly a week—despite the fact that Zittel was married. Mrs. Zittel uncovered the affair by hiring detectives dressed as room-service bellhops to burst in on their love nest. It made headlines and in no way damaged Eva's popularity, reputation, or box office success. She got her name in the papers for allegedly being kidnapped, allegedly having her jewels stolen, and getting fined $50 in Louisville, Kentucky for throwing a stagehand down a flight of stairs.
Her costumes were as extravagant as her personality. In 1910, a year after the Lincoln penny was issued, Tanguay appeared on stage in a coat entirely covered in the new coins. Other costumes included a dress covered in coral which weighed 45 pounds and cost $2000, and a costume made of dollar bills.
Tanguay only made one known recording ("I Don't Care") in 1922 for Nordskog Records. In addition to her singing career, she starred in two film comedies that, despite the limitations of silent film, used the screen to capture her lusty stage vitality to its fullest. The first, titled Energetic Eva was made in 1916. The following year she starred opposite Tom Moore in The Wild Girl.
Tanguay was said to have lost more than $2 million in the Wall Street crash of 1929. In the 1930s, Tanguay retired from show business. Cataracts caused her to lose her sight, but Sophie Tucker, a friend from vaudeville days, paid for the operation that restored her vision.
At the time of her death, Tanguay was working on her autobiography, to be titled Up and Down the Ladder. Three excerpts from the autobiography were published in Hearst newspapers in 1946 and 1947.
Eva Tanguay died in 1947, age 68, in Hollywood where she was interred in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In 1953 Mitzi Gaynor portrayed Eva Tanguay in a fictionalized version of her life in the Hollywood motion picture, The I Don't Care Girl.
Eva Tanguay married twice, although she was incorrectly reported to have been married three times. In 1908, Eva publicly became engaged to the extremely popular cross-dressing performer Julian Eltinge. Eva dressed in traditional male formal attire and Eltinge played the blushing bride. Although a ring was exchanged, they never wed. She divorced her first husband, a dancer named Tom Ford, in 1917 after four very rocky years of marriage. Following her divorce from Ford, Eva became romantically linked (though never married, as was sometimes reported) to a vaudeville dancer named Roscoe Ails. She broke things off after Ails' behavior became increasingly erratic and violent. In 1927, when she was 49, Tanguay married her piano accompanist, 23-year-old Al Parado. Shortly after the marriage she had it annulled on the grounds of fraud. Tanguay claimed that he had at least two other names which he used so frequently that she was not sure which one was real. In truth, she had wed Parado as a publicity ploy; when it did not pan out as she had hoped, she had the union dissolved.
Outside of marriage, Eva is said to have had an affair with famed African American comedian George Walker, husband of equally famous and talented musical comedy star Ada Overton Walker, and stage partner of Bert Williams. The affair is alluded to in the book Elegy in Manhattan by vaudevillian and movie producer George Jessel.
In Charles Walters's movie The Belle of New York, Angela sings "I confess that I wanna care less than Eva Tanguay"Andrew L. Erdman: Queen of Vaudeville: the story of Eva Tanguay, Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-8014-4970-3