Ruth Etting:
America's Forgotten Sweetheart

by
Kenneth Irwin
and
Charles O. Lloyd

The first biography of Ruth Etting, pioneering singer and recording star of the late twenties and early thirties, is now available from Scarecrow Press. To order this 360-page hardbound book, click HERE.

Ruth Etting (1897-1978) was among the most important performers of the early twentieth century. Her influence extends from the Ziegfeld stage to radio and film, and her successes included more than sixty popular recordings, one of which, "Love Me or Leave Me," was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005. Although her story was brought to the screen in the classic 1955 film starring Doris Day and James Cagney, no serious treatment of her life has been written until now.

In Ruth Etting: America's Forgotten Sweetheart, authors Kenneth Irwin and Charles Lloyd provide the first full-length biography of this ground-breaking artist. This book recounts Etting's early hears as a pioneering radio performer who quickly attained national celebrity, her recording career as "Sweetheart of Columbia Records," and her innovative work in early short subjects. The authors detail Etting's unhappy marriage to her husband-manager, Martin (Moe "The Gimp") Snyder, her second marriage to pianist arranger Myrl Alderman, and her Colorado Springs retirement. They also examine Etting's place in the history of American entertainment, specifically her trend-setting vocal style and her innovative work in phonograph recordings and radio performance--as well as her enormous popularity throughout the 1930s and beyond.


 

Cover photo by Alfred Cheney Johnston, famed Ziegfeld photographer; courtesy Music Library of University of Nebraska - Lincoln

You are listening to the voice of Ruth Etting.

[I'm Nobody's Baby (Davis-Ager-Santly) with Rube Bloom (piano) and Murray Kellner (violin), recorded 3 January 1927 (Mat. No. W143562-3; Columbia 1104-D), available on CD "Ruth Etting: Love Me or Leave Me," Pavilion Records Ltd., Sparrows Green Wadhurst, E. Sussex, England (Past CD 7061)]

If you cannot her Ruth sing, change your default .wav setting by entering "Default Programs."

 

About the authors ...


Kenneth Irwin

Born in 1955, Kenneth Irwin has spent his entire life in Chicago where Ruth Etting's career began and now works there in information technology services. In 1986 he earned his B.A. in History at Northeastern Illinois University where he became interested in early talking pictures and jazz recordings of the 1920s. Ultimately he focused his enthusiasm for this period on Ruth Etting's career and devoted almost fifteen years of his life to visiting her performance venues and houses she lived in, interviewing performers, family members, and friends who knew her, and researching her pioneering career in show business. He has published on her film career in the journal Classic Images and wrote liner notes for a rerelease of her recordings by Take Two Records.

Charles O. Lloyd

Charles Lloyd was born in 1944 and earned his Ph.D. in Classics at Indiana University in 1976. He taught at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, for thirty-five years and published on the ancient Greek polis, Euripides, and Vergil as well as on how to teach Latin and writing. His lifelong interest has been American popular music, and for the past twenty-five years has played improvisational piano for public events. His interest in Ruth Etting began when he heard her voice on a Columbia rerelease in the late sixties, and his research led him to visit her home town and begin interviewing friends who had known her. He met Kenneth Irwin in 2003, and they began a collaboration that led to this book. Charles Lloyd is now writing a historical novel on ancient Sparta.

Contact the authors.

 

Ruth Etting ca. 1934; courtesy Charles O. Lloyd

A more astute judge of sex appeal you will not find than Mae West. When Mae first saw Ruth Etting in the Ziegfeld Follies, she described her like this: "The curtains opened, and here was this girl. Not what you'd call a classic beauty--but unusual. She had a sex quality that seemed to mesmerize the audience. And when she finished singing, they just kind of went crazy."

Here's a recent review of the book:

Ruth Etting was a small town girl from a prosperous family, who left Nebraska in the late teens of last century and went to Chicago to make first a living and then a name for herself in the entertainment industry. She entered art school and began working and designing in a dress shop, but reasonably quickly she found work in one of Chicago’s music gardens, and she rose, in due time, from the chorus to solo performance. From Chicago she went to New York, to the magnificent Ziegfeld follies. She added radio and short-subject films to her repertoire, and she became a star. She had her own radio show, toured the country, and eventually went to Hollywood, where she appeared in feature films. In 1938, at the age of 41, she retired for reasons that I will not explain here, except to say that reading that particular chapter is probably the first time a biography, any biography, has had me sitting on the edge of my seat.


The biography under consideration is Ruth Etting: America’s Forgotten Sweetheart by Kenneth Irwin and Charles Lloyd, published by Scarecrow Press. It is the first complete biography of this star of the early 20th century, and it draws on Etting’s own documents, including her scrapbook, interviews with surviving family members, newspaper reports and reviews, and court transcripts. The book will appeal to music aficionados and general audiences alike. For the former, the authors describe in exquisite detail each of her live and recorded performances, sometimes including the costume she wore, more often discussing the style and cadence of her singing. Additionally, there are a complete discography and filmography.

For the general reader, the biography is enormously accessible. I read biographies of individuals I know and about whom I am curious; and generally, I find that, even with my interest, reading the biography can be a slog. I knew very little about Ruth Etting when I opened the book, yet I literally found it difficult to put the book down. The introduction begins with Chicago’s notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in February, 1929 and extends to the world-altering events of that year, finally to locate Ruth Etting, now in New York, in that context. What a contrast it is to the last years of her life, spent in quiet retirement in Colorado Springs. The pages in between are exceptionally readable. Erwin and Lloyd imbue the details of her life and career with the contexts in which they were enacted, and their book is as much a sociological study of early musical theatre as it is the story of one of its stars. Thus we read about exactly what it takes to stage a production in one of Chicago’s musical gardens or on the greatest stage in New York, how radio worked in the early days, and how short subjects were filmed on Long island and in New York before Hollywood became the center of the film industry. All of this comes to us in an exceptionally pleasant and easy style, almost, I dare say, akin to Etting’s own music.

To those of us interested in the early 20th century, particularly popular culture, will find this book a great addition our knowledge. To anyone interested in Ruth Etting, whose signature songs were “Love Me or Leave Me,” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” this book is invaluable. She defined an era as much as it defined her. Thanks to this groundbreaking biography, she will be forgotten no more.

Caroline A. Perkins, Marshall University

 

 
   

In March 1932, Warner Brothers Vitaphone released Ruth Etting's short subject entitled, A Regular Trouper. In it Ruth sings a blues song, entitled "Without That Man," accompanied by famed jazz guitarist, Eddie Lang.

To see film clip, click HERE

 

Courtesy Janet Clifford

The Marquee of B. F. Keith's New York Palace Theatre shows Ruth Etting headlining in November 1930.