The Beyoncé of Vaudeville
Most people have heard of Ethel Waters or Mae West, but many names of Vaudeville have been lost with time, especially those whose careers did not translate from stage to film. Because of their popularity, Vaudeville performers were among the richest single women in the world, with freedom to be outrageous and bold.
One such woman was Nora Bayes.
She was considered a mega-star for the first three decades of the twentieth century.
A lyricist, singer, comedienne, composer, producer, and shrewd businesswoman, Nora Bayes wouldn't let anyone tell her how to live.
She was married five times before the age of fifty, left her Orthodox Jewish upbringing to make her way on the stage, and had many firsts:
* The first person to sing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" and WWI classic, "Over There."
* She performed the first song in a Gershwin musical
* She was the first woman to have a theater named after her.
Nora recorded over one hundred songs and is credited as the composer on 160.
When she started work for the Ziegfeld Follies, she was paid $450 a week, far more than her husband and co-writer. She challenged producers and ignored unfair contracts. She walked out on the Ziegfeld Follies after a fight over her expected attire during a performance, but she returned and demanded more money because of her popularity. By 1913, she was earning $2,500 a week. That's roughly $60,000 per week in today's money.
She demanded to be treated like a star, and if the male-led world of theater didn't comply, she went out on her own. She ran a one-woman show, starred on Broadway, acted as her own agent and producer.
Nora died of cancer at the age of 48, leaving behind her 5th husband and 3 adopted children. After her death in 1928, her body remained stored in a receiving tomb for 18 years! In 1946 she was finally buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, but was given no headstone, meaning that her name was kept off the registry of the many famous people buried in that cemetery. In 2018, 90 years after her death, Nora Bayes finally got her engraved marble headstone.
In one interview she remarked, "You know my time is worth two hundred dollars a minute, and I figure I have now consumed six thousand dollars' worth of my time just to give a measly little interview."
Demanding, brave, and she knew her worth. That makes her this week's Badass Woman of History.