Rising to fame in the twenties and early thirties, Ruth Etting was renowned for her great beauty, her gorgeous voice and her tragic life. She starred on Broadway, made movies in Hollywood, married a mobster, had numerous hit-records, fell in love and was known as America’s Sweetheart of Song.
Born in David City, Nebraska on November 23, 1897, Ruth left home at seventeen for Chicago and art school. She got a job designing costumes at a night club called the Marigold Gardens and when the tenor got sick, she was pulled into the show since she was the only one who could sing low enough. That led to dancing in the chorus line and eventually featured solos. Her career in costume design and art was soon forgotten.
By 1918 she was the featured vocalist at the club and the Gimp entered her life. A Chicago gangster, Moe Snyder married Ruth in 1922 and managed her career for the next two decades. Her numerous radio appearances during these years, led her to become known as Chicago’s Sweetheart.
In 1926 she was discovered by a record company executive and immediately signed to an exclusive recording deal with Columbia Records, which led to nation-wide exposure. Her early recordings were very straightforward in delivery. She later commented that “I sounded like a little girl on those records!” and insisted that her voice was actually much deeper than these recordings would lead one to believe.
In 1927 Ruth was ready to hit New York and she was an instant success. Irving Berlin suggested her for the Ziegfeld Follies and she was hired after Ziegfeld checked her ankles, not her voice. She appeared in the Follies of 1927. In 1929 she starred with Eddie Cantor in Whoopee! and in 1930 she made 135 appearances in Simple Simon with Ed Wynn. In 1931 she appeared in the very last Follies, shortly before Ziegfeld’s death.
The blond hair and blue eyes and stunning voice all led to her being dubbed the Sweetheart of Columbia Records, America’s Radio Sweetheart, and finally America’s Sweetheart of Song. She began to experiment with tempo and phrasing during this period in her career. Her trademark was to change the tempo – alternating between normal tempo, half-time and double-time to create and maintain interest.
Ruth had over sixty hit recordings. Among her best in the Jazz Age are Button Up Your Overcoat and Mean to Me and in the depression, Ten Cents A Dance. Her versions of Shine on Harvest Moon, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, You Made Me Love You and Love Me or Leave Me became her signature songs.
Next she headed to Hollywood and made a string of movie shorts and three full-length features. Her big break came in Roman Scandals with Eddie Cantor and Lucille Ball in a bit part. Then came Gift of Gab and Hips Hips Hooray.
It was in Hollywood that her loveless marriage finally fell apart. In 1937 Ruth fell for her accompanist and in a rage, the Gimp shot him. The musician survived, Snyder went to jail and Ruth ended up divorcing him and marrying her true love, Mryl Alderman. But the scandal was too much for her career to survive. She made a few attempts at a comeback, but her days as America’s Sweetheart were over.
Ruth Etting made her first record in 1926 and her last in 1937. Completely lacking in the performer’s ego, she called her early recordings corny and kept none of her original 78′s. In 1955 her story was made into a movie, ultimately nominated for six Academy Awards and winning the Award for Best Story. Love Me or Leave Me starred Doris Day and James Cagney as the Gimp. Ruth Etting died on September 24 1978, in Colorado Springs.
Sources for this biography:
Jim Bedoian, Take Two Records, 1979 and 1981
Fred Hyatt, KPFK – FM, Los Angeles, Take Two Records, 1987
R. Richard Savill, The Jazz Age Page, 1997
The Internet Movie Database Ltd, 1997