As we’re about to see June, 2023 over the side (Hallelujah! some might say, although the month has been pretty good to me), I thought I’d take a little glimpse into musical history, and see what song was #1 in the USA one-hundred years ago today.
Turns out that the winner is “Dearest,” sung by Nora Bayes:
Lord. Shades of my granny (who’d have been 25 at the time). It’s the sort of song she’d have loved, singing it to Grandpa’s expert piano accompaniment, with her fingers clasped in front of her at waist height, posture perfect, and in just those plummy tones.
Nora Bayes is, herself, an interesting character, having been born Rachel Goldberg, in 1880, in Chicago, Illinois. Perhaps because her mother’s name was also Rachel, she was known as Eleanora, a name she shortened for the stage, at the same time as she adopted a not-so-apparently obviously Jewish last name for her performances.
She was a renowned celebrity for her time, and–according to researcher Sarah Whitfield— was the first woman to have a Broadway theater named after her, and was the first to record several iconic hits, including this one:
She is also generally recognized as the first person to have sung–as part of a vaudeville act–this song, which was co-written in 1908 by Jack Norworth, her then-husband (of which Nora had many–then-husbands, that is). It was recorded later that year by Edward Meeker:
She is also credited as a co-writer (again in 1908), with Jack Norworth, of this perennial (sung here by one of my faves):
By the time she died in 1928 at the age of only 48, while she was undergoing treatment for cancer, Bayes was on to, and past, her fifth husband and had lived a remarkable life beyond the scope and dreams of even some of the more eccentric and transgressive twenty-first century celebrities. Whitfield writes:
Bayes refused to obey the social mores that ruled expectations of how women should behave. Her personal life caught the attention of the press: she provided endless headlines for her broken theatre contracts and her five divorces. Her marriages were reported across the globe. On news of her fifth marriage, one Australian newspaper reported her advice to wives: “as soon as one becomes bored, one should secure divorce.” The press hardly knew which was more shocking, her divorces or the fact she had walked out of her contract with Florenz Ziegfeld. M. Alison Kibler notes that “Bayes relied on her own charisma and popularity as she resisted managerial control and ignored the details of legal contracts.”
One of my favorite movie lines, from one of my favorite movies is spoken by the uptight, genteel missionary, Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) to the ramshackle and usually drunk Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) in The African Queen. Bogart has turned up plastered yet again, and is pleading his case on the basis of–e just can’t help it because, “human nature.”
“Nature, Mr. Allnut,” comes the icy, “is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.