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Nora Bayes

by M. Alison Kibler

Nora Bayes was an international singing star in vaudeville and musical comedy during the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Known as a willful and temperamental star, Bayes relied on her own charisma and popularity as she resisted managerial control and ignored the details of legal contracts. These traits and tactics matched those of other famous female vaudevillians such as Eva Tanguay who also refused to follow the rules set by theater administrators. In these battles with male businessmen and in her unconventional personal life, Bayes provides some flamboyant, indeed extreme, examples of the broad social changes happening in the United States in the early twentieth century, namely the questioning of traditional roles for women as well as the challenges to male political and economic power that marked the women’s movement of the time.

Born to Elias and Rachel (Miller) Goldberg, she was originally named Dora but changed her name many times for her theatrical career before settling on Nora Bayes. The date of her birth and other details about her early life are sketchy. She gave Los Angeles as her place of birth, but other accounts list her birthplace as Chicago or Milwaukee. When Bayes was approximately eighteen years old and married to her first husband, Otto Gressing, an undertaker, she began to pursue her dream of a theatrical career. While living in Joliet, Illinois, with Gressing, she performed at amateur night at Hopkins’ Theater in Chicago. Thus began a stage career as tumultuous and unpredictable as her personal life.

After performing for several years in vaudeville in the United States and earning acclaim with the hit song, “Down Where the Wurzburger Flows,” written by Harry von Tilzer in 1902, she opened the bill at the Palace Theatre in London, England, in November 1905. When she returned to the United States, Florenz Ziegfeld helped establish her as a star when he recruited her for his Follies of 1907. Enjoying great success in the theater, Bayes divorced Gressing and married singer and dancer Jack Norworth in 1908. Bayes and Norworth then starred together in the Follies of 1908, which included a song they had written together—“Shine On, Harvest Moon.” Though Bayes and Norworth worked well together on stage, their life offstage was strained. Bayes, who commanded higher salaries than Norworth, often treated him as her servant and resented his flirtations with other women.

Confident in her growing popularity, Bayes began to challenge the authority of theater managers and producers. She angered Florenz Ziegfeld, for example, when she walked out of the Follies of 1909 largely because of her jealousy over the success of Sophie Tucker’s performance in this show. After Ziegfeld brought an injunction against Bayes that prevented her from performing for several months, Bayes returned to vaudeville even more popular than before, earning $2,500 a week. Critics noted that Bayes succeeded through her lush singing voice, her sensitivity to her audience’s tastes and her willingness to make fun of herself, including jokes about her Jewish background and her failed marriages.

Divorced from Norworth in 1913, she married Harry Clarke, an actor, that same year. This marriage dissolved only two years later. Bayes achieved great success on the Keith vaudeville circuit, including a prosperous tour in 1914, but she began to chafe under Keith’s powerful demands. Bayes broke her contract and thus gave up the lucrative bookings. Following her break with Keith, she launched her own two-hour, one-woman show in 1917, starred in the musical Ladies First in 1918, and then continued to perform in vaudeville in the England and the United States through 1927.

Bayes’s fourth marriage—to actor Arthur Gordon (also known as Gordoni)—lasted two years, from 1920 to 1922. Her final marriage, in 1925, was to Benjamin Friedland, a wealthy New York businessman. She died of cancer at the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn on March 19, 1928. She was survived by Friedland, her three adopted children (two boys and a girl), as well as brother Harry Goldberg and sister Ida Klein.

Bibliography

AJYB 24:117; American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. ASCAP Biographical Dictionary. 4th ed. (1980); Bayes, Nora. Clipping files. Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University Library, Cambridge, Mass., and Scrapbooks. Robinson Locke Collection, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, NYC; Claghorn, Charles Eugene. Biographical Dictionary of American Music (1973); Ireland, Norma Olin. Index of Women of the World from Ancient to Modern Times (1970); Kinkle, Roger D. The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz, 1900–1950 (1974); NAW; Obituaries. “Nora Bayes.” Variety, March 14, 1928, and NYTimes, March 20, 1928, 27:3; Samuels, Charles, and Louise Samuels. Once Upon a Stage: The Merry World of Vaudeville (1974); Slide, Anthony, ed. Selected Vaudeville Criticism (1988); UJE; Westerfield, Jane T. “An Investigation of the Life Styles and Performance of Three Singer-Comediennes of American Vaudeville: Eva Tanguay, Nora Bayes and Sophie Tucker.” Ph.D. diss., Ball State University (1987); Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912–1970 (1978).

10 Comments

In his autobiography, Jack Benny describes Nora Bayes as one of his Ì¢‰âÒheroinesÌ¢‰âÂå: Ì¢‰âÒbeautifulÌ¢‰âÂå, Ì¢‰âÒtalentedÌ¢‰âÂå, a Ì¢‰âÒcrazy temperamental personÌ¢‰âÂå and a Ì¢‰âÒwonderful human beingÌ¢‰âÂå. He recalls working with her in vaudeville in 1927:

Ì¢‰âÒEven in middle age, she was a stunning woman with a dynamic personality. She just hypnotized an audience. She was a great song stylist, with a soft contralto voice. Some of her songs were romantic ballads and some were comedy songs. She was magical on stage, casting an unbelievable spell on her audience. She never stood still. In perpetual motion, she crossed, turned, smiled, swung her hips and did a recitative in the middle of a song.Ì¢‰âÂå

Benny goes on to describe a comedy bit he invented and performed with her at the end of her act (an Ì¢‰âÒafterpieceÌ¢‰âÂå). This revolved around his pretending to be about to leave the theatre and walking on stage holding his overcoat: Ì¢‰âÒI was just getting ready to go home, but you wanted to see me about something, Miss Bayes?Ì¢‰âÂå Nora persuades him to sit next to her on the sofa where she had just been performing her songs. She asks him to tell her the punch-line of a joke that Benny had refused to allow his comedy partner to deliver in their own act, earlier on the bill, because it was (supposedly) off-color. Ì¢‰âÒÌ¢‰â‰ã¢Whisper it in my earÌ¢‰â‰ã¢, she said seductively. I did, moving closer and closerÌ¢‰âÂå_ she giggled and laughed. I was practically making love to her as the curtain came down. The audience went crazy.Ì¢‰âÂå (Sunday Nights at Seven, Jack Benny with Joan Benny, pp.19-21).

After having done considerable work on Nora Bayes for an upcoming book on Female Composers of the Ragtime Era (you can read a partial at http://ragpiano.com/perform/nb..., I have not been able to establish Elias and Rachel as parents. In order for that to track they would also have to be verified as the parents of Harry William Goldberg and Ida Rose Goldberg Klein, and I have not found that either.

From her initial marriage record and passports and ship passenger lists and interviews and other sources, I can say with a high degree of certainty that she was born as Eleanora Sarah Goldberg in Illinois, but can't get too far beyond that. As per Harry's demographics the parents were from Russia, which could also be interpreted as Poland. However, even though he can be traced from 1917 forward (wife Bernice) and Nora from 1898 forward, there is no 1900 listing that links Harry or Nora with any particular Goldbergs that had a Rose. Harry was born 10/17/1884 and died in Los Angeles on 10/9/1958, which fits with Nora's stories and obituary, but also indicates that he would likely have been with his parents for the 1900 census at age 15. He can't be pinpointed, as no Harry born in October from 1882-1886 neatly fits that category. Also, if reports are correct, the family would have been in Wisconsin more likely than in Chicago.

In any case, it is difficult to find any clear connection between Eleanora/Nora and the Goldbergs mentioned here as her parents, so I am noting this for the sake of historical accuracy. If there is perhaps some internal family proof I would be grateful to have any access to it, and would acknowledge it on my site list as well as any future editions of the upcoming encyclopedia. You can contact me through ragpiano.com - just click on my head.

Bill Edwards, Music Historian

What is the reason that this renowned artist has no grave marker at Woodlawn Cemetery. How Sad...I wonder why her children didn't purchase one. Or if they had why is it not installed?

I am Nora Bayes's granddaugher -- her son, Peter, was my father. I do not know why there is no grave marker at Woodlawn but am looking into it now. I hope to have an update in the near term to have a grave marker placed for her at Woodlawn.

Ms Bayes, My name is Lawrence Root and I am the stepson of Leanora Bayes Root. (Peter's sister) Both she and my father are deceased. I was wondering if you were ever contacted regarding royalties for "shine on harvest moon" You may contact me via email: CSY331999@AOL.COM Thanks, Larry

JWA has forwarded your message to Ms. Bayes. We hope that she will respond to you directly.

Ms. Bayes, I am trying to find performances of your grandmother either on film or video. Do you know of any? Thank you for any help you can provide. I teach musical theatre history at Ithaca College.

Ginny Bayes wrote in response:

"Hi Joel,

There are no performances of my grandmother, Nora Bayes, on film or video that I am aware of. There are only recordings and old records. There is now a compilation of her songs with those of her 2nd husband, Jack Norworth, available from sellers on ebay, but that's about it.

Oh how I wish there was film!

Thanks for checking, Ginny Bayes"

Your comment about Nora Bayes has been sent to her granddaughter by JWA. We hope that she will reply to you directly.

How could you fail to mention that, in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1908", Nora Bayes also introduced her husband Jack Norworth's song, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"; and, in 1918, she became a major American war heroine when, at the specific request of George M. Cohan, she introduced "Over There", and her recording became the most popular American song of World War I?

Nora Bayes and her Children Aboard the S.S. Leviathan, 1924
Full image

This photo shows Nora Bayes (1880-1928) and her children (from L to R: Norma, Peter and Lea) in 1924 on their return journey to the United States aboard the S.S. Leviathan.

Institution: U.S. Library of Congress.

How to cite this page

Kibler, M. Alison. "Nora Bayes." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 25, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bayes-nora>.

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