“America’s Sweetheart of Song” was the appellation given to Ruth Etting, one which she truly deserved. Etting rose to prominence in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, appearing in Ziegfeld Follies. Marrying a gangster, falling in love with another, and becoming one of the most popular singing stars of stage, screen, record, and radio until she left the limelight in the late 1930s, going on to enjoy a long retirement thereafter. Her sweetly feminine vocal styling charmed a generation of listeners, and continue to impress those who have the fortune of hearing her recordings to this day.
Ruth Etting was born November 23, 1897 in David City, Nebraska, daughter of Alfred and Winifred Etting. After her mother died, when the young Ruth was five, she was sent to live with her grandparents, George and Hannah. Growing up, Ruth dreamed of becoming an artist, and spent her hours drawing and sketching whenever and wherever she could. Hoping to become an illustrator, Etting left home to attend an art school in Chicago. Taking a variety of jobs while in Chicago, Etting was eventually asked to fill in for an ailing vocalist at a nightclub, and she obliged. Having never been schooled in voice, Etting lowered her naturally high soprano as she began singing professionally. She claimed her style to have been influenced by Marion Harris.
Becoming a featuring vocalist at the nightclub where she began performing by 1918, Etting met gangster Martin Snyder, better known as “Moe the Gimp”, for his gimp left leg. A naïve young country girl in the city of Chicago, Ruth became reliant on Snyder as a manager. Soon, Snyder divorced his first wife in order to marry the young Etting, who later claimed she agreed “nine-tenths out of fear and one-tenth out of pity”, and became her manager for most of her up-and-coming career. Etting and Snyder were married July 17, 1922 in Crown Point, Indiana. His forceful management of Etting’s career was responsible for putting Ruth on the map, getting her gigs on radio, and eventually records.
Ruth Etting made her first recordings in April 1924, test recordings with Victor Records, all of which were unissued. Later, in 1926, Etting signed with Columbia records to begin making commercially released records, the first of which was a Gus Kahn-Walter Donaldson song called “Let’s Talk About My Sweetie.” Looking back on her early records, Ruth commented, “I sounded like a little girl on those records!”
In 1927, Irving Berlin recommended Ruth for that year’s production of Ziegfeld Follies. Thanks to her dainty ankles, she was chosen for a part in the show by Florenz Ziegfeld. Originally, her part in the show had her performing a tap dance after her song, but, not being a very talented dancer, Ziegfeld instructed her to “just walk off the stage” when she finished singing. After the Follies Etting went on to appear in Donaldson’s Whoopee! and Rodgers and Hart’s Simple Simon and Kahn, where she introduced the song “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Ten Cents a Dance.”
Beginning with the short film “Blue Songs” in 1929, Ruth Etting began appearing in motion pictures. Her first feature film was the 1933 picture Mr. Broadway. Also in the same year, Etting appeared in the Eddie Cantor vehicle Roman Scandals. Between 1929 and 1936, Ruth Etting appeared in four feature films and around thirty-eight shorts.
After an exclusive contract with Columbia records for five years, in 1931 Etting signed with the American Record Corporation to record for their budget labels (Banner, Perfect, Romeo) and split her recording between the two companies until 1933. She then began recording for Brunswick until 1934 and returned to Columbia through 1935, after which she began a contract for Decca, with whom she remained until the end of her singing career.
Etting initially announced her retirement in 1935, though she did not follow through with those plans. With husband Snyder becoming more and more controlling and aggressive of her career, Ruth filed for divorce in November 1937, citing cruelty and abandonment. After the divorce, Etting began a relationship with pianist Myrl Alderman, who was at the time separated from his wife. Oh, the trouble that would bring. Moe Snyder began making threats by telephone to Ruth and her lover. Later, Snyder forced Alderman to lead him to his ex-wife, and held both of them, plus Etting’s daughter Edith, at gunpoint, saying he intended to kill all three of them. Alderman attempted to speak, and Snyder shot him, at which point Etting slipped away to retrieve her firearm. After Snyder wrestled the gun away from Etting, at which point their daughter picked up the gun and fired at her father, hitting the floor instead. Snyder was accused of the attempted murder of the three, as well as the kidnapping of Alderman, and the violation of California gun laws, he was convicted of attempted murder and was released upon appeal after a year, then returned after failing to post bail. Alderman dropped further charges against Snyder in 1940.
Mere days after the shooting, Myrl Alderman’s wife, Alma, whose divorce from Myrl would not be final until December, filed suit against Etting for alienation of affections. Alderman had falsely claimed to be married in July 1938 in Tijuana in an attempt to protect themselves from Snyder, and Alma claimed that any such marriage was invalid. The lawsuit against Etting dragged on for over a year, and after presenting Alderman’s first wife, the court ruled in favor of Ruth Etting in December 1939. Etting actually married Alderman in Las Vegas during Moe Snyder’s trial.
Around the time of all that debacle, Ruth Etting essentially retired from performing, moving with new husband Myrl Alderman to a farm in Colorado, where Alderman ran a restaurant in Colorado Springs. They remained there until Myrl’s death in 1966. Etting returned to singing on several isolated occasions, but never returned to the popularity she once knew. Ruth Etting died September 24, 1978 at the age of 81.
My Grandfather was a professional musician with George Gershwin. He was an enterprising handsome man bringing Etta to his home to meet his wife. Etta would sit with my Mother, as a little girl, in her lap. Grandmother later found that they were having an affair and kicked my Grandfather out. Etta claimed she was married to a mobster at the time and that there was danger at home. She didn’t feel safe. Soon after Etta fled to Colorado to parts unknown for her protection.