October 15, 2021

David Hajdu and John Carey

Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes DAVID HAJDU—author of Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn—and acclaimed cartoonist JOHN CAREY for a discussion of their book A Revolution in Three Acts: The Radical Vaudeville of Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay, and Julian Eltinge. They will be joined in conversation by historian ERIC K. WASHINGTON, author of Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal.


Bert Williams—a Black man forced to perform in blackface who challenged the stereotypes of minstrelsy. Eva Tanguay—an entertainer with the signature song “I Don’t Care” who flouted the rules of propriety to redefine womanhood for the modern age. Julian Eltinge—a female impersonator who entranced and unnerved audiences by embodying the feminine ideal Tanguay rejected. At the turn of the twentieth century, they became three of the most provocative and popular performers in vaudeville, the form in which American mass entertainment first took shape.

A Revolution in Three Acts explores how these vaudeville stars defied the standards of their time to change how their audiences thought about what it meant to be American, to be Black, to be a woman or a man. The writer David Hajdu and the artist John Carey collaborate in this work of graphic nonfiction, crafting powerful portrayals of Williams, Tanguay, and Eltinge to show how they transformed American culture. Hand-drawn images give vivid visual form to the lives and work of the book’s subjects and their world.

This book is at once a deft telling of three intricately entwined stories, a lush evocation of a performance milieu with unabashed entertainment value, and an eye-opening account of a key moment in American cultural history with striking parallels to present-day questions of race, gender, and sexual identity.

About Author(s)

David Hajdu is a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. His books include Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (1996); Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña (2001); The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (2008); and Adrianne Geffel: A Fiction (2020).

John Carey is a painter and cartoonist. He was the editorial cartoonist for Greater Media Newspapers for many years.

Eric K. Washington is an independent historian and a Bundles Community Scholar of Columbia University. His books include the recent biography, Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal (Liveright, 2019)—about a once influential Black railway labor figure and his Harlem-based workforce—that won the New York Academy of History’s Herbert H. Lehman Prize, the Guides Association of New York City’s Apple Award and special recognition from the Municipal Art Society of New York as a finalist for its Brendan Gill Prize. Washington is a board member of the Biographers International Organization (BIO), for which he recently spearheaded an inaugural award for African American biography, the annual Frances “Frank” Rollin Fellowship.