Saturday, February 29, 2020

Hattie McDaniel--An Oscar for Mammy

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy with Vivian Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Eighty years ago tonight Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in the blockbuster hit Gone With the Wind.  She was the first Black performer to be so honored—and the only one until Sidney Poitier took home an Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1963 if you don’t count the “Special Academy Award” to  James Baskett for his characterization of Uncle Remus in Song of the South in 1948.  But on the night of her triumph McDaniel and her escort to the awards ceremony were required to sit at a segregated table on at far wall of the room with her white agent, William Meiklejohn.  The swanky Coconut Grove Room of the Ambassador Hotel had a strict no-Blacks policy, but allowed McDaniel in as a favor to the Academy.
In America circa 1940 no Black person was allowed to soar too high without a slap of racism to make sure that they did not get too uppity and knew their place.
McDaniel also found herself under attack from two wings.  Many white Southerners we outraged that beloved hymn to ante-bellum Dixie and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy was dishonored by the award to a Black woman.  Surely, they insisted, the prize should have gone to sweet Olivia de Havilland as Melanie.  They also complained that Mammy was way too familiar with and downright disrespectful to Vivian Leigh’s Scarlet O’Hara.
On the other hand many Black leaders, although glad to see some recognition, were offended by the subservience  and stereotypical portrayal not only of the Mammy character, but of most of the roles McDaniel played, a parade of domestics—maids, cooks, and mammies.  Her career, it was said, “ran the gamut from maid to maid.”
These two attitudes would haunt her entire long career in Hollywood which included over 300 films with credited parts in 83.
McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895 youngest of 13 children of former slaves.  But she did not have the experience of most Southern Blacks during the Jim Crow Era.  Her father, Henry McDaniel was a veteran of the 122nd United States Colored Troops during the Civil War.  To escape the long shadow of slavery and white supremacy in the South he moved his family to Kansas which was seen as a haven for Blacks after the war.  Hattie was born in Wichita.  Her mother Susan Holbert, was a gospel singer who encouraged her children to become musicians and performers.  McDaniel would later say that she understood Mammy in Gone With the Wind “because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara.”
The family relocated to Fort Collins, Colorado in 1900 and then to Denver where Hattie attended East High School giving her a better education than most young black women of her time.  But before she could graduate she began touring in her brother Otis’ minstrel troupe which played a Western circuit.  Young Hattie sang and wrote some of her own songs as well as performing in the second act and acting in skits in the third.  After Otis died in 1916 the troupe fell on hard times as vaudeville was on the rise and replacing minstrel shows as America’s favorite theatrical entertainment and disbanded.

Hattie McDaniel as a young actress and singer.
From 1920 to ‘25, McDaniel appeared with Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a black touring ensemble and began a pioneering radio career with the group on Denver station KOA in the mid-1920s where she became the first Black woman to sing on radio in America.  From 1926 to From 1926 to ‘29, she recorded many of her songs for Okeh Records, Paramount Records, and the tiny Kansas City Meritt label.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression put an end to her recording career.  Desperate to find work, McDaniel had to take a job as a washroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Eventually she convinced the reluctant club owner let her sing.  She became so popular he made her a regular in his floor shows.
In 1931 she moved to Los Angeles to be near to her brother Sam and two sisters who had toe-holds in the entertainment industry.  She was able to join Sam in the cast of The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour on radio station KNX where she developed the role of High Hat Hattie, a saucy and sassy maid.  But her radio salary was so low that she had to work as a maid in real life.
She began working as an extra, walk on, and in an occasional uncredited bit part in the movies and sometimes sang in black chorus numbers.  Her first significant but uncredited roll was, of course, as a maid in Golden West in 1932 and she attracted attention in the Mae West film I’m No Angel the next year.  Her big break came 1934 with Will Rogers in the John Ford directed Judge Priest in which she got co-staring billing and sang a duet with Rogers.  That year she joined the Screen Actors Guild.

McDaniel as Mom Beck with Evelyn Venable and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel--a darkie nostalgic for slave times.  
In 1935 McDaniel co-starred with Shirley Temple, Lionel Barrymore, and Bill Bojangles Robinson in The Little Colonel as Mom Beck, the post-Civil War housekeeper who waxes nostalgic for the old plantation life.  Despite the popularity of the film, the performance was the first to draw significant criticism from civil rights leaders especially Walter White of the National Association for Colored People (NAACP).
The following year she appeared in Show Boat with Irene Dunn, Helen Morgan, Alan Jones, and Paul Robeson as Queeny, the ship’s cook, deckhand Joe’s exasperated mate, and Magnolia’s childhood mammy.  She got a rare opportunity to sing with Dunn on a verse of a verse of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and in a duet with Robinson, I Still Suits Me. 

As Queeny in Show Boat with Paul Robeson, Irene Dunn, and Helen Morgan.
1936 was a busy year.  McDaniel appeared in 13 films, half of them still uncredited.  She could work so steadily because maids and domestics were featured in films across genres—westerns, period pieces, both low and high comedies, mysteries, and women’s movie weepies.  
Some of her notable rolls were in China Seas in which she first appeared with Clark Gable who became a life-long close friend and Jean Harlow; Alice Adams with Katherine Hepburn and Fred McMurray is McDaniel as a slovenly and inept maid; Saratoga again with Gable and Harlow in her last film role; Stella Dallas with Barbara Stanwyck; and The Mad Miss Manton with Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

With Jean Harlow in China Seas.
Despite her many credits, McDaniel was not David O. Selznick’s first choice as Mammy.  Every Black actress of a certain age in Hollywood wanted the part and First Lady Eleanora Roosevelt lobbied the producer to give the part to her personal maid, Elizabeth McDuffie.  Gable heartily recommended McDaniel but it took an audition in which she showed up in a period costume with the kerchief on her head that she finally won the part.
Hoopla over Gone With the Wind had been at a fever pitch ever since Selznick announced the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s beloved best-selling novel.  The premier was scheduled for December 15, 1939 at Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia.  MGM which released Selznick’s independent production barred the producer from allowing McDaniel to attend because of Georgia’s strict segregation laws.  An irate Gable threatened to boycott the premier himself unless she was allowed to walk the red carpet.  Fearing a possible riot McDaniel urged him to let it slide and go to Atlanta.  More than 300,000 reportedly mobbed the streets around the theater.  She was able to attend a star studded Hollywood premier on December 28.

Receiving her Oscar for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind in 1940.
When the Academy Award nominations came out, McDaniel found herself in completion with her co-star Olivia de Havilland, Geraldine Fitzgerald in Wuthering Heights, Edna May Oliver in Drums Across the Mohawk, and Maria Ouspenskaya in Love Affair.  Popular de Havilland was the heavy favorite.  But it was McDaniel’s night.  Gossip columnist Louella Parsons described the event. 
Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
Despite the Oscar win, McDaniel’s career was somewhat slowed up during World War II during which she devoted time to serve as chairman of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, providing entertainment for segregated Black troops.  She made numerous personal appearances at military hospitals, threw parties, and performed with USO shows and war bond rallies. Bette Davis was the only white member of McDaniel's acting troupe to perform for black regiments alongside Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.  McDaniel was also a member of American Women’s Voluntary Services.
Her war-time roles included George Washington Slept Here with Jack Benny; Since You Went Away with Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, and a teenage Shirley Temple; and Janie and its sequel Janie Gets Married.
McDaniel’s deteriorating health slowed her down further in the post war years.  Among her films were Margie with Jeanne Crain; Never Say Goodbye, a comedy with Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker; Walt Disney’s Song of the South with James Baskett; and the coming of age comedy/drama Mickey which was one of several films in which she played a wise domestic in a family with a teenage daughter.  Her final film 1n 1949 was the auto racing drama The Big Wheel with a grown up Mickey Rooney
Also during the post-war years McDaniel, who usually eschewed activism and politics, became involved in a celebrated open housing court battle.  She was the most famous of the Black homeowners who organized the black West Adams neighborhood in Los Angeles.  Loren Miller, an attorney and the owner and publisher of the California Eagle, the major Black-owned newspaper on the West Coast, represented the minority homeowners in their suit against a restrictive covenant. Wealthy Blacks began moving into the area of older mansions fashionable before the rise of Beverly Hills in 1938 and included entertainers like McDaniel, Louise Beaver, and Ethel Waters.  California Superior Judge Thurmond Clarke overturned a 1902 restricted covenant in 1949 ruling that, “It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long.”

McDaniel on CBS Radio as star of The Beulah Show.
In 1947 McDaniel became the first Black woman to star in a radio series when she took over the role of Beulah—yet another maid—from white male actors who had played the part since 1939 in various shows on two networks.  The Beulah Show was a big hit for CBS Radio and the star made the best money of her career—$2,000 per week.  She continued in the part until 1952 when she had to retire due to illness.   Ethyl Waters took The Beulah Show to ABC Television but McDaniel replaced her for six episodes in 1952.  She quit the show after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and was replace for the final season of the show by Louise Beavers.
Even before the cancer diagnosis, McDaniel’s health had been in decline.  In August 1950, McDaniel suffered a heart attack and was admitted to Temple Hospital in semi-critical condition. She was released in October to recuperate at home but suffered a mild stroke and on January 3, 1951.
She died of breast cancer at age 57 on October 26, 1952 in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, California.
But her troubles were not over.  Hollywood Cemetery, where she wanted to be buried, refused to accept her remains because of the strict segregation policy.  She was buried instead at Rosedale Cemetery.  
Despite her good income from radio and TV, her estate was valued at only $10,000 due to her generosity to family and friends and sizable medical bills.  The IRS claimed $11,000 in back taxes and a probate court ordered all of her property, including her Oscar, sold to pay off creditors, principally the IRS.  Somehow the Oscar escaped the sale and ended up at Howard University as directed in her final will.  It was on display in a cabinet in the theater department for several years before disappearing into storage.  The University still can’t find the award but vehemently denies rumors that angry student activists threw it into the Potomac in the 1970’s in protest to McDaniel’s “demeaning portrayals.”

McDaniel with her now missing Academy Award trophy.  Note that it was a plaque with a representation of an Oscar statuette, what Supporting player winners then were given.  
In her lifetime McDaniel seldom spoke about the criticism she received from Black activists.  But she told one interviewer, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
Despite the controversy, McDaniel received many posthumous honors including two stars for movies and radio on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame; and a U.S. Postal Service Black Heritage stamp in 2006.
McDaniel was honored with a USPS Black Heritage Series postage stamp in 2006.
In 1994, the actress and singer Karla Burns launched a one-woman show Hi-Hat-Hattie about McDaniel’s life and toured with it to several other cities through 2002. 
In 2002, McDaniel's legacy was celebrated in the American Movie Classic’s (AMC) film Beyond Tara, The Extraordinary Life of Hattie produced and directed by Madison D. Lacy and hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. The film won the 2001–2002 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Special.
Producers Alysia Allen and Aaron Magnani reportedly have a theatrical bio-pic in the works based on Jill Watts’ 2005 book, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.  No star is yet attached to the project which was first announced in 2018.
In 2004 Rita Dove, the first Black U.S. Poet Laureate, published her poem Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove in The New Yorker.
Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove
late, in aqua and ermine, gardenias
scaling her left sleeve in a spasm of scent,
her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy
with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair,
on her free arm that fine Negro,
Mr. Wonderful Smith.

It’s the day that isn’t, February 29th,
at the end of the shortest month of the year—
and the shittiest, too, everywhere
except Hollywood, California,
where the maid can wear mink and still be a maid,
bobbing her bandaged head and cursing
the white folks under her breath as she smiles
and shoos their silly daughters
in from the night dew … what can she be
thinking of, striding into the ballroom
where no black face has ever showed itself
except above a serving tray?

Hi-Hat Hattie, Mama Mac, Her Haughtiness,
the “little lady” from Showboat whose name
Bing forgot, Beulah & Bertha & Malena
& Carrie & Violet & Cynthia &  Fidelia,
one half of the Dark Barrymores—
dear Mammy we can’t help but hug you crawl into
your generous lap tease you
with arch innuendo so we can feel that
much more wicked and youthful
and sleek but oh what

we forgot: the four husbands, the phantom
pregnancy, your famous parties, your celebrated
ice box cake. Your giggle above the red petticoat’s rustle,
black girl and white girl walking hand in hand
down the railroad tracks
in Kansas City, six years old.
The man who advised you, now
that you were famous, to “begin eliminating”
your more “common” acquaintances
and your reply (catching him square
in the eye): “That’s a good idea.
I’ll start right now by eliminating you.”

Is she or isn’t she? Three million dishes,
a truckload of aprons and headrags later, and here
you are: poised, between husbands
and factions, no corset wide enough
to hold you in, your huge face a dark moon split
by that spontaneous smile—your trademark,
your curse. No matter, Hattie: It’s a long, beautiful walk
into that flower-smothered standing ovation,
so go on
and make them wait.

Rita Dove

Friday, February 28, 2020

Anti-immigrant Zealots Ended Vatican Ties and a Woman Was Their Excuse

When Maryland tavern keeper Mary Surratt was hanged for her alleged part in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln her Catholic faith led to charges that the Vatican was somehow also behind the plot.
Naturally it was blamed on a woman.  A Mary no less.  Mary Surratt was a middle aged Maryland tavern keeper who had just got herself hung as one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of the Vice President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War.  John Wilkes Booth and associates met at her tavern to plot their revenge for the Confederacy.  Surratt’s son John, a Confederate courier and spy was actively engaged with Booth in an earlier attempt to kidnap the President, but was in Elmira, New York when the foul deed was done and may not have had anything to do with the assassination plan.  John fled the country after seeking refuge in a Catholic Church and eventually ended up in Rome and enlisted as a Papal Zouave.  Mary was nabbed and stretched.  Because she of her faith longtime Catholic haters stirred up rumors that nefarious Papists were behind the plot.
Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Catholics had served  faithfully and often with notable heroism and distinction in the Union Army including members of the famed Irish Brigade and several regiments of solid, reliable German Catholics, Congress was quick to take the bait.  Congress was dominated by ardent Protestant abolitionists now known as the Radical Republicans.  Among the most influential in their ranks were New England Unitarians who were also rabidly anti-Catholic, a long festering prejudice that had grown deeper as wave after wave of Irish and other Catholic immigrants had washed up on American shores.  
There was also a good solid political reason to slap the Catholics—they tended, at least in the big cities where they piled into the slums, to be Democrats and they were now present in sufficient numbers to begin their rapid rise to political power.
Congress took up a proposal to sever relations with the Vatican, which was opposed by the Grant Administration.  Such decisions of foreign policy were the prerogative of the Executive Branch and relations with the Holy See were approved by George Washington himself in 1787.  As debate in Congress went forward, rumors hit the Capitol that the Pope had suddenly ordered an end to weekly private Protestant services conducted at the American Legation inside the walls of the Vatican.  With that alleged slap in the face, Congress voted to end all funding for diplomatic relations with the Holy See.  They couldn’t order a direct end to recognition, but they could make it impossible.    
Grant, who had other fish to fry with the Radicals in Congress, was not willing to go to the mat over his envoy to Rome.  Besides, he shared some of the prevalent anti-Catholic bias even if he was not so vitriolic about it and lost no love for Democrats.  On February 28, 1867 he signed the legislation that effectively ended formal relations with the Vatican.  They would not be fully restored until 1984, almost 114 years later.

Pope Pius VI accepted the diplomatic attentions of the George Washington administration.
As his second term was winding down, Washington had very good reasons to want to deal with the Vatican.  The Holy See remained influential in European affairs.  It could potentially provide an avenue for secret and secure communications with Spain which controlled territory (Florida) on the U.S.’s southern and western (Louisiana) borders.  West of the Alleghenies frontier settlements were always brewing plots and plans to break away from the U.S. and swear loyalty to the Spanish to gain an outlet to the sea for their crops and livestock at New Orleans.  Also the French Revelation had quickly taken an anti-clerical turn and the Vatican’s hostility to the revolutionary regime was shared by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton who had eclipsed ardent republican Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson as the President’s most trusted advisor.  Washington opened up relations with the Papal States at the consular level.   John Adams continued the relationship.                  
In 1848 as the Mexican War was winding down, James Knox Polk elevated relations to accredit an envoy to the Pope himself in his capacity as Head of the Papal States.  Although short of the rank of ambassador, envoys held a rank equivalent to a chargé d’affaires for the next 19 years.
After the formal break in relations several Presidents found it inconvenient not to have official representation at the Vatican which could be helpful in issues ranging from immigration to war and peace.  Some relied on back channel contacts through other legations or by using Catholic American tourists or business men to pass information.    
Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Chief Executives sent semi-official personal envoys to the Holy See.  The first was Postmaster General James Farley, the highest ranking Catholic in the administration who visited Pope Pius XI and dined with Cardinal Pacelli, who was to succeed to the Papacy in 1939 as Pope Pius XII.  

Millionaire businessman Myron Charles Taylor, seen here with Swiss Guards at the Vatican, was the Personal Representative of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman through World War II and the turbulent early post-War period.
The year that Pius XII assumed the Papal Tiara Roosevelt dispatched another special envoy, multi-millionaire industrialist and inventor Myron Charles Taylor as his “Peace ambassador.”  Despite his unofficial status under U.S. law, when he arrived the Vatican recognized him with the rank of Ambassador.  When they got wind of that even at this late date American Protestants went berserk.  Preachers thundered from pulpits.  Raging editorials clogged the pages of Protestant press.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists all registered official protests.  In Congress Republicans foamed at the mouth.
Roosevelt was undeterred.  Taylor had important business to conduct—his first assignment was trying to enlist the Pope to keep Italy from joining Nazi Germany in the recently launched war.  That cause was lost, but Taylor was more successful in keeping fascist Spain out of the conflict.  Taylor stayed through the war and dealt with seeking Vatican help for Jewish refugees and refuge and covert support for American and Allied air crews that had been shot down—after he convinced the Pope the Allies were going to win the war and he no longer could afford to lend tacit support to the Axis.  Later he would help convince the Allied high command not to heavily bomb Rome.  When Roosevelt died, Taylor stayed on under Truman concentrating on humanitarian post war relief and recovery.
Still, despite the fruitful relationship when Taylor retired Truman tried to nominate General Mark Clark who had commanded the Italian campaign, to be an official emissary.  Once again Protestants rose up in protest and Democratic Senator Tom Connally of Texas led a ferocious onslaught in Congress largely because Texans blamed Clark for a division made up of Lone Star National Guard units being terribly mauled in Italy.  A humiliated Clark withdrew his name from consideration on in January 1952.  He soon found himself employed as United Nations Commander in Korea.
Other Presidents continued need to deal with the Vatican, especially when the Church was seen as the main opposition to Soviet occupation and Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.  Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan all appointed personal envoys to the Pope.
Finally in 1983 the Lugar Act repealed the ban on official establishing official diplomatic relations with the Vatican.  Lugar was the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was able to do what Democrats had failed for years to accomplish.   The next year in 1984 the Senate confirmed William A. Wilson as the first Ambassador to the Holy See.  He had served as Ronald Regan’s personal envoy since 1981.
The Vatican is represented in Washington by an Apostolic Nuncio.

Despite differences over abortion and the continued U.S. use of drones and military action, Pope Frances was unusually warm in his welcome to President Barack Obama on an official visit to the Vatican in 2014.
George W. Bush resented the Vatican’s criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the conservative Republican coalition had become increasingly dependent on the Church’s mobilization of the anti-abortion activists in the US.  Barack Obama felt the same sting on the continuing war and international human rights violation, but became the first President to meet the Pope in the Vatican when he had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.  In 2014 he had a warmer visit with Pope Francis 
In 2015 the United States and the Holy See concluded their first ever inter-governmental agreement which aimed at curtailing offshore tax evasion through automatic exchange of tax information.  The highly technical pact was achieved with little fanfare and without heavy Congressional opposition.

Pope Francis was visibly disapproving when Donald Trump and Melania (dressed as a widow in a 1970's Fellini flick) visited the Vatican.  The Pope had been highly critical of Trump for his immigration policies, border wall, climate change denial, and income inequality as well as continued use of disproportional American military power.  For his part Trump and Congressional Republicans resented the "socialist" Pope.
The future of official relationships between the United States and the Vatican may once again be at risk, at least as long as Francis is Pope.  The right wing is no longer shying away from accusing him and the church of being socialists, even Marxists.  Donald Trump and his supporters are in a rage because of Francis’s support of immigrants and comment that “those who build walls instead of bridges cannot call themselves Christian.”  American culture warriors feel that Francis and the Church have gone soft on abortion, contraception, same gender marriage, and gay rights in general.  Old, long suppressed anti-Catholic rhetoric is boiling up again in elements of the right.  With Trump in the White House catering to the most extreme elements of the Evangelical Right Republican repeal of diplomat relations is no longer unimaginable.  Especially if Pope Francis wounds the hyper-tender ego of the Cheeto in Charge