Friday, September 30, 2022

James Dean Raced on the Road to Cultural Icon


James Dean reaching the heights of stardom in 1955 while making just his third feature film.

It has been 67 years since James Dean died in a wreck of his sports car on a country highway near Cholame, California on September 30, 1955.  He was just 24 years old.  At the time of his death, he had shot to fame on the strength of one already released filmEast of Eden—and had two more completed projects in the can, including the role that would define a generation.  On this slender body of work rests the fame that has eclipsed most of his contemporaries and endured as a legend.  Today he is a cultural icon that remains undiminished by timeGenerations of adolescents, whether they know it or not, do what John Mellencamp described in The Ballad of Jack and Diane, “Scratches his head and does his best James Dean.

Dean was born on February 8, 1931in Marion Indiana. His father was a failed farmer who took up a trade as a dental assistant. The family moved to Santa Monica, California when he was young. He had a difficult relationship with his father but was extremely close to his mother.  When his mother died when Dean was 9, he was sent back to Indiana to live in the Quaker home his paternal aunt and uncle in Fairmount

An unhappy and moody child, he sought council from a local Methodist minister, Rev. James DeWeerd, who became a mentor and substitute father figure.  DeWeerd introduced young Dean to many things beyond their small community including theater, auto racing, and bullfighting.  Some biographers suggest that this relationship may eventually have become sexual.

Dean back home again in Indiana.  Despite his restlessness and rebellious image, part of Dean remained firmly rooted in Indiana.  On a 1955 trip home we was snapped reading from the beloved but often academically scorned Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley.  One Riley poem seems to have prophetic meaning--A Country Pathway:

I come upon it suddenly, alone–
A little pathway winding in the weeds
That fringe the roadside; and with dreams my own,
I wander as it leads.
Full wistfully along the slender way,
Through summer tan of freckled shade and shine,
I take the path that leads me as it may–
Its every choice is mine…

Despite being an indifferent student, Dean was popular in the local high school and was both an athlete and a participant in drama and forensic competitions.  After graduating in 1949 he moved back to California where he lived with his father and stepmother while attending Santa Monica College with a declared pre-law major.  He did not last long before transferring to the University of Southern California (UCLA) where he switched to a drama major, rupturing his tenuous relationship with his father. 

His talent and ability did not go unnoticed.  He quickly earned the coveted role of Malcolm in a production of Macbeth.  He also enrolled in James Whitmores acting studio. In January 1951 Dean dropped out of school to pursue acting as a career.

He found it difficult.  After a promising start with a role as the Apostle John in an Easter religious television broadcast, he managed to get just three walk-ons, unaccredited movie jobs.  Dean was parking cars for a living at CBS Studios and virtually homeless when he was noticed by Rogers Brackett, a radio director for an advertising agency.  Brackett took him in and mentored his career.  Both Brackett and Whitmore encouraged the young actor to go to New York for stage experience and training.

 In the big city, Dean’s career went on the upswing.  He made some money testing stunts for the quirky game show Beat the Clock and was soon getting speaking roles on various CBS dramatic anthology series then being presented live from New York.  He followed in the footsteps of his acting idol Marlin Brando by gaining admittance to the prestigious Actors Studio where he studied the Method under legendary teacher Lee Strasberg

There were even better roles on Golden Age of Television programs like Studio One, Lux Video Theater, Kraft Television Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame, You Are There, and Omnibus.  He also found work in ambitious avant-garde off-Broadway theater productions including a stage version of Franz Kafkas Metamorphosis and a translation of the Greek tragedy Women of Trachis by poet Ezra Pound.

                            Dean's first film, East of  Eden both wowed critics and made him an overnight major movie star.

It was a well reviewed turn on Broadway in a production of André Gide’s The Imortalist in 1954 that attracted the attention of Hollywood.  At the suggestion of screenwriter Paul Osborn and over the initial objection of the studio, director Elia Kazan bypassed his close associate Brando to cast Dean as Cal in John Steinbecks East of Eden.  Dean stunned the director and fellow cast members including Jo Van Fleet, Raymond Massy, and fellow Actors Studio alum Julie Harris by improvising key bits of business in the film.  The film opened to strong reviews and brisk ticket sales despite the unknown Dean in the lead.  The film went on to win numerous awards including Best Drama at Cannes and a Golden Globe.  Dean would win a posthumous Academy Award for his role.

On the strength of reports from the set of East of Eden Warner Bros. decided to revive a long abandoned project—Rebel Without a Cause based solely on the title of psychiatrist Robert M. Lindners 1944 non-fiction book on criminal pathology.  Director Nicholas Ray helped develop the story of suburban teenage angst and rebellion.  Dean led the cast as Jim as the troubled lead with Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood as the outcast members of his surrogate family

The only mystery to the public response to Rebel Without a Cause was that Dean's bright red jacket did not become an iconic must-have fashion statement like Marlon Brando's motorcycle jacket from The Wild Ones.

Dean was drinking heavily during the filming and was quickly getting a reputation for being wild.  His fondness for fast cars and racing enhanced his bad boy image. He began road racing sports cars in early 1955 and placed in the top four at several meets.  Forbidden to race while working on his next film, Dean upgraded to a limited edition Porsche 550 Spyder which he had customized and nicknamed The Little Bastard.

The next film was Giant an epic, somewhat overwrought multi-generational depiction of a Texas cattle and oil barons family based on the book by Edna Ferber.  Dean purposefully chose to play a supporting role to leads Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson because he wanted to break away from being type cast as sensitive, alienated young men.  Instead, he played Jett Rink, an ignorant hired hand jealous of Hudson’s wealth and beautiful wife who goes on to become a successful oil wildcatter and ages into a still resentful, drunken tycoon.  But Dean played the older character as so extravagantly deranged that it is impossible to believe that he could have won the affections of his old rival’s daughter.  But in Cinemascope grandeur with three box office stars, the film was destined to be a hit

Dean, already noted for his fast cars and racing, made a traffic safety public service announcement in his costume as Jett Rink from Giant.

With Giant going into postproduction, Dean filmed a public service announcement in his Jett Rink cowboy costume advising teenager to drive safely and obey the speed limit

On September 23, Dean proudly showed off The Little Bastard, now decorated with the racing number 130 on the hood, sides, and back to British actor Alec Guinness who thought it looked sinister, “If you get in this car,” he told Dean, “You will be dead in a week.”

Exactly seven days later, on September 30 Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich set off from Competition Motors, where the Porsche had been readied for on their way to a race at Salinas.  Originally he had planned to trailer the car to the race but decided that he needed more time behind the wheel to get the feel of the new car.  A crew member and a photographer accompanied the car in Dean’s station wagon still equipped with a trailer.  Near Mettler Station in Kern County Dean was ticketed for driving ten miles an hour over the 55 m.p.h. speed limit.  After that the vehicles became separated

Dean and his navigator Rolf Wütherich take off for a road rally in Salinas in his customized Porche The Little Bastard.  This is the last photo of him alive.

A few minutes after refueling Dean was headed west on what was then U.S. 45 near Cholame when a five year old Ford coupe driven by a 23 year old college student headed in the opposite direction changed lanes to take a fork in the road and drove into Dean’s lane.  “That guy’s gotta stop,” he told Wütherich, “He’ll see us.”  Seconds later the cars collided nearly head on.

The coupe’s front grill, riding over the low hood of the sports car stuck Dean in the head.  He suffered a fractured skull and jaw, a broken neck, and massive internal injuries.  Although still barely breathing when an ambulance arrived, he died on the way to the hospital

Wütherich was thrown clear of the car and survived.  The driver of the other vehicle, who claimed never to have seen Dean, suffered minor head injuries and was released un-charged.  Despite legends to the contrary, physical evidence showed that Dean was not speeding at the time of the crash.

Dean was buried by his family at Park Cemetery in Fairmount.  Reaction to his death by the public was sharp and instantaneous.  Like John Dillinger had once recommended, he had “lived hard, died young, and left a good looking corpse.” 

Rebel Without a Cause was released on October 27.  The image of Dean as the rebellious teenager instantly became inseparable from the actor’s real identity

Giant was delayed in getting to the screen by Dean’s death.  Some of his dialoged in his climatic drunken scene was inaudible.  Actor Nick Adams had to be brought in to dub sections.  Other long shots had to be made with doubles.  Still, when that film was released in November of 1956 it became the biggest grossing film in Warner’s history and remained so until Superman twenty-two years later. 

Since his death Dean has been the inspiration for imitative performances by generations of actors, several songs, novels, and even a French language musical.  All three of his films are considered classics and are usually included in round-up of the greatest American films. 

Gottfried Helnein's pastiche of Edward Hopper's most famous canvas neatly sums up James Dean's status as a cultural icon.

But perhaps nothing says more about Dean’s iconic status more than the 1984 painting by Gottfried Helnwein inspired by Edward Hopper’s NightscapeReproduced as a popular poster, Helnwein placed a lone James Dean at the front of dark dinner while Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart shared a coffee and Elvis Presley cleaned up behind the counter.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

A Modern European First—France Emancipates its Jews


This idealized print celebrates a decree by Napoleon extending emancipation to all of the lands conquered by the Empire.

France became the first nation in the modern era to grant its Jews emancipation under the law—full equality of citizenship rights and the removal of all traditional encumbrances that had been historically placed on the community—on September 28, 1791 by Emperor Napoleon I.  The edict was in line with the liberating thought of the Enlightenment, and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which guaranteed freedom of religion and free exercise of worship.  The new edict when further both in its specificity and in provisions that recognized the freedom of the Jewish community, as well as individuals including lifting what ghetto restraints remained in France.

But France was not absolutely the first nation to do so.  More than 500 years earlier the 1264, the Polish Prince Boleslaus the Pious issued the Statute of Kalisz—The General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland, an unprecedented document in medieval history that allowed Jews personal freedom, legal autonomy, and separate tribunal for criminal matters as well as safeguards against forced baptism and blood libel. The Charter is ratified again by subsequent Polish Kings including Casimir the Great in 1334, Casimir IV in 1453, and Sigismund I the Old in 1539.   

Polish King Casimir the Great renewed the unprecedented Medieval Statute of Kalisz  giving freedom of religion and rights to Jews.  It stood for more than three centuries until Jesuits gained control of the Polish kingdom and eradicated religious tolerance. 

Poland was then on the cultural fringes of Europe, and most importantly, only tenuously connected to the power of the Catholic Church.  General religious tolerance flourished along with Lutherans, Reform (Calvinist), and the paleo-unitarian Polish Brethren.  Poland was also under-populated and needed both Jewish peasants and artisans.  Meanwhile elsewhere in Europe Jews were being blamed for the Black Plague which resulted in waves of pogroms; draconian strictures on residence, occupation, and worship; and eventually the persecution of the Inquisition.  Jews had flocked to Poland and soon it had the largest communities in Europe in which a rich shtetl culture emerged.  However, the Jesuits eventually re-asserted Catholic supremacy in Poland, wiping out Protestant dissent and introducing rising anti-Semitism into the population.  Now Poland, like much of Europe was a dangerous place for its many Jews.

Under King Edward I in 1290 England became the first European nation to expel its Jewish population more than 200 years before Spain and Portugal did the same.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance were tough on Jews across Europe.  They were expelled from England, Spain, Portugal, and the Low Countries.  Everywhere they were confined to ghettos and prohibited from most professions—except money lending since The Church forbad usury by Christians.  That made them essential to urban Bürgermeisters, nobles, and royalty but also despised for charging interest.  In most countries Jews could not go abroad on the streets without a Judenhut—a kind of identifying conical hat—or yellow badges, either of which could invite street assault.

The dawning of the Enlightenment in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, gave Jews a glimmer of hope because it not only challenged the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, but of Protestant ones as well.  Increasing religious diversity among the most literate and creative members of society inevitably led to demands for religious liberty and eventually for what we would call separation of church and state or either the disestablishment of state religion or the allowance of free worship outside them.  Originally Jews were excluded from this calculation.  But ideas like this are hard to keep in a bottle.  By the later part of the 1700’s and under the influence of the American and French Revolutions, most advanced thinkers were including Jews in their vision of religious liberty.

Among the Jews of Western Europe, a small minority had prospered and began to mix more with Gentile society.  They were exposed to the scientific and philosophical currents of the wider society and hoped to adapt insular Jewish life to it.  Some, like Spinoza and Salomon Maimon gained respect as philosophers.  Out of this grew the so-called Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah which advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history outside of the scriptures.  It was at odds with the closed communities of the ghetto and shtetl, with Jewish mysticism, and traditional Orthodox scholarship. 

The interests of the Haskalah and Napoleon coincided.  The Emperor hoped that emancipation would eventually lead to assimilation, intermarriage, voluntary conversion or at least abandonment of Judaism as a faith, and eventually virtual disappearance as an identifiable minority.

In later decrees, Napoleon extended emancipation to all the territories he conquered.  Greece, upon winning its independence from the Ottomans followed suit in 1830.

By the 1840’s the numbers of educated and westernized Jews were ballooning rapidly.  Many were becoming politically active in their countries and were often leading voices in the reform and revolutionary movements that swept Europe.  After the revolutionary year of 1848 emancipation spread rapidly over Europe including German states, Austria-Hungary, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom.  Although de facto discrimination, especially in education and positions in public service continued to be wide-spread, legal encumbrances were fast fading. 

But it was not until after the turn of the 20th Century that those cradles of the Inquisition Spain and Portugal declared emancipation.  Russia, the home of millions of Jews, did not act until the Revolution in 1917.

Americans have been known to boast that the United States never had to emancipate its Jews because it never discriminated against them.  While this is true of the government under the Constitution, it was not true of the states.  Most of the founding colonies had some legal restrictions on Jews.  The outstanding exception was Rhode Island which became home to the country’s first Synagogue at Newport.  Quaker Pennsylvania had few restrictions and individual Jews like the Financier of the Revolution Robert Morris prospered there.  Thomas Jeffersons Virginia Statue of Religious Liberty annulled the citizenship barriers that previously existed.

But each state had to act on its own.  The US Constitutional ban against the establishment of religion was not then considered binding on the individual states, several of which had established churches—the New England Standing Order and Anglicanism/Episcopalians in most of the Middle and Southern States—and many had restrictions on Jews voting, holding office, or even testifying in court.

One by one the states did abolish these restrictions.   The last to do so was New Hampshire in 1877.

In the late 19th and and 20th Centuries the backlash against Jews was in full swing fueled by the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elder of Zion and scapegoating Jews for economic woes.

The rise of European Jewry was accompanied by a rise in a new kind of anti-Semitism.  The famous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion first surfaced in Russia in 1903 and theories of various Jewish conspiracies to rule the world spread. 

The assimilated Jews of Western Europe largely felt secure in their emancipation by the early 20th Century.  They were wrong.  Adolph Hitler and the Nazis voided a century and a half of progress and unleashed unimaginable horrors.

But that is another story.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

A Treasured Historic Myth Flushed Down the Drain

Thomas Crapper & Co. toilets are still in common use in the United Kingdom.

As a blogger who covers historical events and personages both great and small, it is my sad duty to occasionally disabuse you of your most cherished illusions.

Like this one:  The standard flush toilet was invented by Sir Thomas Crapper in the Britain in the 19th Century, lending his name to human solid waste disposal, the waste itself, and anything else that stinks for any reason because it was emblazoned on his products.

Wrong on two or three major counts but containing the kernel of truth.

On the other hand, the self-appointed myth busters who claim that the whole thing is a lie and that there never was a Thomas Crapper are also wrong.

Thomas Crapper, plumber and "sanitary engineer" became a very successful manufacturer in  the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The very real Thomas Crapper was baptized on September 28, 1836 in Thorne, Yorkshire. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but babies were typically christened about two weeks after birth.  He was apprenticed to his older brother George as plumber. After completing his training and spending three years as a journeyman, he set up his own first shop near his brother’s Chelsea establishment in West London in 1861.

In addition to plumbing services Crapper advertised himself as a sanitary engineer and a brass foundryman.  He began manufacturing plumbing fixtures and obtained several patents that improved the already existing flush toilet.

The ancient Romans had continuously flushing toilets in their elaborate baths and in villas of the extremely wealthy.  The Dark Ages, however, had pretty well wiped out memory of them.

Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harrington and a sketch of his Ajax flush toilet invention.

Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harington was credited with a developing a flush toilet called The Ajax around 1596 which had a water shut off device.  The clever devise became the object of political controversy when Harington wrote a book about it, A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax in which he also satirized one of the Queen’s favorites resulting his banishment from court and the languishing of his invention.

Alexander Cumming obtained a patent on an improved flush toilet in 1775.  In 1778 Joseph Bramah obtained a patent on an improvement that replaced Cumming’s slide valve at the bottom of the tank with the familiar flap valve still seen in most toilets. By the late 18th Century water closets, as they were called, were being manufactured and installed in the homes of the wealthy.

Edward Jennings got another patent for further improvements on the flush toilet in 1851.  Thus when Thomas Crapper began producing and marketing his own water closets, he was joining an already established line of business.

In the 1880’s Crapper got the distinction of having Royal Warrants when he won a contract to install several Thomas Crapper & Company water closets in the country seat of Prince Edward.  He also supplied Edward as king and his successor, George IV.  The prestige boosted the sales of his appliances.

But Crapper did hold several patents, including two for key improvements.  The Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer was actually invented by Albert Giblin 1898 who was either an employee of Crapper or from whom the manufacturer obtained a license.  Crapper also held a patent, probably invented by his nephew on the ballcock or float valve that automatically closed the flap valve of the supply tank when the siphon filled it with water.

An advertisement for the Thomas Crapper & Co improved Water Closet.

Taken together, these improvements made the familiar flush toilet that can still be seen and used throughout Britain—an over-head, wall mounted reservoir tank whose flush mechanism is engaged by a pull chain releasing water through a pipe into the bowl below.  These were the models were proudly emblazoned with the badge of Thomas Crapper & Sons.

Thomas retired in 1904 and died in 1910.  He was a respected businessman but was never knighted.  The company passed into the hands of his brother and nephew.  Under a succession of owners, it continued to produce Thomas Crapper toilets until 1966.

The legend that World War I Doughboys popularized the term crap for excrement based on seeing Crapper’s name on their facilities make so much sense that it is hard to deny.  But entomologists trace the use of the term as far back as the 1840’s when it first appeared in print.  It was probably in casual slang usage long before that.  Experts believe that it derives from the Old Dutch and German krappe for a “vile and inedible fish” and the Middle English crappy.  Still, it is hard to believe that Crapper’s name, ubiquitous on British porcelain, did not at least contribute to the popularization of the term.

Whatever the case, be grateful for you comfortable indoor plumbing facilities which whisk away your waste to a distant treatment facility.  Life would truly be full of crap without it.


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

That Day When the Champion Chicago White Stockings Didn’t Draw Flies in Troy

Almost all of this 1880 Championship team was back for another romp to the crown a year later.  Cap Anson front and center. 

My beloved Chicago Cubs have been terrible this year after a management fire sale of stars and an announced rebuilding.  They remain 21½ behind their old rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals and in third place in the National League Central despite a recent meaningless winning streak.  But the team’s dedicated fan base continues to plunk down money and show up at Wrigley Field.  Sure, they didn’t sell out every game this year, but the stands are normally fuller than many teams in tight playoff races.

The team also continues to be the biggest visiting team draw in baseball as the vast Chicago diaspora turns out and well-heeled fans travel to follow their team.  Even in St. Louis, the likely Division Champs blue Cubs caps and gear are seen liberally sprinkling the seas of red.

That perspective makes todays baseball yarn even more of a head scratcher.

Chicago player/manager Cap Anson was not only the biggest star in early Major League Baseball but a major player in shaping the National Pass Time.

On September 27, 1881 the Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs) played a game before the smallestcrowd” in their long history—12.  Probably also the smallest crowd for any Major League regular season game.  Which was strange.  Under legendary player/coach Cap Anson the Chicago Nine had been the top professional team for some time and dominated the early seasons of the National League.  On that Tuesday afternoon in Troy, New York, the team was coasting to another championship with an eight game lead.

Perhaps it was because the Troy Trojans—you didn’t expect any other nickname did you—were a lousy team.  They struggled in 5th place and finished the season 39-45, 17 games behind Chicago.  But the White Stockings were so laden with talent that they were a draw everywhere, even when the host teams were certified mopes. The Trojans would be disbanded after the next losing season.  More than half of their players jumped to a brand new franchise in New York City, the Gothams—later known as the Giants.

The hapless Troy Trojans, soon to go out of business.

Perhaps the low attendance was due to the weather.  My attempts to ascertain conditions that day in Troy have been unsuccessful.  But it can get a mite nippy and/or rainy and raw in Upstate New York.  My guess is that is what kept the crowd below the combined number of players on the field.

The Cubs would go on to have their own attendance problems, even in beautiful Wriggly Field when they seemed mired in particular futility in the early 1950’s.  But they have gone on to become one of the most successful teams in baseball in terms of selling tickets.  Until the recent run of humiliating seasons, home games have routinely been sold out.  And even this year, hand wringing about dipping attendance usually meant that scattered seats here and there and in the upper deck corners were unfilled.  Compared to the nearly empty stadiums you see on television for some teams, they are the envy of baseball.

Oh, by the way, back to that game in Troy—the White Stockings won 10-8.


Monday, September 26, 2022

Bessie Smith and the Last Road to Clarksdale

                                Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues.

On September 26, 1937 Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, was critically injured in an auto accident on a dark highway between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi.  She died of her injuries hours later at a segregated hospital in Clarksdale for Blacks only.

Most people take as gospel the story that she died because she was refused admission to a hospital for Whites only.  But it turns out not to be true, at least in the exact form that has assumed the status of legend.

The story seems to have originated with John Hammond, the legendary record producer, critic, and talent scout who was instrumental in promoting careers of luminaries from Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday, through Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan to Lenard Cohn, and Bruce Springsteen. Hammond’s career was undoubtedly impressive, in no small measure because Hammond promoted himself as diligently as he did his protégés.  In doing so absolute truth was sometimes a casualty.

Record producer John Hammond with one of his later protegees Aretha Franklin whose style owed a debt to Bessie Smith as well as her gospel music background, 

Hammond had recorded Bessie’s last secessions in 1933 for Columbia Records Okeh label.  At this point Smith’s career was struggling.  The Depression and the explosion of radio had nearly wiped out record sales.  Despite recording hit after hit in the ‘20’s for Columbia’s A label, her contract had lapsed, and she had not recorded in some years.  The dawning of the Swing Era also signaled a shift in public taste in both the Black and White communities away from her raw Barrel House style to a jazzier soundTalking pictures were also killing vaudeville, where Smith had made a good living appearing with an elaborate act.

Smith was always shrewd about her business.  She insisted that instead of a stripped down Blues combo, a small jazz band back her on these sessions.  In the band were notables trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, and tenor saxophonist Chu BerryBenny Goodman even sat it for at least one number. It was a more contemporary sound for Smith.  The records were a moderate success, but did not match the sales for classic blues from the ‘20’s.

Hammond, who was a traditionalist and had hoped to capture that earlier sound, was disappointed and did not sign Smith for more sessions.  She never recorded again.

After Smith died Hammond wrote about her.  He claimed that he had rescued her from obscurity and life as a hostess in a speakeasy.  Not true.  Smith was still touring at the time and still had dedicated audience, particularly in the South.  As the Depression deepened and venues closed, Smith later was forced to take work as a hostess, but that was not until the months before she died.  And then she abandoned that after a short while when new opportunities to play the Southern circuit arose.  In fact, Hammond had not seen Smith since the 1933 sessions.

Whether because he was confused about accounts of the accident or just to embellish a good story, Hammond wrote in a 1937 article in Downbeat magazine that an ambulance had delivered Smith to the White hospital only to be turned away.

Edward Albee's short play, based on Hammond's account, often was mounted in tandem with The American Dream or The Sandbox.

Soon the story became part of music legend and culture.  In 1959 Edward Albee made it the basis of his play The Death of Bessie Smith.

Here is what really happened.

Shortly after midnight Smith was in the front passenger seat and her longtime lover/partner Richard Morgan was driving her Packard.  Morgan evidently drowsed and woke up to find himself in the wrong lane with a car approaching.  He tried to steer left, but the car sideswiped the Packard, nearly severing the arm that Smith had resting in the window.

Shortly afterwards a Memphis surgeon Dr. Hugh Smith and his fishing buddy came upon the accident and offered assistance.  He found Smith lying in the road semi-conscious.  She had a minor wound to her head but was bleeding badly from the nearly severed arm.  He worked on stopping the blood flow with his handkerchief.  He later said that neither apparent wound would have been fatal, but that Smith had probably suffered massive internal injuries and bleeding from the collision.  Meanwhile Dr. Smith’s friend went to a nearby house and phoned for an ambulance.

After more than half an hour, as Bessie slipped into shock and the ambulance had still not arrived Dr. Smith decided to try to take her to the hospital in his own car.  As he was clearing the back seat, another car approached at high speed.  Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the car plowed into his car, caromed into the Packard, and narrowly missed Bessie still lying on the shoulder of the road. 

A passing motorist, seeing this accident but not the first, called for another ambulance.  Two ambulances—one from the Black hospital called by Dr. Smith, and one from the White hospital called by the passing motorist—responded to the scene.  The Black ambulance took Bessie and the White ambulance took the two lightly injured occupants of the second car.  There was no thought of delivering Bessie to a White hospital.  Not in the South.  Not in Mississippi.  Certainly not in 1937.

Bessie Smith's Packard, left, and the second car to hit it while she lay injured in the road.

Bessie was taken to Clarksdale’s Afro-American Hospital. It is undoubtedly true that the two facilities were not “separate but equal.”  Black hospitals struggled and often did not have the most up-to-date equipment.  It might be possible that Bessie could have gotten better care in a White hospital.  And in that sense she was certainly the victim of racism and segregation.

But as Dr. Smith observed, she was bleeding internally.  Given the state of medicine at the time, it is doubtful that even the most ultra modern hospital staffed by the greatest surgeons could have saved her.  Her Black doctors did everything they could.  They amputated her arm, controlled the bleeding they could see, and made her as comfortable as possible.  Still, she was dead within hours.

Bessie’s body was taken to Philadelphia where she and Richard Morgan had made a home.  As word spread through the Black community, the wake had to be moved from a small local funeral home to an Elks Lodge where more than 10,000 admirers came to pay their last respects and view the body.  She was laid to rest in Mount Lawn Cemetery.

More than 30 years after her death, Bessie Smith finally got a headstone courtesy of her admirer Janis Joplin.

Twice money was raised for a suitable monument for Bessie’s grave and twice her long estranged husband Jack Gee made off with the money.  Her grave remained unmarked until 1970 when another blues singer, Janis Joplin, paid for a tombstone which was installed on August 7, just three months before Joplin’s own death.

The former Afro-American Hospital is now the Riverside Hotel.  It has a marker honoring Smith’s death there and is a stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail.