The chaotic life of Ethel Wa­ters, a black singer and ac­tress who no­body quite knew how to han­dle.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY WIL HAY­GOOD hay­goodw@wash­post.com Hay­good, a na­tional re­porter for The Washington Post, is the author of three bi­ogra­phies, the lat­est of which is “Sweet Thun­der: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robin­son.”

To­ward the end of her be­guil­ing life, the one­time vaudevil­lian Ethel Wa­ters was schlep­ping around small col­lege cam­puses.

She was per­form­ing the Car­son McCullers drama “The Mem­ber of the Wed­ding,” which had brought her fame many years ear­lier on Broad­way. But this was nowthe ’60s, and Wa­ters— in her own 60s — was a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure to many, an obese woman with a vi­cious tem­per who moon­lighted with evan­ge­list Billy Gra­ham’s trav­el­ing re­vivals. She had pur­posely dis­tanced her­self from the civil rights move­ment.

The black col­lege kids, in love with their ris­ing cul­tural pride, wanted noth­ing to do with her dur­ing her cam­pus tours. The white kids thought her an in­trigu­ing relic from the past. In 1972, Wa­ters had been in­tro­duced to an au­di­ence as a le­gendary “ black” per­former. “Please, not the word ‘Black,’ ” she said. “I’m a Negress and proud of it.”

Wa­ters, whose ca­reer spanned ra­dio, Broad­way, mu­si­cal record­ings, TV and film, has long de­manded a ma­jor as­sess­ment. Don­ald Bogle’s “Heat Wave” goes a long way to­ward putting her ca­reer in per­spec­tive and de­tail­ing her tor­tu­ous and enig­matic jour­ney.

She was born on Hal­loween in 1896 in Ch­ester, Pa., her birth a re­sult of the rape of her teenage mother. While grow­ing up, Wa­ters be­came fond of mu­sic and mu­si­cians. It would be the­way to es­cape poverty. “In time,” writes Bogle, “Ethel got to see per­form­ers like the Whitman Sis­ters, the com­edy duo But­ter­beans and Susie, dancer Alice Ram­sey, the ven­tril­o­quist Johnny Woods, and the great blues singer Ma Rainey.” It was her ed­u­ca­tion. She watched, she im­i­tated, she learned.

Her voice was ma­ture, and her stage pres­ence ag­gres­sively sexy. ( Wa­ters never was a clas­sic beauty like Lena Horne or Dorothy Dan­dridge, but in the old show­busi­ness adage, she worked well with what she pos­sessed.) In­time, Wa­ters made her way to Bal­ti­more, where she joined the lively Ne­gro vaudeville cir­cuit un­der the um­brella of the The­atre Own­ers Book­ing As­so­ci­a­tion. It was an amal­ga­ma­tion of busi­ness­men and huck­sters who sent black per­form­ers through­out the coun­try.

Per­form­ers had an­other name for the group: Tough on Black Ac­tors. The theater own­ers could be crooks, the pay paltry, the hours long and cruel. But Wa­ters was noth­ing if not a hard worker.

Har­lem was a mecca for black en­ter­tain­ers, but it was also risky for new­com­ers. “There was too much Ne­gro tal­ent around,” Bogle — the author of, among other books, “Dorothy Dan­dridge” and “Bright Boule­vards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood”— tells us of that Har­lem.

Wa­ters stormed Har­lem. She waltzed into the of­fices of Black Swan records in 1921. They liked her style. On show billings, she was re­ferred to as “Sweet Mama String­bean.” She trav­eled with the Black Swan Jazz Masters and a les­bian lover. (A brief mar­riage had gone bust.) On­look­ers gawked as she gal­loped atop a horse through Cen­tral Park. She was be­com­ing one of the high­est paid Ne­gro per­form­ers. She­made it to Broad­way in “Black­birds of 1930.” The show flopped, but the­ater­go­ers would re­mem­ber her sing­ing, es­pe­cially the song “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More,” whose lyrics in­cluded: “He don’t per­form his du­ties like he used to do / . . . He says he isn’t lazy, claims he isn’t old / But still hes­its round and lets my stove get cold.” Mae West had noth­ing on Ethel Wa­ters.

But ev­ery suc­cess Wa­ters had she seemed to un­der­mine. She cursed man­agers. She had lovers’ spats that ended up in the tabloids. Do­mes­tic chaos was al­ways at hand. She op­er­ated, cer­tainly, in a racist en­vi­ron­ment. But charm was not her metier, as it was Lena Horne’s. Dur­ing re­hearsal for a play, Wa­ters con­fided: “I’m still a mite sav­age, I guess. Maybe there’s real crazi­ness in me. I’ll say things I don’t mean. I can’t help it.”

Her Hollywood foray was as dispir­it­ing as ev­ery other black en­ter­tainer’s at the time. “Gen­er­ally,” says Bogle, in wicked un­der­state­ment, “Hollywood did not know what to do with its Black glam­our god­desses.” Here Bogle clearly be­comes too en­am­ored of his sub­ject: Ethel Wa­ters was no glam­our god­dess.

She per­formed well in “Cabin in the Sky” but did not, as Bogle proclaims, steal the movie. The new­comer Lena Horne did. Wa­ters was mighty fine on-screen in “The Mem­ber of the Wed­ding.” Her sig­na­ture songs live on, among them “Am I Blue” and “St. Louis Blues.” But the end­ing of her life is all too fa­mil­iar. There were trou­bles with the IRS. Then health prob­lems be­cause of her weight. There were ap­pear­ances in for­get­table episodic TV dra­mas: that old lady sit­ting over there wait­ing on her cue.

Those who lived on higher ledges were never to her lik­ing. “ Though she could ap­pre­ci­ate the at­ten­tion of no­bil­ity,” Bogle tells us, “she would al­ways re­spond most to oth­ers like her­self who crawled out of the pit, be it an eco­nomic or emo­tional one, and made a name or place for them­selves.”

One fin­ishes this over­long chron­i­cle wish­ing that Bogle had cracked the ques­tion of her mixed emo­tions about her race. It would also have been en­light­en­ing if he had delved deeper into her re­la­tion­ship with Billy Gra­ham’s cru­sad­ing. Much of it, one is led to be­lieve, comes down to the fact that en­ter­tain­ers are needy souls; they wish to be loved. Happy and func­tional ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships seemed to have been be­yond Wa­ters’s grasp. Upon meet­ing Eleanor Roo­sevelt, Wa­ters said, “Mrs. Roo­sevelt, please hug me.” But Don­ald Bogle has wrapped the life of Ethel Wa­ters in em­pa­thy, and that is no small achieve­ment.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ON BROAD­WAY: EthelWaters is flanked by JulieHar­ris and Bran­don de Wilde in 1950’s “ TheMem­ber of theWed­ding.”

The Life and Ca­reer of Ethel Wa­ters By Don­ald Bogle Harper. 624 pp. $26.99

HEAT WAVE

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