A tale of big, bold, edgy talent
By Wil Haygood,
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 now the '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 the way 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 show-business adage, she worked well with what she possessed.) In time, 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. She made 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 he sits 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.
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."
The Life and Career of Ethel Waters
By Donald Bogle
Harper. 624 pp. $26.99