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