‘Vintage Black Glamour’ assures a spot in history for early black celebrity

That distinctive voice. That famous growl.

Think for a moment about what you know about Eartha Kitt.

Catwoman.

“Santa Baby.”

The time she was engaged to Sammy Davis Jr.

Wait a second. What?

Yes, long before the singer and actress worked with Davis on “Anna Lucasta,” they dated in 1954 — “before he lost his eye,” Kitt told “Vintage Black Glamour” author Nichelle Gainer in 2001. It was all over the black press. “I’m in love with her, very much,” Davis told Jet magazine. It was one of those details that gets lost over time as we condense historical figures to a few soundbites and montages.

Kitt is the cover image of Gainer’s new coffee table book, “Vintage Black Glamour,” which started as a Tumblr blog in 2011. It’s filled with obscure facts and photographs of America’s black glitterati dating from 1900 to 1980. The cover features a picture of Kitt with her back to the camera in a full-length sequined gown, arms akimbo and head turned coquettishly, gazing at us from over her shoulder, the way she’s typically remembered.

“It’s so important to remember these people who were trailblazers without even realizing it,” said Eartha Kitt’s daughter, Kitt Shapiro. “I was pointing out to my children recently that when my mother did Catwoman, which was 1967 or 1968, even though she only did three episodes, there was sexual tension between her and Batman. That was a big deal, a woman of color playing a villain in that type of role.”

Gainer’s blog quickly grew in popularity as people discovered rarely seen images of their favorite old Hollywood stars and discovered new acts for whom the curtain had long before descended. Gainer, 44, offers short missives packed with context, often quoting from rare or forgotten books or from the back issues of Ebony and Jet that sometimes serve as her source material.

You couldn’t find someone more well-suited for the work of cataloguing historic black celebrities. For starters, Gainer is related to one — her aunt, opera singer Margaret Tynes, who was the lead actress in Harry Belafonte’s “Sing, Man, Sing!” and appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And her unusual first name comes from the actress who played “Star Trek’s” original Uhura, Nichelle Nichols.

Gainer, a former editor for GQ, was a researcher/reporter for Us Weekly and InStyle magazines, and now she writes from her home in New York. When she became underemployed, like so many writers who started their careers in print media, she had more time to pore through archives of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She’s actually a trained beautician, but she hated it and is now working toward a degree in creative writing from NYU.

The worldly career of her aunt had always been the subject of family reunion banter, but Gainer never paid much attention. Tynes was off living the glamorous life in Italy with her husband; to Gainer, she was barely real.

“When I was a teenager, I cared about Prince and Michael Jackson,” she said.

That changed in 2002 when Gainer stumbled across a photo of her aunt while she was doing research at the Schomburg Center for a historical novel. (She’s still working on it.) There was a photograph of Margaret Tynes having her hair done by Rose Morgan, proprietor of Rose Morgan’s House of Beauty. (Morgan was a 1940s precursor to modern celebrity hairstylists like Derek J.)

Gainer could not believe her eyes. “I ran out of the library to call my cousin Miriam, the family historian,” she said. Later, she visited the Paley Center for Media and searched their archives. There was her aunt, performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Gainer knew there were probably others just like her: fabulous and forgotten. (She eventually did get to meet her aunt.)

Gainer deftly illustrates the racial politics that determined so much about their careers through her collection of carefully curated historic images of the black creative class.

A February 2011 post on Hattie McDaniel features a photo of the Oscar-winning actress clad in a smart blazer, accessorized with a brooch and earrings.

McDaniel’s Oscar win was a dubious one: she was the first black person to win an Academy Award, but she won for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” Her name became shamefully conflated with her mammy roles. But opportunities were limited for an actress of color in the 1930s and ’40s. Furthermore, McDaniel was not Lena Horne: there was no passing her off as an “exotic.” She wanted to work as an actress, and that meant playing mammies. Her visual legacy could easily be an amalgam of stereotypes: hundreds of photos of a large, dark-skinned black woman in a headscarf and a maid’s uniform.

Gainer chose to remember McDaniel as an actress, not a role. The words accompanying McDaniel’s photo on Vintage Black Glamour are from Rita Dove’s poem, “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove”:

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.

The Web site is a carefully edited narrative with the purpose of not just exhibiting black women in fabulous dresses, but also showcasing their humanity.

“You hear about Josephine Baker, and you see a picture of her in a banana skirt, and that’s it,” Gainer said. “Or you hear about Eartha Kitt and you see her dressed as Catwoman. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I love all that, but there’s so much more to them. And when you don’t have a balanced, nuanced portrait of these people, they become stick figures.”

A photo of newlyweds Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright easily recalls the iconography of Mick and Bianca Jagger’s wedding pictures.

An image of Baker in stylish pants, opera gloves and dress resemble images of Rosalind Russell in a similar chocolate brown getup in “Auntie Mame.”

Gainer reminds you that before Maya Angeloubecame black America’s grandmother, she was a young, lithe, vibrant calypso dancer who performed in nightclubs.

The same Angelou who delivered President Bill Clinton’s inaugural poem, an erudite embodiment of poise and reserve, used to dance in fitted bodysuits! She was athletic. She was bohemian. She was sexy.

Vintage Black Glamour is a bit like a high-minded celebrity Instagram feed that challenges and adds to American pop culture iconography.

One photo of Coretta Scott King illustrates the difference between her portrayal as the passive first lady of the civil rights movement versus an equal partner who collaborated with her husband, just by doing something as simple as showing him how to work a camera. The most notable images of King document her life in domestic terms: doting wife, loving mother, widow.

“It’s more inspirational to me to see the full person,” Gainer said. “Whenever I put up a picture of Dorothy Dandridge, people say, ‘She’s so pretty, she’s so beautiful, she’s so classy.’ Yes, she was. But she was also a hard worker, which is what everyone says about Beyoncé. Dorothy Dandridge had that work ethic. Imagine all the work that Beyoncé does, but it could be squashed by one person saying, ‘No, I’m not going to put out that record.’ ”

Gainer’s collection of images isn’t your grade-school Black History Month bulletin board. “Vintage Black Glamour” reminds you that these people had friends and confidants and lovers and charming idiosyncrasies, and that’s what Gainer wants you to see: humanity. “Every month is Black History Month on ‘Vintage Black Glamour,’” she said.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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