IT WAS OWNED by racketeers but patronized by New York's high society. It was located in Harlem for most of its existence and provided a prime showcase for the talents of such black artists as Bill Robinson, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, but it maintained a rigid "whites only" policy for its patrons. Today, 38 years after the Cotton Club closed (having survived Prohibition and most of the Depression), it has become a legend embodying both the best and the worst in the history of race relations in American entertainment.
That legend and the facts behind it are scrupulously chronicled (with the added attraction of numerous photos) in The Cotton Club, by Jim Haskins (Random House, $7.95), a book whose historic interests intersect with many subjects beyond the story of one unusual night club. The history of Harlem (which still awaits its definitive treatment) is sketched as part of the background, including the remarkable Harlem Renaissance of the '20s, the origins of black nationalism and the development of a white northern audience for jazz. Besides the entertainers whose names and pictures fill its pages, the story of the Cotton Club involves, at least marginally, the lives of such figures as Marcus Garvey, Jack Johnson and Langston Hughes.
Most of the people who pictures appear in this book were the relatively lucky ones - people whose talent enabled them to strike a modus vivendi in a competitive world where the odds were stacked against them. But even with talent, Haskins makes clear, it wasn't easy. He notes, for example, that Louis Armstrong did not play at the Cotton Club until it was nearly out of business and adds that "Perhaps the reason was that the club may have considered him 'a little too Negro.'"
The book also has its positive moments - for example, the touching story of the celebration for Bill Robinson on December 12, 1936, his 50th anniversary in show business. The festivities began at midnight, and the tributes were so extended that he was not called on to make his reply until 3:45 a.m. "As he started to speak, the tears streamed down his cheeks, and he walked off the floor with a hankerchief to his eyes. It was a more eloquent gesture than any speech he could have made."
Behind the tropical decorr and the internationally famous chorus line (see illustration), the Cotton Club embodied some curious quirks of the American psyche, on which this book also touches briefly. On the whole, apart from questions of its accuracy, iit seems consoling to read the author's conclusion that "The Cotton Club closed because it was an idea whose time had gone."
A vvery different aspect of black history can be seen in a privately printed monograph on the 55th Masachusetts Infantry, a relatively unpublicized regiment of black volunteers in the Civil War: Journey to Honey Hill, by Wilbert Luck (Wiluk Press, 3408 Columbia Boulevard, Silver Spring, Md. 20910, $2.75). Military exploits occupy somewhat less than half of the space in this absorbing study, which gives considerable information on the attitudes of freedmen toward the war and the conditions under which black soldiers trained and fought.