The Story of Canada Lee
By Mona Z. Smith
Faber & Faber. 430 pp. $27
"Come on up here and read this," Canada Lee was told one day in 1934. He had wandered aimlessly into an audition at the Harlem Y and minutes later was told, "You've got the job." So began one more of his serendipitous adventures, and right on time because this was the Depression, and, unusual for him, he was between careers.
After a childhood in Harlem, Lee had moved on from the early promise he showed as a violinist, seeing little hope of "becoming something" that way. His success as a jockey had dazzled him -- for a while. But his first taste of national fame had come in the boxing ring, where an announcer had brutalized -- and beautified -- his name from Lee Canegata into the one he made famous. After gaining national recognition as a welterweight contender, Lee had taken off the gloves for good; he had cauliflower ears and had suffered a detached retina that left him nearly blind in one eye. He said he loved the boxing world best, but it was as an actor that he got a chance to display an inner beauty and grace that was his greatest quality.
"Becoming Something," Mona Z. Smith's biography of Lee, is a mission accomplished. Her goal is bringing back Lee's fabulous personal journey from obscurity. Armed with extensive research and huge files hoarded by his widow, Smith has put together a richly detailed and mostly persuasive narrative.
As an actor, Lee is best known for transcending roles that emphasized black inferiority. In Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," the director had called for Lee to recite the Lord's Prayer in black dialect. But when the camera rolled, he read the lines as noble poetry, in what became a pivotal moment in the film. Lee had other inspired moments in such movies as "Body and Soul," "Lost Boundaries" and the original "Cry, the Beloved Country." But without Smith's prompting, we might not realize the extent of his principled campaign to liberate acting by African Americans from the grip of stereotype and cliche.
Smith, herself a playwright, does even greater service by recovering for us Canada Lee as a brilliant stage actor. Profiting from his connections with the Federal Theater Project, he met Orson Welles and was cast as Banquo in Welles's notorious voodoo staging of "Macbeth." From there Lee went on to star status, humanizing the brutish Bigger Thomas in Welles's and John Houseman's electric staging of Richard Wright's novel "Native Son." Before Hollywood called, and after, Lee worked in Eugene O'Neill plays, as well as "Anna Lucasta" and "The Duchess of Malfi," in which he made stage history by playing a major part in whiteface, an early effort to break down color-coded casting.
The revelations of Smith's narrative are many. Who remembers the brightness with which Lee's reputation shone in the world of entertainment during the 1940s; his New York playboy period; the nightclub he kept running for many years; his occasional stints as a swing band leader; his friendships with Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ed Sullivan and Welles; his many admiring girlfriends? But the book also shows us an unfamiliar Lee, whose social consciousness is always developing and whose activism is always vigorous.
Lee comes across as a sweetheart to his friends, idealistically generous to strangers, and a man of budding political convictions who was never able to say no to a good cause. With his bottomless energy, especially in speaking out on behalf of actors, his support of the Roosevelt administration and the war effort, and his protests against the racism and lynchings of a United States still in its apartheid frame of mind, he brings to mind the actor Danny Glover.
All of this set the stage for Lee's tragedy when apartheid-era America also became McCarthyite America, searching for "un-Americans." In a climate of paranoid anticommunism, Lee's associations were noticed. Almost everybody involved in "Body and Soul," including star John Garfield and director Robert Rossen, got the blacklist treatment. Lee's defense was that his activism was directed against racial discrimination. And in truth anyone taking the stands he took in the 1930s and '40s would have found among his allies a goodly number of leftist associates. He would also have accumulated a thick FBI file, as did Lee.
Never officially blacklisted, Lee still saw his career go down the tubes. Broke, out of work and ailing, he began to ask what he could do to clear his name. Rumor has it that he gave up his friend and co-activist Robeson to the inquisition. But there is no public record that Lee denounced Robeson or was otherwise disloyal to him. And that's news to me, because the impression left was of Lee squirming in front of microphones, selling Robeson out in the same way Jackie Robinson was forced to do. The persistence of this rumor is another example of how the truth about Lee has been obscured. Some observers believed that the harassment he endured undermined his health, leading to his death in 1952, at age 45.
"Becoming Something" does an important thing. It makes possible much more discussion and reflection on a life that still has lessons to teach us.