They met in 1925 at the Opportunity Awards Dinner in New York, where they rubbed elbows with such writers as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Fannie Hurst, Eugene O’Neill and James Weldon Johnson. Philosopher Alain Locke, who edited the anthology “The New Negro,” was also present, and he published Zora’s prizewinning short story, “Spunk,” and Langston’s poems seven months later.
Langston was self-effacing and mischievous, with a warm smile and impeccable English. He was 24, a Midwesterner and new to the Big Apple. He was also pedigreed — his great-uncle was the first dean of the law school at Howard University and one of the first black men elected to Congress.
Zora was outspoken and Southern; she was a preacher’s daughter who knew how to hold her own, even as she, too, was new to the city. She told people that she was 24, but records show she was 10 years older. She wore bangles and beads, smoked cigarettes in public and played the harmonica at soirees. She was very much the extrovert, in contrast to Langston’s fine manners and elusive quality.
They quickly formed a bond, and their friendship “informed practically everything they wrote, during those years,” Taylor writes. “They jointly brought to life a new conception of African American literature quite unlike any that had come before.”
They also eventually shared a patron: Charlotte Osgood Mason, known as Godmother. Mason, a white woman with deep pockets, was devoted to primitivism, an idea that people of color were uncorrupted by society. She saw Langston and Zora as revolutionary because they celebrated black culture and black life in a way other writers at the time did not.
“There she was sitting up there at the table over capon, caviar and gleaming silver, eager to hear every word on every phase of life on a saw-mill ‘job,’ ” Zora wrote. Godmother financed them both in different ways. “While Langston was being paid to create, Zora was being paid to collect,” Taylor writes.
And so Zora — along with Langston — traveled through the South in her old Nash coupe, nicknamed “Sassy Susie,” and gathered information about folklore. (During the trip, she also interviewed former slave Cudjo Lewis for her book “Barracoon,” which was finally published in 2018.) “Blind guitar players, conjur men, and former slaves were her quarry, small town jooks and plantation churches, her haunts,” Langston wrote in his memoir. He, meanwhile, gave talks at universities and met with luminaries.
The trip cemented their friendship, and they worked together on several projects, including a folk opera and a play based on Zora’s 1925 short story “The Bone of Contention.” But their alliance was disrupted by the addition of a third: the beautiful stenographer Louise Thompson, also financed by Godmother. Louise fell in love with Langston and admired Zora. The three of them set up shop in Westfield, N.J., working together day and night on the play, and escaping the worst of the Great Depression, thanks to Godmother.
Things fell apart in the spring of 1931. Langston wanted Louise to officially become their business manager. He also spoke of sharing credit for the play with her, infuriating Zora, who called Louise “a typist.” Eventually, Langston severed ties with Godmother. Zora wrote a version of the play on her own, and Langston wrote another. In the end, there were two plays, two separate copyrights and gossip all over New York.
Taylor is scrupulous about dates and correspondence between the players. At times, he overreaches. His comparing Hughes’s trajectory to Bob Dylan’s is one example of an idea that feels overblown and out of place. He is also tone-deaf on the subject of sexism in the 1930s, drawing few conclusions about Zora’s death in obscurity and Langston’s lifelong fame. Otherwise, this a complete pleasure to read.
Lisa Page is co-editor of “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America.” She teaches writing at George Washington University and is interim director of Africana studies.
Zora and Langston
A Story of Friendship and Betrayal
By Yuval Taylor
W.W. Norton. 304 pp. $27.95