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Composition in Black and White
The Life of Philippa Schuyler
By Kathryn Talalay

Chapter One

Beginning at 6:35 a.m., on August 2, 1931, a hot and humid Sunday, Philippa Duke Schuyler was born at home, in Harlem. She weighed a healthy 7 1/4 pounds, yelled loudly when slapped, opened and shut her fists, and waved her arms. George Schuyler, who was still recovering from the lingering effects of malaria contracted while on assignment in Liberia earlier that year, stayed at home until eight, when he had to leave to fulfill a series of lecture engagements, beginning at Brookwood College in Katonah, New York. George's absence during the early days of Philippa's life was a sad necessity, the inevitable consequence of a black writer's effort to earn a living in America.

Their apartment was on the fourth floor of the elite Park Lincoln at 321 Edgecombe Avenue, a quiet, tree-lined thoroughfare stretching from 145th to 155th with no intervening side streets, Opposite was Colonial Park, where weathered benches and a tall maples lined the broad sidewalk. As a small child, Philippa would spend many hours playing in the park or sitting with her mother on these benches, watching the passing parade of Harlem.

The Edgecombe -apartments - all brown and yellow and white brick, sturdy, immaculately kept, many with recessed entrances and colorful marquees, and tended by doormen in gold braid--announced the opulence of Sugar Hill. Harlemites had coined the sobriquet"Sugar Hill"not only because the street was perched on a bluff far above the shivering hunger of Harlem but also because sugar as slang for money. One had to have money--or means of securing it--to live on these heights.

Contrary to appearances, not all residents were affluent."Working-class strivers,"who were forced to throw rent parties or take in boarders to meet the monthly deadline, had slipped into the neighborhood."In some of the more expensive apartment buildings, pimps and racketeers mingled with the upper crust--though only in the inescapable democracy of the lobbies and elevators."(1)

Although George as of the working class, he was not one of the"strivers,"nor did he throw rent parties; it was his status as a journalist that qualified him to be a denizen of Sugar Hill. Schuyler was a steady contributor of editorials and features to the Pittsburgh Courier, one of America's oldest black newspapers; he wrote for H. L. Mencken's American Mercury and for the Saturday Evening Post; he freelanced successfully for other magazines and was often invited to lecture.

Philippa was born at the depth of the Great Depression. Black America, and Harlem in particular, was hard hit. The Harlem Renaissance, when the"Negro was in vogue,"clearly was a thing of the past. Twelve million Americans were unemployed, and in Harlem itself, a six-square-mile city within the city, almost half the people were out of work while a mere 9 percent had government relief jobs. The tuberculosis rate was five times higher than in white Manhattan, and overall two black mothers and two black babies died for every white mother and infant. The community's single medical facility, Harlem General Hospital, with 273 beds and 50 bassinets, served 200,000.

Yet through all of this, Sugar Hill proudly maintained an aura of opulence. A few buildings up from the Schuylers' was 409 Edgecombe, home to the most distinguished Hilites,"including W. E. B. Du Bois and Roy Wilkins. In fact, Walter White's apartment, on the thirteenth floor, was facetiously known as the"White House of Harlem"because many notables from the world of politics, literature, and theater crossed its threshold.

The Schuylers' apartment had three small rooms, with only a modicum of natural light. But the cheerful decoration compensated for this lack. Reflecting Josephine's taste, the living-room walls were apple green, the chairs green and orange, the bookcase vermillion with touches of blue, red, and purple. A turquoise scarf fell from one comer of the bookshelves across the multicolored volumes that marched up the walls, Patches of sunlight struck the dagger, the sword, the harp, and the pouch that George Schuyler had brought from Liberia. Baby Philippa's bedroom had pictures of nymphs and satyrs painted by West Coast artist John Garth, and at the head of her bed was a painting of Christ--without the loincloth, like the life-sized image of the naked savior that hung in Michelangelo's historic home in Rome.

Philippa's birth was mentioned in all the black newspapers. It was widely held that she was the product of the first interracial celebrity marriage of the twentieth century (except for Jack Johnson's, the heavyweight boxing champion), From the moment she was born, many eyes were on her.

Josephine in particular, but George also, kept detailed scrapbooks in the form of"letters"to Philippa during the early years of her life."This Diary is for you. In case something should happen to your mother, it will be necessary that you know her love,"read the verso of the title page of their first scrapbook. Also pasted on that page were two newspaper clippings. One shows a handsome mustachioed gentleman wearing a Dutch hat. The caption reads: Colonel Schuyler, New York aristocrat of Revolutionary War fame, had a mulatto son, named Chalk, by one of his female slaves. . . . The boy was given a good education, a fine well-stocked farm, and married to a white woman by the colonel."The other is an etching of New York (then New Amsterdam) from the 1650s. It is captioned:"The Negroes helped build the city, the forts, and the defenses against the Indians. Some were slaves; others were free workers and mechanics; others landowners and planters; and at least one was a physician. There was very little color prejudice under the Dutch."

From the day of her birth, Philippa wasted little time: In her fourth week, she began to crawl. It took her fifteen minutes to move eighteen inches, Josephine noted dutifully in their scrapbook on September 4. Four months later, Philippa was sitting and standing on her own, and in twice that time, she had taken her first unsteady steps.

George's homecomings were infrequent during that first year, but he could at least share with his wife, in a bittersweet way, the daily progress of his little girl through the scrapbooks--when she first uttered"mama,"when she first stood up on her own, when she first laughed. He probably laughed when he read Josephine's marginalia about their daughter:"I now perceive that you can pick up your teething ring deliberately and put it in your mouth. You recognize it as your property. Thus, sad to relate, you are already on the way to becoming a capitalist. This must be remedied, for it would never do for two socialists to raise a capitalist."(5) Despite frequent absences, George was able to pinpoint, almost to the day, the progress in Philippa's vocabulary, Two months past her first birthday, Philippa had 2 grand total of four phrases."Joe"(for"Josephine");"Daddy";"God damn"; and"How do!"Perhaps more for George's benefit than Philippa's, Josephine recorded,"It is after all nor a had vocabulary. Most people use little more in their daily communication than a greeting and an oath."(6)

When George was home, he shared writing in the scrapbook. Unlike Josephine's handwriting, which was large and scrawly, George's was small, neat, and tight, almost as if he were trying to squeeze in as much as possible during these brief visits with Philippa. Always the reporter, his overwhelming joy is betrayed only by punctuation:

Philippa! It is the evening of October 4, 1932, and you are two days over 14 months of age! You are an excellent mimic. You clap your hands nap your finger, drum, dance, pat your stomach and rub your head all in direct imitation of your father. You play hide and seek with him and have a most jolly time. Yesterday . . . for the first time you walked on the sidewalk with your father and ran after dead leaves which you collected and brought to him. Today your mother took you out and you walked three block! Last night your mother went to the theater (Ol'Man Satin) and you stayed home with your father who put you to bed!

Josephine steadfastly attributed Philippa's amazing progress to two causes;"hybrid vigor"and a diet of raw food. The Cogdells were farmers and cattle ranchers. It is not surprising, then, that Josephine would have heard talk around the dinner table about hybridization, the crossing of independent strains of plants and animals. Professor Edward Murray East had reported in 1919 that when inbred strains of corn were crossed, they produced a generation with notable increase in size and productivity, His thesis led to the successful use of hybridization by animal and plant breeders.

Josephine was convinced that hybridization might well apply to human beings. She was therefore greatly intrigued when, as a young girl, she had come across a reference to the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty evincing hybrid vigor, or"heterosis,"as a result of miscegenation. (Later, Harry Shapiro would find that the males of the first generation born on Pitcairn Island after the mutiny showed an average increase of about two and a half inches in stature compared to their British sailor fathers or to the Tahitian men whose women they had married. What was more, their fecundity was one of the highest on record anywhere; these couples averaged 11.4 children.)(7)

Perhaps the most avant-garde of Josephine's theories were her dietary ones, As early as fourteen years old, she had experimented with nutrition and now, as a young adult, firmly believed that all foods must be eaten raw, for cooking destroyed their valuable vitamin content. Even meats, especially liver and brains, were never cooked but simply run under hot water for several minutes to kill any lurking germs. No alcohol, tobacco, sugar, or anything artificial was allowed in the house. Philippa was being raised, and happily so, on the rather bizarre combination of mother's milk, cod liver oil, wheat germ, unpasteurized milk, and many fruits,

Weaned at twelve months, Phil grew strong on her mother's"scientifically"prepared diet, and as a child she was rarely sick. Josephine began to experiment more and more with nutrition as Philippa grew. Most of her experiments were beneficial, and her discovery in December 1934 that vitamin C could prevent colds appears to have predated the Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling's work. Other of her dietary adventures, however, such as overdosing her daughter with vitamins A and D when she feared Phil had been exposed to measles, adversely affected her daughter, but cleared up as soon as her mother stopped the experiment. The daily doses of vitamin C and cod liver oil, however, remained a constant.(8)

George was equally intent on his daughter, but he was also awed by the fact that at almost thirty-seven years old he was suddenly the father of a beautiful little girl who was the color of"lightly done toast with dark liquid eyes of a fawn, and eyelashes like the black glistening stems of maiden hair ferns, turned back almost to meet your eyebrows."(9)

Philippa was a happy baby with a sunny disposition."You are always laughing and possessed of an exceptional sense of humor,"wrote George at the beginning of the 1933 scrapbook, when she was one year and seven months old. He surrounded the text with snapshots of a plump, round, smiling face, sporting sparse hair which stood up ungracefully in clumps. At the time it did not appear that beauty was in her stars. But by the end of that year, Josephine began commencing on how much better looking her daughter was becoming:"You are slim and brown and turn with crinkly brown hair and gorgeous jewel-like black eyes. You have not the conventional prettiness of little girls--your beauty is handsome and smart rather than pretty. You do not photograph well at this age. You become stiff and self-conscious while your beauty lies a great deal in your sparkle and grace and change of expression which is not caught by the Kodak."'(10)

Philippa's very early world consisted primarily of the multicolored apartment on Sugar Hill; at five weeks a trip to see the A. Philip Randolphs, thus initiating her into the world of the intelligentsia; daily sunbaths on their Harlem roof (an essential health ritual, according to Josephine); multiple trips to the motion pictures that she"watched with growing curiosity";(11) and the omnipresence of an awestruck mother. As she gazed upon her sleeping fourteen-month-old daughter, Josephine wrote:"There lies the meaning and fulfillment of existence. To continually clothe the ancient seed of man in fresh, sweet flesh which when it loses its freshness will bring forth other new and fresh fruit. This is the beginning and end of existence."(12)


Recording events was second nature to Josephine. She had faithfully kept a diary since her early teens -- the diary of an indulged child from a wealthy and powerful Texas family. She was the youngest of seven anti her closest sibling was almost ten years older. Whatever has been preserved of her diaries is less noteworthy for its insights than for her remarkable ability to recall and record conversations, She continued to write when she married in Texas, at the age of sixteen or seventeen, Jack Lewis, a dapper and much older traveling salesman, The marriage, motivated by a desire to liberate herself from the Cogdell family, was unhappy and short-lived. Josephine moved to California to continue her education -- to study painting, to take dancing lessons with Ruth Saint Denis and Elmira Morisini, to study Chinese philosophy, and to attend lectures by the English poet John Cowper Powys. She had a brief fling at being one of Mack Sennett's bathing beauties and she modeled for pinups-quite demure by today's standards but undoubtedly considered risque in the pre-bikini era

In 1921, while living in San Francisco, she met a young painter, John Garth, and fell in love with him. They had a stormy life together for the next five years, mostly supported by Josephine's allowance, spread thin to pay for both their apartment and John's studio. What appeared to hold their alliance together was her appreciation of his art and his belief in her talent as a writer.

In the spring of 1927, Josephine's life with John Garth had, however, reached an emotional nadir. Haunted by jealousy and doubt, she was becoming increasingly despondent, and she rarely left their San Francisco apartment. They decided on a temporary separation. Josephine would go to New York for a few months to pursue her writing career.

Her father, who despite her sometimes delinquent behavior still adored his last-born,[1] was receptive to her moving to New York and willing to continue financial support, on the condition that her sister Lena accompany her at least on the initial trip.

Josephine and John had a tearful parting at the San Francisco railway depot. Before going east, she visited Lena in San Diego and stopped off in Texas. In her frequent letters to John, she continued to pour her heart out.

Shortly after her arrival in New York,"Jody"-- as she was known to her friends -- found a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. She began to establish a social life of sorts, meeting eligible men whom she would, in retrospect, consider pitifully unsatisfactory. Yet out of sheer ennui some of these relationships led to intimacies that were perfunctory enough to allow her to rationalize that she was not really being unfaithful to John Garth.

In the relative comfort of her Village apartment she continued to write every day, working on stories and keeping her daily journal. Having assumed a pen name, Heba Jannath, she had submitted a novel to a publisher and was awaiting a response.

On Wednesday, July 27, 1927, with great trepidation, Josephine went to the office of the Messenger, a left-wing black publication to which she had contributed poetry and prose since 1923, to meet its editor, George Schuyler. She had been reading and clipping his iconoclastic and satirical articles for some time, and he had been screening her pieces without suspecting that she was a white southerner.

The day was unseasonably but, the temperature soaring into the nineties. Josephine fussed all morning about what to wear. Green was her favorite color, but she finally decided to wear her blue crepe suit because it matched her eyes.

The crepe struck to her skin is she hailed a taxi to rake her uptown. At 2305 Seventh Avenue she got out, glanced at the converted brownstone, and with a well-rehearsed bravado, climbed the three long flights of stairs. She hesitated a moment, conscious of small beads of perspiration collecting on her upper lip. Quickly she wiped them away and walked confidently and unannounced into George Schuyler's office.

"He was stunning,"she would later write."His black skin gleamed like satinwood and his hands were is long and grateful as the wings of a raven."Though she had thoroughly prepared herself for the encounter and in later years would admit that one of the subliminal urges that brought her to New York was the desire to meet George Schuyler, a firestorm began raging in her mind as she stood in the doorway.

Regaining her composure, Josephine demurely introduced herself as one of the Messenger's San Francisco contributors. She had always admired his work and wanted to meet him.

Chapters 2 through 4 are culled (and paraphrased) from Josephine's extensive 1927-28 diaries, most of which are notated in dialogue. The diaries are part of the Philippa Duke Schuyler Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.

George: was not in an accommodating mood. He had a hectic afternoon ahead of him with several deadlines to meet. As the door opened, Schuyler looked up. For a moment all he could focus on was a pair of lavender blue eyes, surrounded by delicately arched eyebrows and long lashes. He stared at the vision, so out of place in his dusty office. She was beautiful and seductively shapely, he thought, noticing her lovely bosom and elegant ankles, the golden hair piled on top of her head, the porcelain white skin, the red lips. One can well believe that for a brief spell Schuyler thought he was dreaming.

They started to talk about the magazine and drifted naturally into other areas on reading and writing, literature and politics, art and travel. It was late afternoon and George's deadlines had long since been forgotten. By six o'clock they were still engaged in a spirited exchange of ideas when Schuyler suggested they dine at Tubbs, one of the finer restaurants in Harlem, at 140th and Lenox. The evening ended at the Savoy, where they danced until closing time.

The attraction between George and Josephine was immediate, and in a rare confession, George would later write,"There is a certain affinity between individuals of opposite colors. The fascination of the unknown is so alluring that mutual simulation is inevitable."[2]

On 2 Sunday night in mid-August, Josephine joined Schuyler again at the office and they once more went to the Savoy. Coming home in the cab he said very quietly and diffidently,"I wonder . . . would you mind . . . if I kissed you?"It was said so seriously and courteously that her heart was touched. She had felt mellow as he held her in his arms on the dance floor, more aware of his body yet less fearful of him and curious because his attitude was so restrained. He seemed so much more of a gentleman than the white men in her life. So when he asked to kiss her, she said coyly that he might try, He placed his arm around her and pressed her lips softly to his. He did not part them as whites do, she observed. It was a modest and refined salute."His lips are softer and more sensuous than white lips,"she thought.

"You certainly know how to kiss,"she heard him say. He kept his arms around her but did nor attempt to kiss her again.

They began to see each other frequently, she going up to Harlem more often than he coming down to the Village. Everything about Harlem thrilled her, but she tempered her enthusiasm, for George appeared politely bored by what seemed to her astonishing and novel:

The octoroon choruses at the Lafayette, the black sheiks at Small's, the expert amateur dancing . . . at The Savoy, the Curb Market along the 8th Avenue"L,"with its strange West Indian roots and flare of tropical fruits which bloomed even when snow had whitened the face of Harlem, the displays of chitterlings and pigsnouts in the restaurant windows; Strivers Row, where the colored aristocracy lived in stately houses . . . and three blocks away the dirty tenements of 142nd Street with their shrieking swarms of black, brown, yellow and pale ivory children; and the foreign Negroes speaking French, Spanish, and Dutch and, strangely enough, looking their nationalities; the British West Indians with the Africanized Cockney and thoroughly British temperament; the rural Southern Negroes so entirely different from the urban Southern Negro and yet more like him than like their northern rural cousins."

Josephine continued to see some of her friends in the Village, but their conversations seemed"less and clever and more like childish exhibitionism."By contrast, she was impressed by George Schuyler's caustic wit and infallible logic. She hung on his every word."He is so bawdy in some of the tales he tells, but at the same time so aloof and impersonal."

Returning from Harlem in bright morning light three weeks after their first encounter, she was too excited to sleep. Opening her diary she wrote.

It is Nine o'clock, Wednesday morning, Aug. 17, I just got in from Harlem. I rode back on the"L,"the air was brisk and pure, the city spread beneath the tracks cut crisply out of sunlight&shadow I am full of happiness, of peace. . . . Something marvelous has happened . . . and by all moral and social logic I should now be feeling disgust, regret and contrition. I feel none of these. I cannot for the life of me conjure up a single shred of shame. This morning George possessed me. My blood is still ringing from it. Somehow, strangely enough, I feel enabled. I cannot explain why except that a complete satisfaction fills me with wholesomeness and gratitude towards life.

She stopped writing, lost in deep thought. She was twenty-seven and had made love before, though not to so many men that she was unable to clearly remember every one of them or count them on the fingers of one hand. But they all seemed anemic next to George. She was still lost in reverie when a special-delivery letter arrived. It was from George, who must have typed and mailed it as soon as he reached the office.

Using a somewhat stilted (if not Victorian) prose, Schuyler wrote to express the pleasure her company had given him the night before and that morning; that he wished her to know he considered it an honor to have"embraced"her; that Josephine was as proficient at love as she was in other things; that her amorous accomplishments had greatly surprised and gratified him; that her cooperation had been more spirited than any he had yet met with and that he hoped she had no regrets. Playing his cards very carefully, George assured her that their relationship, if she, so desired, could return to pure friendship and that he would never again refer to their intimacy, for he valued their intellectual communion too highly ever to wish to jeopardize it.

In a warm glow after reading from the letter, Josephine stretched out on the couch and tried co relive each tiny incident of the previous eighteen hours:"How bawdy the music had been at the Savoy. How Fess Williams had waved his magic baton over the dancers, converting them into gaily gliding pans and shepherdesses. So like Pan did Williams look with his dark African face, his large . . . proud, ugly mouth . . . and his arms spread out like the black wings of a soaring eagle. Funny too, how he and George might almost be brothers, they are the same build and both carry themselves with the same nonchalant air, the same dapper ease."Jody recalled with a quiver that as she danced with Schuyler last night her"fresh burned under his touch through he made no move to be covertly amorous."

"After dancing until two,"Josephine's diary continues,

we went to our favorite eating place and as usual had it all to ourselves, I was so sleepy I could hardly bold my eyes open. He noticed it and when I said"I dread that long trip to the Village,"asked very softly,"Well, why take it?"I guess I looked surprised for he added:"Won't you do me the honor to be my guest for the rest of the night?"A sort of shock that was not unpleasant went thru me. . . ."If you mean that I am really to be your guest and nothing else,"I said and felt immediately embarrassed for questioning his motives."I mean what I say,"he answered quietly. We took a taxi to his place . . . went thru the big empty marble lobby and walked up . . . to his . . . apartment. . . . His room was . . . almost painfully spotless and orderly. . . . He hung up my light wrap and hat and offered me his bath robe. I said I would just sleep in my slip. He turned the bed down and took his robe&pajamas to the bathroom. . . . I removed my dress and got into bed. My slip covered me modestly from armpits to knees. I felt excited but almost dead with weariness. He returned and put out the bed light. I turned my face to the wall and he got into bed. He did not try to touch me and almost at once I fell . . . into deep sleep.

It was about an hour later I think when I awoke, aware that he had left the bed. He sat at the window where the day was just breaking, smoking his pipe. The smoke had awakened me.

"Have I run you out of your bed,"I asked. . . .

"I couldn't sleep,"he said.

"If you don't come back I shall get up and go home because you have to work today and need some: sleep,"I threatened. He laid his pipe down and came back to bed. Stretching his arm out, I laid my head on it, for it seemed prudish to avoid touching him, and we both went back to sleep. It was broad day when we awoke the second time. I became conscious that I was quite close to him. . . . I stirred,

"Good morning,"he said."Did you sleep well?"

"Oh I feel so much better?"I moved even closer to show I appreciated his conduct and was not afraid of him. We lay like this a while and then he said very quietly,"You arouse me greatly, Josephine, I hope you will forgive me. . . ."I did not move from him. After a little he said in a sort of gesture of apology and despair--"Oh, Josephine. . . .!"

He sensed my relaxation and put his hand gently upon my hip."May I?"he asked hesitatingly. . . . He drew me to him. His arms felt like pliant steel. I stopped him,"No, I'm afraid. . . .""Don't worry,"he added tenderly,"I know how to protect you and I would not hurt you for anything, Josephine. . . ."His embrace was so strong, so virile, so tender. . . . Somehow, it was unlike all other embraces, it was like a benediction, a purification,

By mid-September Josephine had been away from John Garth for six or seven months. A fleeting and largely meaningless affair with a diamond dealer was three months in the past, and she was deeply absorbed in an exhilarating intimacy with George Schuyler.

Basically, though, Josephine continued to feel an obligation to John under the implied terms of their temporary separation--an obligation not to be deceptive, at least.

While she viewed her involvement with Schuyler as a temporary one--because of seemingly insurmountable societal taboos, if for no other reason the relationship was still too important to her to discuss it with a third party. No one, she thought, could possibly understand the subtleties of their affair."It is better for Garth that my lover be George, than one of my own race,"she rationalized in her diary,"for with George there would never be any question of a lasting relationship."

After much soul-searching, Josephine decided to tell Garth that they could be friends only, and that for now he should do as he pleased sexually, until they met again.

"This will be fair,"she figured,"because then I will not be demanding more faithfulness from him than I am giving. He has always felt the tyranny of my possession which would not brook infidelity, now let him have his fling. Then when we go back together he will probably know enough to understand that love must be monogamous."Having mailed the letter to San Francisco, Josephine felt much relieved.

She returned home just as the phone rang. It was George telling her that H. L. Mencken had accepted his article"Our White Folks"for the December issue of the American Mercury, An irreverent, slashing appraisal of white superiority,"Our White Folks"so delighted Mencken that he was going to make it the lead article, a great distinction.

With the money from the article, George had rented a more spacious apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue and moved in immediately. He called to tell Jody about it and to invite her to share the first dinner there, the following night.

© 1995 Kathryn Talalay

Oxford University Press.

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