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Hattie McDaniel; Steel Gardenia

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Steel Gardenia

Excerpted from the book Fabulous Female Firsts: The Trailblazers Who Led the Way 

By Marlene Wagman-Geller

Young Hattie McDaniel

The Civil Rights timeline has witnessed significant African American firsts, each a step closer to Dr. King’s “We Shall Overcome.” In sports, Althea Gibson competed at Wimbledon in 1951; in music, Marion Anderson sang at the Metropolitan in 1955; in literature, Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in 1993. Another trailblazer was Hattie McDaniel, the first African American woman to win an Academy Award. 

In her acceptance speech for her 2010 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Precious, Mo’nique stated she was wearing a royal blue dress, along with a gardenia in her hair, because Hattie McDaniel had dressed in that fashion seventy years earlier when she had broken Hollywood’s color barrier. Hattie’s nomination resulted in a collective shock as everyone felt her Gone with the Wind co-star Olivia de Havilland was a shoo-in. Mo’nique thanked her predecessor, “for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to.” Mo’nique’s praise was unequivocal; however, while the modern-day star’s triumph did not raise eyebrows, Hattie caused jaws to drop when she became a card-carrying member of the be-careful-of- what-you-wish-for club. 

The woman who created a tempest in a celluloid teacup was the youngest of thirteen, born to former slaves in 1895 in Wichita, Kansas. Her father, Henry, had fought for the Union in the Civil War and later became a Baptist minister who moonlighted as a banjo player in minstrel shows. Her mother, Susan, was a gospel singer. As a child, Hattie sang so often Susan sometimes bribed her with spare change to buy a moment of silence. 

In 1901, the family moved to Colorado, where Hattie
 was one of only two black children in her elementary school; she ended her education in her early teens to join her father’s troupe. A natural entertainer, she became popular in the African American theater scene in Denver, and her gift of pantomime led to her reputation as the black Sophie Tucker. Acclaim likewise followed for her sexually suggestive renditions of the blues, many of which she penned. However, even after a nationwide tour of vaudeville houses, McDaniel was often forced to supplement her income with work as a domestic. By age twenty, she was also a widow. Her marriage abruptly ended in 1922 when her husband of three months, George Langford, was reportedly killed by gunfire. Her father died the same year, and devastated by the back- to-back losses, Hattie took solace in performing. In 1925, she appeared on Denver’s radio station, an appearance that garnered her the distinction of being the first African American woman to perform in this medium. 

In 1929, her booking organization went bankrupt as a result of the Great Depression, and Hattie found herself stranded in Chicago with no job and meager savings. On a tip from a friend, she departed for Milwaukee and obtained a position as a bathroom attendant at
 Sam Pick’s Club Madrid. The club only engaged white performers, but Hattie, an irrepressible singer, belted 
out tunes from the restroom. Patrons took notice of her voice and good nature, which led the owner to allow
her onstage. After her rendition of “St. Louis Blues,” she became a wildly popular attraction. She remained in the club for a year until her siblings, Stan and Etta, invited her to join them in Los Angeles. In Tinseltown, she had dreams of becoming what twinkled in the firmament; however, black actors’ role choices consisted of African savage, singing slave, or obsequious employee. Stan threw her a life preserver, and she found work in the radio show “The Optimistic Do-Nuts.” She earned the nickname Hi-Hat Hattie after showing up in evening attire for her initial broadcast. 

Hattie’s long dreamed of screen debut occurred in 1931 when she played a bit part as a maid, for which she was able to draw on firsthand experience. Her breakthrough was as Marlene Dietrich’s domestic in Blonde Venusthree years later, she appeared as Mom Beck in The Little Colonel, starring Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore. With her perfect comic timing, she appeared alongside the biggest stars of the silver screen: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Henry Fonda. She was so successful that MGM did not allow her to play any role other than as a domestic or to lose an ounce, though she tipped the scale at three hundred pounds. Mammy had to be fat. Typecast as the woman with the apron, she was one
of the logical candidates to secure the coveted role of Mammy in David O. Selnick’s 1939 production, Gone
with the Wind.

The competition for the part was as fierce among black hopefuls as for the part of Miss Scarlett
 was among whites. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had recommended her own maid for the role, but Hattie had her own patron—the King of Hollywood, Clark Gable. She nailed the audition when she appeared in a plantation maid uniform and so impressed Selznick he called off other tryouts, “Save your overhead, boys. We can start shooting tomorrow.” What further helped was she fit the stereotypical perception of the Southern servant as she was the doppelganger of Aunt Jemima, whose image proliferated on Quaker Oats boxes. During the epic film, clad in trademark apron and bandanna, she delivered lines in antebellum lingo: “What gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things,” and “I ain’t noticed Mr. Ashley askin’ for to marry you.” Although cast as the servant, she told Selznick she would not utter a racial epithet or employ the caricature phrase “de Lawd.” 

The premiere of Gone with the Wind at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta was the apogee celebration of 1939, and women arrived in hoop skirts, men showed up clad in breeches, and Confederate flags flapped in the Southern breeze the night of its premier. Absent from the revels were the black performers, as Jim Crow held sway. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the gala unless Hattie was of its number; he relented after she insisted that he not create a scene. A second salve was a telegram from Margaret Mitchell, the celebrated author of Gone with the Wind, who said of Hattie’s absence from the premier’s festivities, “I wish you could have heard the cheers when the Mayor of Atlanta called for a hand for our Hattie McDaniel.” 

If McDaniel’s exclusion from opening night was not pain enough, blacks heaped criticism on her as they viewed the epic film as a valentine to the slave-owning South. Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, sneered she was an ‘Aunt Tom.’ She lashed back by asking, “What do you expect me to play? Rhett Butler’s wife?” However, her most memorable comeback was, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.” One can only wonder how she would have reacted to the fact that seventy-two years later, Octavia Spencer won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help—as a maid. On top of the back-to-back backlash from whites and blacks, Hattie had to deal with the demise of her second marriage to Howard Hickman, which both began and ended in 1938. 

In 1940, Gone with the Wind garnered ten Academy Awards. Predictably, Best Actress went to Vivien Leigh; unpredictably, Best Supporting Actress went to Hattie McDaniel, the first time an African-American had been honored and an event that did not repeat itself for another fifty years, when Whoopi Goldberg received
the tribute for Ghosts. Although the more liberal North allowed her to attend the Hollywood gala at the Ambassador Hotel and personally receive her award,
she and her African American escort were seated at a segregated table. In her sixty-seven-second emotional acceptance speech, she stated she “hoped to be a credit to her race.” Gossip columnist Louella Parsons for once put down her poisoned pen: “If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dressed up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.” Hattie, overcome with emotion, returned to her seat by the kitchen to thunderous applause. 

After Gone with the Wind, Hattie suffered a reversal of fortune, partially due to the demise of stereotypical roles. With the advent of World War II, Hollywood came under pressure to portray blacks in a more positive light to encourage their patriotism. As a result, a new black star emerged, Lena Horne, who was everything Hattie McDaniel was not: young, sexy, and not a maid (as stipulated in her contract). Turning once more to love to fill the gaping career hole, she married her third husband, Lloyd Crawford, in 1941. She was ecstatic
 when she confided to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper she was expecting a long-awaited baby. With nesting instinct in full gear and funds saved from acting, Hattie purchased her dream house in a wealthy enclave in Los Angeles. The white, two-story estate boasted seventeen rooms decorated in a Chinese theme. She celebrated
 the purchase with a huge party, where one of the guests was Clark Gable.

McDaniel (center), in front of her house at 2203 South Harvard Boulevard in L.A.’s West Adams, in 1942, leading entertainers and hostesses to Minter Field for a performance and dance for World War II soldiers.

The joy of first-time homeownership came with an expiration date. Her neighbors launched a campaign to evict her based on a white-only ordinance. Hattie fought back, and the result was a Supreme Court decision that eliminated “restrictive covenants” that kept African- Americans from residing in certain areas. Joy at the victory ended when Hattie discovered the pregnancy was a hysterical (false) one, born of desperation to have a child. The truth threw her into a tsunami of depression. On top of that, her marriage ended in 1945, and Hattie cited the reason was her husband had threatened to kill her. 

Her fourth and final walk to the altar was with Larry Williams, in Yuma, Arizona, but that union was only of a few months’ duration. 

Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “When sorrows come, they come not in single spies but in battalions,” and Hattie had weathered hers: white and black slings, aborted marriages, imaginary pregnancy, and a curtailed career. Bloody but unbowed, she returned to radio, a medium which knew no color, the one where she had reigned as Hi-Hat-Hattie. However, after taping several episodes of The Beulah Show, she met the one foe she was not able to overcome. By 1952, she was too ill from breast cancer to work and died in the hospital situated on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills. At the church service, she received a variation of her Academy ovation when thousands of mourners turned out to celebrate her life and its singular achievement of breaking the color barrier in film. 

Hattie McDaniel memorial in Hollywood Cemeteryack

Through her bequest, she directed her Oscar be presented to the predominantly black Howard University for their drama department in remembrance of its having honored her with a luncheon after her historic win. Mysteriously, the trophy vanished during the 1960s racial unrest, and to this date, its whereabouts remain unknown. One theory claims rioting students tossed it into the Potomac in protest against racist stereotyping. 

Even in death, Ms. McDaniel could not escape the long shadow cast by Jim Crow. In her will, she had stated, “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery.” She had always loved being among the stars, and the cemetery held the remains of Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and other silver screen immortals. Though the floral, clothing, and casket requests were respected, her desired final resting place did not come to pass because of its segregationist policy. 

Posthumously, the Old South did become a civilization gone with the wind. In 1999, the new owner of the cemetery offered to have Hattie’s remains transferred, though her family declined the offer. In a posthumous mea culpa, he placed a monument on its grounds. A further acknowledgement was two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and her image on a 2006 postage stamp. The latter was fitting as she had left her stamp on American history. Hattie McDaniel had proved not just a credit to her race, but to the human race, the embodiment of a steel gardenia. 

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Marlene Wagman-Geller

Marlene Wagman-Geller is the author of several books, including Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications (Perigree/Penguin 2008), Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World (Perigree/Penguin 2010), and And the Rest Is History: The Famous (and Infamous) First Meetings of the World's Most Passionate Lovers (Perigree/Penguin 2011) Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the world’s Famous and Infamous (Source Books 2015) Still I Rise: The Persistence of Phenomenal Women (Mango Press 2017) Women Who Launch: Women Who Shattered Glass Ceilings (Mango Press 2018) A forthcoming book is Great Second Acts: In Praise of Older Women (Mango Press 2018) The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post have reviewed her books. Wagman-Geller received her BA from York University and her teaching credentials from the University of Toronto and San Diego State University. She currently teaches high school English in National City, California, and lives with her family-and cat- in San Diego.

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