"I'd rather play a maid than be one"
February 7, 2005 1:31 PM   Subscribe

Call her Madame. Among the old-timers, the story went like this: a woman known to everyone as Madame came to California from Kentucky with her children and her husband. But once they were in the Gold Rush State, her husband left her. Desperate to find work, she introduced herself to a movie director named D. W. Griffith. He not only cast her in his movie, but the two became friends for life. And with this woman, called Madame Sul-Te-Wan, what we now call Black Hollywood began -- as a new book by historian Donald Bogle explains. (more inside)
posted by matteo (6 comments total)
From the Boston.com link:
With such books as his fine biography of Dorothy Dandridge, as well as "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks," Bogle is unsurpassed in excavating the treacherous and triumphant history of African-Americans in Hollywood. In these stories of perseverance, Bogle focused on "what the camera had recorded, what encoded messages the performers were sometimes able to communicate even while playing the most stereotyped roles," he writes in the book's introduction.

This tome is more concerned with the lives of such performers as Lena Horne, Mantan Moreland, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and the Nicholas Brothers away from the glittering lights and soundstages. And how, barred from Hollywood's social mainstream, they fashioned their own equally glamorous and bawdy community.

Though more than half of those who founded Los Angeles in 1781 were black, their adventures in Hollywood arguably began when Kentucky-born Nellie Wan moved to Southern California in 1910. Calling herself Madame Sul-Te-Wan, she finagled an introduction to fellow Kentuckian D.W. Griffith, then making what would become his masterpiece, "Birth of a Nation." He hired her, and Wan wound up playing several minor roles in the controversial film. The two remained friends for the rest of Griffith's life, and Wan became Hollywood's first important black performer.

With Wan's lead, more African-Americans headed west, even as Los Angeles became more segregated. Still, black performers, such as child actor Ernest Morrison, known as "Sunshine Sammy," were in demand, though some theaters refused to show film shorts featuring a "colored" star.

It was more difficult for black adult actors to achieve such prominence, and some literally made their Hollywood entrance "by way of the back door -- or the servants' entrance," Bogle writes.

posted by matteo at 1:34 PM on February 7, 2005

Amazing post, matteo... Totally fascinating people (Madame Sul Te Wan, of course, but also Biddy Mason and Maria Rita Valdez de Villa), and great info on the origins of L.A. and Hollywood as well. Very interesting that Dorothy Dandridge's family lineage of entertainers stretches all the way back to her great-grandmother, Cleo de Londa.

And of course, now I want to know much more about Madame Sul Te Wan, who, I find, was in the 1934 "Imitation of Life" — you can see her in a photo still on this page, fifth entry. (This is quite an interesting classic films site, btw, with a nice section on Black Hollywood — check out the rare film posters featuring African American actors.)
posted by taz at 9:57 PM on February 7, 2005

Just another slightly related, interesting, gossipy tidbit, by the way: this page, at least, suggests that Ruby's friend Geneva Wiiliams, who helped manage young Dorothy and the "Dandridge Sisters", was actually Ruby Dandridge's lover. Both Ruby and Geneva acted in the 1943 film Saratoga Trunk (NYT link) with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper.
posted by taz at 10:13 PM on February 7, 2005

oops. 1945 for "Saratoga Trunk".
posted by taz at 10:17 PM on February 7, 2005

Excellent post, very interesting film history & well researched as always - thanks, matteo - and thanks to your strong supporting cast member, the ever-wonderful taz.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:40 PM on February 7, 2005

Wow...coolness all around. Nice work!
posted by dejah420 at 12:43 PM on February 11, 2005

« Older It's not made of Testicles. Sorry.   |   Ask Jeeves buying Bloglines? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments