A Life That Defied Racial Stereotypes
She was the first African American actress to win an Academy Award.
But from the grand mansion she had fought to occupy on West Adams’ celebrated “Sugar Hill,” Hattie McDaniel tasted both the bitter and the sweet that Los Angeles and its burgeoning film industry had to offer.
Through it all, though, she remained an unconventional and independent spirit, willing to challenge not only the barriers that racism threw in the way of black artists, but also black leaders’ conventional opinions about how those obstacles should be attacked.
Though she is best remembered for her Oscar-winning and controversial part as Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in “Gone With the Wind,” her finest role was as the good-humored but indomitable pioneer who opened doors for other African American artists.
The African American establishment thoroughly disapproved of her willingness to take comic roles in which black cooks, maids and servants were played in broadly stereotypical ways, but it watched admiringly as McDaniel organized 30 other affluent black residents of West Adams in a fight against restrictive real estate covenants. That battle ultimately was successfully waged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Personally, McDaniel was plain-spoken and a soft touch who shared her good fortune with friends, family and charities. But behind her quick wit and ready smile was a depressed and lonely woman who suffered all her life, not only from discrimination, but also from her personal pain.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1895, she was the youngest of 13 children whose father was a former slave-turned-singing preacher.
McDaniel took to the stage amid boisterous applause at age 15. After reciting a poem, she won the Women’s Christian Temperance Union gold medal for the best performance.
She was hooked, and quickly dropped out of her Denver high school to write music and sing and dance her way from small town halls to big city theaters.
In 1931, after scrounging up enough money, she hopped a train for Hollywood with $20 and her lucky rabbit’s foot in her purse.
Initially, she took odd jobs--washing and ironing--during the day, while at night she sang and played the drums in the nightclubs along Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, the “Harlem of the West Coast,” where she worked with such greats as Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton.
Her first real movie, “The Little Colonel” in 1935, starred Shirley Temple and caused a stir among black leaders, who believed it stereotyped African Americans and approvingly portrayed slavery.
That same year, in “Alice Adams,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray, McDaniel was seen by white critics as too independent and impertinent. Later, white audiences had mixed reactions when she threw a pitcher of water into Henry Fonda’s face in “The Mad Miss Manton.”
Her first big break came in 1939, after she successfully auditioned as the devoted nursemaid, Mammy, in “Gone With the Wind.”
The comic, stereotypical roles in which she was cast soon made her a target of Walter F. White, executive secretary of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, who charged that McDaniel “degraded herself and her race.”
“Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one,” she quipped.
“What do you want me to do? Play a glamour girl and sit on Clark Gable’s knee? When you ask me not to play the parts, what have you got to offer in return?” she asked angrily.
On Feb. 29, 1940, the bitter rift was temporarily forgotten when McDaniel arrived at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove, decked out in an aqua evening gown on the arm of her lifelong friend, Wonderful Smith.
When director Frank Capra and actress Fay Bainter announced the Oscar for best supporting actress, the crowd of 12,000 went wild.
It was McDaniel’s finest hour, and the audience joined her in weeping for joy. It would be 50 more years before another African American actress--Whoopi Goldberg as the fast-talking medium in “Ghosts"--would win the same honor.
Never letting her fame go to her head, she often repeated her favorite phrase: “I did my best, and God did the rest.”
Still flushed with Oscar night success, she married for a third time and paid $10,000 for a 30-room mansion in West Adams Heights in 1941. Often perched on her white baby grand piano were aspiring young actors to whom she gave free room and board or the soldiers to whom she opened her house for USO dances throughout World War II.
Proud of her success, she continued to play roles--most involving racial stereotypes--in 82 attributed movies before she finally grew weary.
Though she spoke with no bitterness, she said that the black attacks against her became so severe that at one time she sadly proclaimed that her worst enemies were her own people.
By the mid-1940s, her film career was on the rocks. Tortured by a nine-month false pregnancy and a divorce and faced with the possibility of being evicted, she was held together by thin, frayed emotional threads.
Compounding her problems was a lawsuit filed by angry white neighbors, who wanted the courts to enforce the racially restrictive housing covenants contained in the deeds to her home and those of other blacks who had managed to buy in her neighborhood.
McDaniel became a pillar of strength for 30 black neighbors, including actresses Frances Williams, Louise Beavers, Butterfly McQueen and Ethel Waters. She organized Saturday workshops to talk over strategy and rounded up 250 sympathizers for a court appearance.
In December 1945, the suit gained national media attention when Superior Court Judge Thurmond Clarke threw it out of court, saying: “Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long. Certainly there was no discrimination against the Negro race when it came to calling upon its members to die on the battlefields in defense of this country. . . . “
“That’s one fine judge,” a victorious McDaniel said.
The victory would help spawn a later Supreme Court decision overturning housing covenants.
In 1947, fan mail began to pour in when CBS gave McDaniel her own radio show, “Beulah,” earning her as much as $2,000 weekly. She had it written into her contract that she would speak no dialect, and demanded and got the right to alter any script she didn’t like.
As her ratings soared, with 20 million listeners tuning in each night, so did her reputation for lavish, glittering parties. Laughing through the pain of a third failed marriage and a suicide attempt, she hosted her glitziest gala of all for comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in 1950.
Two years later, after suffering a stroke and selling her mansion, she became the first African American to move into the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, where she died of breast cancer.
Although she won many “firsts” along the way, her wish to be buried alongside other famous actors at the Hollywood Cemetery was denied because of the facility’s whites-only policy.
Her elaborate funeral procession to Rosedale Cemetery consisted of a motorcade of 125 limousines, two dozen vans to transport the flowers, and a tremendous outpouring of love and affection from a crowd of 5,000 fans.
On the 47th anniversary of her death, Hollywood Forever, the new owner of the Hollywood Cemetery, seeking to redress its predecessor’s wrong, dedicated a memorial to McDaniel in a lakeside setting, near the graves of Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power.
Today, decades after Sugar Hill was unceremoniously split in half by the Santa Monica Freeway, Hattie McDaniel’s grand old home still stands proudly at 2203 S. Harvard Blvd., testament to a troubled but heroic life.