Book review: 'Heat Wave' by Donald Bogle

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Heat Wave

The Life and Career of Ethel Waters

Donald Bogle

Harper: 624 pp., $26.99

From the 1920s through the early '40s, Ethel Waters was probably the most famous black woman in America: a bestselling recording artist, a popular nightclub performer, the star of five Broadway shows and several Hollywood movies. After a grim period of little work as she aged and gained weight, Waters triumphed again as an African American matriarch in the 1949 film "Pinky" and in the lyrical 1950 stage adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel "The Member of the Wedding."

By the time Waters died in 1977, however, she was better known to most Americans as an elderly, large, devoutly religious woman who frequently appeared at Billy Graham's fundamentalist Crusades. People had largely forgotten the glamorous crossover artist who belied stereotypes, the first black woman to headline on Broadway at the Palace — the mecca for all vaudeville performers, the star of a groundbreaking Broadway drama ("Mamba's Daughters" in 1939) that empathetically depicted three generations of African American women. One of Waters' biggest hits, the sultry, heartbreaking "Stormy Weather," is remembered instead as Lena Horne's signature song.

Donald Bogle's comprehensive biography "Heat Wave" aims to restore Waters' stature as a pioneering African American entertainer and to elucidate the complex personality of a woman whose life was as turbulent as her career. Author of the groundbreaking "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film," Bogle is well-qualified to provide the cultural and social context necessary to fully understand both Waters' accomplishments and her shortcomings.

She was born in Chester, Pa., on Oct. 31, 1896, the product of her 13-year-old mother's rape by a family acquaintance; she never knew her father. The family was poor and Waters' education was spotty, but a stint in Catholic school ("the only place I found affection") instilled an enduring religious faith. Her easygoing creed did not prevent her from making her early success with suggestive songs such as "Shake That Thing," and her attitude toward sex — with men and women — was casual.

Already the veteran of years of grinding manual labor by the time an amateur-night performance landed her a theatrical agent in 1917, Waters shared the earthy values of her working-class audiences on the chitlin' circuit. She had little use for "dictys" (educated upper-class Negroes she felt looked down on her), and warm friendships with Carl Van Vechten and Harold Arlen were exceptions to her lifelong distrust of white people. "I don't trust any of you," she told director Elia Kazan in a rare moment of candor at the wrap party for "Pinky."

She had ample reason for that distrust, Bogle demonstrates. He writes that her white co-stars in the musical revue "As Thousands Cheer" got billing above the title; she did not, even though by 1933 she was one of the highest-paid entertainers in America. That same year, CBS starred Waters in a weekly radio program, but canceled it after three months because of protests from the network's Southern affiliates. Her brooding performance in "Mamba's Daughters" won her comparisons to Laurette Taylor; her next Broadway appearance was in "Cabin in the Sky," a sweet but patronizing fantasy featuring childlike Negro characters. The African American media were increasingly critical of this sort of condescension and openly wondered why Waters took such roles.

The answer was that she needed to work. Not just for the money, though her lavish lifestyle (including a succession of scapegrace "husbands") kept her perpetually hard up. Staying busy "meant she didn't have time to think," Bogle explains; he depicts Waters sympathetically but unsparingly as someone who revealed her emotions only in performance, through the safe filter of a character or a song lyric. On those infrequent occasions when her formidable self-control failed her, usually when she felt threatened by younger female competition, what broke through was a scary amount of rage — expressed with profane fluency undeterred by her piety.

The contradictions and ironies of Waters' life were glaringly apparent by 1950, when she shuttled between the Empire Theatre, where she played a three-dimensional, achingly human character in "The Member of the Wedding," and ABC's studios, where she donned a maid's uniform for the television show "Beulah." The following year, she published her autobiography, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," a bestseller criticized by one black reviewer for "her fanatic, masochistic, humble groveling before 10 million whites." African Americans engaged in the civil rights struggle, Bogle notes, began to see Waters as old and out of touch.

Bogle doesn't necessarily dissent from that opinion, but he invites our empathy for someone "angry and bewildered by a changing world." Waters grasped stardom during a transitional period for black performers. Tough, talented people like her had great opportunities but still faced determined racist resistance and racial insensitivity that was less toxic but still humiliating. She overcame the resistance and ignored the insensitivity; the militant stance of younger artists was not for her. Yet Waters in her prime, Bogle asserts, paved the way for those who followed: as a sexy, self-confident diva of popular song and a dramatic actress who explored the full range of African American experience without euphemism or apology.

Smith, a contributing editor for the American Scholar, reviews books for the Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

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