III: Black Renaissance
During the Fire summer, I earned my living by writing lyrics and sketches for an intimate musical revue for Caroline Dudley (then Mrs. Reagan), sister of Dorothy Dudley, who wrote a fine study of Theodore Dreiser, and who introduced the Italian poet Carnevali to America.
Mrs. Reagan lived in an apartment in an old house in, I believe, West 11th Street, with a courtyard garden in the rear. And the apartment was all aflurry with excitement over the prospect of an intimate Negro revue, to star Paul Robeson, and to include the sparkling Nora Holt. And to present many of the then unexploited Negro folk-songs. All the material, music, and sketches were to be by Negro writers. I was helping Mrs. Reagan plan the revue, and later Rudolph Fisher came in on some of the skits. The house was alive with the continual comings and goings of Negro artists having auditions, tap dancers in one room, tramp bands in another, the ear-splitting voice of George Dewey Washington bursting the walls of the parlor, and comedians looking dumb in the courtyard.
In the midst of it all, Dorothy Dudley, who had suffered a broken toe, lay on a chaise longue, looking very pretty and bird-like, taking it all in, making charming comments, and waiting for her husband, Henry Harvey, to come home from his office. Then, if we were still working in the early evening, Mrs. Reagan would send out for a chicken or two, some peas and beans and cucumbers, and put them all in a grilling pan and run them in the oven, where everything cooked at once and automatically came out tasting very good, while everybody went on talking about the revue and writing things down and only looking once or twice in the oven to see what the chicken and cucumbers and peas were doing. And they would be doing very nicely, and would be eaten in the midst of writing, talking, and singing.
I continued to come up to New York from college week-ends most of the winter to work on the revue. But meanwhile, Paul Robeson had gone to London to appear in Showboat. He made such a tremendous hit there that he refused to come back, although he was under contract to Mrs. Reagan, so Mrs. Reagan went to law. Paul’s wife, Essie Robeson, came back to New York, but could not settle the matter, it seems, and was forced to flee over the Harlem roof tops with baby Paul in her arms, like Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in order to escape the clutches of Mrs. Reagan’s process servers. But Essie Robeson got to the boat, escaped, and was off to England again. So then Mrs. Reagan went to London and sued Paul Robeson there. She won her case and got several thousand pounds, so it was said in Harlem, where the people Mrs. Reagan had under contract were paid what was due them on her return.
But the revue never went on. Delay and trouble broke it up. So Mrs. Reagan went to Paris and married a French poet and lived in the south of France and no longer worried about show business.
Mrs. Reagan had bad luck with Negro shows. It was she who took La Revue Nègre to Paris, with Maude Russell, Claude Hopkins, settings by Miguel Covarrubias, and the then unknown Josephine Baker. Miss Baker, with her Charleston and her verve, stole the show from the more veteran Negro performers and overnight became the hit of Paris, stepping immediately from the chorus to stardom.
There is a story about Josephine Baker’s first month in Paris, which the Parisians find very amusing. They say a wealthy and distinguished old Frenchman was so entranced with Miss Baker that he came every night to see La Revue Nègre. He sent daily bouquets of flowers to the dusky youngster from St. Louis, who could fling her limbs about in such amazing directions to the rhythm of Harlem music. He even went so far as to insist that Miss Baker accept the use of one of his town cars and a chauffeur in uniform. All of which Miss Baker accepted—but still paid the wealthy and elderly gentleman no mind. Finally, he asked her, in the best English that he could muster, just why she did not find his attentions to her liking.
Miss Baker naïvely replied: “But, monsieur, I thought you said you gave me all these things because you loved my art!”
Of course, after that she no longer had the town-car nor the chauffeur nor the flowers from the same monsieur. But she did have many bids for her appearances in the various large theaters of Europe. She accepted one of these offers and left the American show to go to Berlin. And because she was under age, Mrs. Reagan could not prevent her going. With Josephine lost, the show was forced to close. And that was the end of La Revue Nègre.
In those days, most of Harlem’s actors were kept busy either on the Broadway stage, in night clubs, or in London or Paris. Aubrey Lyles, the comedian, rode up and down Seventh Avenue in a long red car with solid ivory trimmings. It was the first car Harlem had seen that could be turned into a sort of Pullman sleeper at will, the back seats sliding out to make a bed.
Another car that excited the colored world was that of Jules Bledsoe, who originated “Old Man River” in Show Boat. One day he appeared in the streets of Harlem with an expensive, high-powered motor, driven by a white chauffeur in livery. Mr. Bledsoe, who is dark, explained to the delight of Harlem that he had a white-uniformed chauffeur so that the public could tell which was the chauffeur and which the owner of the car.
Somewhat later, I recall a sincere but unfortunate attempt on Jules Bledsoe’s part to bring “Art” to Harlem. He appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones at the old Lincoln Theater on 135th Street, a theater that had, for all its noble name, been devoted largely to ribald, but highly entertaining, vaudeville of the “Butterbeans and Susie” type. The audience didn’t know what to make of The Emperor Jones on a stage where “Shake That Thing” was formerly the rage. And when the Emperor started running naked through the forest, hearing the Little Frightened Fears, naturally they howled with laughter.
“Them ain’t no ghosts, fool!” the spectators cried from the orchestra. “Why don’t you come on out o’ that jungle—back to Harlem where you belong?”
In the manner of Stokowski hearing a cough at the Academy of Music, Jules Bledsoe stopped dead in his tracks, advanced to the footlights, and proceeded to lecture his audience on manners in the theater. But the audience wanted none of The Emperor Jones. And their manners had been all right at all the other shows at the Lincoln, where they took part in the performances at will. So when Brutus continued his flight, the audience again howled with laughter. And that was the end of The Emperor Jones on 135th Street.
In those days Ethel Waters was the girl who could thrill Harlem. Butterbeans and Susie could lay them in the aisles. Jackie Mably could stop any show. Snakehips was a permanent “solid sender,” and Louis Armstrong a killer!
But who wanted The Emperor Jones running through the jungles?