Bernice L'Tanya Griffin was perhaps the first African American artist known by a single name. Based on information related by friends who had known her, Dorothea Towles Church and Alma Rangel, I assumed that she was yet another East-coast transplant to Los Angeles, like Dorothea and her acclaimed hat designer associate, Mildred Blount. Certainly throughout her professional life, L'Tanya continually cross-crossed the country to show and sell her designs at charity fashion shows.
Besides being a gifted designer L'Tanya was also extremely beautiful. How unlikely it seems that she was in fact, as her birth certificate and the 1920 Federal Census reveal, born not Bernice L'Tanya, but, Julia Bernice, on February 2, in 1919. Her parents, who lived at 113 East Cora Avenue in Spokane, Washington, were Albert and Katie Turnham Hilbert. Mr. Hilbert, known as "Doc" was born in Kansas and 38-years old when she was born. His wife, a Texas native, was 36. Doc Hilbert supported his family, which included three older children, 9-year-old Albert M.Hilbert, Vivian D. Hilbert, who was 8, and George E. Hilbert, just 6-years old, as an Hotel waiter.
Before the Hilbert's moved to Seattle, little Julia Bernice had dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. However, she exhibited such marked talent for drawing as a high school student, teachers persuaded her to study art instead of dance. According to an Ebony Magazine piece from 1947, It was while training as an artist at the University of Washington, that the 17-year-old changed her name. In 1937 Julia Bernice Hilbert married, to become Mrs. O'Neal T. Bush. That's how she's listed in the 1940 census. But how, amidst matrimony and becoming a young mother had L'Tanya fond time to study at college? According to the cencus, her university studies appear to have been a carefully devised myth. As opposed to to being a precocious co-ed, she's listed as an unemployed usherette at a movie theatre. Her husband is shown working as a grocery store clerk.
When Oneal Bush was born two days after Christmas in 1913, in Louisiana, his carpenter father, Joseph, was
42 and his mother, Leona, was 32. The Bush family already had 3 children. By 1930, when O'Neal
was 16-years-old, he lived in Los Angeles, with his father,
mother, 2 brothers, and 2 sisters. Tall and handsome, Bush seems to have lacked sufficient ambition to keep ahold of so aspirational an individual with so out-sized a personality as his beautiful wife. Nor was such a staid name as his, professionaly suitable for someone so vibrant . And so it was, according to one account, that in 1938, Mrs. Bush petitioned a court to legally become "L'Tanya Martinique". This may well be true, but in the 1940 Frderal Census, L'Tanya is listed as plain Bernice Bush.
L'Tanya's son O'Neil Bush, Jr. was born in 1938, followed by his brother, Arnold Bush, in 1939. When did she enroll at Hollywood's Lipson School of Dress Design? This is just one of the obscured details making up a pyretic quest for fame and fortune that still tantalize from across the depths of time. Fortunately, L'Tanya seems to have mastered all task and most men, she encountered along her way, including John Lipson of the Lipson School. Disregarding her race, he appreciated L'Tanya's gifts, encouraging his young pupil's innate sense of style and dramatic flair. It was due to Lipson's influence that L'Tanya moved to America's fashion capital at New York. Her New York sojourn, spent mostly working as a model, only lasted a year before she returned to Hollywood, but from now on, taking the the town by storm, the Big Apple, would be L'Tanya's home away from home.
Still in her early twenties, L'Tanya was awarded a contract by the Guild Studios to design gowns for Ida Lapino. Poor dull O'Neil Bush hadn't a chance against his bride's new fast-paced life, which by the moment grew ever more exciting with possibility. Having started to sell her designs at , having left her husband by 1944, she was delighted to meet tall, ginger-haired sportsman, club manager and photographer, John Earl Griffin, who subsequently 'married' her and 'adopted' her sons. The beauty and brilliance that were L'Tanya's, is hardly the stuff that it's easy for the average man, who is far less successful, to handle well. It ought to have been easy enough to predict that Griffin would fare no better than Bush. Only recently returned from a years study in Paris on a Julian Rosenwald fellowship, the 28-year-old had wanted to return. It was 1948.
Her 34-year-old 'husband', the ner-do-well Mr. Griffin did not like the idea one bit, His 'wife' leaving their home an on Valentine Street in Yonkers, to go to the races in Atlantic City one day, was the final straw., L'Tanya was accompanied by a friend of her husband's, Marshall Miles, quiet and diminutive, a gentleman who was the former manager of Joe Louis. Griffin's jealousy was out of control, But his dastardly attempt to stop L'Tanya, which sent him speeding to confront her on the track, backfired.
then was nationally famous as a Hollywood designer whose creations had
been purchased by movie stars like Joan Crawford, and Dorthy Dandrige, and many black bandleaders' wives, including Marie
Ellington who was Mrs. Nat King Cole. Driving "Like Hell" armed, police
latter said, with a beer can of lye and a loaded .25 caliber pistol,
Griffin calmly strolled to the paddock. He had asked to speak to his
wife and Miles alone and they stepped aside. Without warning, Griffin
threw the lye, his wife and Miles told police, aiming at their faces.
Agile and alert, Miles saved the day. His highly developed reflexes,
from years with Joe Louis, caused him to throw up his arm, knocking the
burning contents towards Griffin, hitting him in the eyes. "I'm blind. I
can't see," he shrieked. And it was true, Griffin never did regain the
use of one eye.
Beautiful in a pink shantung sun dress she'd made, though screaming in anguish L'Tanya suffered only superficial burns. Her soon to be 'ex-husband' had only induced her to sell her fashion salon in Los Angeles the year before. She'd thought moving to New York would save their relationship. To friends she confided, she was 'filing for divorce' and returning abroad.
But 'love' too can be blind. Somehow, even after this, after Griffin had called out, "Speak to me, I can't see..." only to know in which direction to aim as he'd drawn his gun, he and L'Tanya were reconciled. Since they'd never bothered to marry before, because L'Tanya's real husband, would divorced her and went to court to gain custody of their two sons, L'Tanya and Earl did marry, and even adopted a four-year-old daughter. Because they were doomed, they split. Mr. Griffin remarried. After he was arrested for theft in the 960's, an investigation was started, examining the mysterious circumstances of his new young wife's recent death and quick cremation. In 1954, L'Tanya contracted with the now famed B-movie studios, the Edward D. Wood production company, creating gowns for almost two dozen films.
far-reaching publicity L'Tanya received in the 1940's and 50's, make
her total obscurity today, all the more troubling. Before 2005, to my
peril, I had certainly never heard of her. Conducting research for the
Museum of the City of New York's groundbreaking exhibition, Black Style Now.
an exploration of how popular black culture and hip hop had driven
fashion, which I co-curated with respected designer Michael McCollom, I
first encountered this name. The Time-Life photograph of Dorthy
Dandrige below, actually identified the dress as by L'Tanya, but she
was utterly unknown by me and nowhere to be found on-line. Moreover, I
had seen an image from Jet, where Dandrige is being fitted for a similar
gown, by Zelda Wynn Valdez. Adding two and two, I got ten. I was wrong,
and I apologize.
Dandrige, wearing L'Tanya!