1906: Madam C. J. Walker.
In an abjectly racist America, without the advent of extraordinary women like Madam C. J. Walker, Dr. Jane Wright Jones, Ophelia DeVore or Rose Morgan, would the idea that “Black is Beautiful” have ever become reality? It’s hard to see how.
1950: Rose Meta Morgan
It's a full century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation. Fifty years have passed since Dr. King's March on Washington; forty three, since Essence was started.
Josehpine, Pam, L'Tanya!
Under the superlative editorial direction of the acclaimed Gordon Parks, photographer, film-maker, writer, Essence Magazine debuted in 1970. Watched over and nurtured during three years of gestation by Parks, provided with a forthright African-American derived aesthetic and outlook, Essence focused on uplift, enhancement and empowerment. A successor to the Inter-State Tattler, Ebony, Jet, Our World, Copper, Hue and other more general magazines for African-Americans, Essence rapidly assumed the role of America's foremost journal for black women.
When venerable, 'mainstream' Time acquired 49 percent of Essence Communications in 2000, and adsorbed the remainder by 2005, some felt foreboding. Any number even worried that no longer black-owned, there might just be a high price to pay. The grim extent of the blow to come was beyond the imaginative powers of most. The first shoe to drop, it now turns out, was actually kicked off. The abrupt departure of long-time editor-in-chief Susan L. Taylor, who all but embodied the Essence ethos, was a wrench. A loyal readership, which in the days before the Internet amounted to a sisterhood, was left distressed and disbelieving.
Susan L. Taylor, who embodies the Essence ethos
Now, less than two years after she was hired with fanfare, Constance C.R. White, the latest Essence top editor, has disclosed that her departure was also not a voluntary move. Rather, following repeated clashes with Martha Nelson, the editor-in-chief of Time Inc., she was finally dismissed. Ms. Nelson, who is of European descent, sought to limit the way black women were portrayed, Ms. White says. She even went so far as to second-guess what it was that African Americans 'wanted and needed.'
Constance C.R. White, the former Essence Magazine editor-in-chief
"This is a magazine where the central DNA was laid down by Gordon Parks...I went in there with passion and excitement and high expectations." White lamented, concluding, "Essence is the last place where black women should be demeaned and diminished."
Meanwhile, as to 'mainstream' outlets of, and for, the 'mainstream', don't look too quickly, or you will very likely conclude, as I did in youth, that blacks do not exist. Now, one hardly means this literally, well, at least not most of the time. It's only that we are still rigidly segregated; over-representation in the metro section, among stories to do with crime and despair, in most newspapers, and given, at best, a minimal presence in the style, house and home and fashion sections. African American materialism is known enough that usually, even in Vogue, advertisements include a smattering of black models. But other than on those exceptional occasions when President and First Lady Obama, or Oprah, or Will Smith and Jada Pinkett are featured, from New York Magazine to Elle Decor, there is scant representation of African Americans in glossy journals. The most recent T-Magazine, profiling former Princess Lee Radziwill, on February 17, represented perhaps a new low of white exclusivity: there were in this issue no non-white writers, photographers, subjects of features, nor even among myriad advertisements, a single model of color. A colleague at the Times explained such prejudice as stemming from the profitability of the Times Fashion Magazine. "It's filled with adds!" he explained.
What can one say except, "Am I not a man and a brother-consumer of high fashion? "
My friend the historian Deborah Willis’ exhibition “Framing Beauty,” on view at Washington's International Visions Gallery through April 13, is a welcome antidote to the new racism's tendency to distort, dismiss and disappear blackness. It relates aspects of how African-Americans still struggle in portraying who we are, and how we see ourselves, in relation to the wider world.
Historian Deborah Willis
First confronting, controlling, constructing, composing, refining one's identity and image, was a 19th-century miracle. Black beauty cultivation through photography, helped blacks to discover our true selves. Looking away from the white way of being beautiful, which black efforts helped whites achieve and maintain, we slowly learned to see in our own visage, the image of God. With the scourge of slavery still a living memory, eventually blacks began to disseminate our approving sense of self into the world. Positive, becoming, beguiling imagery of African Americans in black journals, did far more than just help to foster black self-esteem. Helping as well to counteract the effects of centuries of hateful, demonization and disfigurement, the healing message such photographs conveyed, favorably impacted everyone.
One wishes it were impossible to recall how universally attributes of ‘blackness’ were once thoroughly reviled. Sometimes today one forgets. It’s easy to overlook what happened in the past, what even occurs in the present, given how 'big butts', full lips, ‘healthy color’, and for that matter, the flair and style associated with African Americans is so widely and highly esteemed. Yet all over Africa, and even here, skin bleaching with lye-based nostrums, weaves of long straight hair and peroxide-induced blond coiffures persists.
Ca. 1944: Joan Crawford
Ca. 1944: Lena Horne
The pride fair-skinned African Americans once derived from a semblance of whiteness, the advantage derived from fine hair and an ability to assume the prevalent standard of beauty, was heretofore incalculable. Not so long ago, it was an almost indispensable element of regard and success. Generally, among African Americans, to have 'kinky hair', to be dark and denigrated as ‘dingy’, ‘rusty’, blacky, spook, blue-black, ashy, inky, or dirty, was regarded as a misfortune. Whereas for whites, though dreaded, despised, deplored or pitied, Africa Americans and our blackness, proved indispensable. We were for whites, a conspicuous, an ironical and omnipresent reassurance of dominion and superiority.
This was why enslaved African servants were such status symbols in the 17th and 18thcenturies. Beyond mere utility, their presence announced at once, a slave owner's wealth. Moreover, like the black substance Ralph Ellison’s hero in Invisible Man witnesses was added to white paint, making it all the more brilliantly white, black ‘otherness’ made white masters and mistresses feel both more comely and noble.
A English princess offered coral and pearls
So it was with American culture in days gone by, before the civil rights movement. Whether as comical minstrels, insolent bucks, licentious wenches or docile and slow-witted servants, a panoply of stereotypically inferior blacks routinely figured in plays, journals and literature. They also liberally peopled movies, the radio, TV, and even advertisements, solely to remind whites, of how in all ways and things, they were better. It only followed that, deservedly so, whites were also much better off.
Understandably then, however elusive well-chiseled features, thin lips, bright blue eyes, flowing blonde tresses and a pink-tinged but otherwise etiolated completion, attributes of whiteness indicative of inherent privilege, were as prized by blacks as by whites.
Black America has always enjoyed a fair share of near-white beauties. Memorable among their ranks were Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridgeand Blanche Dunn, who famously responded when a downtown Manhattan waiter pronounced, “We do not serve Negros!”, “I don’t blame you. Now please, take my order!” Perversely, Miss Dunn’s retort underscores something of the isolation and inadequacy inherent in being deemed neither ‘truly’ white, nor ‘authentically’ black. Inevitably better educated, employed and housed than their darker brothers and sisters, ‘light skinned’ blacks both accepted and deplored the advantage stingily dispensed by their white relations. In the case of actresses, like Edna Thomas, Horne, Dandridge or Dunn, it meant a greater likelihood of being cast in the small set of black roles offered. But it also meant having to wear dark makeup and over-elaborate costumes, and reciting jargon-filled, accented dialogue. The imperative was that there be no mistaking whatever, ‘the maid’s’ or 'the hussy's' black identity.
Ca. 1944: Jennifer Jones
Ca. 1944: Blanche Dunn
All the same, for such fortunate women of mixed-race ancestry, their beauty was beyond question. But what of the issue of identity and self-esteem for others? The majority of America’s women of African descent were routinely reminded, in the media and by society, of their wanting beauty and their utter lack of attraction, even as the sexual harassment and abuse of men, black and white, ought to have indicated otherwise. The ugliness of the 'black bitch', was even often offered as justification for the maltreatment of African American women in the past, even as today it is offered as an excuse, demanding of them lewd and unseemly attire.
"Madam C. J. Walker, my, my, she was an extraordinary person! She taught us how to be beautiful!"
So said one of the renown black beauty business entrepreneur's elderly agents in Stanley Nelson's captivating documentary, Two Dollars and a Dream, that chronicles her life. Born to former slaves shortly after the end of the Civil War, once her arduous, stress-filled life caused her hair to fall out in patches, she resolved to take action. Walker was able to so successfully make others beautiful, to teach and inspire self-reliance and appreciation, because she had been forced to discover both for herself.
Ca. 1950: How much did my mom's awareness of her own charm owe to a message of black beauty and empowerment espoused by the Walker women and Rose Morgan?
Madam Walker is believed to be the first African American woman self-made millionaire. She made her fortune through the manufacture, promotion and sale of hair care and beauty products, made expressly for blacks. Her clientele were not ordinarily mulattoes, women able to use pale face powder, who had no trouble adhering to fashions devised for whites. Rather, mostly, they were darker, women like herself, and her daughter Lilia, working women, whose hair had to be straightened and Marcelled to form a proper pompadour or a chinginon.
Through great thrift, causing her to demand a refund on determining she was being overcharged by half of a penny, for each box of the thousands of boxes of hairpins she ordered each year, shrewd Madam Walker grew ever richer. Her wealth was beyond the imagination of most blacks. Yet, as a one-time laundress, painfully aware of the value of a dollar, she always sought quality and never spent money just for show. Her Harlem townhouse, that occupied two remolded brownstones above her beauty parlor, spa and school, was dignity itself, but far less costly than a completely new structure would have been. Along with her even more ambitious country retreat, a mansion on a compact estate overlooking the Hudson, it had been designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy. A Cornell graduate, he was New York State's first registered African American architect. By engaging him Walker was only complying with her desire, whenever possible, to employ blacks. Both house designs, derived directly from contemporary residences built for rich whites, impeccably represented aesthetic orthodoxy.
The Walkers and Rose Morgan helped initiate a revolution. They effected the revelation of black beauty!
Providing women otherwise often untrained, the ability to engage in non-menial work or farm labor, Walker helped to dramatically change the known world of many. Without Madam Walker and her daughter, or legions of agents selling Walker products, practicing Walker methods, spreading a gospel of black beauty, that even many blacks initially regarded as heresy, would women among the black masses have independently discovered their worth and allure? Without Walker in her day, and Rose Morgan latter on, might not many arresting African American Aphrodites, have lived life convinced of their ugliness?
Some brown-skinned beauties, who might never have been recognized without the innovative efforts of Madam Walker or Rose Morgan.
If thanks to the Walkers, Morgan and others, black was finally acceptable around 1948 when this photograph was made of Elizabeth Pinkney, it took until the 1970's for all to be glad to say "Black is beautiful!", "I'm black and I'm proud!"
Miss Cheyney State had met and married Edward Pinkeney to love and live with, happily ever after. When she died, suddenly at age 55, she was still teaching second grade, in the same school where she had educated students for over 30 years. Her death stunned everyone. But, one could tell from the funeral that she touched many.
In the absence of vendors of black beauty like the Walkers and Rose Morgan, would the beauty and stylishness of even First Lady Michell Obama be as influential today?
How well black women wear hats!
Ca 1900, 1910 and 1912: Masterful magnate, Madam C. J. Walker
Ca. 1910, 1913, and 1916: A'Leila Walker
Ca. 1928: Incomparable A'Lelia Walker
The subject of a much anticipated new book by her great-granddaughter and namesake A'Lelia Bundles, Joy Goddess: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.©, A'Lelia Walker was Madam Walker's only child. Once her mother died in 1919, a daughter and partner, who recalled the hardship of the Walker's early life, but much like white heiresses married and divorced three husbands, gained a reputation as one of Harlem's foremost party givers.
Whether with architecture or through prodigious philanthropy to black causes, paying as much attention to projecting a regal image as any sovereign, Madam Walker utilized a saga as poignant and compelling as Lincoln's trek from a back woods cabin to the White House. This was how she distinguish her brand from every other similar product on the market. As this ad shows, for Walker, the concept that beauty and success were synonymous was espoused as an alluring doctrine of faith.
Madam C. J. Walker's business acumen was prodigious. Living large, projecting as fabulous an image and aura as she could afford, she appreciated that this was a shrewd advertising strategy. Her distinguished 108-110 West 136th Street beauty salon-residence was designed by black architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
By combining her home and business in two converted brownstone houses, made into a single building, Tandy maximized the grandeur of both.
Ca. 1928 and 1923: Villa Lewaro.
Constructed just after the Walker townhouse, between 1916 and 1918, Madam Walker's country retreat cost an estimated $250,000, a vast fortune at a time when the average wage for a black New Yorker was only $800 yearly. The name Villa Lewaro was coined by a visitor and friend, Enrico Caruso. It was derived from the first two letters of each word in Lelia Walker Robinson's name.
After inheriting her mothers famed estate, A'Lelia Walker lived and entertained here periodically, until just age 46, she, too, died, in 1931.
Whether through advertisements for black dolls or through portraits of an array of well-groomed and well-dressed black womrn, the Crisis Magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also sought to inculcate appreciation for a black-based aesthetic and all-around African American excellence.
1923: Black or white, the world was agog over the "Million Dollar Wedding" of Madam Walker's adopted granddaughter Mae to Dr. J. Gordon Jackson.
How many are aware that the pioneering oncologist who helped make chemotherapy a cure instead of the start of the cancer patent's finish, was black, and a woman, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright Jones? A Harlem native from a tiny elite where each member was well-known to all, both she and her younger sister Barbara took the unusual step to become physicians. In part both must have been inspired by the example of their father, the distinguished and well regarded Dr. Louis T. Wright, among the first blacks to graduate from Harvard Medical School and the first African American doctor appointed to the staff of a New York City hospital. Their grandfather had also been a healer and was an early graduate of what became the Meharry Medical College, established in Nashville in 1876, which was the first medical school training blacks in the South. Beyond adherence to tradition, a strong sense of duty, an obligation to help others, also motivated the Wright sisters. Each observed the propriety of making a formal bow to society in the late 1930's, but a shallow fashionable existence held Little attraction for either.
Ca. 1923: Sisters, Barbara and Jane Wright.
Assisting her father, Dr. Jane Wright began her career as a researcher working at the cancer center he established at Harlem Hospital. When he died in 1952, his daughter took over as director of the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation. By 1955, married to a lawyer, the graduate of Smith College had joined the faculty of the New York University Medical Center as director of cancer research. It perhaps goes without saying that Dr. Wright was the only African American and woman among seven colleagues who founded the American Society of Clinical Oncologists. In 1967, Dr. Wright became head of the chemotherapy department and associate dean at New York Medical College. “She was part of the group that first realized we needed a separate organization to deal with the providers who care for cancer patients. But beyond that it’s amazing to me that a black woman, in her day and age, was able to do what she did.” said her successor. As for the demure Dr. Wright she only commented for a 1967 New York Post interview, “I know I’m a member of two minority groups...but I don’t think of myself that way. Sure, a woman has to try twice as hard. But — racial prejudice? I’ve met very little of it..It could be," she added, "I met it — and wasn’t intelligent enough to recognize it.”
Survived by her daughter Jane Jones and her sister Dr. Barbara Wright Pierce, Jane Wright Jones died , suffering from dementia, February 19, 2013 aged-93.
Residents of Strivers' Row, Dr. Louis T. Wright and his doctor daughters, Dr. Barbara Wright Pierce and her elder sister, Dr. Jane Wright Jones
Lana Turner called the Savoy dance hall, 'the home of the happy feet'.
In every age, Harlem has been home to many marvelous cars like this high-powered Cord.
If the Wright sisters represented an African American aristicracy, Rose Morgan, did not. If thanks to groundbreaking work by Stanley Nelson and A’Lelia Bundles, many are aware of the triumphant, if brief, lives of Madam Walker and her daughter, who today has ever heard of Rose Meta Morgan? Born in Edward, Mississippi in 1912, this curious, clever brown-skinned girl grew up in Chicago. By 1942 she owned and operated the largest African American beauty parlor in the world. Emulating the example of Madam Walker and the business acumen of her father, industrious one-time sharecropper Chaptle Morgan, Rose Meta Morgan got her start as a schoolgirl making artificial flowers.
Rose Meta Morgan
In 1938 she styled the hair of the great Ethel Waters. Did these two ladies, much talked about because of girlfriends, perhaps share a romance? Impressed by Morgan's deft touch, Waters invited her to New York City as her guest. Impressed herself, by Walters' glamour and by New York's sophistication, Morgan moved to Harlem and within 6 months attracted enough customers to open her own beauty shop. Soon she hired 5 stylists and signed a 10-year lease on a vacant mansion owned by Dr. Charles Ford. This savvy adaptive use of an existing structure has a direct correlation with Madam Walker’s practice.
Charles N. Ford, a dentist from Trinidad had arrived in Harlem in 1919. Branching out into real estate he would also help start and run New York’s largest black-owned insurance company.
By 1946 the Rose Meta House of Beauty at 401 West 148th Street, had a staff 29 strong, including 20 hairstylists, 3 licensed masseurs and a registered nurse. Morgan operated her modernistic beauty salon, offering massages, hairdressing, facials, manicures, body building and health-food lunches, in partnership with Olivia Lee Dilworth Stanford, who much like her was a transplanted Harlemite, born in the deep South.
The Saint Nicholas Avenue row house group including 401 West 148th Street, which housed the Rose Meta House of Beauty
and Morgan not only created their own line of beauty products,
expressly formulated for African-American women, but they expanded their
business into shops around the city, and across the country.
Rose Meta House of Beauty was exactly for black women what Elizabeth
Arden’s was to white women. The radical idea behind its rapid growth and prosperity was
no different than Madame Walker’s. Morgan and Stanford accepted African
features, their own and their clients'. Broad noses, full sensuous lips,
dark skin and even ‘kinky’ hair, were not looked at as loathed defects.
These women saw their mission, not as an effort to disguise or diminish
‘blackness’, but they sought instead to celebrated African Americans
with products and services meant to enhance their beauty. The first step
in this process was to indicate to black women something of their
worthiness, to show that their patronage was valued, by providing first
class care in luxurious surroundings.
The Mimo Club
Embarking with her 'secretary and traveling companion' Gwendolyn Pannell, for a six-week study course in Paris, at L'Academie Scientifie De Beaute, in 1950, Morgan sailed on the Queen Mary. Her partner Libby Clarke Stanford and their aviator-friend, Col. Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, were dock-side to bid bon voyage. Planning a series of side trips, Morgan relished the idea of exporting her mission, "To glorify the woman of color," throughout the world. Paris Match described her as one of the richest businesswomen in New York.In 1949 Mrs. Stanford, then called Olivia Clarke, met a New York real estate developer named Donald Stanford. Both were sensitive, affluent business people who had survived earlier unhappy unions. Naturally, they married. In-so-far as it's possible to, they lived happily ever after, only parted by death.
Olivia Lee Dilworth Stanford
Rose Morgan who had also been briefly married and divorced, was a different story. How among the hundreds of young, vivacious women romantically linked to the ‘Brown Bomber’, did this handsome, if dark, nearly middle-aged woman-of-the-world ‘catch’ this ‘heart-throb’ of a generation?
Young Joe Louis
Louis had gained his boxing title dramatically in a 1937 rematch with Max Schmeling of Nazi Germany. The bout lasted just two minutes and four seconds. Disgraced, having suffered defeat at the hands of a black man, ironically, Schmeling, the symbol of Aryan might, went on to become a Coca Cola executive and a multi-millionaire. Louis, by contrast, mismanaged by manipulative handlers and dogged by tax charges, died a physical wreck, seldom successful in overcoming crushing debt.
Still, Joe Louis' epic saga is legend. He holds the distinction of having defended his title more times than any other heavyweight in history, knocking out five world champions. Joe Louis will remain an icon of athletic prowess for all time.Alas, Rose Morgan, whose appeal for a financially desperate Louis, in part at least, must have been her unusually ample means, has been completely forgotten.
In 1948 ever-increasing gains saw Morgan open a new House of Beauty in an existing but new building. Joe Louis’ deluxe bar and restaurant, with the ‘world’s largest oval bar’, fashioned from mahogany and rosewood, was planned by engineer Sidney Frieman. Opened with the same frenzied excitement that greeted bars opened by other sports heroes, in 1946, it close abruptly. in 1947. How fortuitous for Louis that Morgan could take this costly albatross off his hands. How lucky too for Miss Morgan, to find so stylish and up-to-date a venue for her expanding enterprises, that by now included regular fashion shows featuring black designers like Mildred Blount, Stefan, Willard Winter, La’Tanya and others.
1946: Joe Louis signing autographs from behind the bar at his swank 11 West 125th Street restaurant and lounge
The Joe Louis bar and resturant from 1945-1946, 11 West 125th Street was brilliantly adapted to become the second Rose Meta House of Beauty in 1947.
1946: Joe Louis pointing out his mural of black worthies
In the 1940's, even in Akron, Ohio, people like my Aunt Cora, seen at the far right, servants who tried their best to emulate the hauteur of their white employers, all knew about Rose Morgan.
Economically featuring employees and customers as models, fashion show extravaganzas the House of Beauty staged at the Renaissance Casino and the Rockland Plaza, attracted thousands. Choreographed to swing music, the ladies sporting luxurious furs, fantastic hats and splendid dresses, walked the runway escorted by Harlem's most dashing men. As an added lure, lavish balls followed for the enjoyment of the well dressed throngs. "The people had seen nothing like it...All the girls loved the shows because there was nowhere else they could show themselves off like [white] high-fashion models.", Morgan recalled years afterward. Morgan's customers, like the designers who worked with her, were drawn from across the nation.
Stefan Young participated in the Rose Meta fashion shows. Adancer, who evolved into a hat maker and dressdesigner, a man who came to have but one name, who married and adopted a daughter, but was as gay as they come. What does one make of the enigma that was STEFAN!
The little known story of Mildred Blount's rise to acclaim is a trajectory quite familiar to many African Americans, and to many others too, who have both talent and ambition without prominence. As an, at first, unknown worker, Blount's brilliant efforts brought her white employer riches and renown.
A native of Edten, North Carolina, where she was born in 1907. Mildred Blount after her parentss' death had moved in with family members. Attending New York public schools she'd dreamed of becoming an interpretive and ballet dancer, as well as a costume designer. Pursuing all these goals Mildred attended Hunter College and Cooper Union. Completing school, from the time of its inception, she worked for the John-Frederics' firm. Serving ten years at the Manhattan salon, in 1939 she was assigned to open their Los Angeles branch. Going on her own in 1943 she proceeded from success, to success.
1950: My friend, the wonderful Willard Winter, who in the late 1930's came from Boston to New York to design the most smashing hats, started by showing at the House of Beauty.
Circa 1948: Gerrie Major in a willard origional
An associate of Mildred Blount's, Bernice L'Tanya Griffin was perhaps the first African American artist known by a single name. Another transplant to Los Angeles, throughout her professional life she continually cross-crossed the country to show and sell her designs at charity fashion shows of the kind staged at the House of Beauty.
Ca. 1956: Dorthy Dandrige dressed by L'Tanya
No sooner had she scored a hit, had Rose Morgan begun to look for a more modern salon than 401 West 148th Street. Morgan anticipated investing $250,000 to renovate the building purchased at 507 West 145th Street. Seeking a $25,000 loan from her bank, a bank where she had deposited millions, she was refused, a rebuff that planted the seeds of her own banking ventures to come.
On a rainy day in February of 1955, with the mayor's wife cutting a big pink ribbon, 10,000 people came to the opening of Rose Morgan's new House of Beauty. Cologne was regularly sent wafting through the air conditioning, to make the House of Beauty rose scented. The fast growing popularity of wigs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, saw Morgan open a wig salon, with a pickup and delivery service. In this way, a busy client could have her coiffure washed, perfectly styled and discreetly returned.
Vertner Woodson Tandy, the dean of Harlem architects
John Lewis Wilson, was the first African American enrolled at the Columbia University School of Architecture to graduate.
1955: The new Rose Meta House of Beauty at 507 West 145th Street was designed by John Lewis Wilson.
By 1955, the first location at 148thStreet closed. But not before a new International Style Rose Metta House of Beauty, designed by Columbia trained black architect John Lewis Wilson opened. Young Wilson had begun his career as a draftsman for Vertner Woodson Tandy, Madame Walker's architect, who was the first black registered in New York State. Located at 507 West 145th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, the House of Beauty was an ideal setting for a day of pampering and included a dressmaking department and a charm school in addition to the usual hair salon facilities. In the early 1960s, Morgan added a wig salon. Over time, she employed and trained over 3,000 people.
Rose Morgan with her expert business partner Miss Olivia Clarke, shown in some of their numerous press clippings. In 1949 Clarke became Olivia Stanford.
Morgan and Clarke hard at work
1938: Joe Louis with his first wife, the former Marva Trotter.
1949: A 'happy' family, soon to dissolve
Ever generous, Joe Louis loved the trapping of the high life.
The first Mrs. Louis, nee Marva Trotter, was only 17 when she married. She shared with her husband a love of glamor.
1955: Rose Morgan was hardly the woman the public and pundits choose as Joe Louis' mate, once his marriage, divorce and remarriage to Marva ended. Then and now, some wonder, had he seen her only as the most expedient means of extricating himself from financial ruin?
Christmas day 1955: Whatever motivated the Morgan-Louis nuptials, surely no bride ever appeared more happy!
Louis' and Morgan's Christmas day wedding and reception were held at Rose Morgan Louis' home, at 175-12 Murdock Avenue in the Addisleigh Park section of Saint Albans, Queens. The first suburban New York community opened to blacks, Adisleigh Park rapidly became the suburban equivalent of Harlem's Sugar Hill and home to greats like Lena Horne, Count Basie, Roy Campanella, Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet and Jackie Robinson.
Pictures of wedded bliss
Rose Morgan’s marriage to Joe Louis was amicably annulled after 3 years in 1958. In 1965, Morgan was one of the founders of New York's only black-owned commercial bank, the Freedom National Bank. She retired in the mid 1970’s. I met Miss Morgan about 1989 and she once attended a party I gave. Interested in talking to others, this faultlessly turned out matron was also interesting to listen to. She said how she continued to exercise every day and to assiduously care for her health. Our mutual friend Alma Rangel also enjoyed listening to Morgan’s tales of her eventful life. “We were at a house party together in Florida, and she kept us spellbound, late into the night with her story telling.”
What a pity that this extraordinary lady, so fastidious and concerned with every detail, who prided herself on giving as much attention to ordinary, unknown customers as to star clients like Lena Horne, Hazel Scott, Sara Lou Harris, Katherine Dunham or Miriam Bruce, never completed the memories she was determined to record. Had she succeeded it’s doubtful a woman who accomplished so much, would have died with almost no notice taken whatever, unmentioned in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, or even the New York Amsterdam News.
Morgan client Hazel Scott, the second Mrs. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., an accomplished singer and jazz pianist
Sara Lou Harris, a House of Beauty patron, was the first African American model featured in a major national advertising campaign.
Marian Bruce, born in 1920, was a cabaret singer noted as an elegant stylist. During her career in show business, in the 1940's and 1950's, she starred in the first all-black show ever presented in a Miami Beach nightclub. Beautiful, and always beautifully dressed, she was also popular abroad on the continent. One element of this popularity lay in her dry wit and sharp repartee. "It was truly something, to hear such unexpected and expert cussing coming from the pretty mouth of this pretty lady..." observed Taylor Gordon and Jimmy Daniels, among others.
Never afraid to take a stand for justice, or to be photographed, Miss Bruce appeared in the illustrations of at least two news stories for Ebony and Our World magazines, covering the new House of Beauty salon opened by her dear friend Rose Morgan. In both, Bruce, most decoratively, poses clad only in a towel during strenuous exercise and a subsequent massage. Black journals from this period were hardly adverse to introducing a little titillation among their pages. The only thing surprising about these pictures at all, is how perfectly they portray an aspecet of the scandal that engulfed Morgan and Bruce almost immediately after they were taken.
Residing at the Rodger Morris Apartments at 555 Edgecombe Avenue, Miss Bruce was not alone. Her roomate at Harlem's famed 'home of the triple nickle', was man-about-town, designer and artist, Art Harris. In August of 1948 the handsome couple had attend a party at the House of Beauty. Morgan and her partner each had small apartments on the two top floors of 401 West 148th Street. Missing his companion Harris went searching for her. He found her easily enough, she was with Rose Morgan. They were in the rub-down room. They said that they were giving each other a 'massage'.
Today, this readily sounds like the thin plot of a trite porno movie. The lengths gay people once went to, to establish some plausible cover was considerable. Only in this scenario, Harris had not joined the naked girls he'd walked in on. Nor had he even caused a scene, not at first. "They quietly returned home," explained photographer Marvin Smith half a century later. "Marian thought she had gotten over, that they would both pretend that nothing had happened, as she often had regarding other women involved with him. Harris encouraged her hopeful delusion. As she undressed, he was in the bathroom. The only thing that was odd was his sharpening his razor. Why shave again, after the party, just to go to dinner? Then it happened. She knew him enough to know he was not kidding when he came after her with that razor in his hand snarling, 'I will kill you both' That's why it's true that she did run out of their apartment and into the streets, bare-assed-naked! The next day my brother and I took her to the beach, Reese Beach, to get away from the scandal."
Marriage and family was the most drastic subterfuge used by gays to cover their tracks in the past. In no time at all Marian Bruce and Rose Morgan both found husbands. But not before Miss Bruce, with defiant satisfaction, sued Harris for assault, for an award of $ 2, 990.00.
Bruce married first. Her husband was widower Arthur C. Logan, the personal physician to both Duke Ellington and his brilliant gay collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. It was in great part due her marriage that Mrs. Logan would come to focus her opposition to discrimination, joining her husband to become a major NAACP activist, Democratic campaign worker, and civil rights movement fundraiser. These activities were culminated by Mariam Logan being named to head New York City's Commission on Human Rights, from 1977 to 1979. A widow for over 20 years after her husband's suicide, Mrs. Logan died in 1993.
Langston Hughes and friends enjoy the hospitality of actor Canada Lee at a party for Hilda Simms. The celebration was held at Lee's 555 Edgecombe Avenue apartment around the time when Marian Bruce also lived at the Rodger Morris.
Talented, polished and fashion-conscious, Marva Trotter Louis never denounced her two children's womanizing, profligate father. Then: remarrying Mrs. Spaulding, as a singer and an icon of style, was once almost as recognizable as her famous first husband. In the 1940's she performed around the country, appearing with top band leaders such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Kay Kyster. But by the time she died, the fickle world had passed her by.
African American style, as innovative and spontaneous as jazz, as bad-assed as hip-hop, more admired than ever, is still fraught in a controversy for acceptance and legitimacy. Some mourn the lost past, contending that yesterday was an era of more elegance, that people once took greater trouble with their appearance and with their attire. However much one might dislike the tattoos, jeans and boots that have for most occasions supplanted the obsolete formality, it hardly follows that people today do not care about fashion. On the contrary, by the way they wear, what they wear, people show as much concern as ever about how they appear to the world. Only now, thanks to women like the Walkers, Morgan, Willis, Taylor and White, they are better able to present themselves on their own terms, more than ever before in history.
Tuesday, November 28, 2000, succumbing to Alzheimer's disease, Marva Louis Spaulding, 85, a one-time stenographer and big band singer died forgotten. Twice married to Joe Louis 'the 'Brown Bomber', she was a gracious and glamorous aspirational personality, who had once been as fortunate and famous, by association, as Cinderella.
After her marriage to Joe Louis ended, Rose Morgan married a third time. Following the failure of her union with lawyer Louis Saunders after two years, she was determined to write her life story. Rose Morgan returned to Chicago in 1999 to tend to her ailing sister. When she died in 2008, despite two major biographies of Joe Louis released at the time, almost no one noticed.