Read an Excerpt
IN THE BEGINNING
Among the old-timers, the story went like this: A woman known to everyone as Madame came to California from Kentucky with her children and her husband. But once they were in the Gold Rush State, her husband left her. Desperate to find work, she introduced herself to a movie director named D. W. Griffith. He not only cast her in his movie, but the two became friends for life. And with this woman, called Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Black Hollywood began.
Of course, there was more to it than that, but Hollywood always liked a good story, and the tale of Madame Sul-Te-Wan was a good enough place to start. So, too, was the early romance of Los Angeles for all those who journeyed westward.
Even before the movies, Los Angeles held the promise of a world of endless sunshine and unlimited possibilities. Here was a city with warm days and cool nights, with winding canyons, steep hills, and stately mountains looming large and mysterious on the horizon—and not far from a breathtaking view of an ocean that was clear and blue, cool and inviting. Those early pioneers of color who ventured west were as entranced as everyone else. When Los Angeles was founded in 1781—as a city of angels—by a group of eleven families, it seemed to throw out a welcome mat to people of color. After all, of that founding group—forty-four men, women, and children—twenty-six were of African descent, black or “black Spaniards,” as they were sometimes called. In those very early years—before California joined the Union in 1850—Los Angeles must have seemed like a dazzling confluence of races and cultures, religions and creeds, a heady brew of ambitions and aspirations, of unexpected energies and colorful personalities, a city cut off from the rest of the country and its rules. Here in the wild and woolly West, no one appeared to think much about the races mixing. Interracial marriage was sanctified by the church and the authorities—and was commonly practiced.
Race did not seem to hinder prosperity either. Black Americans were long a part of city legend and lore. That was certainly true of the early landowner and “black Spaniard” Francisco Reyes, who owned all of the vast San Fernando Valley and in 1793 became the alcalde or mayor of Los Angeles. And of Maria Rita Valdez de Villa, the adventurous granddaughter of two of the black founders of the city, who married a Spanish colonial soldier, Vicente Fernando Villa. After her husband’s death in 1841, Maria received the title to his lush, green 4,449-acre ranch known as Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas. In 1854, in the midst of mounting financial pressures, Maria was forced to sell her land—and to part with her adobe situated near what later became Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard. In time, the stunning Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas that she had loved so intensely became a prime piece of Los Angeles real estate known today as Beverly Hills.
But of those early pre–movie era pioneers, none was better known than a tough-minded former slave girl named Bridget “Biddy” Mason. Born in 1818, Biddy had been the “property” of a Mississippi plantation owner—and a Mormon convert—named Robert Marion Smith, who migrated with his family first to the Utah Territory in 1847 and later to San Bernardino, California. During the two thousand–mile trek across country, Biddy’s job was to keep the cattle herded together behind the long line of wagon trains, some three hundred by one account. By then, Biddy was married with three daughters, who were said to have been fathered by the noble Mormon Robert Marion Smith.
In California, Biddy quickly adjusted to her new life and a new sense of identity. Then, one day, Smith informed Biddy and his other slaves that he had decided to return to Mississippi and that they should all prepare for the journey back. Smith may not have realized that California had been admitted to the Union as a free state. But Biddy knew. She went to the local sheriff, made her plea, and petitioned the court to let her remain in California. In 1856, Biddy Mason won freedom not only for herself and her children but also for another slave family. Afterward, she moved to Los Angeles, and the city had its first great black heroine.
Biddy shrewdly understood that her day-to-day work as a nurse and midwife would not guarantee a secure future for her family and herself. In the West, nothing was more important than land. And in Los Angeles, there was still much of it—acres upon acres—to be had. Saving her money, she slowly purchased property—the first on Spring Street for $250. Before anyone realized it, Biddy Mason had become a woman of means and one of L.A.’s first black female landowners. In 1872, she joined twelve other charter members in establishing a place of worship for colored Angelenos, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. She donated money to schools and nursing homes, provided aid for flood victims, and carried food to local jails. By the time of her death in 1891, Biddy Mason had a personal fortune of almost $300,000, and her vast real estate holdings constituted what later became downtown Los Angeles.
In a town where larger-than-life personalities and drive and discipline would be treasured, those early black pioneers, like great movieland production designers, dressed the set for those who followed. Most others would not have such huge holdings. But they’d come with vast dreams and visions and a view of themselves just as grand and as audacious. They’d also believe that in Los Angeles, any minute you could turn a corner, and something extraordinary might happen. And that always this sunlit city with swaying palm trees and fragrant eucalyptus offered a chance not just for self-advancement but for self-reinvention. What fueled that kind of dream in the early years of the twentieth century was the new medium that startled and delighted almost everyone in the nation: the movies.
THE MOVING PICTURES ARRIVE
The movies, of course, transformed Los Angeles from a sleepy western kind of country town into a sprawling metropolis. Eventually enveloped by Hollywood, Los Angeles became a company town that exuded glamour—along with extravagance and excess—and in time represented the ultimate kind of American success: a place where everybody, in some way or another, felt connected to those magical moving pictures that gleamed and glittered on screens in darkened theaters. And the concept of Hollywood would encompass other areas where movie people lived and worked: Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Burbank, Culver City, Universal City, Westwood, Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley—and for black Angelenos, parts of the city’s Eastside and later Westside, in and around a bustling thoroughfare named Central Avenue.
Originally, movie production had been in the East, with New York at the center. That changed, however, when the Motion Picture Patents Company—the huge trust in the East that controlled the patent claims of major companies like Edison, Biograph, Lubin, Pathé Exchange, and Vitagraph—insisted that no company be permitted to produce, distribute, or exhibit films without its licensing. Huge fees for the use of cameras and other motion-picture equipment covered by their patents forced many independent producers out of the movie business. Other filmmakers moved West, as far away as possible from the reach of the Patents Company. With its citrus groves and its avocados and especially its acres of unspoiled land and its perpetual sunshine, California proved appealing. Here, production could continue outside year-round.
Among the early filmmakers from the East were Cecil B. DeMille, who arrived in 1913 to shoot The Squaw Man, and director David Wark Griffith, who brought his stock company of New York actors to California—during the winter months—to shoot scenes for his films as early as 1910. When he began production on his ambitious Civil War epic, originally called The Clansman and later retitled The Birth of a Nation, Griffith knew that California was where his mighty battle scenes had to be filmed and where he could re-create the city of Piedmont, South Carolina, the central setting of his epic.
By then, Griffith had already established himself as an important director. Born in 1875 in La Grange, Kentucky, and reared in Louisville, David (Lewelyn) Wark grew up hearing stories of the Old South’s power and grandeur. From 1908 to 1913, Griffith made 450 films at the Biograph Studios on East Fourteenth Street in New York City. Many had been short one-reelers. But with the four-reel Judith of Bethulia, he began making longer, more ambitious films. Developing an arsenal of techniques that included crosscutting, intercutting, expressive lighting, camera movement, and the close-up, Griffith helped create a syntax for the language of motion pictures. In the fall of 1913, Griffith left Biograph to join Reliance-Majestic. A year later, working on what would be his mighty, racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith arrived on the West Coast.
CALL HER MADAME
So did an ambitious young African American woman, who had been born Nellie Wan in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1873. Her mother, Cleo de Londa, had been a singer; her father, a traveling preacher named Silas Crawford Wan, whom she once said was Hindu. Whether that was true or not was anybody’s guess. Later, the story went over well in Hollywood, which loved those people who created their own colorful biographies. “My father didn’t mount to nothing,” she once said. “He had the Bible in one hand and all the women he could get in the other.” When Silas deserted the family, Nellie’s mother was left to fend for herself, working as a laundress for actresses in Louisville. Young Nellie often delivered the laundry. Silently, she studied the entertainers: their dance steps, vocal mannerisms, and routines. Infatuated with the world of make-believe, little Nellie—at age eight—tried to run away to join a circus. Seeing that she was a born cutup, the white actresses Mary Anderson and Fanny Davenport both urged the mayor of Louisville, James Whaler, to let young Nellie audition for a special event: a contest among twenty-five buck-and-wing dancers at the city’s Buckingham Theater. Nellie won first place.
At the time, colored entertainers were just starting to come into their own. Only after the Civil War did they have real opportunities to work professionally, usually in traveling minstrel or medicine shows, sometimes in circuses and carnivals, and eventually in black vaudeville. But always, it was a rough, demanding life, a mad scramble to find jobs and to stretch earnings.
Taking the dare, Nellie moved to Cincinnati, joined a company called Three Black Cloaks, and billed herself as Creole Nell. She also formed her own theatrical companies and toured the East Coast. She was developing into a striking-looking young woman, not pretty by the standards of her time but charismatic and assured: she knew that she was somebody. Perhaps she had also mastered by then what was to be one of her trademarks in films: that steely eyed, tough, evil stare that let people know that she was sizing them up—and that they couldn’t trifle with her.
Her life changed when she married Robert Reed Conley. Around 1910, with her husband and her two young sons, she moved to Arcadia, California, near Pasadena. Certainly, Nellie, like other colored Americans of the time, envisioned Southern California as a land of opportunities. Property was cheap, which meant that in time, homes could be bought. Work was plentiful, too, especially on the railroads. Around the country, the Negro press and Negro organizations soon encouraged black Americans to go west. During the first decade of this new twentieth century, the city’s population grew to some 320,000 citizens, of which some 7,600 were African Americans.
For Nellie Conley, a new life meant a new identity. She henceforth called herself Madame Sul-Te-Wan—and insisted that everyone else do the same. “We never did discover the origin of her name,” actress Lillian Gish once said. No one was bold enough to ask. Madame may have had any number of reasons for her new name. In the South, many colored citizens were addressed by their first names by whites. Or as Aunt or Uncle. Rarely were they referred to as Miss or Mr. or Mrs. But now if anyone called her by her first name, then they would be addressing her as Madame. If anyone wanted to say Aunt Madame, then that was his or her business. Either way, she would never be spoken to in familiar terms by anyone. And her very name evoked the budding grandeur and glamour for which the movie colony would be known.
But the new life that looked so promising for Madame Sul-Te-Wan quickly turned sour. Her husband walked out on her and their three sons. Her youngest was only three weeks old. She was also ten months behind on her rent. Hers became a hand-to-mouth existence, day by day worrying where her next meal was coming from. When she learned of a colored group called the Forum that put on shows with black entertainers to help them earn money for food and lodging, she went to the organization with her children by her side. As she explained her plight, she broke into tears. Her oldest son, not yet seven, looked up at her and said, “Mother, you are not begging. We are going to sing and earn what they give you.” The children then performed. Later, she enlisted the help of a group called the Associated Charities of Los Angeles to move her children and herself into a place in the city. But a long dry period followed. To make matters worse, the local booking companies refused to handle colored performers. Madame Sul-Te-Wan knew she might end up working as a maid.
Then she heard talk of a film being shot by a director from her hometown in Kentucky. She had heard of the director D. W. Griffith from a man named Dad Ready, whom she met while working in a circus. Ready had told her of Griffith’s plans to film The Clansman and wrote her a letter of introduction. “Madame, if you ever go to California and hear anything at all about D. W. Griffith,” Ready told her, “get in touch with him because if D. W. Griffith ever sees you, you’re made.” She still had Ready’s letter, and she decided to see if it could get her some work.