Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters


From the author of the bestselling Dorothy Dandridge comes a dazzling look at one of America's brightest and most troubled theatrical stars.

Almost no other star of the twentieth century reimagined herself with such audacity and durable talent as did Ethel Waters. In this enlightening and engaging biography, Donald Bogle resurrects this astonishing woman from the annals of history, shedding new light on the tumultuous twists and turns of her seven-decade career, which began in...

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From the author of the bestselling Dorothy Dandridge comes a dazzling look at one of America's brightest and most troubled theatrical stars.

Almost no other star of the twentieth century reimagined herself with such audacity and durable talent as did Ethel Waters. In this enlightening and engaging biography, Donald Bogle resurrects this astonishing woman from the annals of history, shedding new light on the tumultuous twists and turns of her seven-decade career, which began in Black vaudeville and reached new heights in the steamy nightclubs of 1920s Harlem.

Bogle traces Waters' life from her poverty-stricken childhood to her rise in show business; her career as one of the early blues and pop singers, with such hits as "Am I Blue?," "Stormy Weather," and "Heat Wave"; her success as an actress, appearing in such films and plays as The Member of the Wedding and Mamba's Daughters; and through her lonely, painful final years. He illuminates Waters' turbulent private life, including her complicated feelings toward her mother and various lovers; her heated and sometimes well-known feuds with such entertainers as Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne; and her tangled relationships with such legends as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Count Basie, Darryl F. Zanuck, Vincente Minnelli, Fred Zinnemann, Moss Hart, and John Ford.

In addition, Bogle explores the ongoing racial battles, growing paranoia, and midlife religious conversion of this bold, brash, wildly talented woman while examining the significance of her highly publicized life to audiences unaccustomed to the travails of a larger-than-life African American woman.

Wonderfully atmospheric, richly detailed, and drawn from an array of candid interviews, Heat Wave vividly brings to life a major cultural figure of the twentieth century—a charismatic, complex, and compelling woman, both tragic and triumphant.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this powerful biography, Bogle recovers the rich fullness of singer Ethel Waters's life (1896–1977). In vivid though often exhausting detail, Bogle traces Waters's rise from the poverty of her surroundings in Chester, Pa., through her early musical successes in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s to her film and Broadway career and her later religious conversion as her health declined. Waters started singing very early, and worked the clubs and chitlin' circuit with ribald and sexy songs; she soon made her name as both black and white audiences flocked to hear her sing songs such as "Am I Blue?," "Stormy Weather," and "Shake That Thing" in Harlem clubs. As Bogle notes, Waters's records helped to create a new record-buying public, and she ushered in a style of popular singing that later singers like Diana Ross would try to imitate. Bogle chronicles her intimate relationships with both men and women as well as her stormy relationships with other artists, like Josephine Baker and Lena Horne. Bogle's thorough and unflinchingly honest look at Waters's brilliant and flawed life will undoubtedly be the definitive biography of this great woman. (Feb.)
Booklist (starred review)
“A penetrating look at a woman of massive talent and determination.”
Library Journal
Preeminent African American popular culture historian Bogle, noted for his groundbreaking Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films as well as an acclaimed biography of Dorothy Dandridge, has produced an exemplary biography of pioneering Broadway, film, recording, and television star Ethel Waters (1896–1977). As a singer Waters introduced such standards as "Am I Blue," "Stormy Weather," and "Heat Wave." She was the first African American to be billed above the title in a Broadway show. With a noteworthy later role in Carson McCullers's stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding, her Oscar-nominated turn in Elia Kazan's Pinky, and frequent appearances on the Billy Graham crusades, her work spanned 20th-century entertainment from tent shows to television. Bogle does not shy away from a frank discussion of Waters's bisexuality and her legendary temper born of a lifetime of slights. VERDICT Bogle masterfully uses Waters's story to examine the economic, aesthetic, and racial politics of 1920s–60s popular culture. This work is everything a biography should be.—John Frank, Los Angeles P.L.
Kirkus Reviews

Biographer and film historian Bogle (Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, 2005, etc.) returns with an encyclopedic life of Ethel Waters (1896–1977), singer, actress and trailblazer.

The author leaves few stones unturned in this massive but often mesmerizing work. Virtually every character earns at least a paragraph or two of back story, including all backup singers and sidemen on Waters' recordings and nightclub appearances. Bogle tracks his subject's life precisely and carefully. As the text progresses, it becomes more and more evident that Waters has so enthralled Bogle that he operates almost like her posthumous press agent. He begins in 1950 as the aging, overweight Waters, her career on a downturn, waits to go out for her first scene inA Member of the Wedding, the role that turned the ignition key for the second major surge of her career (it led to numerous TV and film appearances). Bogle then shifts to Chester, Penn., Waters' birthplace, and the incredible story commences. Waters' rise to stardom is a classic rags-to-riches story. She was a frail yet sexy young woman (known in nightclubs as "Sweet Mama Stringbean") with a voice that, in the author's view, changed popular music. The author tells us about her heroes (Ma Rainey principal among them), her rivals (whom she often treated ferociously) and her successors (Lena Horne wasnot a fan). Bogle also frequently defends Waters, who was irascible backstage, on film and TV sets; he finds cultural and biographical explanations, but she was a handful. The author deals delicately with her sexual interests, which included both genders.

A lush and often lyrical valentine to an extraordinarily talented and complicated artist.

David Hajdu
Not since the heavenly dressing crew worked its miracle in Cabin in the Sky has anyone labored as hard to rehabilitate Waters's image as Donald Bogle has in writing Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. Bogle, a historian of ­African-American entertainment and the autho…has researched Waters thoroughly and presents, fastidiously, the great many facts of her long life and career…The ­story he tells is a complex one of an almost tyrannically ambitious artist who broke racial barriers through a delicate and treacherous combination of will and accommodation.
—The New York Times
"A penetrating look at a woman of massive talent and determination."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061241734
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Pages: 624
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald Bogle is one of the country's leading authorities on African Americans in Hollywood. He is the author of the groundbreaking Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films; the acclaimed biography Dorothy Dandridge; and Brown Sugar: Over 100 Years of America's Black Female Superstars. He teaches at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Table of Contents

Opening Night ix

Part 1

Chapter 1 Two Women, Two Cities 3

Chapter 2 On the Road 22

Part 2

Chapter 3 The Big Apple 47

Chapter 4 Back in the City 88

Chapter 5 Broadway Beckons 137

Chapter 6 Stretching Boundaries: Hollywood and Europe 165

Chapter 7 Depression-Era Blues, Depression-Era Heroine 186

Chapter 8 Broadway Star 210

Chapter 9 A Woman of the People, Back on Broadway 244

Chapter 10 A Chance Encounter 269

Chapter 11 Waiting for Mamba 280

Chapter 12 Living High 291

Chapter 13 Mamba's Daughters, at Last 309

Chapter 14 Eddie 324

Chapter 15 On the Run 338

Part 3

Chapter 16 California Dreaming 353

Chapter 17 Settling In 358

Chapter 18 The Making of Cabin 380

Chapter 19 Aftermath 390

Chapter 20 Scandal 399

Chapter 21 An Ill Wind 415

Chapter 22 Coming Back 430

Chapter 23 The Long Winter of Her Discontent 469

Chapter 24 A New Day 493

Chapter 25 Life Away from the Team 513

Chapter 26 On Her Own Again 529

Acknowledgements 543

Notes 551

Selected Bibliography 585

Index 591

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First Chapter

Heat Wave

The Life and Career of Ethel Waters
By Donald Bogle


Copyright © 2011 Donald Bogle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-124173-4

Chapter One

Two Women, Two Cities

IN THE SMALL HOUSE on Franklin Street in Chester, Pennsylvania, Louise Anderson was frightened, nervous, bewildered. She was pregnant and had gone into labor and would soon deliver a child. No doctor was with her. No midwife. Just her Aunt Ida and, at the crucial moment, a woman in the neighborhood to assist with the birth. Louise must have asked herself how this could have happened. She had always been religious, reading her Bible and living very much by the tenets of her faith. She even had dreams of one day becoming an evangelist. Of all her mother's children, Louise had shown the most promise. But now she was in pain and basically alone. She had no husband, no boyfriend. She still knew nothing about sex. There had just been a terrifying encounter with a young man she barely knew. What would she now do with her life? How would she care for this child? Those were questions she must have asked then and in the future. But on that day—October 31, 1896—Louise Anderson, despite her fears, gave birth to a baby girl. Louise herself was only thirteen years old, by some accounts, a few years older, by others. She named the baby Ethel.

Those were the circumstances of Ethel Waters' birth; circumstances that both she and her mother, Louise Anderson, relived in the years that followed. From the very beginning, nothing came easy for Ethel. There were no happy celebrations of her arrival into the world, no bright smiles and hearty laughter, no shouts of congratulations to her mother. Instead she would always bear the stigma of being born "illegitimate." Yet, ironically, Waters would turn the stigma and shame into a badge of honor. She'd take pride in the fact that she had overcome it and survived.

The way in which she was conceived, however, was, as Ethel Waters herself would tell it, a harrowing experience. One day an eighteen-yearold, John Waters, had come to the home where Louise lived with her mother and siblings. Only Louise and her sister Vi were in the house.

For some time, John Waters, who had cast his eye on Louise, had asked her sister if Louise was a virgin, if she had been "broke in" yet. Left alone with her, he grabbed Louise. When she resisted his advances, he threw her down and threatened her at knifepoint. Before the day ended, John Waters had raped her and gone on his way. As overblown as the story may sound, it appears to be true. The domestic situation that Ethel had been born into was hardly a calm one. The same could be said of the racial politics of the nation in which she grew up.

IN THE YEAR OF ETHEL'S BIRTH, America was a sprawling nation with wide-open spaces, connected by its railroads and its newspapers. The major news event of 1896 was that William McKinley, a Republican, defeated Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan to be elected president of the United States. For the Black pop lation, presidents came and went, but not much changed in their daily struggles in a racially divided nation; struggles to find employment and make a decent living; struggles for achievement and recognition; struggles to combat a political system of vast inequities and injustices. In the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal," which in turn led to the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South.

Three years later the National Afro-American Council called on Black Americans to have a day of fasting in protest of lynchings and racial massacres. In 1896, 78 lynchings of Black Americans were reported; in 1897, 123. In 1901, the nation was horrified to learn that President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York. Afterward, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn into office, and several months later, the South was outraged because the Negro leader Booker T. Washington dined at the White House at the invitation of Roosevelt. The United States was openly segregated in the South; other forms of discrimination and segregation existed in the North.

Yet Chester, the city of Ethel's birth, had been fairly progressive. In the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, Chester, located along the Delaware River about fifteen miles south of Philadelphia, was a thriving urban area. Its long history stretched back to 1644, when it was a Swedish colonial settlement called Finlandia at one time and Upland at another. In 1682, William Penn had landed in Pennsylvania on the ship Welcome and renamed the area Chester, after the city in England. In the mid-1800s, Chester had also been a first stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves from nearby Delaware and the Chesapeake Bay area seeking freedom in the North. In 1857, a bloody battle had taken place between twelve fugitive slaves and ten slave hunters. From Chester, the slaves could be taken to Philadelphia. There, at the city's Arch Street wharf, horse-drawn wagons carried the runaways to parts of New Jersey. Chester's shipyard also supplied ships for the Union during the Civil War.

By 1880, the city was a bustling shipping center. The Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company provided employment for many residents. Early in the twentieth century, the Scott Paper Company came to town. So did the Ford Motor Company, an oil refinery, and a chemical manufacturing plant. Because of these industries and the consequent economic growth, immigrants from Poland and Ukraine moved to the city in search of work. So did Blacks from the South, hoping not only for economic advantages but also opportunities for an education and a better lifestyle.

Even more migrated to nearby Philadelphia, a far more developed and sophisticated area with a storied history.


Excerpted from Heat Wave by Donald Bogle Copyright © 2011 by Donald Bogle. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 11, 2011

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    Before reading this book, the only thing I knew about Ethel Waters was that she sang songs in the 1920s and acted in a couple of classic movies in the 1940s and 1950s. This book really details her Broadway career and also discusses in depth the character contradictions in her personal life. I don't know why it took so long for someone to write a good book about this hardworking, strong-willed and conflicted artist.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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