Saturday, February 19, 2011
From the 1920s through the early '40s, Ethel Waters was probably the most famous black woman in America: a bestselling recording artist, a popular nightclub performer, the star of five Broadway shows and several Hollywood movies. After a grim period of little work as she aged and gained weight, Waters triumphed again as an African American matriarch in the 1949 film "Pinky" and in the lyrical 1950 stage adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel "The Member of the Wedding."
By the time Waters died in 1977, however, she was better known to most Americans as an elderly, large, devoutly religious woman who frequently appeared at Billy Graham's fundamentalist Crusades. People had largely forgotten the glamorous crossover artist who belied stereotypes, the first black woman to headline on Broadway at the Palace — the mecca for all vaudeville performers, the star of a groundbreaking Broadway drama ("Mamba's Daughters" in 1939) that empathetically depicted three generations of African American women. One of Waters' biggest hits, the sultry, heartbreaking "Stormy Weather," is remembered instead as Lena Horne's signature song.
Donald Bogle's comprehensive biography "Heat Wave" aims to restore Waters' stature as a pioneering African American entertainer and to elucidate the complex personality of a woman whose life was as turbulent as her career. Author of the groundbreaking "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film," Bogle is well-qualified to provide the cultural and social context necessary to fully understand both Waters' accomplishments and her shortcomings.