June 10, 1892 – October 26, 1952
Hattie McDaniel was an African-American actress. She was the first performer of African descent to ever win an Academy Award. She won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). McDaniel was also a professional singer, stage actress, radio performer and television star. Often criticized for playing stereotypical roles, McDaniel responded “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” She was one of the most respected and highly paid performers in the African-American show business community.
McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas to a former civil war soldier Henry McDaniel and Susan Holbert, a singer of religious music. Her grandmother had been a household slave cook on a Virginia plantation, and her father was born into slavery as a fieldhand. Henry McDaniel served as a soldier for the Union Army during the Civil War. Hattie was born on June 10, 1895, the youngest of thirteen children. The family briefly lived in Fort Collins, Colorado at 317 Cherry St (which still stands) and Hattie briefly attended Franklin School. In 1910 she was the only African American participant in a Women’s Christian Temperance Movement event in which she won a gold medal for reciting a poem entitled “Convict Joe.” Winning the award was what started and sparked her dream of becoming a performer. She dropped out of high school after her sophomore year, travelling with a minstrel group started by her father and brothers Otis and Sam. In addition to performing, Hattie was also a songwriter, a skill she honed while working with Henry’s minstrel show. After the death of her brother Otis in 1916 the family’s minstrel group began to lose momentum, and it wasn’t until 1920 that Hattie received another big opportunity. She joined George Morrison’s “Melody Hounds” and received brilliant reviews.
McDaniel was among the first African-American women to sing on the radio. In 1925 McDaniel began singing on KOA, a Denver radio station. Her radio job led to the recording of several songs, which she had written. She had the opportunity to tour many American cities, most frequently she was booked by the Theatrical Owners Booking Association, which was comprised of black theatre owners. She was playing “Queenie” in Show Boat when the stock market crashed, and her company had to shut down. The only work McDaniel could find was as a wash room attendant at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Despite the owner’s reluctance to let her perform, McDaniel was eventually allowed to take the stage, and became a regular.
In 1931, McDaniel made her way to Los Angeles to join her brother Sam, and sisters Etta and Orlena. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Sam was working on a radio program called “The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour”, and he was able to get his sister a spot. Her show became extremely popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid. In the early years of the 1930’s she received roles in several films, often singing in choruses. Over the course of her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, although she only received screen credits for about 80. She spent much of her career playing maids and one of her famous quotes is:
“Why should I complain about making seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid?
If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one.”
1934’s Judge Priest, directed by John Ford and starring Will Rogers, was the first film in which she would receive a major role. She got to sing several times, including a duet with Rogers.
McDaniel had befriended several of Hollywood’s most popular white stars, including Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, and Olivia de Havilland and Clark Gable, with whom she would star in Gone with the Wind. It was around this time that she began to be criticized by members of the black community for roles she was choosing to take. 1935’s The Little Colonel depicted black servants longing for a return to the Old South. Ironically, McDaniel’s portrayal of Malena in Alice Adams angered white Southern audiences. She managed to steal several scenes away from the film star, Katharine Hepburn. This was the type of role she would be best known for, the sassy, sometimes outspoken, even opinionated maid.
It was in 1939 in one such role, that of Mammy in Gone with the Wind, opposite Vivien Leigh and Gable, that won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first African American to win an Oscar. She was also the first African-American ever to be nominated. George Clooney praised the Academy in his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech for giving her the Oscar as striking a blow for civil rights. However, Molly Haskell noted during the July 1, 2006 GWTW screening on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) that officials made McDaniel sit alone at the back of the Cocoanut Grove during the ceremonies.
When the date of the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind approached, she informed director Victor Fleming that she was unable to attend due to illness; in actuality, she did not want to attend because of the racism that pervaded Southern society at that time, for fear of increasing racial hostilities.
The competition for Mammy had been almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’Hara. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen, because she was known for being a comic actress. Gable wanted the role to go to McDaniel, and when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform, Selznick knew he had found Mammy.
McDaniel had prominent roles in 1935 with her classic performance as a slovenly maid in Alice Adams and a delightfully comic part as Jean Harlow’s maid/travelling companion in China Seas, the latter her first film with Gable. She also attracted attention with a fine performance opposite Paul Robeson in 1936’s Show Boat and had major roles in Saratoga (1937) and The Mad Miss Manton (1938). In 1942’s In This Our Life she had a dramatic role as a housewife whose son is framed in a hit-and-run accident. The following year, McDaniel drew on her musical background in leading a vivacious ensemble number, “Ice Cold Katie,” in the film revue Thank Your Lucky Stars.
As the 1940s progressed, the servant roles McDaniel and other African-American performers had so frequently played were subjected to increasingly strong criticism by groups such as the NAACP. She made her last film in 1949 but was still quite active in her final years on radio and television, becoming the first major African-American radio star with her comedy series Beulah. She starred in the television version, taking over for Ethel Waters after the first season. She became ill during the show’s run and was replaced by Louise Beavers.
Hattie McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for her contributions to radio at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard, and one for motion pictures at 1719 Vine Street. McDaniel was featured as the 29th inductee on the Black Heritage Series by the United States Postal Service.
The 39-cent stamp was released on January 29, 2006.
While McDaniel often played support in her films, she had a colorful personal life. She was married four times, George Langford (1922; he was shot and killed soon after their wedding), Howard Hickman (1938), James Lloyd Crawford (1941–1945), and Larry Williams (1949–1950). Her last three marriages ended in divorce. When she died, she left Williams one dollar.
McDaniel died at age 57 in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills on October 26, 1952, exactly ten years before the similarly typecast actress Louise Beavers; her estate amounted to less than ten thousand dollars. Thousands of mourners turned out to remember her life and accomplishments. It was her wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, along with her fellow movie stars, but the owner, Jules ‘Jack’ Roth, refused to allow her to be interred there because she was black. She is interred in the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles.
In 1999, Tyler Cassity, the new owner of the Hollywood Cemetery, who had renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery; wanted to right the wrong and have Miss McDaniel interred in the cemetery. Her family did not want to disturb her remains after the passage of so much time, and declined the offer. Hollywood Forever then did the next best thing and built a large cenotaph memorial on the lawn overlooking the lake in honour of McDaniel. It is one of the most popular sites for visitors to the cemetery.
McDaniel was also a member of Sigma Gamma Rho, one of four African-American Greek letter sororities in the United States
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