Few American entertainers have rivaled the success of Ethel Waters. Born to a teen mother as the result of a rape, she began her career in Black Vaudeville and reached new heights in the nightclubs of Harlem in the 1920’s. Her unique singing style ushered in the age of the modern popular song – and made her the highest paid woman in show business. Not content with just a recording career, Ethel Waters wowed audiences on Broadway and won an Oscar nomination. In her later years, however, she was best known for singing with Billy Graham’s crusade and spurning the civil rights movement. Diane and her guest, biographer Donald Bogle, discuss the complex life and career of Ethel Waters.


  • Donald Bogle Author


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Ethel Waters has been called the greatest artist of her race and generation. Let's listen to one of her classic songs.

  • 11:07:47

    MS. DIANE REHMAnd of course, the African American singer, dancer, actress was born as the result of rape to a teenage mother in Chester, Pa. By her late 20s, she was the highest paid female entertainer of the jazz age, black or white. A new biography of Ethel Waters traces her troubled life and career. It's titled, "Heat Wave," and author Donald Bogle joins me in the studio. Let's hear a little more of this.

  • 11:08:55

    MS. DIANE REHMDonald Bogle, welcome to you.

  • 11:08:57

    MR. DONALD BOGLEHappy to be here, Diane.

  • 11:08:59

    REHMI must say, hearing her voice is so special. Why did you begin to focus on her?

  • 11:09:09

    BOGLEWell, you know, Diane, I had written about Ethel Waters before in earlier books. In my book, "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films," I had dealt with Ethel Waters' movie career and I had looked at roles she played in film. And I also dealt some with -- a bit with her personal life. I dealt with her in other books as well and she always fascinated me because the thing about Ethel Waters is that I think most people, if they know something about her or sort of remember her, they think of Ethel Waters, really, as an older woman or an old woman. And they think of her of someone who performed with Billy Graham's Crusades. And the thing about Ethel Waters is that there is so much more to her.

  • 11:10:07

    REHMOf course. How did she actually get her start? She was five years old, wasn't she? When she...

  • 11:10:16

    BOGLEWell, she sang -- she sang in the church, but her real start came, you know, Ethel growing up in Chester, Pa. and Philadelphia and not having much of a formal education. She married when she was a teenager and that marriage lasted about a year. And then she worked as a chambermaid in a hotel in Philadelphia. And she had fantasies about performing and she said that she would sometimes do her work very quickly and look in the mirror at herself and imagine she was this entertainer.

  • 11:10:53

    BOGLEBut she didn't really see herself as having a career. Her great ambition for a while was -- and still while she was young, was to perhaps be the maid for a wealthy white woman who would travel and that way she would see the world. But what happened to her was that she was born on October 31. That was, you know, 1896, but the 31st was Halloween and she was at a club. She loved to go to dance clubs and she was a terrific dancer and she performed impromptu. They had sort of a contest and there were two vaudeville managers there who heard her and...

  • 11:11:31

    REHMSo she was singing and dancing?

  • 11:11:33

    BOGLEYes, yes. But at this point, she -- when they heard that voice -- and so that's -- and they told her they could get her an engagement at a theater in Baltimore.

  • 11:11:43

    REHMWhat year would that have been?

  • 11:11:45

    BOGLEThis was around 1917 when Ethel really gets started. And so she went to Baltimore. She appeared at the Lincoln Theatre there and had a great impact. And she still, though, didn't really see herself as having a career and what happened to Ethel, when she was performing there, she found out that she was being cheated out of money, that she was being told that she was getting $10 a week, which was a lot for her then, but actually, these two men were getting more money...

  • 11:12:19

    REHMOh boy...

  • 11:12:19

    BOGLE...and they were splitting up the difference. So Ethel, though, continued to perform and there were two sisters called The Hill Sisters. She traveled with them as one of the other Hill Sisters, but she just stood out. And she became known as Sweet Mama String Bean. And this is the thing, Diane, that people don’t realize. Ethel, as a young woman, she was slinky, she was slender, she was very, very sensual, very, very sexy and she traveled in Black Vaudeville. And she was in a car accident in Birmingham and this is significant for her because she was a very troubled woman.

  • 11:12:59

    REHMWhen she was how old did she have that accident?

  • 11:13:00

    BOGLEShe was still -- we're still in the teens.

  • 11:13:02


  • 11:13:02

    BOGLEWe haven't gotten -- she doesn't come to New York 'til the early 1920s.

  • 11:13:06


  • 11:13:06

    BOGLESo she was in a car accident in Birmingham and she was pinned underneath this car...

  • 11:13:12

    REHMOh, my gosh.

  • 11:13:12

    BOGLE...and she said the Whites passed her by, wouldn't help her. They used the n-word. They finally -- she finally was taken to a hospital. She was taken to the black wing, the black quarters, and she was treated so badly, she never forgot that inhumanity, that they had not tried to help her. At the same time with Ethel, the flip side was that African Americans in the area heard about her accident and many knew her as Sweet Mama String Bean and they took up a collection for her and she never forgot that kindness. So for Ethel, it was always sort of these conflicting feelings. On the one hand, not trusting anyone and on the other hand -- and not trusting really whites...

  • 11:14:05


  • 11:14:05

    BOGLE...because for a long time, she really did not like Whites. On the other hand, the people, as she saw them and these were the people who would come to see her, they were the ones that she always felt something for. Ethel Waters, her real humanity and kindness really only came through when she performed.

  • 11:14:28

    REHMDonald Bogle and his new book titled, "Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to drshow@wamu.org, send us a tweet, join us on Facebook. Why was it she stood out so much from her contemporaries?

  • 11:15:01

    BOGLEWell what happened to her, the thing about Ethel, once she goes to New York in her early 20s and starts to record early and when she starts to record, within -- really, just about from the beginning, it's a modern voice and it's a modern attitude and no one had quite heard...

  • 11:15:23

    REHMArticulate that for me.

  • 11:15:24

    BOGLEWell, the thing about Ethel was that she -- it's funny when you say articulate because she had this clarity, this diction and she could always be understood and this was very, very important for her sound. It made her more direct, more immediate with people. And when they heard this clarity, people actually stopped and they listened. She had that aspect. She loved to tell a story in song and she loved to create a character in song and this was something that was new as well.

  • 11:15:58

    BOGLEThe other thing for Ethel -- and she loved the melodies, but she also -- with some of those recordings, Ethel would stop and talk and it was conversational. It was almost like, I have to make you hear me. And the music was fine, but sometimes it wasn't enough and when she did talk, there was a rhythm there as well. You know, we think about rap today and talking and getting a message out. She did that.

  • 11:16:28

    BOGLEThe other thing that made her so modern was that she had a tough girl persona and she had control. And the control in her music indicated that she had a certain kind of independence and liberation. In the 1920s, the age of the flapper, when women in general, white women were fighting to get their independence, Ethel was announcing in her music that she already had hers.

  • 11:16:58

    REHMShe had hers.

  • 11:17:00

    BOGLESo this made her as well, really, this whole new kind of sound, this whole new kind of attitude that was so important in the 1920s.

  • 11:17:10

    REHMHow did she choose her music?

  • 11:17:14

    BOGLEShe chose her music often enough by the gut. If it was something -- again, if she could tell a story and if it did have a certain melody, that appealed to her. You know, one of the early songs that she did was, "St. Louis Blues," the W.C. Handy song and this -- she had heard a female impersonator do the song in Philadelphia. And she said that she wrote Handy to see if she could have permission to sing it.

  • 11:17:46

    BOGLEAnd that song was something that very much appealed to her, but the thing about it, when you hear Ethel perform this or people who did hear her perform it at that time felt, again, that there was this -- she was not a sort of a sob sister in her music. It was still this kind of thing where there was a certain kind of objectivity with her. As she sang the song, she was standing back and not overcome by the emotion, but understanding it.

  • 11:18:18

    REHMDonald Bogle and book we're talking about, his newest, it's titled, "Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters." We'll take a short break and be right back for your comments, questions. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMAnd, "Heat Wave," is the title of the book we're talking about, "The Life and Career of Ethel Waters." Donald Bogle is here in the studio, the author of the book. Just before the break, Donald Bogle, you were talking about "St. Louis Blues." Talk about that and why she felt so strongly she wanted to record that.

  • 11:20:32

    BOGLEWell, "St. Louis Blues," with the song, a woman, again, in the grip of an emotion, losing a man, and Ethel -- man and romance were important to her and the idea of relationships. And this appealed to her, but also the idea of heartbreak and disappointment and at the same time, not letting that destroy her. So this element about that song as well appealed to Ethel Waters.

  • 11:21:04

    REHMAnd courtesy of our colleague, Rod Bamberger, we have this 1941 version of, "St. Louis Blues."

  • 11:22:45

    REHMI'm telling you, you can understand...

  • 11:22:48

    BOGLEYou can understand the clarity.

  • 11:22:49

    REHM...each word.

  • 11:22:50

    BOGLEThe clarity.

  • 11:22:51

    REHMIt's just so beautiful.

  • 11:22:51

    BOGLEYou know, the other thing about this song, Bessie Smith has a very famous recording of it. And there was a short film done with Bessie Smith in 1929 where she is singing the song and the difference between Bessie Smith, who was really the greatest of the blues singers, she really was the greatest. Ethel was something else, but Bessie Smith is very much -- there is a moan there and she is caught in it. I mean, she's caught in the whole emotion and she's taking you into that. Ethel is somewhere else, as you can hear. She's telling us about it, but she doesn't seem -- with the voice and with the melody, as she goes through with it, she's not destroyed by it.

  • 11:23:36

    REHMShe's detached, yeah.

  • 11:23:37

    BOGLEShe really was. And that was, you know, her story telling abilities. She is not completely removed from it, but she's at another level with it. And this was very important for what Ethel did in music. You know, the other thing about Ethel, with her music and with men in song, she -- with her whole attitude about sex -- the blues singers -- the female blues singers would talk about sex in a new way. I mean, Bessie Smith had songs like, "I'm Wild About That Thing," and, "Do Your Duty," and so forth. Ma Rainey -- and Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were really Ethel's idols. She really looked up to them. She called Bessie the champ, but her music was not going to be like Bessie's or like Ma's.

  • 11:24:30

    REHMBut if Bessie Smith had influence on the listeners of her day, what about Ethel?

  • 11:24:39

    BOGLEEthel influenced them all. You know, Billie Holiday said that her great influences were Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, but most people feel that, you know, Ethel, really, was the influence on Holiday when she started. Ethel influenced Lena Horne, with whom Ethel did not get along later.

  • 11:24:57


  • 11:24:59

    BOGLEWell, Ethel and Lena Horne appear in 1943 when Ethel goes to Hollywood. And they're in the movie, "Stormy" -- in the movie, "Cabin in the Sky." And when they do that film, Ethel was older at that point...

  • 11:25:12

    REHMAnd Lena was younger.

  • 11:25:13

    BOGLE...and Lena was young and adorable and sexy. Ethel was heavy.

  • 11:25:17

    REHMAnd beautiful.

  • 11:25:18

    BOGLEAnd Ethel was bothered by her weight and she felt that Lena Horne was getting preferential treatment on that film from the director, Vincente Minnelli, which really wasn't the case. Minnelli really admired Ethel Waters and he like Lena Horne, but Lena Horne was a newcomer, in a sense, and they were grooming her at MGM for kind of stardom. Anyway, Ethel felt very, very threatened and...

  • 11:25:45

    REHMWhat had happened during Ethel's life that perhaps had allowed her to gain that kind of weight? Was it...

  • 11:25:59

    BOGLEWell, you know, the thing -- I'll tell you, this was one of the things that surprised me when I was working on the book about Ethel.

  • 11:26:06

    REHMBecause she was proud of being a slinky, slim girl.

  • 11:26:08

    BOGLEYes. Yeah, I mean, she was Sweet Mama String Bean. And I didn't know, until I came across letters and other things, that she was very, very bothered by the weight gain. Very bothered, very disturbed and did what she could to lose it. But one thing that happened with Ethel, as she got older, she gained weight and also Ethel, she liked sweets, she liked a soul food diet. And so she was eating in a way -- she had certain eating habits that she probably should've changed. She did try -- she did try to diet, but the weight really came on. And I think the other thing that happened with Ethel with eating, at times, you know, it was a form of compensation. I mean...

  • 11:26:50


  • 11:26:50

    BOGLE...her heartache her, you know...

  • 11:26:51


  • 11:26:52

    BOGLE...the things that bothered her. But when they do do, "Stormy Weather" -- and this was the thing about Lena Horne I find so interesting -- and it is sad in a way that Lena Horne had looked up to Ethel Waters. And you can imagine that when you finally get to work with someone you've idolized and Ethel just despised her, absolutely despised her. The people that I talked to who worked on, "Cabin in the Sky," they all said that in the big scene where Ethel and Lena were together, they had the sequence together and in the movie, they're sort of fighting over Eddie Rochester Anderson.

  • 11:27:27

    BOGLERochester's married to Ethel. He's got a roving eye. Of course, it roves all over Lena Horne. And the two women clash in this sequence and Ethel drove Lena crazy. She was quite cruel to Lena Horne. And the thing was that there was such a blowup on the set that they actually had to close the set down...

  • 11:27:51

    REHMOh, my.

  • 11:27:52

    BOGLE...for the day. And Lena Horne said that when they finished the sequence, they never spoke again. But back to your question about who Ethel influenced, she did influence Lena Horne, she did influence Ella Fitzgerald, she did influence Ivie Anderson, she did influence Dinah Washington. That these women -- Dinah Washington was another who had this clarity and this ability to tell a story. Ethel really set the bar. In the late '20s and into the 1930s, she was so famous and particularly for being an African American woman, that these younger -- this new generation coming up, they all looked to her as a kind of standard bearer. And then, when she was so difficult -- because she was difficult with Billie Holiday, too, she was quite mean to Holiday.

  • 11:28:47

    REHMAll right. Let's talk about, "Backwater Blues," one of the pieces we have here. This is -- well, let's hear a little of it first.

  • 11:29:50

    REHMIt sounds as though she brought her troubles to that song.

  • 11:29:58

    BOGLEYes, but this is the Bessie Smith version and so there's a difference that the trouble is there and the trouble hasn't left her and she's not standing back. Usually enough with Bessie, if you really listen, you can't understand Bessie. Some of the other blues singers you couldn't -- and some records with Bessie, you don't necessarily understand what she's saying. But again, it's the mood that's there...

  • 11:30:26


  • 11:30:26

    BOGLE...and the emotion.

  • 11:30:28

    REHMWeren't there -- in addition to Ethel Waters relations with men, weren't there also relations with women?

  • 11:30:38

    BOGLEYes. She did have -- she -- Ethel had a fluid sexuality, I mean, where she -- there was a young dancer sort of early in Ethel's career. Ethel Williams was her name and Ethel had a -- it was a significant relationship with that woman. And then she had other relationships with women through the years. I interviewed a woman in Los Angeles who knew Ethel in Ethel's later years and this was a woman who was younger than Ethel and they were friends.

  • 11:31:09

    BOGLEIt was a platonic relationship, but she said that Ethel was very open in telling her that she had been a lesbian. And she said that she was the best there was at it. She had no guilt feelings about this. And this is one of the things about her where, again, she's sort of forward looking, but Ethel was very religious. And with her whole -- this whole thing of same-sex relationships, some of the other things that she did, Ethel always felt her God understood her, so she never had second thoughts about this kind of thing.

  • 11:31:47

    REHMDo you think she felt safer with women?

  • 11:32:52

    BOGLEI think with women -- one thing that happened with Ethel -- you know, Ethel in growing up, her mother -- and as it's been brought out, her mother was raped by Ethel's father. She really didn't know him and the mother felt such shame over Ethel's birth and the whole thing of what was then known as a child being illegitimate. And the mother had no time for Ethel. And Ethel -- it was really heartbreaking that Ethel, as a girl, strove so hard to get her mother's love. The one person, when Ethel was growing up, who showed her compassion and concern was her grandmother Sally Anderson. And the grandmother died when Ethel was still very young, a teenager, so some of that yearning for a kind of approval from a woman and at the same time, in her relationships with women, Ethel was very much in control with them.

  • 11:32:53

    REHMDonald Bogle and the book we're talking about, "The Life and Career of Ethel Waters," is titled, "Heat Wave." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Annie who's in Albuquerque, N.M. Good morning, Annie.

  • 11:33:22

    ANNIEGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:33:24

    REHMHi, there. I hear your dog in the background.

  • 11:33:26

    ANNIEOh, my Maxie.

  • 11:33:27


  • 11:33:29

    ANNIENo, quiet. Sorry about that. I just had seen Ethel Waters when she was at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1964 in San Diego. And my husband and family and I were out to dinner after taking our new about two-month-old daughter out for her doctor's appointment. And we were just at a pancake house and in walks Ethel Waters with these young people who were just, you know, idolizing her. And I guess she wanted to have pancakes for dinner. But anyway, they sat right across from us and I had my daughter over my shoulder. And every time I looked, Ethel was just grinning as big as you can imagine at my daughter.

  • 11:34:17

    ANNIEAnd I made a very bad mistake. After we were through dinner, I got up and smiled at her and walked out. And I -- you know, I had been well trained that celebrities have a need to be able to go out in public and not be disturbed and so that's what I followed. And to this day, I regret it because (unintelligible)...

  • 11:34:38


  • 11:34:38

    BOGLEOh. Was it -- did you -- was the play that you saw, "The Member of the Wedding?"

  • 11:34:43

    ANNIEYes, (unintelligible)...

  • 11:34:44

    BOGLEYes, yeah...

  • 11:34:45

    ANNIE..."Member of the Wedding."

  • 11:34:45

    BOGLE...because she did that for many years. I can understand why you feel the way that you did. I mean, this legendary performer and also when she smiled at your child, yes, it was a great moment. But you do have a great memory of her and...

  • 11:35:03

    ANNIEI have a great memory (unintelligible)...

  • 11:35:04

    BOGLE...that's important -- that's important as well.

  • 11:35:07

    REHMYes, it is. How old is your daughter now?

  • 11:35:11

    ANNIELet's see, she was born in '64, you'll have to figure it out (laugh).

  • 11:35:15

    REHMOkay. All right, Annie. I'm so glad you called. That is a special memory (unintelligible).

  • 11:35:23

    BOGLEYes, it is a special memory.

  • 11:35:25

    REHMHow was she in, "Member of the Wedding?"

  • 11:35:27

    BOGLEWell, the thing about, "Member of the Wedding," you know, Ethel Waters had many lives. And the thing is that she was this great recording star...

  • 11:35:37


  • 11:35:37

    BOGLE...in the '20s throughout.

  • 11:35:38


  • 11:35:38

    BOGLEIn the '30s, she goes to Broadway when there wasn't much of a place for a black female star. And she becomes the first African American woman to get her name above the title. When she does do her Broadway show, a white show in 1933 called, "As Thousands Cheer," Clifton Webb was in it, Marilyn Miller, they would not put her name above the title in that.

  • 11:36:02

    REHMOh, really.

  • 11:36:02

    BOGLEThey put her below.

  • 11:36:04


  • 11:36:04

    BOGLEAnd the interesting thing about Ethel Waters, she was so well known then, but they wouldn't put her name above the title. And most people who saw that production felt that she walked away with it. She sang, "Heat Wave," in it, she did, "Suppertime." She just carried on in that show. Later, she goes back to Broadway. She does, "At Home Abroad," and then she goes dramatic in 1939 in, "Mamba's Daughters," and that name is above the title. But she goes to Hollywood working more actively in films for part of the '40s. Her career slipped into a decline, a serious decline. She was having financial problems, the IRS was hounding her.

  • 11:36:45

    REHMShe wasn't good with money, let's face it.

  • 11:36:47

    BOGLENo, she was not, she was not, she was not.

  • 11:36:49

    REHMShe was spending a lot more than she was taking in at the time.

  • 11:36:52

    BOGLEYes. And she spent on people, too. I mean, she spent -- you know, we're talking about the women in her life. The men in her life, she spent a lot on them. But nonetheless, with, "Member of the Wedding," she was -- before she did that, she was -- you know, she had all these problems. And she managed -- she had done in 1949 -- she did the film, "Pinky," directed by Elia Kazan. And in, "Pinky," she plays the grandmother of a young light-skinned black woman who's going to pass for white. And Ethel got an Oscar nomination for that. It was the first time, since Hattie McDaniel had won, that a black woman got that Oscar nomination.

  • 11:37:32

    REHMDonald Bogle and the book we're talking about, the music we're listening to, Ethel Waters, the book is titled, "Heat Wave."

  • 11:40:03

    REHMAnd just before the break, Donald Bogle, you were talking about Ethel Waters' appearance in the film, "Member of the Wedding." She went on to do that on Broadway opposite Julie Harris.

  • 11:40:17

    BOGLEYep. Well, what happened, she had done, "Pinky" and she was trying to -- you know, to get that career back, you know, to get it back on track and they offered her this part in, "The Member of the Wedding," based on Carson McCullers' novel that was now dramatized and Ethel turned it down. And she felt that there was no God in the play. And as much as she needed it -- it was a very funny story that one of the producers went to see her in Chicago to talk to her to try to persuade her to do the play and she was playing in a sort of dumpy club and he couldn’t understand it. And she said something to the effect that, you know, I'm down and out, but I'm not that down and that out to do this play.

  • 11:41:08

    BOGLEAnd they did make changes for her and then she did the play. And it was one of the greatest comebacks, really, in the history of American entertainment, that people had never seen anything like it. And I should say this, Diane, about Ethel, just the extraordinary thing about her talents. I mean, this terrific singer, again, she could dance, she was talented comedian, she had a way with the line, she was a great live performer. You know, some people can't do it live. And the other thing about Ethel that should not be forgotten is that she was this remarkable, dramatic actress.

  • 11:41:45


  • 11:41:45

    BOGLEThat she did this and the thing about her, she had not been trained as an actress, she, you know, hadn't taken acting classes, going to acting school. But I interviewed some people who saw her in, "The Member of the Wedding," and they said that she was coming at that character in a different way. That character was coming from deep inside her and here she could do, as an actress, what she really didn't want to do as a singer, to go like Bessie into the gut. She wanted to stand back. But as an actress, she went all the way.

  • 11:42:21

    REHMShe won the New York Drama Critics' Award.

  • 11:42:26

    BOGLEShe was nominated and she was lauded by the critics. She -- Ethel then did the -- went on to do the movie version and what's interesting about the movie version, many people felt that Ethel Waters should have been nominated for the Academy Award for that. And I talked to a publicist who had worked with Columbia Pictures and he told me that the studio had decided -- they had Ethel and they had Julie Harris in this, both of them these acclaimed performances. And the studio decided it was going to push Julie Harris. And Ethel, they couldn't put her in the supporting actress category because she had top billing.

  • 11:43:09


  • 11:43:09

    BOGLEAnd so he said he had to go to her and tell her that the studio was not going to push her for it.

  • 11:43:17

    REHMShe couldn't have been too happy about that.

  • 11:43:18

    BOGLENo. Well, the funny story is, I can't use the language, you know, Ethel cursed like a sailor...

  • 11:43:23

    REHM(laugh) Yeah, right.

  • 11:43:23

    BOGLE...but he said to her, he said he told her, he said, Miss Waters, you know, they've got a lot of hootspa to do this, that they're just going to push Julie and not you. And they really have all this hootspa, hootspa. And he said finally, she looked at him and she said, I don't know what all this hootspa talk is, but they got a lot of f-ing nerve.

  • 11:43:41


  • 11:43:41

    BOGLEAnd she -- it was one of the sad things about her career, that she didn't get it.

  • 11:43:46

    REHMNow, this next part of her career sort of goes right along with this song.

  • 11:46:09

    REHMI know that that was her favorite song.

  • 11:46:12

    BOGLEYes. It's a lovely song.

  • 11:46:12

    REHMIt's a beautiful song.

  • 11:46:13

    BOGLEIt's a beautiful rendition of it.

  • 11:46:16


  • 11:46:16

    BOGLEYou know, she sang that in, "The Member of the Wedding." She -- they needed a song to close one of the acts and they weren't sure and she suggested that. And the story is that when they heard her perform it -- I mean, when they were -- before they'd actually decided to use it, that, I mean, Julie Harris, Carson McCullers, I mean, they were really brought to tears because it came from the heart.

  • 11:46:42

    REHMShe became involved with Billy Graham.

  • 11:46:45


  • 11:46:47

    REHMHow did that happen...

  • 11:46:48

    BOGLEWell, you know, Ethel as -- what happened to Ethel is that after she did, "Member of the Wedding," and she tours with it, she does television, she did TV series called, "Beulah," in the early '50s, but then she -- you know, she still had money problems. She had problems with back taxes and then she had problems getting engagements. I mean, she could do, "Member of the Wedding," you know, travel with it, but still, new roles, I mean, they weren't coming. And she became -- really in the '50s, she was becoming more conservative politically and she found a great deal of -- she found a great deal of comfort more so in her religion and she began to perform with Billy Graham's crusades.

  • 11:47:36

    BOGLEShe -- you know, it also gave her a chance -- she sang for thousands of people. Ethel the entertainer never died and this gave her a chance again to communicate in large arenas. But she became known then for being with Graham and many of these other things became forgotten.

  • 11:47:58

    REHMAnd then, for some reason, she turned against the Civil Rights Movement.

  • 11:48:06

    BOGLEYou know, this was one of the oddest things with her because as a young woman, she had been a race woman. I mean, she worked for charitable causes, she worked for the NAACP, its defense fund. There was a big charity event with entertainers that she was a part of. Ethel also -- things pertaining to the African American community, to help the community lift itself up. Ethel was -- as a younger woman, was into all of that, but as she got older, she made the announcement she wasn't a member of the NAACP, that she didn't know what the NAACP, in a sense, could do for her. She became an anti-communist, she was very concerned about that.

  • 11:48:46

    BOGLEBut what had happened with Ethel, I really believe, is that she was always suspicious of people. And when she had all of these problems now with the money, the health, the career, she just began to feel there were forces against her. And the NAACP, which is interesting, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, he had -- when, "Pinky," was released in '49, this film that, you know, was a part of her comeback, he criticized, "Pinky." He didn't criticize her performance, but he criticized the movie and said those...

  • 11:49:22

    REHMThe movie.

  • 11:49:22

    BOGLE...and I don't think Ethel like that. And she -- there were other things with the NAACP. There were times when she still appeared in the early to mid '50s, before segregated audiences, she -- there were complaints coming from the NAACP, so she just -- she felt she should've been supported by the NAACP. So with that and then with the Civil Rights Movement, all of that just made her this more and more conservative figure.

  • 11:49:49

    REHMDonald Bogle, his new book about, "The Life and Career of Ethel Waters," is titled, "Heat Wave," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." As you were talking, I found myself thinking I wonder if her attitude about the NAACP had, in some sense, to do with her mistrust of black men.

  • 11:50:23

    BOGLESome of that could have come into it, but she just removed herself. It's interesting when you bring up with black men that Ethel won -- as I said, she had this fluid sexuality. Men were very important to her, very important, and she had the Negro Press, as it was then called in the '30s and '40s...

  • 11:50:48

    REHMAnd she called it that. She did.

  • 11:50:48

    BOGLEYes, yes. But I mean -- yeah, and there was nothing wrong with it at that time.

  • 11:50:50


  • 11:50:51

    BOGLEShe didn't like later the use of the word black...

  • 11:50:54


  • 11:50:55

    BOGLEAs a number of people in her generation didn't like the use of the world black when it came in, in the '60s. But the thing about Ethel, the Negro Press at that time, and it was all right to say it at that time, but they referred to these different husbands that she had and this is one of the things that surprised me in doing the book. Searching...

  • 11:51:12

    REHMHow many did she have?

  • 11:51:13

    BOGLEWell, she very definitely had one early one when she was a teenager.

  • 11:51:16


  • 11:51:18

    BOGLEThen there was a man named Earl Dancer, who was a producer in Portland. She definitely was not married to him.

  • 11:51:22


  • 11:51:22

    BOGLEThey were living together and, of course, they were living in sin and she -- that wasn't acceptable, so she just let people think she was married to him. Then there was Eddie Matthews, who she cared about a great deal. But when they were traveling together as man and wife, they were not married. And then later there was a story about they were divorcing and then there was the issue of when they actually had married. Then there was Eddie Mallory, who was supposed to be her husband and he -- we could not find a marriage...

  • 11:51:52

    REHMSo she had lots of relationships.

  • 11:51:53

    BOGLELots of relationships, but she just -- it was rather amusing about her, that she just said that they -- you know, let people believe that these were her husbands and she wasn't going to discuss it anymore. You know, one other thing else, Diane, I'd like to say in terms of her music, which is sometimes, that I always remember, she could be very funny on some of her records when she would sometimes talk to the guy and let him know what was going on. One song was called, "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night." And she (laugh) was letting him have it. And then there was another, "Brother, You've Got Me Wrong."

  • 11:52:30

    BOGLEAnd so with the talking and so forth and the double entendres that she had -- you know, much later, Pearl Bailey -- Pearl Bailey was influenced by Ethel Waters. And when she sang, "Two to Tango," and so forth, talking and so forth. But back to Ethel and these men, she really -- I think that the last great love for her was Eddie Mallory, this musician, and they lived together. She bought a beautiful apartment building in Harlem. I mean, they lived in high, high style.

  • 11:52:56

    REHMHow did she get along with Billy Graham?

  • 11:52:57

    BOGLEWith Billy Graham, she really liked Billy Graham, but, you know, in the beginning, they were not as close as people assumed. And that was another thing that I found interesting. She herself said that when she was performing with the crusades in the beginning, in a way, she sort of barely knew him.

  • 11:53:15

    BOGLEShe admired him and so forth and she said that the time when they really -- she felt she got to know him it was at the time of -- they were going to the White House for Tricia Nixon's wedding. And she stayed at this hotel where Ruth and Billy Graham were staying and so the night before -- and she -- they talked and Graham liked her and saw her, but, you know, Graham had such a schedule. You know, moving around and so forth, so it was not as -- it was not as bonded a relationship as people would've thought.

  • 11:53:47

    REHMAnd one last song, which we must hear, which, perhaps, one might say, typified her life, "Stormy Weather."

  • 11:55:03

    REHMTell us how she died, where she was?

  • 11:55:07

    BOGLEWell, what happened to Ethel, you know, she was -- she became weaker and as her different -- she had all sorts of illnesses and health issues and then she was really at the point when she couldn't care for herself. And there was a couple, the DeCorts, who took her in and she was at their home and they cared for her. And so that's where she was at the end, in Chatsworth, Calif.

  • 11:55:34

    REHMHow old -- how old was she?

  • 11:55:36

    BOGLEShe was actually -- she died in '77, in -- September 1 and so she was 80. She would've turned 81 in October, so.

  • 11:55:45

    REHMWas anyone beside this couple with her?

  • 11:55:51

    BOGLEIt was primarily -- I mean, people did visit her, but it was -- towards the end, I mean, it was just. I mean, she was just so weak and she was in pain and it was actually the wife who really cared for Ethel and took care of her. And, you know what was -- it was rather interesting that Ethel, for so long in her life, she had not trusted white people. I mean, she had had to deal with blatant racism for so long. I mean, the kind that people today can't quite imagine. And at the end, she was not -- with she was not in an African American home, she wasn't. This white couple had taken her in.

  • 11:56:34

    BOGLEDonald Bogle and we've been talking about his new book regarding, "The Life and Career of Ethel Waters." Thank you for being here.

  • 11:56:48

    BOGLEThank you, Diane.

  • 11:56:49

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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