Becoming Something   Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee
by Mona Z. Smith

(Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571211429)

Chicago Tribune
NONFICTION
A N.Y. native son, and Chicago `royalty'
2 books spotlight Canada Lee
and Dinah Washington

By Maurice Isserman.
Wednesday, August 29, 2004

Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee
By Mona Z. Smith
Faber and Faber, 430 Pages, $27

Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington
By Nadine Cohadas
Pantheon, 559 pages, $28.50

On Nov. 10, 1941, the opening night of a touring Broadway play drew a standing-room-only crowd to Chicago's Studebaker Theater. The evening's attraction was a stage adaptation of "Native Son," Richard Wright's grim novel of African-American life on Chicago's South Side, which had opened to critical acclaim in New York City the previous March.

The star of the Broadway and touring productions was 34-year-old Canada Lee, whose stunning performance in the lead role of Bigger Thomas won him New York columnist Ed Sullivan's praise as " `a sepian Spencer Tracy.' " Chicago critics and audiences were no less enthusiastic about Lee's performance. " `The Negro race discovers another genius in its midst,' " the Chicago Daily Times proclaimed, and the run of "Native Son" at the Studebaker was extended from four to nine weeks.

Born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in New York City in 1907, Lee had enjoyed success as a jockey, welterweight boxer and bandleader before turning to acting in the mid-1930s. In the 1940s his fame would spread from theater to radio to Hollywood (where he was featured in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" and Zoltan Korda's "Cry, the Beloved Country").

But not everyone proved a fan of this rising young actor. In the midst of growing success, Lee developed the unfortunate habit of speaking his mind on current and sometimes controversial issues. America went to war while Lee was playing Bigger Thomas in Chicago, and the actor could not understand why a nation that proposed to fight a life-and-death battle against Adolf Hitler's racist Third Reich remained so dismally mired in its own system of institutionalized racial injustice at home. " `If a man is good enough to die for his country,' " Lee declared in 1943, " `he is good enough to live in his country on full terms of equality.' "

Such sentiments, and the company in which he chose to voice them, won him powerful enemies, including the FBI. Lee was " `head of an unofficial organization of Negroes for the purpose of gaining equality for the Negro in the Army,' " an anonymous informant told the FBI in 1943. As revealed by playwright and former reporter Mona Z. Smith in her book "Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee," FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover responded by asking the criminal division of the Justice Department "if Lee could be prosecuted for violating sedition statutes." Luckily for Lee, the answer was no (nor, in reality, did he head up any "organization of Negroes," official or unofficial). But less than a decade later, his political opinions would be punished by a lethal combination of character assassination and professional blacklisting.

Like his contemporaries Wright and singer and actor Paul Robeson, Lee became a supporter (and quite possibly a member) of the American Communist Party. For Wright, Robeson and Lee, the Communist Party's appeal had little to do with its apologetics for the Soviet Union, or even its anti-capitalist ideology. Rather, a small but influential group of black intellectuals and artists were drawn to the party in the years of the Great Depression and World War II because of its support for the cause of African-American equality--support shown by all too few mainstream political organizations outside the black community. Wright broke with the communists in the 1940s, while Robeson remained a loyal supporter. Lee began to back away from his earlier views in the later 1940s, but not fast enough or dramatically enough to save his career.

"Native Son" is still celebrated as a masterwork of black protest fiction, while Robeson has recently been honored for his artistic achievements with a U.S. postage stamp. But since his acting career was ended in the anti-communist blacklist of the McCarthy era (a professional death that probably hastened his actual death by hypertension in 1952), Lee has languished in what his biographer argues is unjustified obscurity.

"For nearly two decades," Smith argues, "Lee battled stereotyped roles offered to black artists . . . [and] sought to bring black history, culture, and issues to mainstream audiences." He was determined to use his fame and influence to better the lives of his own people. "He battled Jim Crow and lynching; . . . urged African Americans to take pride in their heritage; decried the horrors of apartheid in South Africa; and raised money for anticolonialist movements."

Smith's lucid, well-researched and sympathetic but not uncritical life of Canada Lee should go some distance toward reviving the memory of this activist native son.

A little more than a year after Lee's Chicago debut in "Native Son," a native daughter of the city was having a debut of her own. Ruth Lee Williams, 18, was singing at a small nightclub called the Stagebar in the Garrick Building on Randolph Street. She had learned to sing in the gospel choir of St. Luke Baptist Church, honed her performance skills in the touring gospel group the Sallie Martin Singers, and more recently picked up some new vocal tricks listening in on performances by Billie Holliday, who was appearing at another club in the Garrick Building.

Big band leader Lionel Hampton was also playing in town, at a much grander venue, the Regal Theater on the South Side. He was in the market for a " `girl singer' " for his band, and one night in late December 1942 stopped by the Stagebar. When he arrived at the club, Hampton asked the young woman to sing "Sweet Georgia Brown."

"It would have been understandable to be nervous," historian Nadine Cohadas writes in "Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington": "The stakes couldn't be any higher. But Ruth didn't lack confidence. Although she had just turned eighteen, she had been singing in front of other people since she was ten. . . . Now was the time to draw on that experience. This was her moment. By the time she got to `It's been said she knocks 'em dead when she lands in town,' Ruth had done just that. Hampton was sold."

Williams left town with Hampton's band, and with a new stage name: Dinah Washington. Before long she would step out of Hampton's shadow and launch her own touring career. She became known as "Queen of the Blues" and later "Queen of the Jukebox" and took to calling herself just plain "Queen."

Cohadas' exhaustively researched biography of Washington is in some ways a standard show-biz narrative. Every major performance and recording session seems to have been included. And so has every personal setback Washington experienced. "Success has a price," Cohadas notes in the great tradition of fan-magazine fatalism, and Washington's was certainly a case in point. Married seven times, with innumerable other men, mostly unworthy, passing through her life, constantly fretting about her appearance, particularly her weight, Washington grew increasingly dependent on the prescription barbiturates that would kill her at 39.

But in some ways Cohadas' "Queen" rises above the limitations of the usual star bio, particularly in its grasp of Washington's role as cultural innovator, a woman who moved over the years from gospel to blues to pop to jazz and wound up posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

"What something was called--blues, ballads, pop, rhythm and blues--influenced who heard it and how it was heard," Cohadas writes of the American music scene of the 1940s and 1950s. "Terms carried unspoken racial cues: pop was white, ballads could be white or black, blues and rhythm and blues were black." But in Washington's lifetime, and in some significant measure because of her influence, "lines were blurring . . . between categories and within them."

Unlike Canada Lee, Dinah Washington didn't set out consciously to change the world. For all her regal airs, she had to put up with slights and indignities that never burdened white contemporaries like Judy Garland (as late as 1963, when Washington played an engagement in Las Vegas, her teenage son wasn't allowed to swim in the hotel pool, lest the white clientele be upset). She played a benefit or two for Martin Luther King Jr. but was publicly chided in the pages of the Chicago Defender for doing too little, too late in the cause of civil rights.

But Cohadas suggests, at least implicitly, that Washington's music did help change the world. It was only the Queen's premature death in 1963 that kept her from seeing just how big an impact that musical "blurring . . . between categories and within them" that she helped inspire was going to have on American culture over the next couple of decades.

Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. Among other works, he is co-author with Michael Kazin of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s."

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune


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