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

(Faber and Faber; ISBN: 0571211429)

New York Sun
A Life Erased From History
by Carl Rollyson
Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page C01

"Becoming Something" (Faber and Faber, 448 pages, $27) reclaims a life virtually erased from history. Canada Lee was a talented violinist, a flamboyant jockey, a contender for the welterweight title, a Broadway star and producer, a movie actor, a restaurateur, a political activist, and a blacklisted artist - what more could a biographer want in a subject? Then why has this gifted African-American never had his due?

A playwright as well as a biographer, Mona Z. Smith first became aware of Lee while doing research for a drama about the intersection of jazz and politics. A single-line footnote identified him as a victim of Mc-Carthyism whose death was attributed to the blacklist. Intrigued, she found sporadic mentions of Lee in various books, including Stefan Kanfer's "Journal of the Plague Years," which noted that Lee had been an overlooked figure, overshadowed by others like Alvah Bessie and Dalton Trumbo, who wrote memoirs about being blacklisted.

Still, in his lifetime Lee was a renowned figure. He sought and won fame early as a jockey - one of the few successful African-Americans in a sport that, until they were brutally banished at the turn of the 20th century, they had dominated. Lee had already turned away from a promising career as a violinist; he was very good, but he realized while still in his teens that he would never quite reach the heights of perfection in classical music or jazz.

Likewise, Lee came to realize that he would never be a champion in horse racing. Always a scrapper, when a friend took him to a gym, Lee discovered he was a natural boxer. He became the Sugar Ray Robinson of the 1920s, a dancer as much as a puncher, a fighter with an elegant style and gift of gab that would have been a match for Muhammad Ali.

Lee was a contender but never got the big title fights - not an uncommon experience for African-American boxers burdened by the legacy of the controversial Jack Johnson, whose prowess in the ring and affairs with white women had alienated promoters. Fighting several times a month, Lee eventually damaged one eye so badly that he fought virtually half blind during the last years of his career. When he retired from the ring, he was only 24. Then he wandered into a government sponsored theater group, auditioned for a part, saved Orson Welles's life from angry assailants - not once but twice - and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that it isn't, and so Ms. Smith has had to reconstruct it with the help of Lee's second wife, now in her 80s. It is really an extraordinary story - written like a drama, a mystery story, and a vindication - and it enlivens every page of this well-paced biography. Ms. Smith is superbly gifted in creating suspense, in asking tantalizing questions about Lee's motivations and reactions to racism, politics, and art.

In Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," Lee refused to speak dialect lines that made him sound like a darky. In effect he rewrote his part, giving himself the dignity he felt his character deserved. A consummate artist, he was not deterred by the outrage of civil-rights organizations who did not want him to play the cannibal Caliban in a landmark production of "The Tempest." He knew a good part when he saw one.

Lee's political consciousness was awakened when he played Bigger Thomas in an adaptation of Richard Wright's "Native Son." The stupendous success of this production - both in New York City and across the country - made Lee a national figure. He then felt called upon to protest segregation and other forms of racial prejudice, and he made common cause with liberals, communists, anyone he deemed on the side of right.

In his early 40s, at the height of his fame and his powers as an actor, he found himself named as a communist in documents produced at the trial of Judith Coplon, a government employee accused of passing secrets to the Soviets. Lee denied he was a communist. He had no connection to Coplon; he merely appeared on a list of names the government was compelled to produce at the Coplon trial. Lee never appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but because he had been named as a subversive and because he continued to associate with communists, he was blacklisted. His last great role was in 1951 in Zoltan Korda's film "Cry, the Beloved Country." He thought his acclaimed performance would override the blacklist. It did not, and the tormented actor - after years of refusing to name names - began negotiations with HUAC to clear his own name. Suffering from high blood pressure (an inherited affliction), he died before the HUAC negotiations were completed.

We shall never know how Lee would ultimately have handled the blacklist. Did it kill him? Not exactly. The fair-minded Ms. Smith shows that several members of Lee's family died relatively young - and usually of heart attacks. Lee was 46 when he died, and he had maintained a frenetic pace of political activism while performing theatrical roles on radio, stage, and film. That surely contributed to his death.

But the mystery remains: Why has Lee not emerged as a major figure? First, as Ms. Smith points out there was no dramatic confrontation with HUAC. The Coplon trial is now largely forgotten, eclipsed by a focus on the Hollywood 10. Lee was black and relatively little has been written about people of color and the blacklist. Only Paul Robeson, a symbol of the havoc wreaked on African-Americans during the era, is remembered.

The best explanation for Lee's disappearance is alluded to in Ms. Smith's title: "All my life, I've been on the verge of becoming something," Lee once said. Each of his careers was cut short. I mourn especially that this gifted actor, whose Othello is said to have equaled and perhaps even surpassed Robeson's, only had the opportunity to perform a handful of screen roles. He was the Sidney Poitier of his day, who never got the opportunity to be Sidney Poitier. How I wish I could have seen Lee's cigar-smoking Banquo in Orson Welles's voodoo "Macbeth."

This is one of the most poignantly written biographies I have ever read. Some biographies have perfect pitch. This is one of them.

Carl Rollyson is Professor of English at Baruch College, The City University of New York. His previous biographies include works on Rebecca West, Lillian Hellman and Susan Sontag. His text, Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn, tells the remarkable story of one of the world's most renowned female reporters.

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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