A pioneer, a leader, and a barrier-buster: the legend of Hattie McDaniel is a rich and heartwarming one, full of battles fought, inadequacies to correct, and victories won, both in her lifetime, and beyond.
She was born in Wichita, Kansas, on June 10, 1895, daughter of a Baptist minister and his spiritual-singer wife. Young Hattie was accustomed to singing in church, won a drama medal at age 15, and began her show business career as a band singer – the first African-American woman to perform on American radio. She began her acting career in the early 1930s, often in the role of a maid. With her warm and friendly personality, she was often chosen to play in support of harder-edged players like Marlene Dietrich (in the drama Blonde Venus from 1932) and Mae West (in the 1933 classic I’m No Angel). The latter film features McDaniel receiving the following line from West: “Beulah, peel me a grape.”
McDaniel worked steadily in films, often (but not exclusively) in period pieces or contemporary tales set in the South. Called to mind are such examples as Judge Priest (1934), The Little Colonel (1935), Show Boat (1936), Maryland (1940), and Song of the South (1946). However, without question, her crowning cinematic achievement, both artistically and personally, was her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind (1939), for which she won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress (beating out her costar, Olivia deHavilland). Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American performer in Hollywood history to be honored with an Oscar – another first for a woman who made a habit out of trailblazing. She made the best of a very difficult situation – that of racial intolerance, demeaning social mores, and stereotyping – allowing her natural radiance to transcend the difficult times. She was, is, and will continue to be, a high inspiration.
McDaniel was a tremendous talent: a woman of spirit, with a presence that could light up a room instantly. Her smile was so warm it could melt ice, and her eyes were expressive and vivid. Her ample girth, well exploited in her “Mammy”-esque roles, only added to her hugability. She was a delight – and not just to the eyes.
She made quite a career for herself on radio, appearing on “The Eddie Cantor Show,” “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” and eventually her own show, “Beulah,” later transformed into a television program in 1952 – the show allowed her to embrace and captivate yet another medium, but that was a short-lived tenure.
On October 27, 1952, Hattie McDaniel died in Los Angeles. Posthumous honors poured in: not the least of which are her enduring two stars along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one for her film career, at 1719 Vine Street, and the other for her radio work, at 6927 Hollywood Boulevard. Her hope was to be buried at Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever) – however, the times (and distorted compliance by short-visioned individuals) would not allow a black woman to be buried on that property. How sad that her final hope for rest was denied her: yet, this unfortunate incident has a delightful footnote.
In 1999, the new owner of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Tyler Cassity, took it upon himself to right the wrong done to Hattie McDaniel almost 50 years earlier – he commissioned a memorial obelisk, in beautiful pink marble, upon which is engraved Cassity’s vision: “To honor her last wish…” – and, though she is not actually buried at Hollywood Forever, Hattie McDaniel is most definitely a part of our family, a shining example of strength, beauty, and vivaciousness, and will remain so … forever.