An African American Prima Donna
American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World
By Anita Reynolds, with Howard Miller. Edited by George Hutchinson
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014, 333 pp. $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Marilyn Richardson
Anita Reynolds, born in 1901 in Chicago, came of age in Los Angeles, California, during the heyday of silent films. She was a smart, clever, and vivacious teenager, who, as she says, early on “relished the role of prima donna.” She and her brother, Sumner, were encouraged in their interest in the arts by their exuberant family, both the bevy of kinfolk in California and the numerous far-flung peripatetic relatives who circled back to visit from time to time. School dropouts and Harvard graduates, their professions ranged from mail sorter at a post office to well-placed member of the foreign service.
The family story was that Anita was named for the hard riding, pistol shooting revolutionary, Anita Garibaldi, wife and companion-in-arms to the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi. As a child, Reynolds’s grandmother, Medora Thompson, had supposedly met her in Boston. Handed one of those stories so good that it should be true even if it isn’t, no one in the family admitted that Anita Garibaldi, a Brazilian, never visited North America (only her husband did). (Medora’s other great political hero was Senator Charles Sumner, who served from 1851 to 1874, and who was famously beaten almost to death on the Senate floor because of his antislavery views. His name was also incorporated into the family.)
As a girl, Reynolds loved to dance, and her mother was able to arrange for her to take classes with Ruth St. Denis who, admiring her lithe and exotic looks, taught her East Indian dance. With a subsequent teacher, who was a devotee of Isadora Duncan, Reynolds was often costumed as an Egyptian or even a Mexican. Her looks and talent soon caught the attention of scouts from the film studios. She was a dancer in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), performing with Pedro Valdez, who had taught Rudolph Valentino to tango. During that film shoot she learned to ride horses, a skill that served her well when she became a rising star in African American cinema. She got to know Douglas Fairbanks, when she worked with him in the role of a servant to the princess in The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and his wife, Mary Pickford, and she befriended Charlie Chaplin and attended the “anarchist” meetings held at his home.
To look at her, Anita Reynolds (one of the handful of names she went by over the years) was a woman of curiously indeterminate race or ethnicity. She was brought up to considered herself solidly African American. But the opportunities she and many of her relatives had to live more fully when they kept that information quiet were often too good to pass up. Among themselves, there was a rich and abundant stream of ironic, often bawdy, humor about which cultivated, multilingual cousin was frequenting which grand salons. At the same time, Reynolds’s mother and grandmother were dedicated “race women”—knowledgeable, outspoken black women respected for their activism.
Reynolds was separated by only a few degrees from a startling number of prominent black Americans. Langston Hughes was a cousin. The diplomat Ralph Bunche was a suitor. One uncle, Noah Thompson, was both secretary to Booker T. Washington and publicist for Marcus Garvey, and he eventually married into the family that owned the Baltimore Afro-American, a nationally influential newspaper. Uncle Clarence Bertrand Thompson was a successful businessman in France who was awarded a knighthood in the Legion d’Honneur for his service to the government.
The upper-middle-class Reynolds home was one of those, found in all major American cities in those days, where visiting black dignitaries often stayed, both as welcome guests and because hotels refused them. The family entertained such notables as poet and activist James Weldon Johnson, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, beauty product millionaire A’Lelia Walker, and both W.E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. The children would sit at the top of the stairs and listen to intense talk of all aspects of “the Negro problem,” from education to lynching to political strategy and more.
An invitation to be a bridesmaid in a black high society wedding took Reynolds to New York, and there was no turning back. She lived in Greenwich Village for a while, where she befriended Edna St. Vincent Millay, although she found the poet, known for burning her candle at both ends, rather tame. And she lived in Harlem for a while, where she paid for her keep on elegant Strivers Row by working as a dancer in the black musical Runnin’ Wild, the show that gave the world the dance sensation, the Charleston. Reynolds brushed up her hoofer skills with lessons from the tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. A chorus girl by night, she took classes at Columbia Teachers College during the day.
Back in Los Angeles, Reynolds’s parents were not amused by her life on the stage. She agreed to enroll at Wellesley College, but when her father sent her the first tuition payment, she immediately used the money to buy a ticket to Paris. There her adventures reached new heights. The title she gives her memoir, American Cocktail, was the way she sometimes described herself in Europe to those who inquired about her background. She was not dissembling; she enjoyed letting others project an identity on the screen of her racial ambiguity. Her self-mocking subtitle, A “Colored Girl” in the World, makes it clear that she was her own woman, neither passing nor feeling racially untethered. She had no investment in maintaining a façade, and socialized in Paris with the Harlem Renaissance poets Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay, as easily as with the white artists and writers Man Ray, Max Ernst, Antonin Artaud, Pablo Picasso, and Louise Bryant—and sometimes with all of them at once. Her exuberant and inclusive cosmopolitanism is one of the great strengths of this singular memoir.
In recovering the African American past, there are few things as difficult as discovering the personalities of significant figures. So many black icons who lived prior to the mid-twentieth century seem trapped in historical amber; their deeds, their writings, their achievements may be well-known and honored, but they are far from multidimensional beings. It is only quite recently, with the publication of massively researched biographies, that Frederick Douglass, or Zora Neale Hurston, or Harriet Tubman, or W.E. B. DuBois, or even relatively contemporary figures such as Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker, are becoming knowable in their daily lives and wider social contexts as friends, lovers, spouses, colleagues, parents—inhabiting the many roles one assumes over the course of a lifetime or a public career. Even those who wrote at length about themselves seldom shared much of their private lives. To commit a black life to paper was to set out to edify audiences both black and white. Throughout centuries of black struggle, the autobiographical and biographical goal was to present the outstanding individual as representative of the race—a woman or man whose character, intellect, talent, and ultimate achievement would foster white respect and black pride and emulation.
Anita Reynolds leaves that approach to telling her story in the dust. If there has long been a scarcity of insight and gossip about friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in most early black life-stories, if one looks in vain for details and private opinions about encounters with the famous and infamous, with household names in politics, the arts, commercial enterprise, and sports, Reynolds all but single handedly makes up for it. Famous names are not simply dropped here and there, they are scattered about like handfuls of confetti, from the first chapter to the last. Reynolds readily shares brusque evaluations and anecdotes about Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Paul Robeson, Salvador Dali, Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, Jean Patou, and dozens more. She tells about modeling for Coco Chanel and wearing the designer’s castoffs; about writing for spicy French journals, and as the war escalated, about being a Red Cross nurse securing safe passage for refugees, while contending with the anti-Semitism of Annie Petain, first lady of the collaborationist Vichy government, who scolded her for helping “the rats who were deserting the sinking ship.” It’s easier to name celebrities Reynolds did not know; she mentions that she never met Florence Mills or Josephine Baker, and that she chose not to call upon Ezra Pound when she was staying in Rapallo, Italy, because although they had met in Paris, she “didn’t care much for his admiration and support of the fascists.”
Reynolds conjures a life between the wars in which denizens of the circles she frequented in France, Italy, Spain, North Africa, and England were both stunningly imaginative and creative, and self-involved and sybaritic, veering from Freud to Dada to surrealism and modernism, until no amount of amused disdain or witticism could deflect the onslaught of fascism.
In the 1970s, thirty years after her return to America, Anita Reynolds had completed training as a psychologist, married for a fourth time, and was living in the Virgin Islands, when she visited Europe for several weeks. In Paris, her old friend Man Ray implored her to “talk” her autobiography. Back home, she drew upon journals, letters, and enduring memories to dictate fifty tapes into a recorder. Her voice is wry, knowing, occasionally arch, sometimes sympathetic, but never sentimental. Her approach is consistently clear-eyed and direct. At her death, in 1980, she left transcribed typescripts, not a finished manuscript.
Reynolds was seldom without romance in her life, and she is comfortably candid about her sexuality. Looking back from the vantage point of the 1970s, perhaps with a nod to the growing openness of the time, the intimate experience she describes in greatest detail is her teenage sexual initiation, a mutually satisfying splash and frolic in a bathtub with a somewhat older woman. Their friendship endured, but the affair fizzled. Her first experience of male penetration, in her early twenties, she writes, was “far less agreeable, brutal in fact.” She fell, she admits, for the “ludicrous line” delivered by an “intellectual giant”—the one name she does not drop—that “virtue is its own and only reward.” Following that seduction, she says, she “retreated from experimentation” for a while.
And here is a prime example of a remarkable structural aspect of this book. There is a deep, although posthumous, collaboration between the author and George Hutchinson, professor of English and American Culture at Cornell University, who happened upon the typescripts after Reynolds’s death, and edited and annotated them. Reynolds carries the reader along with a lively tale brimming with places, eras, family history, political movements, art, music, literature, and the people who created them, while throughout, Hutchinson provides discreet endnotes with his wonderfully researched and beautifully wrought amplification. Some of the notes are brief nuggets of clarification, while others are elegant miniature essays. All answer questions and expand upon things that Reynolds, in sketching her vivid self-portrait, does not stop to explain.
More than endnotes, Hutchinson has crafted a running commentary, available to consult as one wishes, often pulling the reader into a bit of collusion with the editor. Thus, for instance, one feels somewhat less hostile toward that seductive mystery man upon learning that the “intellectual giant” was in fact W.E.B. DuBois, and that upon his return to the east coast, he and Reynolds carried on a correspondence. While DuBois was circumspect with her and with his other conquests, Hutchinson describes Reynolds’s letters as “particularly passionate.” She hardly knew any other way to be.
Marilyn Richardson writes about art and history. She has recently had a plaque installed at the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, Italy, honoring nineteenth-century African American abolitionist and physician, Sarah Parker Remond, who is buried there. (See http://sarahparkerremond.wordpress.com.)