Hattie McDaniel (June 10, 1893 – October 26, 1952) was an American stage actress, professional singer-songwriter, and comedian. She is best known for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first Academy Award won by an African American entertainer.
In addition to acting in many films, McDaniel recorded 16 blues sides between 1926-1929 (10 were issued), was a radio performer and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on radio in the United States. She appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only 80 or so.
McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood: one at 6933 Hollywood Boulevard for her contributions to radio and one at 1719 Vine Street for acting in motion pictures. In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and in 2006 became the first black Oscar winner honored with a US postage stamp.
Background and early acting career
McDaniel was born to former slaves in Wichita, Kansas. She was the youngest of 13 children. Her mother, Susan Holbert (1850–1920), was a singer of religious music, and her father, Henry McDaniel (1845–1922), fought in the Civil War with the 122nd United States Colored Troops. In 1900, the family moved to Colorado, living first in Fort Collins and then in Denver, where Hattie attended Denver East High School. Her brother, Sam McDaniel (1886–1962), played the butler in the 1948 Three Stooges‘ short film Heavenly Daze. Her sister Etta McDaniel was also an actress.
McDaniel was a songwriter as well as a performer. She honed her songwriting skills while working with her brother’s minstrel show. After the death of her brother Otis in 1916, the troupe began to lose money, and Hattie did not get her next big break until 1920. From 1920 to 1925, she appeared with Professor George Morrison’s Melody Hounds, a black touring ensemble. In the mid-1920s, she embarked on a radio career, singing with the Melody Hounds on station KOA in Denver. From 1926 to 1929, she recorded many of her songs for Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago. McDaniel recorded seven sessions: one in the summer of 1926 on the rare Kansas City label Meritt; four sessions in Chicago for Okeh from late 1926 to late 1927 (of the 10 sides recorded, only four were issued), and two sessions in Chicago for Paramount in March 1929.
After the stock market crashed in 1929, McDaniel could find work only as a washroom attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Despite the owner’s reluctance to let her perform, she was eventually allowed to take the stage and soon became a regular performer.
In 1931, McDaniel moved to Los Angeles to join her brother and two sisters. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Sam was working on a KNX radio program, The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour, and was able to get his sister a spot. She performed on radio as “Hi-Hat Hattie”, a bossy maid who often “forgets her place”. Her show became popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.
She made her first film appearance in The Golden West (1932), in which she played a maid. Her second appearance came in the highly successful Mae West film I’m No Angel (1933), in which she played one of the black maids with whom West camped it up backstage. She received several other uncredited film roles in the early 1930s, often singing in choruses.
In 1934, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild. She began to attract attention and landed larger film roles, which began to win her screen credits. Fox Film Corporation put her under contract to appear in The Little Colonel (1935), with Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Lionel Barrymore.
Judge Priest (1934), directed by John Ford and starring Will Rogers, was the first film in which she played a major role. She had a leading part in the film and demonstrated her singing talent, including a duet with Rogers. McDaniel and Rogers became friends during filming.
In 1935, McDaniel had prominent roles, as a slovenly maid in Alice Adams (RKO Pictures); a comic part as Jean Harlow‘s maid and traveling companion in China Seas(MGM) (McDaniels’s first film with Clark Gable); and as the maid Isabella in Murder by Television, with Béla Lugosi. She appeared in the 1938 film Vivacious Lady, starring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers.
McDaniel had a featured role as Queenie in the 1936 film Show Boat (Universal Pictures), starring Allan Jones and Irene Dunne, in which she sang a verse of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man with Dunne, Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, and a black chorus. She and Robeson sang “I Still Suits Me”, written for the film by Kern and Hammerstein.
After Show Boat, she had major roles in MGM’s Saratoga (1937), starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable; The Shopworn Angel (1938), with Margaret Sullavan; and The Mad Miss Manton (1938), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. She had a minor role in the Carole Lombard–Frederic March film Nothing Sacred (1937), in which she played the wife of a shoeshine man (Troy Brown) masquerading as a sultan.
McDaniel was a friend of many of Hollywood’s most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland, and Clark Gable. She starred with de Havilland and Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Around this time, she was criticized by members of the black community for the roles she accepted and for pursuing roles aggressively rather than rocking the Hollywood boat. For example, in The Little Colonel (1935), she played one of the black servants longing to return to the Old South, but her portrayal of Malena in RKO Pictures’s Alice Adams angered white Southern audiences, because she stole several scenes from the film’s white star, Katharine Hepburn. McDaniel ultimately became best known for playing a sassy and opinionated maid.
Gone with the Wind
The competition to win the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind was almost as fierce as that for Scarlett O’Hara. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part. McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claimed that Clark Gable recommended that the role be given to McDaniel; in any case, she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform and won the part.
Upon hearing of the planned film adaptation, the NAACP fought hard to require the film’s producer and director to delete racial epithets from the movie (in particular the offensive slur “nigger”) and to alter scenes that might be incendiary and that, in their view, were historically inaccurate. Of particular concern was a scene from the novel in which black men attack Scarlett O’Hara, after which the Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of provoking terror on black communities, is presented as a savior. Throughout the South, black men were being lynched based upon false allegations they had harmed white women. That attack scene was altered, and some offensive language was modified, but another epithet, “darkie”, remained in the film, and the film’s message with respect to slavery remained essentially the same. Consistent with the book, the film’s screenplay also referred to poor whites as “white trash”, and it ascribed these words equally to characters black and white.
Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia was selected by the studio as the site for the Friday, December 15, 1939 premiere of Gone with the Wind. Studio head David Selznick asked that McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to, because of Georgia’s segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel were allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway.
Most of Atlanta’s 300,000 citizens crowded the route of the seven-mile (11 km) motorcade that carried the film’s other stars and executives from the airport to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, where they stayed. While Jim Crow laws kept McDaniel from the Atlanta premiere, she did attend the film’s Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939. Upon Selznick’s insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.
For her performance as the house slave who repeatedly scolds her owner’s daughter, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), and scoffs at Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), McDaniel won the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first black American to win an Oscar. She was the first black American to have been nominated. “I loved Mammy,” McDaniel said when speaking to the white press about the character. “I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara.” Her role in Gone with the Wind had alarmed some whites in the South; there were complaints that in the film she had been too “familiar” with her white owners. At least one writer pointed out that McDaniel’s character did not significantly depart from Mammy’s persona in Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and that in both the film and the book, the much younger Scarlett speaks to Mammy in ways that would be deemed inappropriate for a Southern teenager of that era to speak to a much older white person, and that neither the book nor the film hints of the existence of Mammy’s own children (dead or alive), her own family (dead or alive), a real name, or her desires to have anything other than a life at Tara, serving on a slave plantation. Moreover, while Mammy scolds the younger Scarlett, she never crosses Mrs. O’Hara, the more senior white woman in the household. Some critics felt that McDaniel not only accepted the roles but also in her statements to the press acquiesced in Hollywood’s stereotypes, providing fuel for critics of those who were fighting for black civil rights. Later, when McDaniel tried to take her “Mammy” character on a road show, black audiences did not prove receptive.
While many blacks were happy over McDaniel’s personal victory, they also viewed it as bittersweet. They believed Gone With the Wind celebrated the slave system and condemned the forces that destroyed it. For them, the unique accolade McDaniel had won suggested that only those who did not protest Hollywood’s systemic use of racial stereotypes could find work and success there.
1940 Academy Awards
The Twelfth Academy Awards took place at the Coconut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was preceded by a banquet in the same room. Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night, February 29, 1940:
Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.— From McDaniel’s acceptance speech, 12th Annual Academy Awards, February 29, 1940
McDaniel received a plaque-style Oscar, approximately 5.5 inches (14 cm) by 6 inches (15 cm), the type awarded to all Best Supporting Actors and Actresses at that time. She and her escort were required to sit at a segregated table for two at the far wall of the room; her white agent, William Meiklejohn, sat at the same table. The hotel had a strict no-blacks policy, but allowed McDaniel in as a favor.
Gone with the Wind won eight Academy Awards. It was later named by the American Film Institute (AFI) as number four among the top 100 American films of all time in the 1998 ranking and number six in the 2007 ranking.
In the Warner Bros. film In This Our Life (1942), starring Bette Davis and directed by John Huston, McDaniel once again played a domestic, but one who confronts racial issues when her son, a law student, is wrongly accused of manslaughter. McDaniel was in the same studios Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. In its review of the film, Time wrote that McDaniel was comic relief in an otherwise “grim study,” writing, “Hattie McDaniel, whose bubbling, blaring good humor more than redeems the roaring bad taste of a Harlem number called Ice Cold Katie”. McDaniel continued to play maids during the war years for Warners in The Male Animal (1942) and United Artists‘ Since You Went Away (1944), but her feistiness was toned down to reflect the era’s somber news. She also played the maid in Song of the South (1946) for Disney.
Legal case: Victory on “Sugar Hill”
McDaniel was the most famous of the black homeowners who helped to organize the black West Adams neighborhood residents who saved their homes. Loren Miller, an attorney and the owner and publisher of the California Eagle newspaper, represented the minority homeowners in their restrictive covenant case. In 1944, Miller won the case Fairchild v Rainers, a decision in favor of a black family in Pasadena, California, who had bought a nonrestricted lot but was sued by white neighbors anyway.
Time magazine, in its issue of December 17, 1945, reported that:
Spacious, well-kept West Adams Heights still had the complacent look of the days when most of Los Angeles’ aristocracy lived there. …
In 1938, Negroes, willing and able to pay $15,000 and up for Heights property, had begun moving into the old eclectic mansions. Many were movie folk — Actresses Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, etc. They improved their holdings, kept their well-defined ways, quickly won more than tolerance from most of their white neighbors.
But some whites, refusing to be comforted, had referred to the original racial restriction covenant that came with the development of West Adams Heights back in 1902 which restricted “Non-caucasians” from owning property. For seven years they had tried to enforce it, but failed. Then they went to court. …
Superior Judge Thurmond Clarke decided to visit the disputed ground—popularly known as “Sugar Hill.” … Next morning, … Judge Clarke threw the case out of court. His reason: “It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long.”
Said Hattie McDaniel, of West Adams Heights: “Words cannot express my appreciation.”
McDaniel had purchased her white, two-story, seventeen-room house in 1942. The house included a large living room, dining room, drawing room, den, butler’s pantry, kitchen, service porch, library, four bedrooms and a basement. McDaniel had a yearly Hollywood party. Everyone knew that the king of Hollywood, Clark Gable, could always be found at McDaniel’s parties.
Controversy over roles
As her fame grew, McDaniel faced growing criticism from some members of the black community. Groups such as the NAACP complained that Hollywood stereotypes not only restricted blacks to servant roles but often portrayed blacks as lazy, dim-witted, satisfied with lowly positions, or violent. In addition to addressing the studios, they called upon actors, and especially leading black actors, to pressure studios to offer more substantive roles and at least not pander to stereotypes. They also argued that these portrayals were unfair as well as inaccurate and that, coupled with segregation and other forms of discrimination, such stereotypes were making it difficult for all blacks, not only actors, to overcome racism and succeed in the entertainment industry. Some attacked McDaniel for being an “Uncle Tom“—a person willing to advance personally by perpetuating racial stereotypes or being an agreeable agent of offensive racial restrictions. McDaniel characterized these challenges as class-based biases against domestics, a claim that white columnists seemed to accept. And she reportedly said, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
McDaniel may also have been criticized because, unlike many other black entertainers, she was not associated with civil rights protests and was largely absent from efforts to establish a commercial base for independent black films. She did not join the Negro Actors Guild of America until 1947, late in her career. McDaniel hired one of the few white agents who would represent black actors at the time, William Meiklejohn, to advance her career. Evidence suggests her avoidance of political controversy was deliberate. When columnist Hedda Hopper sent her Richard Nixon placards and asked McDaniel to distribute them, McDaniel declined, replying she had long ago decided to stay out of politics. “Beulah is everybody’s friend,” she said. Since she was earning a living honestly, she added, she should not be criticized for accepting such work as was offered. Her critics, especially Walter White of the NAACP, claimed that she and other actors who agreed to portray stereotypes were not a neutral force but rather willing agents of black oppression.
McDaniel and other black actresses and actors feared that their roles would evaporate if the NAACP and other Hollywood critics complained too loudly. She blamed these critics for hindering her career and sought the help of allies of doubtful reputation. After speaking with McDaniel, Hedda Hopper even claimed that McDaniel’s career troubles were not the result of racism but had been caused by McDaniel’s “own people”.
She joined the actor Clarence Muse, one of the first black members of the Screen Actors Guild, in an NBC radio broadcast to raise funds for Red Cross relief programs for Americans that had been displaced by devastating floods, and she gained a reputation for generosity, lending money to friends and strangers alike.
McDaniel married Howard Hickman on January 19, 1911, in Denver, Colorado. He died in 1915.
Her second husband, George Langford, died of a gunshot wound in January 1925, soon after she married him and while her career was on the rise.
She married James Lloyd Crawford, a real estate salesman, on March 21, 1941, in Tucson, Arizona. According to Donald Bogle, in his book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams, McDaniel happily confided to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in 1945 that she was pregnant. McDaniel began buying baby clothes and set up a nursery in her house. Her plans were shattered when she suffered a false pregnancy and fell into a depression. She never had any children. She divorced Crawford in 1945, after four and a half years of marriage. Crawford had been jealous of her career success, she said.
She married Larry Williams, an interior decorator, on June 11, 1949, in Yuma, Arizona, but divorced him in 1950 after testifying that their five months together had been marred by “arguing and fussing.” McDaniel broke down in tears when she testified that her husband tried to provoke dissension in the cast of her radio show and otherwise interfered with her work. “I haven’t gotten over it yet,” she said. “I got so I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate on my lines.”
August, 1950, McDaniel suffered a heart ailment and entered Temple Hospital in semi-critical condition. She was released in October to recuperate at home, and she was cited by United Press on Jan. 3, 1951, as showing “slight improvement in her recovery from a mild stroke.”
McDaniel died of breast cancer at age 59 on October 26, 1952, in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, California. She was survived by her brother Sam McDaniel. Thousands of mourners turned out to celebrate her life and achievements. In her will, McDaniel wrote, “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery”; Hollywood Cemetery, on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, is the resting place of movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. Its owner at the time, Jules Roth, refused to allow her to be buried there, because, at the time of McDaniel’s death, the cemetery practiced racial segregation and would not accept the remains of black people for burial. Her second choice was Rosedale Cemetery (now known as Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery), where she lies today.
In 1999, Tyler Cassidy, the new owner of the Hollywood Cemetery (renamed the Hollywood Forever Cemetery), offered to have McDaniel re-interred there. Her family did not wish to disturb her remains and declined the offer. Instead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery built a large cenotaph on the lawn overlooking its lake. It is one of Hollywood’s most popular tourist attractions.
McDaniel’s last will and testament of December 1951 bequeathed her Oscar to Howard University, where she had been honored by the students with a luncheon after she had won her Oscar. At the time of her death, McDaniel would have had few options. Very few white institutions in that day preserved black history. Historically, black colleges had been where such artifacts were placed. Despite evidence McDaniel had earned an excellent income as an actress, her final estate was less than $10,000. The IRS claimed the estate owed more than $11,000 in taxes. In the end, the probate court ordered all of her property, including her Oscar, sold to pay off creditors. Years later, the Oscar turned up where McDaniel wanted it to be: Howard University, where, according to reports, it was displayed in a glass case in the university’s drama department.
Whereabouts of the McDaniel Oscar
The whereabouts of McDaniel’s Oscar are currently unknown. In 1992, Jet magazine reported that Howard University could not find it and alleged that it had disappeared during protests in the 1960s. In 1998, Howard University stated that it could find no written record of the Oscar having arrived at Howard. In 2007, an article in the The Huffington Post repeated rumors that the Oscar had been cast into the Potomac River by angry civil rights protesters in the 1960s. The assertion reappeared in The Huffington Post under the same byline in 2009.
In 2010, Mo’Nique, the winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Precious, wearing a blue dress and gardenias in her hair, as McDaniel had at the ceremony in 1940, in her acceptance speech thanked McDaniel “for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to”. Her speech revived interest in the whereabouts of McDaniel’s Oscar. In 2011, J. Freedom duLac reported in The Washington Post that the statuette had disappeared in the 1960s.
In November 2011, W. B. Carter, of the George Washington University Law School, published the results of her year-and-a-half-long investigation into the Oscar’s fate. Carter rejected claims that students had stolen the Oscar (and thrown it in the Potomac River) as wild speculation or fabrication that traded on long-perpetuated stereotypes of blacks. She questioned the sourcing of The Huffington Post stories. Instead, she argued that the Oscar was likely returned to Howard University‘s Channing Pollack Theater Collection between the spring of 1971 and the summer of 1973 or had possibly been boxed and stored in the drama department at that time. The reason for its removal, she argued, was not civil rights unrest but rather efforts to make room for a new generation of black performers. If neither the Oscar nor any paper trail of its ultimate destiny can be found at Howard today, she suggested, inadequate storage or record-keeping in a time of financial constraints and national turbulence may be blamed. She also suggested that a new generation of caretakers may have failed to realize the historic significance of the award.
Legacy and recognition
In 1994, the actress and singer Karla Burns launched her one-woman show Hi-Hat-Hattie (written by Larry Parr), about McDaniel’s life. Burns went on to perform the role in several other cities through 2002, including Off-Broadway and the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre in California.
In 2002, McDaniel’s legacy was celebrated in American Movie Classics‘s (AMC) film Beyond Tara, The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel (2001), produced and directed by Madison D. Lacy and hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. This one-hour special depicted McDaniel’s struggles and triumphs in the presence of rampant racism and brutal adversity. The film won the 2001–2002 Daytime Emmy Award, presented on May 17, 2002, for Outstanding Special Class Special.
McDaniel was the 29th inductee in the Black Heritage Series by the United States Postal Service. Her 39-cent stamp was released on January 29, 2006, featuring a 1941 photograph of McDaniel in the dress she wore to accept the Academy Award in 1940. The ceremony took place at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where the Hattie McDaniel collection includes photographs of McDaniel and other family members as well as scripts and other documents.
In 2004 Rita Dove, the first African-American U.S. poet laureate, published her poem “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove” in The New Yorker and has since presented it frequently during her poetry readings as well as on YouTube.