She was the first black woman to sing on radio and the first to perform on Broadway, but Ethel Waters would never be considered a conventional beauty or remembered for having a timeless voice. As a “race woman” who suffered more than her share of racist encounters growing up — even witnessing a lynched body dumped outside a theater where she performed — she would never feel comfortable around white audiences, but some of the biggest successes of her career would earn her the ire of the black community that she so loved. She was famously coy about her personal life, juggling a short-lived marriage, strained affairs with men, and secret relationships with women. But over the years, most people have forgotten Ethel Waters and her significant contributions to film, stage, and music.
Waters was born on Halloween in 1896; her thirteen-year-old mother had been raped at knife-point, and Waters would spend the rest of her life trying to gain her mother’s affection. She made a name for herself on the black vaudeville circuit and eventually found herself singing the blues alongside women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who treated the young Waters — their competition — with utter disdain.
It was an attitude Waters, known for being moody and difficult, would hone in the coming years when she was famous and had her own younger, prettier competition to contend with. Though she considered herself a devout Christian, she first made a name for herself singing songs with risque lyrics, such as “I Want to Be Somebody’s Baby Doll So I Can Get My Loving All the Time.” Later in her acting career, she could be especially difficult if a script wasn’t Christian enough, but she had no problem turning around and cursing at people whom she became impatient with, especially if she considered those people her direct competition (she was notoriously difficult when she had to work with an up-and-coming Lena Horne, and her fears weren’t unfounded: it is Horne who is remembered for the song “Stormy Weather,” even though it was Waters who had originally made the song famous years before).
Even after she was nominated for an Academy Award for Pinky, she had a hard time finding work as an actress because of her notorious temper. Though she would make several comebacks, in old age, she would re-embrace her spiritual life with renewed zeal and become more known for her ties to American Christian evangelist Billy Graham.
It is obvious that the author of this book, Donald Bogle, loves Waters. One can tell he did a lot of meticulous research to recreate Waters’s life and explain her many quirks and vulnerabilities to his readers. I came to admire this intriguing, complex woman whom I’d previously known almost nothing about. But clocking in at over 600 pages, the biography is at times exhaustive to a fault; I felt that there were parts that could have been edited down to make for smoother reading. Still, the book and its insights are impressive, and Waters’s fans won’t want to miss it.
Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters was released on February 8, 2011 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. It will be released on paperback on June 26, 2012 by Harper Perennial.