Nina Mae McKinney

In America, perhaps without any doubt the most oppressed and persecuted group of humans has been its population of African ancestry. 

Yet, it is from this group that many pioneers of the visual and performing arts ascended.  Stage and screen actors, literary lights, and other entertainers struggled for recognition in the early 20th Century at a time when the path to success for African-Americans was more often strewn with thorns than rose petals.Nina Mae McKinney (age 16, ca 1929)Credit: public domainFor one petite black actress, Nina Mae McKinney, a left-handed compliment in the form of her nickname, “The Black Garbo”, meant the difference between fame and obscurity. 

“You Look/Sound/Act Like Whitey”
The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was formed in 1909 with the honorable goals of simply promoting equality in an unequal and segregated society for Americans of African descent.

The word “colored”, however, is segregating by its very use as a descriptor.  Any time anyone is described in an antipodal manner to another standard it has an isolating effect. 

However, in the times in which the NAACP was formed, the word “colored” was certainly more genteel than other terms bandied about for American blacks.  Similarly, the word “Negro” was also used by the more refined when referring to anyone of anthropologically Negroid ancestry.

The tendency for white America to pigeonhole entertainers started early in the industry.  Referring to some male actor as “The Poor Man’s Gary Cooper” or some actress as “The Redheaded Louise Brooks” was common.  It helped the wee folk—the audience—connect with the entertainer.

Another trend along those lines, though, could be demeaning and belittled the artist’s efforts.

A particularly onerous example concerns the great vocalist Billy Eckstine (1914-1993; born William Eckstein). Eckstine was a contemporary of a young Frank Sinatra in the 1940s.  Their singing styles were very different, though—Frank was more of a “stylist”, and it was his phrasing that gave him his success.  Eckstine, in contrast, was a consummate performer, silky smooth, with a true musicality in his singing.Billy Eckstein (in New York City, 1946 or 1948)Credit: LIbrary of CongressThe name he was given by the media was “The Sepia Sinatra”.  He chafed under this sobriquet for most of his career, although he was not vocal about it until later in his life.  In an interview with Phil Donahue in the latter part of the 20th Century, Eckstine bitterly reminisced, “They called me ‘The Sepia Sinatra’.  I was working before him—they should have called him ‘The Ivory Eckstine’!”

Billy was right.  Professionally, he worked as a singer, bandleader, and recording artist long before Sinatra came on the scene.  However, Eckstine was black in America—when Sinatra came along, his similar crooning style was imitative of Eckstine’s yet it was Sinatra's name held up as the standard.  Billy Eckstine had every right to feel slighted—his records were gems of smooth styling with terrific arrangements and an intimate sound. Yet he never had the popularity or the financial success of Frank Sinatra.

Almost from the start of motion pictures black filmmakers explored their visions in the new medium with almost no success.  These early silent movies were financed, directed, written, and produced by black auteurs.  Many films featured all black casts telling stories that could apply to anyone and were not specifically geared toward “The Black Experience”.  Most of these filmmakers did not reach a wide audience, and many of these early treasures have been lost.  Some within the past few years have been rediscovered and re-mastered; the tales they tell, the settings, and the moods established make them well worth the time to seek out and watch.

In the 1920s many white acts took to Harlem for inspiration.  Black performers at the legendary Cotton Club were regularly ripped off by white acts for material and personas. 

Comedic actress and singer Helen Kane trademarked a “Boop-boop-a-doop” tag line and a baby-girl singing voice.  When cartoon good-time girl Betty Boop was created in 1930 Helen Kane (upon whom the cartoon was based according to animator Max Fleisher) sued for trademark infringement.  The court, however, discovered that Kane had stolen her shtick from a black songstress she’d seen in the Cotton Club in the early 1920s named “Baby Esther”.  Kane’s case was tossed.

This sort of cultural piracy was common and expected.  Many black entertainers saw their hard-won efforts usurped and subverted by white entertainers, and struggled to make a living.

Others managed to co-exist in a niche, people such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (the first black to appear in white vaudeville and probably one of the best tap and soft-shoe men ever) and comic actor, Stepin Fetchit (named for a race horse, by the way).  Regardless of opinion about Mr. Fetchit’s mewling sycophantic persona, he literally laughed all the way to the bank with that “Tom” act of his over which many derided him.

Nannie Mayme
Like Robinson and Fetchit another entertainer would find her own place as well.
The future “Black Garbo” was born June 12, 1912, in the rural community of Lancaster, South Carolina, in the north-central part of the state very near the North Carolina border.  Her parents, Hal and Georgia McKinney, in desperate need of work migrated northward as did many Southern blacks looking for jobs.  They moved to New York City and left their daughter Nannie Mayme in the care of a great-aunt, Carrie Sanders.

Aunt Carrie was a domestic for a wealthy family named Springs, and she lived in a small apartment on their property.  As Nannie grew, the lady of the manor, Lena Jones Springs, took an interest in the girl in the same way one would a pet.  When she was old enough to learn to ride, Lena Springs gave Nannie a bicycle with which she started running errands to town for her.  At this time in her young life she learned bicycle stunts as any child does, and became proficient enough to earn a local reputation for these feats of derring-do. 

The Springs family had founded an institution in the town called Lancaster Industrial School.  The school held student plays, and Nannie featured in these—she developed an interest in acting from these childish productions.  She also taught herself some dance moves.  She attended this school as her only formal education; Nannie Mayme dropped out at age 15, ran off to New York City, and started a new life.

The Great Black Way
She reunited with her estranged parents and settled into the routine of pounding the pavement to pick up acting or dancing jobs. 
It did not take the re-christened “Nina Mae” long to find work—she was a beautiful teenager, and pretty faces hardly ever worried about finding work on Broadway.  She also had an effervescent personality and a ready smile. 
She debuted on Broadway working the chorus line in the musical Blackbirds of 1928.  This revue was a huge hit, and featured the celebrity dancer/actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in addition to some other well-known black stars of the stage.  The show opened on May 9, 1928, and became one of the longest-running and most successful genre shows.
Nina Mae McKinney (chorus girl, 1928)Credit: public domainThis 16-year-old tiny beauty (she was 5’3” tall as an adult) immediately attracted attention, and when film director King Vidor was casting for a new movie of his, Hallelujah!, he tapped Nina Mae to star in it after seeing her on-stage in the Blackbirds show. 

Vidor’s interest in her may have been more than professional as the casting-couch reality was standard operating procedure then.  He did remark, however, that he’d noticed the dancer “third from the right in the chorus.  She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.”  Whether or not Vidor took advantage of the wide-eyed girl’s need for celebrity is unknown, but she did snag a leading role in his film and launched her own career with a bang.

The MGM movie Hallelujah! was released in 1929.  As was typical, the power structure of the movie was white (Vidor, the producers, etc.), but the cast was an all-black ensemble.

This movie was a historic marker—it was the first all-black sound musical motion picture.  Although the blurbs on posters and ad work in the theaters described the film as “A story of murder and redemption in the Deep South”, this melodrama was not critically well-received.  One critic, however, saw the rawness in its acting and execution and stated the movie had “a crude power”.  [Film historians today invest the film with more artistic and historic merit because of its casting and production].Nina Mae McKinney (still from Hallelujah!, 1929)Credit: MGM (public domain)Vidor was nominated for a “Best Director” Oscar for Hallelujah!.   Nina Mae’s work in the film was likewise praised, not only by the public but by Vidor himself: “Nina was full of life, full of expression, and just a joy to work with. Someone like her inspires a director.”

Silver Screen
Nina Mae’s star turn in Hallelujah! opened some, but not many, doors for her.

Nina Mae McKinney (glamour shot)Credit: MGM (public domain)

She had broken a color barrier in film—she was the first black actor or actress to play a leading role in any movie up to that time.  Most parts for African-American women in mainstream movies were invariably stereotypes—maids, taxi dancers, bootleggers’ molls, prostitutes. 

As “Chick” in Hallelujah! the gorgeous Nina Mae proved these stereotypes didn’t have to be all that black women could play.  It was the first serious portrayal of a black woman as an object of admiration and sexual desire for men.

Unfortunately, Nina Mae was almost alone in her field.  Most black actresses tended to stick with the “proper” black female roles of maid or governess or cook.  It meant they were limited by their acting; it also, though, these women could work steadily whereas a beautiful screen presence like Nina Mae perhaps could not. 

Her recognition in Vidor’s Hallelujah! netted Nina Mae a five-year contract with MGM.  However, the company wasn’t sure what to do with their new property. 

During the length of her run with MGM she only participated in two films, one of which she was not even seen on-screen.  She acted in 1931’s Safe in Hell; she played a waitress who befriends an escaped New Orleans hooker.  But in 1935’s Reckless, she was nothing but a disembodied voice—she sang a song that was overdubbed for Jean Harlow’s voice in the movie.  So, the words coming from Jean’s mouth are Nina Mae’s but not her face. 

Parts for a burgeoning black sex symbol just weren’t being developed with any great haste in the mostly white Hollywood.  America didn’t mind seeing black actors and actresses on-screen, they just preferred to see them in subservient roles. 

Josephine Baker (late 1920s)Credit: postcard, public domain

The stunning Josephine Baker, a contemporary of Nina Mae’s, solved her problems of not being allowed to perform at will by leaving the country.  She traveled Europe and became a sensation abroad.  France, in particular, adopted the exotic Josephine as one of its own countrywomen.Nina Mae’s frustrations pushed her to take a similar chance.  Europeans generally did not share America’s fear, mistrust, and dislike of blacks in the mid 1930s.  Nina Mae ventured to Paris in December 1932. 

Just as Josephine Baker had, Nina Mae took France by pleasant surprise.  She featured as a cabaret entertainer in many of the city’s hot spots.  In February 1933 across The Channel she featured in a London show called Chocolate and Cream (one can only presume such an offering meant a mixed cast of black women and light-skinned or white women).

It was in Europe Nina Mae received the nickname of “Black Garbo”.  Although designed to compliment her on her beauty, it still had to sting a bit for the actress.  Her acceptance and familiarity became predicated upon her comparison to a well-known white actress.

Nina Mae cruised the Continent traveling as far as Athens in Greece.  After returning to London in 1934, she did a British film titled Kentucky Minstrels.  When the movie was released in the States it was renamed Life is Real.  This film, too, had Nina Mae in a groundbreaking role—it was one of the first British films that featured an African-American actress.

The movie was poorly reviewed, although Nina Mae was not.  Film Weekly critiqued, “Nina Mae McKinney, as the star of the final spectacular revue, is the best thing in the picture—and she, of course, has nothing to do with the ‘plot’.”Nina Mae McKinney (mid 1930s)Credit: Vitaphone image; public domainBecause of her easy acceptance there, Nina Mae stayed in London for a few more years.  She did a broadcast for a British radio show, The Voice of Britain, in 1935 in which she sang. 

She got another part in a major British film in 1935, Sanders of the River.  Paul Robeson (the fine actor and later black activist) starred with Nina Mae in this vehicle.

Unfortunately, the film had been pitched to the pair as a positive portrayal of African-Americans.  It was in this belief that Robeson, one of the earliest agitators in Hollywood for black equality, agreed to appear in the film (he was an expatriate as well at the time).  The finished product, however, did not stay true to its promise—instead, without Nina Mae’s or Robeson’s knowledge the film was disappointingly re-edited post-production into a propaganda piece that aggrandized the British Empire.

Small Screen
Britain in 1936, perhaps because of the smallness of the country, more quickly integrated television and television broadcasting on a regular basis than the United States did. 

In 1936, Nina Mae McKinney of little old Lancaster, South Carolina, became the very first black person to ever appear on a televised broadcast in Britain. 

The nascent BBC-TV gave her a television special, also a first, because of the positive response to her singing on their Voice of Britain radio show.  She then trod the boards in a song-and-dance revue called Ebony in 1937.  Afterward, she appeared with a Jamaican trumpeter named Leslie Thomson in a live show called Dark Laughter.Nina Mae McKinney (ca 1936, on British television)Credit: BBC-TV early images, public domain She appeared on British television again in 1937 in a documentary that featured her singing a song, and her reviews for this guest shot were favorable.   This performance is the only one that survives of her pre-World War II British television work.  [Comparatively speaking at this time in America only RCA was conducting television broadcast testing.  Regularly scheduled programming would not begin in earnest until about 1940].  World War II’s rise in Europe in 1939 forced a reluctant Nina Mae to go back to the United States.

No Place Like Home
Nina Mae’s return to the United States was anti-climactic. In New York she met and married Jimmy Monroe, a jazz musician, in 1939.  They cobbled together a combo and toured for a spell with Nina Mae as the songbird.  This marriage did not last long—the couple divorced in 1941, and Jimmy Monroe, a drug addict, moved on to become the lover of Billie Holliday long enough to hook her on heroin.

Compared to her hectic acting and entertaining schedule in Europe, America didn’t seem to have enough of substance to fulfill her.  She ended up doing several “race films” (the forerunners of the 1970s’ “blaxploitation” movies and the more recent embarrassing and cringe-inducing films such as Soul Plane).  Certainly, Nina Mae gave a classier performance than any of these films merited with titles such as Gang Smashers (1938) and The Devil’s Daughter (1939).

Again, as before, Hollywood was not looking to promote a glamorous, black sex symbol.  Nina Mae finally stooped to taking the stereotypical parts she had tried to avoid earlier in her career.  She played maids and hookers.  In 1944 opposite Merle Oberon she played a servant in Dark Waters.

In  1949, she played a minor role in the movie for which she is perhaps best known, Pinky.  This movie explores the controversial subject of light-skinned blacks “passing” as white.  The subject also examined how blacks of darker color relate to lighter-skinned blacks as a subtext.  Nina Mae played the girlfriend of a male character.

Nina Mae made her last stage appearance in 1951 playing a hooker on the Apollo Theater stage in Rain.

With nothing else professionally going on in her life, she returned to Europe and traveled, settling in the late 1950s in Athens, Greece.  She was a scenester and became known as the “Queen of Night Life”. 

She returned to New York City in 1966.  She did not perform again, and she died of a heart attack on May 3, 1967, in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital.  She was 54. 

Her death went unnoticed in the black periodicals Ebony (founded in 1945) and Jet (first published in 1951); the entertainment-industry bible, Variety, failed to record her passing, too.  She had been completely forgotten.  The only public notice of her death appeared in one newspaper’s human interest blurb that mentioned her passing and the fact she was an entertainer. 

Nina Mae’s hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina, has commemorated her, however, in a “Wall of Fame” mural along with other famous townsfolk.  [The best known of these other Lancaster natives is President Andrew Jackson.  Jackson, however, was born in Waxhaw Settlement, a place no longer extant.  Its exact location is unknown, and it is unclear if it was in North or South Carolina to this day because of confusion about the location of the state line.  Lancaster claims him, though, without basis.]

Nina Mae McKinney was a pioneer woman for all black sex symbols who followed in her path. 

Dorothy Dandridge in particular benefited tangentially from Nina Mae’s break-out in Hallelujah!.  Nina Mae created the first black female model of sexual desirability—Dorothy worked it for all it was worth (and very well). 

The person whose fame is directly owed to Nina Mae McKinney was actress/singer Lena Horne.  In 1938 Nina Mae was to make a movie called The Duke Is Tops.  She fell ill while entertaining in Australia, however, and her role was given to Lena Horne.  This movie broke Lena to the public, and her star rose from there.  

Nina Mae McKinney worked in 18 feature films, did one voice overdub for Jean Harlow in another, acted in five short subjects, and performed on some of the earliest British television programs ever broadcast.  She worked as an actress, singer, stage performer, cabaret entertainer, on radio, and on television.  [It is amazing to consider her as a pioneer of early television as well as her other “firsts”.]

Greta Garbo, in contrast, after filming 27 features, retired at age 36 in 1941 and disappeared from the public eye.  Maybe she should have been called the “Monochrome McKinney”. 

It is unfortunate that Nina Mae McKinney was tagged the “Black Garbo”; it would have been better for her to have been remembered simply as “Nina Mae”.

Nina Mae McKinneyCredit: Vic Dillinger™, © 2011


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