The Life and Career of Ethel Waters
by Donald Bogle
I have not done a good job of reading books about history and historical figures. I started several last year and never finished but they are still on the table and I promise them everyday that I will return. That’s why, even though it took me a couple of months to finish Heat Wave, I refused to put it down. And frankly Donald Bogle’s engaging writing wouldn’t let me.
Bogle is an expert on Blacks in entertainment and his love for all those involved and the industry clearly shows in his prose and research. Ethel Waters couldn’t have been an easy subject for him. Yes, she was one of the biggest blues and pop stars of the early twentieth century, but her private life was complicated and shrouded in mystery and half-truths. Waters went from poverty in Chester, Pennsylvania to performing as “Sweet Mama Stringbean” in nightclubs across the country. Her relationships with the men in her life were covered by all of the Colored newspapers and her “friendships” with women were gossiped about by her peers in the industry. And Waters’ notorious temper and jealousy affected most of those she worked with, like Josephine Baker and Lena Horne.
This book is long, almost 600 pages, and kept me engaged because of Waters’ ability to reinvent herself as the times changed. From nightclubs to Broadway to Hollywood, she worked to stay relevant as tastes changed.
Sidenote: Two coincidences happened to me while reading this book.
- Right after I read about Waters working with the great songwriter Harold Arlen early in both of their careers, I walked into work and heard Frank Sinatra singing a song written by Arlen.
- At the exact moment that I’m reading a passage about her stand-out gospel song, His Eye is On The Sparrow, a house music version comes on my iPod.