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The Mother Of Us All
Ethel Waters was an innovative and terrifically influential singer, and she broke through racial barriers in movies, theater, nightclubs, radio, film, and television, opening doors for everyone who came after her. She deserves to be much better remembered.
February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
In this troubled period she was rescued by a meaty role in Pinky , a 1949 movie starring Jeanne Grain as a young black nurse who passes for white. Waters played Grain’s wise and loving grandmother and received an Academy Award nomination for her performance. After this success the producers of The Member-of the Wedding agreed to rewrite the part of Berenice Sadie Brown to Waters’s stringent religious specifications, and the play opened on Broadway in January 1950. It was a success, and Waters and her costar, Julie Harris, received rave reviews. Glad to be a working actress again, Waters headed the road company tour of the play. It was then filmed, with Fred Zinnemann as director. Zinnemann, who thought the film one of his best, found Waters (who received a second Academy Award nomination for her work in it) “a wonderful, sad woman” but also “a very headstrong lady. If she took three steps to the right and I’d ask her to move to the left instead, she’d stand perfectly still, point at me, and say, ‘God is my director!’” A later television version of the play brought Emmy nominations to both Waters and Harris.
Her autobiography came out, bringing her acclaim in a third artistic field and what could have been enough money to assure a comfortable retirement. There was interest in turning the book into a show, but when she, at fiftyfour, insisted on playing herself even as a very young woman, the project collapsed. In 1950 she was offered the title role in the television sitcom “Beulah” and became the first black actor to star in her own series. The TV show should have been a major breakthrough and another source of the financial security she had never attained. Instead it brought trouble: Black and liberal political organizations denounced her for perpetuating black stereotypes by playing a servant. She was furious. Her own much-loved grandmother had been a servant all her life, she herself had once worked happily as a maid, and she saw absolutely no shame in playing one. She also despised television as a medium. "[It’s] a pocket edition of moving pictures.…There are so many greenhorns in TV…so many dictators who don’t know their business.” She left the show after a year.
The 1950s were the worst time in her life. She was lonely, tired, out of work, in debt, and more than two hundred pounds overweight. By her own account, only religion made her life worth living. In 1957 she met Billy Graham and joined his Crusade, assuring the press she was happy just to be singing in his chorus. In her life she had made and spent huge sums of money on clothes, cars, two apartment buildings, a nightclub, stranded fellow vaudevillians, the illegitimate female children she occasionally took in, and a series of unreliable men. Flat broke and plagued by 1RS debts she had been trying to pay off since 1942, she was socked again for back taxes, and she showed that she had lost her money but not her wit when she told the press, “Where I come from, people don’t get close enough to money to keep a working acquaintance with it. So I don’t know how to keep it.”
The era of integration dawned, but she didn’t dawn with it. Lena Home donned a dashiki and sang “Freedom Now"; Waters incurred the wrath of civil rights organizations by stating, “I’m not concerned with civil rights. I’m only concerned with God-given rights, and they are available to everyone!” She withdrew from public life and devoted herself exclusively to the Billy Graham Crusade. Through Graham she became friendly with the Nixons, insisting that they were still her “babies” even after Nixon left the White House in disgrace. She worked infrequently, appearing in small roles on several television shows.
Since she had become a born-again Christian, she had reduced her weight from 380 to 160 pounds, but her debilitated body continued its decline. In the last years of her life she lived an isolated existence in a small Pasa dena apartment. Finally, too ill to care for herself, she was taken in by a couple she had just met. Suffering from cataracts, a heart condition, diabetes, kidney failure, and uterine cancer, she died in September 1977, twenty years after she had told the Los Angeles Mirror , “I’m not afraid to die, honey. In fact, I’m kinda looking forward to it. I know that the Lord has his arms wrapped around this big fat sparrow.”