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Forgotten Hollywood: Ethel Waters

Despite a traumatic past that she could never recover from, Ethel Waters had a groundbreaking trajectory in show business. She had a thriving recording career and a string of nightclub hits. She was a diva of Broadway. She reached the top when she got to be the star of several movies and television shows.

In 1942, the production of Cabin in the Sky – an all-Black MGM film starring Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Rex Ingram, and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson – started in Hollywood.

Vincente Minnelli was the director. Waters and Ingram were reprising their roles from the hit Broadway show that Minnelli had also directed. This film was the 26-year-old Horne’s first leading role. Waters was 46, overweight, grappling with ill health and feelings of jealousy of her young co-star. She felt Minnelli focused all his attention on Horne.

Waters indulged in temper tantrums and bad behavior on the set of Cabin that she was well known for. Horne was the young star, but Waters had top billing. MGM was careful to keep Waters happy, giving her a new song written especially for her, “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.” The song would be nominated for an Oscar. Nevertheless, there is no one as unhappy as an aging star who feels sidelined.

“When I had to work with her,” Horne is quoted as saying in Donald Bogle’s book “Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters, “and even before, I was a little frightened about it because I’d heard she was not comfortable as a person.” Bogle quotes Gail Buckley, Horne’s daughter as saying, “Because of her own background, Ethel Waters absolutely despised educated or light-complexioned Blacks. Miss Waters considered herself, quite rightly, to be an enormous star, and considered Lena an upstart, and her enemy on every front.”


Waters disliked the way Horne sang. She thought Horne was imitating her style. She would taunt her just before they had to play their scenes and sit in a corner mumbling ‘bitch’ and motherfucker’ about Horne. When Horne chipped a bone in her foot, she joked that Waters ‘put a hex on me.’ When someone offered her a pillow to rest her foot on, that enraged Waters. “She started to blow like a hurricane. She flew into a semi-incoherent diatribe that began with attacks on Lena and wound up with a vilification of ‘Hollywood Jews.’ You could hear a pin drop. Everyone stood rooted in silence while Ethel’s eruption shook the soundstage. She went on and on,” according to Buckley, quoted by Bogle. Waters was paranoid that everyone at the studio, including Minnelli, was out to make her look bad. Production shut down for the day.

Though the film was a hit when released with both Horne and Waters receiving high praise, Waters would later reflect, “I won all my battles on the picture. But like many other performers, I was to discover that winning arguments in Hollywood is costly. Six years were to pass before I could get another movie job.”

Despite a traumatic past that she could never recover from, Waters had a groundbreaking career in music recording career, nightclub acts and on Broadway. She was the leading actress in several movies and television shows. She was a trailblazer and achieved several firsts in her life, tearing down barriers for the performers who would come after.


In a 1933 appearance at the Cotton Club, in Harlem, she sang “Suppertime,” the first time a Black person sang about racism. She was the first Black woman to receive equal billing with white stars on Broadway, and the first to perform in dramatic roles in movies.

Waters was the second Black performer (after Hattie McDaniel) to be Oscar-nominated for a supporting role for Pinky, in 1949. At one time she was the highest-paid performer on Broadway. She was the first Black performer to have her own television variety show, The Ethel Waters Show, in 1939.

Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1896, to a young girl of thirteen who had been raped. According to Bogle, she grew up in the city’s red-light district, abandoned by her mother, who had mental health problems. She ran errands and served as a lookout for prostitutes and pimps. Married at 13 herself, she divorced at 15. Tall, dark, and skinny, singing was her solace. She hit the chitlin’ circuit performing raunchy songs, known by the moniker ‘Sweet Mama Stringbean.’ 

As her fame grew, she moved to New York City in the early 1920s and soon became a crossover star appealing to both Black and white audiences. She sang “St. Louis Blues” and “Dinah” – some of the most celebrated songs of that time. Her records sold well and pushed her up the charts.

She made her Broadway debut in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, in 1933, and upstaged her costars Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb with the songs “Heat Wave” and “Suppertime.” Other notable appearances were in At Home Abroad, in 1935, directed by Minnelli; and Mamba’s Daughters, in 1939, a hit play that she took on tour throughout the country.

She married two more times, first to Clyde Matthews, later to Edward Mallory. Her marriages never lasted too long. She had romances with women as well. She would lavish her partners with gifts and spend money like water. “And she unleashed her fury on just about anybody who crossed her, raising holy Cain with nightclub owners and managers she claimed had cheated her – and outcursing and outshouting those fellow performers she thought were trying to upstage her,” writes Bogle in “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams.”

Bogle tells how Waters knew how to play the game when her future was on the line. In 1929 she met Warner Bros. studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck. He asked her to be a ‘specialty act’ – a Black performer incorporated into the musical numbers but not part of the story – for two weeks in the new film On With the Show. She immediately turned on her considerable charm but played hard to get, saying she’d have to see about getting out of her Orpheum circuit commitments. “How much do you get?” Zanuck asked. Waters told him $1,250 a week … “[But] I will lose more than two weeks of my valuable time. So if agreeable to you, Mr. Zanuck, I would like to have a four-week guarantee at $1,250 a week, which will come to a nicely rounded five thousand dollars.” Zanuck gave her what she asked.

A new song, one that will forever be associated with her voice, was written: “Am I Blue?” It had been written specifically for her. She refused all offers to dub white singers.

After Cabin, Waters’ finally got more movie work. In Pinky, from 1949, she played the role of grandmother to a light-skinned Black girl who passes for white. It earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The girl was played by the white Jeanne Crain, who Zanuck believed would be more acceptable to white audiences in the love scenes with a white actor.


Zanuck cast her in the role and John Ford was hired to direct. Ford was a known bully, haranguing his actors. Waters, needing the job, was quietly difficult. Zanuck replaced him with Elia Kazan, as he disliked Ford’s outdated understanding of Waters’ role, directing her to be an Aunt Jemima. According to Bogle, Zanuck told Kazan about Ford’s departure. “He hated that old n***r woman, and she, sure as hell, hated him. He scared her next to death.” Kazan would later tell writer Scott Eyman that she was a “truly odd combination of old-time religiosity and free-flowing hatred.”

Waters was also cast in the film version of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding after her successful Broadway run with the play, co-starring Julie Harris. According to Bogle, before accepting the stage role she made many demands, refusing to smoke and drink as the role was written, changing her character to a religious woman, and insisting on singing a hymn that wasn’t in the script. But her key scenes, including a crucial soliloquy, were cut from the film because Harry Cohn, the boss at Columbia studios, hated the movie.

As her film career faded she continued touring and appeared regularly on television. She was in Beulah, where she played a maid who solved her white employers’ problems in each episode. Her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, was published in 195. She appeared in her one-woman show, At Home with Ethel Waters, in 1953.

Declining health and troubles with the IRS were to plague her in the later years. To pay her bills, she appeared on a game show called Break the $250,000 Bank. She became even more religious than ever, joining Billy Graham’s evangelical church in 1957, and singing in his television revival meetings.

Waters died at 80 of uterine cancer, in 1977, and is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.