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Talking at The Cookery

It was December of 1981, Alberta was at The Cookery, seated in the far corner booth that was her favorite, and she was in a great mood. Her décolleté dress was not just off any rack. Alberta was frugal, but she never allowed it to get in the way of her insistence on quality. Her hair was pulled back tightly to form a knot, the way Bessie Smith had it in when she threw away her horsehair wigs. Alberta's makeup—expertly self-applied—lent an extra glow to her youthful face, as it had since the days of Woodrow Wilson. Oversized gold earrings dangled and sent reflections of the Cookery's myriad Christmas lights dancing on her cheeks and shoulders. She had purchased them in Israel many years ago, and they had almost become a trademark.

The distinguished looking little lady in the booth had arrived at The Cookery two hours earlier, hunched over, dressed in a warm coat that might have come from Goodwill's grand opening sale, and carrying in each hand worn paper shopping bags, one stuffed into another. People who saw her on the street, pausing to study the day's bargains on a supermarket window, easily mistook Alberta for a "bag lady," but those ratty old bags were not filled with items retrieved from a dumpster or trash can. Alberta always carried with her a good amount of money in cash and cheques, and that rag she clutched with her right hand actually concealed an ice pick... just in case.

My camera caught this moment at New York's Essex House in June 
of 1974. I wanted Alberta and Horton Foote to meet, because mutual 
admiration was already in place (she loved "To Kill a Mockingbird") and 
Horton was working on a screenplay based on my Bessie Smith book.
This is how this remarkable lady came to work every day. She would straighten up a little as she maneuvered between the tables, dispensing warm hellos and smiles to the restaurant's staff before disappearing down the stairs to a dressing room where she underwent an amazing transformation. Most people of her age would have a problem negotiating that steep stairway, but old age and death were two stages of life whose existence Alberta refused to  acknowledge as even a possibility. You will understand her positive outlook when you hear what she had to say to a young film crew that came to interview her for a documentary.

As the camera is being set up, a young lady wants to attach a microphone to Alberta's dress. "Go right ahead, sweet thing," she says, "and have a chocolate." She gives a gentle push to a small, ornate box of frivolous confectionary, "they are very good." That they were, a gift from one of Alberta's many well-to-do admirers. Her apartment on Roosevelt Island had a table laden with neatly arranged fine candies, but she never indulged—they were there for the occasional visitor. In fact, some had been there for so long that the chocolate no longer retained its original color. Alberta was loathe to throw any of it away, but I used to do that when she wasn't looking. Some of the chocolate was so old that it had developed a life of its own, if you know what I mean.

The January 6, 1923 issue of Chicago Defender 
carried this ad for Alberta's recording of a song
that would become Bessie Smith's first recording 
and biggest Columbia hit.
As you will hear, Alberta talks about her own outlook on life and her travels, but she leaves out the details, so here—to supplement her own words—is a shortcut through the early years of her career. You might want to read it before you click on the first audio.

How Alberta, a sixteen year old girl with only ten cents and a child's railroad pass, managed to run off to Chicago and begin her rewarding nomadic life is a story in and of itself, and best left for another time. Suffice it to say that she was not "running away," in the usual sense of that phrase. She saw this move as more of a business trip, the forging of a new path for herself and her mother, the first step in a series of climbs to higher ground. Her sister, Latoya, and half-sister Josephine would have to fend for themselves. Memphis was a bustling city, even then, but Chicago was where the opportunities awaited such dreamers as Alberta Hunter.

She had been told that a singer could earn ten dollars a week in Chicago clubs, so she figured that it wouldn't be long before she could send for her mother. She soon found herself a less glamorous job—peeling potatoes, for little more than room and board. She made the rounds whenever she could, but she was too young, they said. Ever resourceful, Alberta went to work on her appearance, aging herself to land a job at Dago Frank's. The pay was a pittance, but she hustled up tips and she was, at least, singing. The pianist only knew Stephen Foster tunes, and not too well, but the pickpockets and pimps who kept the joint going were okay with that.

From this ignoble den of iniquity, Alberta gradually moved to higher ground, singing her way up the show-biz ladder until she hit the apex, the swanky Dreamland Café, where the food was Chinese the women richly perfumed, the men tuxedoed, and the music hot. Along the way, she launched her recording career on Black Swan, a label whose ads boasted, "The only genuinely colored record—others are only passing." Alberta's records brought her wider attention and bids from numerous out-of-town places, like New York City. In January of 1919, while appearing in a Cincinnati club, she found herself exchanging flirts with Willard Saxby Townsend, a handsome waiter who had recently returned from fighting in Europe. Two days later, they tied the knot and she took Willard home to mother before consummating the marriage. In fact, they never slept together—in deference to her mother. "Willard was a real gentleman," said Alberta. "We all lived in one apartment and he understood when I told him that I could never sleep with him under the same roof as my mother." Willard had wanted to take a waiter's job in Chicago, but Alberta discouraged that—a man should aim higher, she told him. "What he needed, bless his soul, was a wife who could cook for him and darn his socks. I wasn't cut out for that, so I decided to give him an opportunity to find someone else." Two months later, Alberta declared the marriage over and Willard returned home to his mother in Cincinnati. It had been a silly idea and very unfair to Willard, she admitted, adding that she meant to use him as a shield against other men who had the "wrong ideas."

Lottie Tyler
The real story was that Alberta had fallen in love with Lottie Tyler, a woman of striking good looks whose uncle, comedian Bert Williams, enjoyed the kind of show business success she herself aspired to. She was also ready to climb further up the ladder and, like most black women in show business, she thought of Josephine Baker, a lowly chorine from "Shuffle Along" who had enthusiastic audiences, royalty and millionaires clamoring for her in Paris. If there was higher ground than that, Alberta had not heard of it. She had plotted her next course and it required a bit of money, but, unlike most of her entertainer friends, Alberta did not hang out after work. She began moonlighting at after-hours clubs and she invested in real estate and jewelry. When I met her in 1961, she still had her first trinket, a large solitaire diamond that she had paid nine hundred dollars for in 1920.

Alberta also purchased two steamship tickets—one for herself, the other for Lottie, who lived in New York with her Uncle Bert, and knew nothing of her plans. Then she caught the next thing smoking for New York, leaving her mother comfortably situated in her own house. The following day, Alberta and an overwhelmed but delighted Lottie boarded the steamship De Grasse and slipped across the big pond!
The S/S De Grasse.

Paul Robeson and Alberta pose for a publicity
photo at London's Drury Lane Theatre - 1928

Alberta had not been in France long when she received a telegram from Noble Sissle urging her to come to London. The Thames had risen above its banks and left thousands of Londoners homeless. Sissle was recruiting artists for a star-studded Sunday benefit to be held at the London Pavilion. Work permits were not easily obtained in England, so Alberta jumped at the chance to perform there, as did Josephine Baker, who flew in from Paris at the last moment. In the audience sat Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, who were in England to assemble a cast for their new musical. Unaware of their presence, Alberta sang Just Another Day Wasted Away, but the title could not have been less apropos: four months later, when "Showboat" opened at London's Drury Lane Theatre, she was Queenie, sharing the stage with Paul Robeson, Edith Day, Marie Burke, and a yet-to-be knighted Cedric Hardwicke.

Willard was, indeed, a gentleman, and Alberta's success delighted
him. She was appearing in the London production of "Show Boat"
when he wrote her this letter. (Click on letter to enlarge it)
The show, a huge success, ran into 1929 and did much to enhance Alberta's career. She was now an international star. Even Willard took note and sent her a congratulatory letter. 

She had only been in Europe for little over a year, but Alberta easily adapted to her new environment. She never forgot where she came from, musically, but she slipped effortlessly into a sophisticated mode when called upon to do so. For example in 1934, when she spent a season with Jack Jackson's society orchestra at London's Dorchester Hotel. That Alberta Hunter didn't sound anything like the one who only a few years earlier got down with an earthier repertoire, aided and abetted by up and coming players like  Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Bechet and Joe Oliver. Fortunately, that version of Alberta was captured on 12 HMV recordings. I have combined a couple of examples here:

You may recognize the last signer on the card, Mabel Mercer. Frank Sinatra said that he learned
breathing from listening to her sing.

1934 was also a year in which Alberta made her film debut. "Radio Parade of 1935" was the British answer to "The Big Broadcast," a 1932 film that featured popular American radio stars. The British version tapped the BBC and included Alberta in her own production number, an interesting race-conscious number called Black Shadows whose lyrics might have been too controversial for Hollywood at that time. This was the first British feature film to have a color sequence and it was Alberta's. In the 1980s, when I was writing a documentary film on Alberta, my friend, the late Mark Shivas, acquired a copy of this number from the British Film Museum, and it  was in Dufaycolour, a bygone technology. I found this clip on YouTube—it will give you a rough idea, literally.

When I told Alberta that I liked the background, she asked, "What background?"

"The huge drums with women in leopard skin dancing on them," I replied.

She said, "Really?, Well, you know me, Chris, I'm not in the habit of looking over my shoulder."

Alberta (center) on the set of Radio Parade of 1935 for the "Black Shadows" production number. (Click on photo to enlarge)
Here, at last, is the first audio portion of this blog entry.

At this point, Barney Josephson joined Alberta in the booth.  We will pick it up there in a few days, when this story continues.


  1. Umm, it's Oscar, of course, not Roger: "Jerome Kern and Roger Hammerstein II, who were in England..."

  2. Of course it's Oscar! Thank you Tom--correction made.

  3. I just discovered your blog and love it. Also currently reading Bessie and can't put it down. Anyone approached you for movie rights? She's long overdue.

  4. Thank you for the encouraging words. I may well have made more money on film options for "Bessie" than for book sales! I have something on film interest in the book's final chapter.

    If only she had been a drug addict, there might have been a movie made. The good thing is that it would probably have been awful. Even Horton Foote's screenplay was disappointing. It was good, but too old-fashioned, I thought.

  5. I just stumbled over this series of blog posts about Alberta Hunter; thank you! I love the images and sound you've selected to document your memories. I'm researching a documentary about black lesbian elders, so to see images from Ms. Hunter's scrapbook and to hear her voice is just wonderful. Thank you!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      So glad that you found the blog and can get something out of it. That's what it's all about. There is more on Alberta here (just use the search box), and Bessie Smith should also fit into your project. —Chris