American Cocktail

One of the first black stars of the silent era, Anita Reynolds appeared in Hollywood movies with Rudolph Valentino, attended Charlie Chaplin’s anarchist meetings, and studied dance with Ruth St. Denis. She moved to New York in the 1920s and made a splash with both Harlem Renaissance elites and Greenwich Village bohemians. An émigré in Paris, she fell in with the Left Bank avant garde, befriending Antonin Artaud, Man Ray, and Pablo Picasso. Next, she took up residence as a journalist in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War and witnessed firsthand the growing menace of fascism. In 1940, as the Nazi panzers closed in on Paris, Reynolds spent the final days before the French capitulation as a Red Cross nurse, afterward making a mad dash for Lisbon to escape on the last ship departing Europe.

In prose that perfectly captures the globetrotting nonchalance of its author, American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World presents a stimulating, unforgettable self-portrait of a truly extraordinary woman. Here is a brief excerpt chronicling Anita’s experiences on the East Coast.

Mother left me in New York because that’s where I wanted to be. She left me in the charge of friends, the Austins, who lived at 237 West 139th Street in a handsome block of homes designed by Stanford White. It was in a part of Harlem called “Strivers Row,” although certainly the Austins were not striving, nor did I see anyone in the block who was. Mrs. Austin kept an elegant home. Her husband, an estate lawyer, was passing for white along with his brother in offices on Madison Avenue. Among other things, their work called on them to appraise antiques, and the Austins’ home was filled with a fine selection of antique furniture, prints and a library of fine books.

No one was about to keep me for nothing, however. When I told my father I planned to stay in New York and go to Columbia rather than the University of California, he told me “make your own living then.” “You bet I will,” I answered. I told Mother not to worry and sent her home, fairly confident that I could come up with something. Thinking quickly, I crossed over 139th Street to the home of Mr. Miller, a comedian who was currently appearing in the Negro musical show, Runnin’ Wild, which followed Shuffle Along as a big hit in New York. The big number in Runnin’ Wild introduced a new dance known as the Charleston. Mr. Miller asked if I could sing. I told him no, not unless he wanted to hear my feeble imitation of my mother’s church choir voice. Very well, then, could I dance?

Dance? Of course! What kind did he want? Flamenco and castanets were my speciality, I said. Unfortunately, they weren’t casting for Spanish dancers in Runnin’ Wild. They wanted tap dancers and people to do the Charleston. So Jack Carter, one of the young men who attended the parties at Irvington-on-Hudson, volunteered to teach me the Charleston. And Mr. Miller sent me to see Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson to learn how to tap. Many an afternoon was spent in the rumpus room in the basement of the Austin home with Bill Robinson trying to change my flamenco into a proper tap dance and Jack working with me on the Charleston. Eventually I was good enough at both dances to be hired as the “pony” at the far end of the chorus line of Runnin’ Wild.

We were a good looking bunch of girls, I must say. For the Charleston number, we wore white tutus, i.e. ballet skirts and tight black patent leather bodices, and white wigs. With our brown skin, it was certainly a striking combination.

My father, who had thought I’d never be able to make a living, decided to come to see what sort of living I was making. Unlike the movies where the father has a fit at seeing his daughter with “theater people,” Father noticed there were many respectable people connected with the show, including my two Boston friends, Esther and Dorothy Bearden, who were certainly just as nicely brought up as I had been. Satisfied that I was behaving respectably, he came backstage, like a stage-door Johnny, and met me for dinner. Of course, he let it be clear that any time I wanted to return to school, he would be glad to finance my studies — in California.

I decided to take half his advice and return to school, not in California, but at Columbia. Convinced that no one could ever make a living as an artist, I registered at the teachers college for courses in methods of teaching art and child psychology. I did not leave Runnin’ Wild, however. By day I was a prim, respectable student, at night, a wild chorus girl. It amused me greatly that the college boys wanted to date the showgirl, and the show-boys wanted to take out the college girl. The former would pick me up after the show to take me to the Cotton Club to listen to Duke Ellington and dance the night away. But the boys who came to see me after classes at Columbia, to share a soda in a drug store at 116th Street, were the show-boys. Taking a tip from Edna St. Vincent Millay, I was burning my candle at both ends. However, when it came time for Runnin’ Wild to go on the road, I decided it would be better for me to stay and finish my studies at the teachers college.

I spent a lovely summer vacation in Atlantic City and the other beaches where our friends gathered, but when September came around, I found I had to change my plans. There were no other jobs to be had in New York, and if I expected my father to help support me, it would have to be someplace he would approve of. Father had a sister in Baltimore, and since Charlie West was attending school in nearby Washington, I decided to move in with my Aunt Edith.

Compared to New York, Baltimore was very provincial, and Washington, D.C. wasn’t much better. The life of the colored people in the Washington area was lively enough but even more formal than anything I’d experienced up until then. I found the whole scene to be stiff and uncomfortably segregated. I remember trying to get permission to bring H. L. Mencken to an Alpha dance in Washington that was one of the social events of the sea- son. I had met Mencken through Arthur Bragg, the son of the Episcopal priest of Baltimore. When Mencken learned I was going to the Alpha dance, he asked if he might be invited, so I passed along his request to my hostess, Muriel Milton. She was absolutely appalled. “Why, we don’t have white men at our parties. We don’t have white people at all. But if we did, they would certainly have to be our social equals, and no journalist would ever fit in our parties. Unless you know white people in the diplomatic corps, don’t ask to invite them.” Thoroughly rebuked, I apologized to Mencken and told him the guest list was filled.

To continue my education, I enrolled in a normal school in Baltimore. I found it to be dull and not at all challenging, but I stuck with it for the two years it took me to become a teacher. While attending school, as I said, I was living in my aunt’s house on Druid Hill Avenue. It was a comfortable, three-story affair. The kitchen had an enormous coal stove, on the back of which there was always a tub of dough which could be whipped into Parker House rolls on the spur of the moment.

My aunt was a pretty woman. She had the deep-set eyes of my father’s family and my color. She had a sweet face and a sweet disposition. Her husband, Ed, was maître-d’ at the most expensive hotel restaurant in Baltimore. He liked good food and nice service, and he could cook as well as my aunt. And if I wasn’t too crazy about living in Baltimore, I couldn’t complain about the food, the soft-shelled crabs, terrapin and above all, the hot bread. As my aunt said, “it made the butter fly.”

I had my own room on the top floor, nicely furnished, with a mahogany four-poster bed and a large secretary desk. The house was a pleasant place to receive my friends in Baltimore. There was Rita McCarthy from across the street, and the Colemans and the Whartons from around the corner, and my aunt’s family, the Murphy’s, who were all friendly and kind to me, especially Frances Murphy, who taught child psychology at the normal school. Even though she was much older than me, in her sixties, we were very close friends. I taught her to drive. We would drive out to the country in her Essex and talk about all sorts of things. She was a high-strung, unmarried woman with a keen sense of curiosity and sharp wit. She was probably my favorite person in Baltimore. Aunt Edith was very kind to me, but I always found her a little strange. I would have called her a “country cousin,” and I suppose I acted like a “city slicker” in her presence, although she always seemed proud of me and welcomed my friends visiting.

During the summer, I went to the country house in rural Pennsylvania of my cousin Albert, who had a daughter about my age. Lots of people in the area were related to my aunt, my father and grandfather, and they all took me in as part of the family. I was happy about this, but I still felt out of place, a wild chorus girl in a world too genteel for comfort. The segregated aspect of this life was strange and discomforting to me. I broke out once in a while with Arthur Bragg and a few others like him, and I continued to see his friend Mencken and others who might have been called “bohemians.”

I began working in my uncle’s restaurant. I went in every night to sell cigarettes when the band was not playing for dancing. That was a fun job! I went through the place with a Spanish shawl over my shoulder, calling, “cigars, tobacco, cigarettes.” When the customers danced, I went into the manager’s office to do my homework for school the next day.

One night, when most of the customers had gone, a man sitting alone called me over and asked me to have a drink with him, a glass of champagne. I was tired enough to sit down, and I certainly wasn’t afraid he was going to try anything in the middle of the restaurant while I waited for my uncle. I had seen him there before, usually with large parties. My uncle had told me he was one of the richest men in that part of the world, the head of a large business. He stayed late often to talk with me during that season in 1925, and I enjoyed his company. I imagine my uncle must have thought I was running around with the man, but I was never able to let myself get involved in an affair with him. I was still afraid that a white man, no matter how rich and gentlemanly, only wanted a “brown-skinned baby” for his backstreet mistress. I was certainly much too stuck-up to take part in a relationship like that. So I danced with him, accepted his company, rides to his hunt club and little presents now and again. He offered to set me up in a place in Philadelphia if I liked, and if I’d been as sophisticated a “jazz baby” as I thought I was, I might have taken him up on it. But although I had departed from the Episcopal Church shortly after my first communion, its influence, along with that of my Boston Puritan mother, served to keep me poor but respectable.

My split with the church had left a void in my life, and I still looked to fulfill my need to have the mysteries of the universe explained to me. In seeking the answers, I had become involved in the Christian Scientist church. I had worked after school in Los Angeles for a man who was a Christian Scientist. He had me read the daily lesson to him every day, and the logic of putting the whole puzzle together in the way his religion taught him appealed to my reasoning mind. Although it may not have made much sense in hard fact, it made wonderful sense to my spiritual side, and so in Baltimore I attended the Christian Scientist church.

Going there gave me a sense of ease and confidence, and when it came time to take my examination to allow me to begin teach- ing in the public school system, I felt relaxed, certain that my intelligence would carry me through, reflecting as it did the intelligence of the universe. I came out with a score of 99 percent.

By a stroke of good fortune, the head of the art department in the Baltimore school system, Leon Winslow, was a good friend of several of my teachers at Columbia. I was encouraged by him to apply for the job of supervisor in the art department, and with his help, I studied for the supervisor’s exam and passed. So I entered the school system, not as a teacher, but as a supervisor, working with one of the greatest art educators I had ever known.

Winslow believed that since every child was not likely to become a great artist, he shouldn’t be burdened with the task of learning to draw and make pretty pictures. Rather, he should understand the principles of art and be able to apply them to his everyday life, to see art in food, clothing, shelter, tools and ma- chines. The system worked beautifully, and I was thrilled to be part of it. The children took great joy in doing artistic things with all the everyday things with which they lived. They were delighted with the small doses of art appreciation we gave them.

Dad was proud of my accomplishments and insisted that as a supervisor, I should have a car to visit the schools in the district. I lost no time in searching the Baltimore showrooms, and I picked out a brand new 1927 Dodge Roadster. Oh, it was a dream! It had wire spoke wheels and a canvas top held up with wooden braces, and a rumble seat. All my friends would pile into the car, as many as eight at a time, to go to football games and dances.

I had been asked by some of the girls to join a sorority, but I declined. The sisters looked too prim for me, and I felt they would do nothing but censor my behavior. Had I been asked to join a fraternity, however The fraternity dances were the brightest part of that period for me, and the brightest of the stars was my own Charlie West. When I danced with him, I felt so proud; he was the finest of the fine. I loved to dance, and the men seemed to like to dance with me. My dance card would be invariably filled as soon as I entered the room, as in earlier L.A. balls. Of course, as my escort, Charlie danced the first and last dances with me, as well as all the waltzes. One of the young men, Roscoe Lewis, liked to try to get Charlie’s goat by cutting in when we were waltzing, especially when the band played “I Know You Belong to Some- body Else, But Tonight You Belong to Me.” Roscoe didn’t really threaten our relationship, but something happened in the sum- mer of 1927 that very nearly upset the apple cart. I went to California to visit my family and to attend summer school at UCLA, and there I met Ralph Bunche.

We were immediately attracted to each other, so much so I forgot everything and everybody back East, including Charlie. We had a beautiful summer together, meeting on the campus at UCLA and going to my home, where we sat on the veranda hold- ing hands as the sun went down on our young love. The only thing that kept us from falling into a serious engagement and immediate marriage were his youth and the fact that I wasn’t ready to think about it yet. Who knows where that summer might have taken us had I stayed? But I didn’t stay. In September I returned to Baltimore, and found a nightmare waiting for me.

I was no longer living in my aunt’s home. Instead, I had a large apartment in the house of a woman I thought was a friend. Ruth was a good-looking woman, though not especially bright or articulate. Her husband was much older than she, and he enjoyed arguing politics and social problems. He would encourage me to get into debates with him, mostly so he could hear himself talk and to show off how much he knew. Our chief bone of contention, as I recall, was over whether Negroes should be Democrats or Republicans. I would argue that “Lincoln was a Republican,” and the South is Democrat, and he would counter with, “therefore the party takes you for granted, fool!”

One day, during one of our altercations, Ruth interrupted with, “You talk about everything to Anita, but you never say anything to me.” “Well,” he snapped, “you’re too dumb.” Not exactly the response she had been looking for. I walked out of the room and tried to avoid having any discussions with him after that. But living in the same house it was kind of difficult. Apparently, he must have said something to arouse Ruth’s jealousy, because she started counting every egg that went into my apartment, every gallon of gasoline that went into my roadster, and came to the conclusion that her rich husband was contributing to my “extravagant living” and that there was “something going on” between us.

The fact of the matter was that I thought he was one of the ugliest men I’d ever seen, sort of a dirty yellow, old and probably arthritic, as far as possible from the kind of man I admired, with the brains and charm of Ralph Bunche or the physique and sound common sense of Charlie West. He didn’t have nearly the polish, charm or intelligence of my own father, who was about his age. However, this didn’t deter Ruth from launching a campaign of slander against me that went flying all over the Eastern seaboard among everyone we knew. It seemed that within a short time, even my own uncle and aunt were questioning me, and Charlie must have had a devil of a time defending me against this woman. I moved out of their house and back into my aunt’s home, but this didn’t do anything to stop the attack. Finally, I decided I couldn’t bear it any longer, and at the end of the school year I quit my job and fled Baltimore, feeling like there was a pack of hounds yapping at my heels, not to mention a large number of bitches.

I fled to the only place I could live comfortably on my own, New York. I moved back to the Village and settled into a life in which I surrounded myself with people I could understand and who could understand me. Ralph continued to write brief, deeply affectionate letters, and Charlie came up from Washington to see me. I also spent time with his family in Washington, Pennsylvania, and I was especially fond of his sister, Ethel, who often came to New York to visit with me.

But my feelings for Charlie were no longer the same. Now that he was a doctor, he seemed to be treating me like a patient, just wanting to take care of me, protect me and guide me. I resented that type of care, and although I was still fond of him, my passion was rather dampened by this condescending attitude towards his “wild baby.” So, I began to encourage him less, and by the end of the summer of 1928, I decided to get away from the Negro col- lege fraternity crowd altogether and asked Father if I might at- tend Wellesley College. He agreed, and I began making preparations to enter in the fall. But then I met a group of students who were going to Paris in September. When I asked myself, Wellesley or Paris, there was no contest. So, keeping my plans to myself, I quietly accepted the tuition for Wellesley, sold my car, and on September 28, 1928, I took off for Paris.

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