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8 Famous People Who Missed the Lusitania

Smithsonian Magazine

When the First World War began, in the summer of 1914, the Lusitania was among the most glamorous and celebrated ships in the world—at one time both the largest and fastest afloat. But the British passenger liner would earn a far more tragic place in history on May 7, 1915, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives.

The Lusitania was not the first British ship to be torpedoed, and the German Navy had publicly vowed to destroy “every enemy merchant ship” it found in the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland. On the day the Lusitania set sail from New York, the German Embassy ran ads in U.S. newspapers, warning travelers to avoid liners flying the British flag.  But in the case of the Lusitania the warnings went largely unheeded, due in part to the belief that the powerful ship could outrun any pursuant. The ship's captain, W. T. Turner, offered additional reassurance. “It's the best joke I've heard in many days this talk of torpedoing,” he supposedly told reporters.

England and Germany had been at war for close to a year by that point, but the United States, whose citizens would account for about 120 of the Lusitania’s victims, had remained neutral; ships sailing under the stars and stripes would not be the deliberate targets of German torpedoes. Though the U.S. didn’t officially enter the war until 1917, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the propaganda blitz that followed, proved a major factor in swaying public opinion in that direction.

Among the prominent American victims were such luminaries of the day as the theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, the popular writer Elbert Hubbard and the very rich Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. But the list of passengers who missed the Lusitania’s last voyage was equally illustrious. Ironically, it wasn’t the fear of a German U-boat attack that kept most of them off the doomed liner but more mundane matters, such as unfinished business, an uncooperative alarm clock or a demanding mistress.

Here are the stories of eight famous men and women who were lucky enough to dodge the torpedo.

Arturo Toscanini

The conductor Arturo Toscanini was set to return to Europe aboard the Lusitania when his season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera ended. Instead, he cut his concert schedule short and left a week earlier, apparently aboard the Italian liner Duca degli Abruzzi. Contemporary newspaper accounts attributed his hasty departure to doctor’s orders. “His illness amounts practically to a nervous breakdown due to overwork during the season and also to excitement over the European war,” The New York Tribune reported.

In the years since, historians have offered other explanations, including the maestro’s battles with the Met’s management over budget cutbacks, a particularly bad performance of the opera Carmen and a recent ultimatum from his mistress, the singer and silent-movie actress Geraldine Farrar, that he leave his wife and family. Little wonder he set to sea.

Toscanini, who was then in his late 40s, lived for another four decades, until his death at age 89, in 1957. He recorded prolifically—an 85-disc boxed set released last year represents just a portion of his output—and became a celebrity in the U.S., conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra on radio and later television. In 1984, a quarter-century after his death, he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, sharing the honor that year with Charlie Parker and Chuck Berry.

Jerome Kern

Broadway composer Jerome Kern, then just 30 years old, supposedly planned to sail on the Lusitania with the producer Charles Frohman, but overslept when his alarm clock didn’t go off and missed the ship. The makers of the 1946 MGM musical biopic of Kern’s life, Till the Clouds Roll By, apparently didn’t consider that sufficiently dramatic, so the movie has Kern (played by Robert Walker) racing to the pier in a taxi and arriving just as the ship starts to pull away.

Kern would live for another three decades and write the music for such classics of the American songbook as “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”

He died in 1945 at the age of 60 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Isadora Duncan

With her latest tour of the United States just ended, the American-born dancer Isadora Duncan had a number of ships to choose from for her return to Europe, where she was then living, among them the Lusitania. Though she had crossed the Atlantic on the luxurious liner before, she passed it up this time in favor of the more humble Dante Alighieri, which left New York eight days later. One reason may have been money: Her tour had been a financial disaster.

In fact, Duncan’s creditors had threatened to seize her trunks and keep her from leaving the country at all until she paid about $12,000 in debts racked up during her visit. In a newspaper interview Duncan pleaded, “I appeal to the generosity of the American people and ask them if they are willing to see me and my pupils disgraced after all I have done in the cause of art.”  Fortunately, within hours of the Dante’s departure, Duncan’s creditors had been placated and a benefactor had given her two $1,000 bills to buy the steamship tickets.

Several histories of the Lusitania disaster give the impression that Duncan sailed on the liner New York with Ellen Terry (see below). Though Duncan idolized the older actress and even had a child with her son, theater director Edward Gordon Craig, it seems to have been one of Duncan’s young dancers rather than Duncan herself who accompanied Terry.

Duncan mentions the Lusitania briefly in her autobiography: “Life is a dream, and it is well that it is so, or who could survive some of its experiences? Such, for instance, as the sinking of the Lusitania. An experience like that should leave for ever an expression of horror upon the faces of the men and women who went through it, whereas we meet them everywhere smiling and happy.”

A dozen years later, Duncan would have a famously fatal encounter with another form of transportation, strangled when her scarf became entangled in one of the wheels of a car in which she was riding.

Image by University of Iowa Digital Library. Made famous for his travel lectures, Lincoln Wirt reportedly cancelled his passage on the Lusitania in order to take another ship. (original image)

Image by Library of Congress via WikiCommons. On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland and nearly 1,200 lives were lost. (original image)

Image by Library of Congress. William Gillette was famed in his era as both a playwright and stage actor, especially for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Due to a commitment to perform in Philadelphia, he was forced to stay behind did not board the Lusitania. (original image)

Image by California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection. American-born dancer Isadora Duncan had previously crossed the Atlantic on the Lusitania but she decided to board the more humble Dante Alighieri on May 7, 1915. (original image)

Image by Robert Hunt Picture Library via WikiCommons. On the day the Lusitania set said from New York, the German Embassy ran ads in U.S. newspapers, warning travelers to avoid liners flying the British flag. (original image)

Millicent Fenwick 

A 5-year-old at the time of the disaster, Millicent Hammond Fenwick grew up to become an editor at Vogue, a civil rights activist, a Congresswoman from New Jersey and a possible inspiration for the famous “Doonesbury” character Lacey Davenport, whose outspokenness she shared.

Fenwick’s parents, Ogden and Mary Stevens Hammond, were both on board the Lusitania but left young Millicent and her siblings behind because their trip was humanitarian in nature rather than a family vacation, says Amy Schapiro, author of the 2003 biography Millicent Fenwick: Her Way. Her mother was headed to France to help establish a Red Cross hospital for World War I casualties.

Though they were warned not to take the Lusitania, Schapiro says, Millicent’s mother was determined to go and her father refused to let his wife sail alone. Her father survived the sinking; her mother did not. Perhaps because the subject was too painful, Fenwick rarely discussed her mother’s death or how the loss affected her, according to Schapiro. 

Millicent Fenwick died in 1992 at age 82. 

William Morris

The founder and namesake of what’s said to be the world’s oldest and largest talent agency, William Morris, born Zelman Moses, not only missed the Lusitania’s last voyage in 1915 but also the Titanic’s first and only attempt to cross the Atlantic three years earlier. 

In both cases, Morris had booked passage but canceled at the last minute to attend to other matters, according to The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business by Frank Rose (1995).  In those days, Morris’s business involved supplying vaudeville acts to thousands of live theaters across the United States. Among his clients were W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and Will Rogers, popular stage performers who would go on to become even bigger stars in the new media of movies and radio. 

William Morris died of a heart attack in 1932, while playing pinochle.

Ellen Terry 

Widely considered the greatest English actress of her day, Ellen Terry had finished an American lecture tour and was reportedly offered a free suite on the Lusitania for her return home.  However, she had promised her daughter not to take an English ship because of war concerns, and instead booked passage on the American liner New York.

Though the New York was slower and considerably less comfortable than the Lusitania, Terry made the best of it. “I suppose on the whole I prefer this bed to the Ocean Bed,” she wrote in her diary.

Terry, who was 68 at the time, lived for another 13 years, during which she continued to perform and lecture as well as make several motion pictures.

William Gillette

The actor William Gillette often joined Charles Frohman on his trips to Europe and planned to accompany the producer aboard the Lusitania, according to Henry Zecher, author of the 2011 biography, William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes. As Gillette later told the story, however, he had a commitment to perform in Philadelphia and was forced to stay behind. 

Though little remembered now, Gillette was famed in his era as both a playwright and stage actor, especially for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, today’s popular image of Holmes may owe nearly as much to Gillette’s interpretation as to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original.  It was Gillette, for example, who furnished Holmes with his trademark bent briar pipe, Zecher notes. Gillette also invented the line “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow,” which evolved into the immortal “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

The year after the Lusitania’s sinking, Gillette gave his one motion picture performance as Holmes. Unfortunately, the film, like many others of the silent era, seems to be lost.

Gillette died in 1937 at age 83. His eccentric and highly theatrical stone mansion in East Haddam, Connecticut, is now a tourist attraction, Gillette Castle State Park.

Lincoln Wirt

Probably the least famous person on our list by today’s standards, Lincoln Wirt was nationally known for his travel lectures, once a popular form of entertainment.  At a time when few Americans could afford international travel and much of the planet remained exotic and unexplored, adventurers like Wirt brought the world to them. He was also a minister and war correspondent.

Wirt’s lecture “The Conquest of the Arctic,” for example, promised its audience an account of his 1,250-mile journey by canoe and dog sled, complete with “the horrors of scurvy, typhoid and freezing” along with “bubbling humor” and “descriptions of exquisite beauty.” But Wirt missed out on what might have been the tale of a lifetime when he reportedly cancelled his passage on the Lusitania in order to take another ship, the Canopic, and head to Constantinople.

Wirt’s adventures continued for another half century. He died in 1961, at the age of 97. 

The Lusitania – Titanic connection

The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the Titanic in 1912 may be forever linked as the two most famous maritime disasters of the 20th century. But the similarities between the Cunard liner Lusitania, launched in 1906, and the White Star liner Titanic, launched in 1911, hardly end here. Each was the largest ship in the world at the time of its debut, the Lusitania at 787 feet, the Titanic at 883 feet. They were also two of the most luxurious ships afloat, designed to compete for the rich and famous travelers of the day as well as for the profitable immigrant trade. In fact several notable passengers had ties to both ships:

• Al Woods, a well-known American theatrical producer, claimed to have had close calls with both the Lusitania and the Titanic, as did his frequent traveling companion, a businessman named Walter Moore. The two reportedly missed the Titanic when business matters kept them in London and called off their trip on the Lusitania because of fears of a submarine attack. 

•  The high-society fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon, among the most famous survivors of the Titanic disaster, was booked on the Lusitania but canceled her trip, citing health reasons.

•  Two other Titanic survivors, banker Robert W. Daniel and his wife, Eloise, also appear to have canceled passage on the Lusitania, deciding to take an American ship, the Philadelphia, instead. Eloise Daniel lost her first husband in the Titanic disaster and met her future mate when he was pulled aboard the lifeboat she was in.  They married two years later. Interviewed on their arrival in London, he described the crossing on the Philadelphia as “absolutely uneventful.”

•  Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, 37-year-old railroad heir and horse fancier, missed the Titanic in 1912 but unfortunately not the Lusitania in 1915, despite receiving a mysterious telegram telling him the ship was doomed. Vanderbilt died a hero in the disaster, reportedly giving his lifebelt to a young woman passenger, even though he couldn’t swim.

Dark Manhattan

National Museum of African American History and Culture
2015.167.5.1ab: 16mm black and white film.

2015.167.5.1c: Original cardboard film shipping box. No legible inscriptions.

In "Dark Manhattan", a lad who takes control of the policy racket in Harlem, meets a sweet and clean nightclub singer and falls in love with her. Before they can get married, a rival gang tries to muscle into the numbers racket and, at the end, the lad gets shot-gunned and dies in the arms of his girl.

When Larry B. "L. B." Lee, the top numbers banker in Harlem, visits the poolroom of one of his accounts, Jack Jackson, he witnesses James A. "Curly" Thorpe break up a knife fight and, impressed with his performance, asks Curly to join his organization, which he emphasizes does not use underhanded methods. Curly quickly distinguishes himself as tough on district operators, whose business is declining, and grows ambitious in his desire to be the most talked about man in Harlem. He also wants to steal the affections of L. B.'s girl friend, Flo Gray, a radio singer who appears at the Club Congo. After L. B., who has been warned by his doctor to take a rest, has a heart attack while dining with Flo, Curly runs the operation while L. B. recuperates. Curly institutes gangster methods to force smaller operations to pay for protection, and doubles the bank's income, which causes ten days of gang warfare and police raids, culminating in a district attorney's effort to smash the numbers racket. Although Curly and Flo keep newspaper reports away from L. B., the heads of the other numbers banks reveal the situation to him, after which he promises to redistribute the money his bank made. Curly, however, refuses to part with the money made since he took over and prevails upon L. B. to take a trip for his health. After Curly tells the bankers' association that he wants twenty percent from every banker for protection, Butch Williams, a rival who operates at the Club Congo, offers protection for five percent. During a shoot out at the club, Curly is mortally wounded, and he dies in the arms of Flo, who has grown to love him.


AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Accessed August 12, 2016 (

WorldCat. Accessed August 12, 2016 (

Consists of: 16mm Flim (a), 16mm Flim (b), and Original Film Shipping Box (c).

Adam Clayton Powell

National Portrait Gallery

Alfred Lunt

National Portrait Gallery
Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Husband and wife Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne formed a dynamic actor-and-producer team that dominated early twentieth-century American theater. Together, the couple's effortless comedies delighted Broadway audiences. In 1928 "the fabulous Lunts" solidified their star power when they stipulated contractually that they must always perform as a pair. Critics praised their "infinite subtlety, resource and drollery" and declared, "Miss Fontanne and Mr. Lunt are a matchless pair of volatile comedians."

Lunt's dashing appeal is captured in this portrait by the couple's friend, theater designer Claggett Wilson. The Lunts commissioned him to adorn the walls of their Wisconsin estate, Ten Chimneys, with painted murals. The original frame of this portrait matches woodwork used at the house. Lunt's beret may reference a 1928 trip that he, Fontanne, and Wilson took to the Basque country in Spain.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne

National Portrait Gallery

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson

National Portrait Gallery
Born Richmond, Virginia

In the 1920s Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was a vaudeville headliner billed as “The World’s Greatest Tap Dancer.” But today he is remembered most for teaching Shirley Temple how to tap in The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Just Around the Corner, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The “stair dance” from The Little Colonel was perhaps their most famous dance together, with Robinson dancing the steps for Temple first so she could imitate him.

His style of tap was “up on its toes”—dancing crossover steps on the balls of his feet—rather than the earlier flat-footed shuffling style. He said that his style influenced such important dancers in his day as the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, and Eleanor Powell.

One biographer said, “Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps.”

Billy Dee Williams Self-Portrait

National Portrait Gallery
Billy Dee Williams (born 1937) has worked in film and television for nearly fifty years. He is best known for his role opposite Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), which focused on the life of Billie Holiday, and his work in two of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Williams has also worked as an artist throughout his life, having studied at the High School of Music and Art in New York City and later at the National Academy of Art. He specializes in acrylic paintings combining traditional brushwork with an airbrushing technique. In 1993 he created Self-Portrait with Gardenia, which references a famous scene in Lady Sings the Blues when his character, Louis McKay, offers a gardenia to Billie Holiday.

Bob Hope

National Portrait Gallery

Bob Hope

National Portrait Gallery

Charlie Chaplin

National Portrait Gallery

Chauve-Souris (program)

National Portrait Gallery

Clifton Webb

National Portrait Gallery

Cocoanut Grove Caricature Dress

National Portrait Gallery
After caricaturist Ralph Barton published an illustration in Vanity Fair highlighting the film-world elite dining at Hollywood's legendary Cocoanut Grove restaurant, the design was chosen for an Americana series of silk fabrics. One young flapper chose the Cocoanut Grove silk to make into this simple frock. Famous profiles of John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Eddie Cantor pop out of the picture; Charlie Chaplin scurries in late; film industry regulator Will Hays serves as the maître d'hôtel. The dress, still stained from its partygoing career, undoubtedly evoked for its owner the tempo, glamour, and theatricality of metropolitan life. To her elders, though, it must have seemed shockingly revealing of arms and legs.

Eleanor Powell

National Portrait Gallery
Born Springfield, Massachusetts

Known as “the Queen of Tap,” Eleanor Powell was a forceful and exuberant dancer. Fred Astaire said, “She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.”

Powell starred in Broadway Melody of 1936, Born to Dance, Rosalie, Broadway Melody of 1938, and, most notably, Broadway Melody of 1940. Her production number with Astaire in that last film, “Begin the Beguine,” is considered one of the most legendary tap sequences ever filmed. Dancing on a giant mirror that reflected an infinite starscape, they elevated the dance into an other-worldly space.

Powell called tap “our American folk dance. It is the red, white, and blue.” For her, the rhythmic beat of tap made it “the uniquely American contribution to the world of dance.”

Eleanor Powell

National Portrait Gallery

Eleanor Powell

National Portrait Gallery

Elvis Presley

National Portrait Gallery
Red Grooms, like fellow Tennessean William Eggleston (whose work is also in this room), has often memorialized Elvis in his art. In this image, he arms Elvis with his trademark flashy apparel and accompanying guitar, but a slightly closer observation will yield several other components of Elvis's iconographic ensemble-the lip curl, the slick, combed-back hair, the omnipresent Cadillac, Graceland, and the stylized stage posture. One of the famous gates of Graceland is swung open behind the entertainer while a woman in a red dress and black high heels observes the singer from the porch of the mansion.

Grooms is to American art as Mark Twain is to American writing; he is the foremost humorist in his discipline. He is also a prolific artist who works in many media.

Fanny Brice

National Portrait Gallery

Finale of "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood"

National Portrait Gallery

Frank Sinatra

National Portrait Gallery

Hazel Scott’s Lifetime of High Notes

Smithsonian Magazine

She was called the “Darling of Café Society” back in 1939 when New York City was alive with the sounds of swing. A sexy siren sitting bare-shouldered at the piano, Hazel Scott captivated audiences with her renditions of classical masterpieces by Chopin, Bach and Rachmaninoff. Nightly, crowds would gather at Café Society, New York’s first fully integrated nightclub, the epicenter of jazz and politics nestled in Greenwich Village, to hear the nineteen-year-old bronze beauty transform “Valse in D-Flat Major”, “Two Part Invention in A-Minor,” and “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” into highly syncopated sensations. “But where others murder the classics, Hazel Scott merely commits arson,” wrote TIME magazine. “Strange notes creep in, the melody is tortured with hints of boogie-woogie, until finally, happily, Hazel Scott surrenders to her worse nature and beats the keyboard into a rack of bones.”

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad on June 11, 1920, Hazel Dorothy Scott was the only child of R. Thomas Scott, a West African scholar from Liverpool, England and Alma Long Scott, a classically-trained pianist and music teacher. A precocious child who discovered the piano at the age of 3, Hazel surprised everyone with her ability to play by ear. When she would scream with displeasure after one of Alma’s students hit a wrong note, no one in the household recognized the sensitive ear she possessed. “They had been amused, but no one regarded my urge as latent talent,” she recalled. Until one day, young Hazel made her way to the piano and began tapping out the church hymn, “Gentle Jesus”, a tune her grandmother Margaret sang to her daily at nap time. From that moment on, Alma shifted her focus from her own dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and dedicated herself to cultivating her daughter’s natural gift. They were a tight knit pair, sharing an extremely close bond throughout their lives. “She was the single biggest influence in my life,” Hazel said. Her father, on the other hand, would soon leave the family and have a very small presence in his daughter’s life.

Following the breakup of the Scott’s marriage, the three of them—mother, daughter and grandmother—would migrate to the States in search of greater opportunity for themselves and the gifted young pianist. In 1924, they headed to New York and landed in Harlem, where Alma took a job as a domestic maid. 

She struggled, however, and returned to what she knew best—music. She taught herself the saxophone, and eventually joined Lil Hardin Armstrong’s orchestra in the early 1930s. Alma’s associations with well-known musicians made the Scott household “a mecca for musicians,” according to Hazel, who benefited from the guidance and tutelage of jazz greats Art Tatum, Lester Young and Fats Waller, all of whom she considered to be like family.

In 1928, Hazel auditioned for enrollment in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. She was only eight-years-old, and too young for standard enrollment (students had to be at least 16), but because of some influential nudging by wealthy family friends and Alma’s sheer determination, Hazel was given a chance. Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor” made a strong impression on staff professor Oscar Wagner. He proclaimed the child “a genius,” and with the permission of the school’s director, Walter Damrosch, offered her a special scholarship where he would teach her privately.

Career progress was swift. A spirited young woman with an outward demeanor that was effervescent and engaging, Hazel’s life was not that of an ordinary teenager. While still in high school, Hazel hosted her own radio show on WOR after winning a local competition, and performed gigs at night. At times, she felt burdened by the demands of her talent, admitting, “There were times when I thought that I just couldn't go on.” Still, she managed to graduate with honors from Wadleigh High. Not long after, she made her Broadway debut in the musical revue Sing Out the News. Commercial recordings of her ”Bach to Boogie” repertoire on the Signature and Decca labels would break sales records nationwide.

There was little separation between Hazel’s performance and her outspoken politics. She attributed it to being raised by very proud, strong-willed, independent-minded women. She was one of the first black entertainers to refuse to play before segregated audiences. Written in all her contracts was a standing clause that required forfeiture if there was a dividing line between the races. “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?,” she asked.

By the time Hollywood came calling, Hazel had achieved such stature that she could successfully challenge the studios’ treatment of black actors, demanding pay commensurate with her white counterparts, and refusing to play the subservient roles in which black actors were commonly cast. She would wear no maid uniforms or washer woman rags, and insisted that her name credit appear the same in all films: “Hazel Scott as Herself.” She performed in five major motion pictures in the early ‘40s, including I Dood It, directed by Vincente Minelli and featuring Lena Horne and the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue. But it was the on set of The Heat’s On starring Mae West that Hazel’s characteristic brashness was unleashed. In a scene where she played a WAC sergeant during WWII, Hazel was angered by the costumes the black actresses were given to wear. She complained that “no woman would see her sweetheart off to war wearing a dirty apron.”

Watch this video in the original article

Hazel promptly staged a strike that went on for three days, a battle that was finally rectified by removing the aprons from the scene altogether. The incident came at the cost of Hazel’s film career, which was short-lived as result of her defiance. "I've been brash all my life, and it's gotten me into a lot of trouble. But at the same time, speaking out has sustained me and given meaning to my life,” she said.

It was during these peak years of her career that Hazel began a romantic affair with the controversial Harlem preacher/politician, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who was making a bid for the U.S Congress. Twelve years her senior, married, and a reputed womanizer, Powell pursued her unabashedly. At first, she was annoyed by his advances, but eventually irritation gave way to real interest and passion. The couple began seeing each other in secret. Amidst a great deal of scandal, the couple married in August of 1945; she was the grande vedette of Café Society and he was the first black congressman from the East Coast. “They were stars, not only in the black world but the white world. That was extraordinary,” commented journalist Mike Wallace at the time.

As Hazel settled into domestic life in upstate New York, her career took a backseat to being a political wife and mother of their only son, Adam Clayton Powell III. She gave up nightclubs at Powell’s request and while he was away in Washington, she performed concert dates across the country.

In the summer of 1950, Hazel was offered an unprecedented opportunity by one of the early pioneers of commercial television, the DuMont network—she would become the first black performer to host her own nationally syndicated television show. As the solo star of the show, Hazel performed piano and vocals, often singing tunes in one of the seven languages she spoke. A review in Variety stated, “Hazel Scott has a neat little show in this modest package. Most engaging element in the air is the Scott personality, which is dignified, yet relaxed and versatile.”

But before she could fully enjoy her groundbreaking achievement, her name would appear in Red Channels, the unofficial list of suspected communists. Hazel’s association with Café Society (which was a suspected communist hangout) along with her civil rights efforts made her the target of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Since she was neither a member of the Communist Party or a communist sympathizer, she requested to appear voluntarily before the committee despite her husband’s admonitions against it.

“It has never been my practice to choose the popular course,” she said. “When others lie as naturally as they breathe, I become frustrated and angry.” Her cogent testimony challenged the committee members, providing solid evidence contrary to their accusations. They had a list of nine organizations, all with communist ties, for whom she had performed. She only recognized one of the nine, the others she had never heard of. Yet, she explained that as an artist she was booked only to perform and rarely knew the political affiliations of the organizers who hired her. After hours of fierce questioning, she stated:

“…may I end with one request—and that is that your committee protect those Americans who have honestly, wholesomely, and unselfishly tried to perfect this country and make the guarantees in our Constitution live. The actors, musicians, artists, composers, and all of the men and women of the arts are eager and anxious to help, to serve. Our country needs us more today than ever before. We should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men.”

The entertainment community applauded her fortitude, but the government’s suspicions were enough to cause irreparable damage to her career. Weeks after the hearing, The Hazel Scott Show was canceled, and concert bookings became few and far between.

Around this same time, her marriage to Powell was crumbling under the weight of career demands, too much time apart, competitive jealousy and infidelity. After eleven years of marriage, the couple decided to part ways. Hazel sought refuge overseas. With her young son in tow, she joined the burgeoning black expatriate community in Paris.

Her apartment on the Right Bank became a regular hangout for other American entertainers living in Paris. James Baldwin, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach were regular guests, along with musicians from the Ellington and Basie bands. Hazel’s music softened during the Paris years; she played more serene tunes with less and less of her old boogie-woogie style. On a brief visit to the States in 1955, she recorded Relaxed Piano Moods with Charlie Mingus and Max Roach on the Debut label, an album now considered by jazz critics and aficionados as one of the most important jazz recordings of the twentieth century. Most recently, it was inducted into National Public Radio’s Basic Jazz Record Library.

After a decade of living abroad, she would return to an American music scene that no longer valued what she had to offer. Replaced by rhythm & blues, the Motown sound and the British bands, jazz was no longer popular music, and Hazel Scott was no longer a bankable talent. Once the “darling of Café Society,” Hazel continued to perform, playing small clubs to a devoted fan base, perfecting her style and constantly exploring new ways of expressing herself musically. In October of 1981, she passed away from pancreatic cancer. Though she may not be as widely recognized as many of her contemporaries, her legacy as one of the pioneering women in entertainment endures.

Karen Chilton is the author of Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, from Café Society to Hollywood to HUAC.

How Bullwinkle Taught Kids Sophisticated Political Satire

Smithsonian Magazine

“Mr. Chairman, I am against all foreign aid, especially to places like Hawaii and Alaska,” says Senator Fussmussen from the floor of a cartoon Senate in 1962. In the visitors’ gallery, Russian agents Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale are deciding whether to use their secret “Goof Gas” gun to turn the Congress stupid, as they did to all the rocket scientists and professors in the last episode of “Bullwinkle.”

Another senator wants to raise taxes on everyone under the age of 67. He, of course, is 68. Yet a third stands up to demand, “We’ve got to get the government out of government!” The Pottsylvanian spies decide their weapon is unnecessary: Congress is already ignorant, corrupt and feckless.

Hahahahaha. Oh, Washington.

That joke was a wheeze half a century ago, a cornball classic that demonstrates the essential charm of the “Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends,” the cartoon show that originally aired between 1959 and 1964 about a moose and a squirrel navigating Cold War politics.

Last month, we lost the great June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and many others. Her passing gave me pause to reflect on how important the show was during my formative years and how far-reaching is its influence on satire today. “Bullwinkle” was, like so many of the really good cartoons, technically before my time (I was born the year it ended). My sister and I caught it in syndication as part of our regular weekend cartoon lineup of Looney Tunes, “Jonny Quest,” and “The Jetsons,” from elementary through high school.

It wasn’t that Bullwinkle the character was especially compelling. He was an affable doofus with a loyal heart, if limited brainpower. Rocky was the more intelligent straight man: a less hostile Abbott to Bullwinkle’s more secure Costello. They were earnest do-gooders who took every obviously shady setup at face value. Their enemies were far cleverer, better resourced, and infinitely more cunning, but Rocky and Bullwinkle always prevailed. Always. For absolutely no good reason. It was a sendup of every Horatio Alger, Tom Swift, plucky-American-hero-wins-against-all-odds story ever made.

What we didn’t know in the ‘70s, when we were watching, that this was pretty subversive stuff for a children’s program made at the height of the Cold War. Watching this dumb moose and his rodent pal continually prevail against well-funded human saboteurs gave me pause to consider, even as a kid, that perhaps it is a silly idea to believe that just because we’re the good guys we should always expect to win.

The animation was stiff but sweet, the puns plentiful and painful. The show poked fun at radio, television, and movie tropes, and took playful aim at Cold War spycraft. Part of the fun was that Bullwinkle wasn’t a regular cartoon, but an animated half-hour variety show. And “variety shows” used to be so much of a Thing that I am stunned there is no niche cable network devoted to them today.

Every episode of “The Bullwinkle Show” featured two cliffhanger segments in the adventures of Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel, pitted against master spies Boris and Natasha, all narrated breathlessly by erstwhile radio star William Conrad. Between each serial installment were stand-alone features, including “Peabody’s Improbable History,” wherein Mr. Peabody, a genius dog and his pet boy, Sherman, travel through time to make terrible puns; “Fractured Fairy Tales,” updated twists on Grimm Brothers classics; “Dudley Do-Right,” a parody of silent melodramas starring a cleft-chinned Canadian Mountie; and “Aesop & Son,” modernized versions of Aesop’s fables as told by Charlie Ruggles, star of silent and classic films. Other features included “Bullwinkle’s Corner,” an over-enunciated poetry reading, and “Mr. Know-It-All,” in which Bullwinkle tries and fails to teach us something.

The Variety Show format enabled three things. First, its gloss of adult sophistication completely undercut by silliness was incredibly attractive to me and my sister.  Secondly, it got us to delight in the work of a revolving cast of top-notch, old school voice actors who’d grown up in radio and knew how to sell a line.  June Foray, for example, is the common thread that weaves together the everyman fast-talkers of Warner Brothers films (she voiced Granny and Witch Hazel for Looney Tunes), the pop culture and political satire of Stan Freberg, and the Cold War kiddie fare of “Bullwinkle” (as Rocky, Nell Fenwick, Natasha, and more).

“Fractured Fairy Tales” were narrated by veteran actor Edward Everett Horton, a Warner Bros. stable favorite, and featured Daws Butler (Elroy Jetson), a Stan Freberg comedy show veteran, along with Paul Frees and June Foray. Before giving voice to Dudley Do-Right’s nemesis Snidely Whiplash, Hans Conried was better known as Captain Hook in Disney’s “Peter Pan,” as well as for his years’ long yeoman’s work on radio mystery shows, “I Love Lucy,” and “Burns and Allen.”

Finally, the show’s format and depth of talent connected my sister and me to a world of comedy that was well before our time, but helped us navigate what came afterwards. Apart from Sesame Street and the Electric Company (whose cast was a gift to future Broadway lovers) the cartoon landscape during the 1970s was bleak. I don’t know what happened during the Summer of Love to cause formerly respectable shops like Hanna-Barbera to go from “Jonny Quest” to “Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels,” but it can’t have been pretty.  In those grim years when cable was not yet available to the common man and one had physically to get up to change the channel (or make one’s sister do it), we relied on three networks, a local PBS affiliate, and a couple of random UHF stations for our home entertainment. By setting the contemporary junk fare right up against reruns of infinitely better material, regular television gave my sister and me a great education in quality satire, voice recognition, and genius parody.

There was also the added benefit of our mother’s healthy collection of comedy albums—Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer, Nichols & May, and Woody Allen—all of which are of the same era as “Bullwinkle” and feature some of the same performers. My parents and these comedians belong to the so-called “Silent” Generation—that cohort born between 1925 and 1945­—too young to be the Greatest and too old to be Boomers. Born during times of economic insecurity, this group came of age during the McCarthy Era and is marked, understandably, by a desire not to rock the boat too much.  While they weren’t as culturally radical as the Boomers of the ’60s, the artists and cultural provocateurs of the Silent Generation loved to take a whack at the Eisenhower status quo, not to mention psychoanalysis and the Bomb.

Because we loved these old records and shows, my sister and I ended up singing along with Tom Lehrer about German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (about whom we knew nothing), did the Vatican Rag and the Masochism Tango (ditto).

And so, through Bullwinkle, we were granted access to nearly a century’s worth of comedy and satire, three generations of backhanded patriotism tempered with gentle skepticism going back to vaudeville, a sort of atavistic psychic tool chest for navigating strange and scary times.

Bullwinkle was there when PBS pre-empted all programming to air the Watergate hearings in the summer I was eight, my last before sleepaway camp. At P.S. 19, we were still having bomb drills and the Cold War was still very much on, as was a hot war in Vietnam, but there was no recognition of these facts in the “Archies” or “Hong Kong Fooey.” Bullwinkle’s immunizing effect continues today. Had we only dreck like “Land of the Lost,” would we be prepared to contemplate Russian cyber-bots interfering in our presidential elections?

Bullwinkle’s playful critique lives on today in “Spongebob” and “The Simpsons,” shows whose creators openly acknowledge their debts. (Spongebob’s Squidward’s voice is Ned Sparks; Plankton is Walter Brennan. All the male Simpsons have Bullwinkle & Rocky’s middle initial “J.”) These shows are a loving critique of the ways American ideals and American reality are often out of whack.  And it’s a good thing, because suddenly the original great theme of Bullwinkle—fear of nuclear annihilation—is back. 

Beth Daniels writes a classic movie blog and watches entirely too much television. She wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.

How Would You Rank the Greatest Presidents?

Smithsonian Magazine

In an interview in January 2010, President Obama told Diane Sawyer of ABC News, “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.”

The comment didn’t really jibe well with Robert W. Merry, an acclaimed biographer of James Polk, who served as president from 1845 to 1849. Polk is ranked as a “near great” president in polls by scholars, but he is an exception. “History has not smiled upon one-term presidents,” wrote Merry in an editorial in the New York Times. “The typical one-term president generally falls into the ‘average’ category, occasionally the ‘above average.’ ”

In his new book, Where They Stand, Merry opens up the rating game beyond historians, to include what voters and contemporaries said in their own times. The editor of the National Interest, a foreign policy publication, argues that while historians’ views are important, presidential greatness is best seen through the eyes of voters of the president’s time. The greatest of the “greats,” in other words, have the election records to show it. They earned the trust of Americans in their first terms, won second terms and, in some cases, paved the way for their party to maintain control of the White House for the next four years.

Historians and others take joy in ranking the presidents, and debating these ranks. To you, what’s the fun in this?
It is the same fun that we have in trying to determine who is the greatest first baseman of all time. Most people would say Lou Gehrig, but there is plenty of room for debate. Who is the greatest American singer of the postwar period? But the presidents really have the national destiny in their hands. It is a much more significant pursuit than these others, which are more in the realm of trivia. Who was great? Who wasn’t so great? And, why were they great? Ranking presidents is a way we bring order to our thinking about our history.

What factors, do you think, need to be considered when assessing presidential greatness?
Greatness is as greatness does. It is really a question of what a president has accomplished with the country. Reagan’s question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” is very apt. Put another way, is the country better off? How is the country different? Are those differences good or are they not so good?

The great presidents all did something that changed the political landscape of America and set the country on a new course. That’s not easy to do. That is really the key to presidential greatness.

In your book, your big claim is that we should listen to the electorate at the time of the president’s term, and not just historians. Why do you put such emphasis on the voters?
Presidential politics is like retailing. The customer is always right. In our system, we put faith in the voters, because that is at the bedrock of how we think we should order our affairs politically. If you don’t believe that, then it is kind of hard to believe very strongly in American democracy.

The whole idea is that the voters emerge with a collective judgment, maybe even occasionally a collective wisdom. I happen to buy that. Therefore, I felt that the polls of historians were significant. I didn’t debunk them or toss them aside. But I thought they were incomplete, because they didn’t always take into account what the voters were saying, thinking or doing with regard to their presidents contemporaneously. I wanted to sort of crank that into the discussion.

There are six presidents that you refer to as “Leaders of Destiny.” What makes a president deserving of this title?
The six, in order, are Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. I happen to believe that Reagan will get into that circle, but right now, the polls of historians don’t quite have him there, although his standing is rising rather dramatically.

The six leaders of destiny pass a three-part test. They are consistently hailed among the greats or near greats by the historians. They are two-term presidents succeeded by their own party, meaning that the voters liked them both times that they served. And then, as I described earlier, they transformed the political landscape of the country and set it on a new course.

What were the major traits that these presidents shared? They all understood the nature of their time, what was really going on in the country, what the country needed, what the voters collectively were hungry for. There are a lot of presidents who don’t understand their time; they think they do, but they don’t. You have to have a vision. All of these leaders of destiny were elected at a time when the country needed tremendous leadership, and these presidents are the ones who stepped up and gave it. Then, they have political adroitness, the ability to get their hands on the levers of power in America and manipulate those levers in a way that gets the country moving affectively in the direction of that vision.

In your opinion, FDR and Ronald Reagan are the two greatest presidents of the 20th century.
The voters hailed them both at the time. What is interesting, in my view, is that Roosevelt was probably the most liberal president of the 20th century, and Reagan was probably the most conservative president of the 20th century. It indicates that the country is not particularly ideological. It is looking for the right solutions to the problems of the moment. The country is willing to turn left or to turn right.

What is the difference between good and great?
We have had a lot of good presidents. I’ll give you a good example of a good president, Bill Clinton. Clinton was elected because the country wasn’t quite satisfied with George H.W. Bush. They didn’t think he was a terrible president, but he didn’t quite lead the country in a way that made him eligible for rehire. The country gets Bill Clinton, and he tries to govern in his first two years as if his aim is to repeal Reaganism. The result was that the American people basically slapped him down very, very decisively in the midterm elections of 1994, at which point Bill Clinton did an about-face and said, “The era of big government is over.” He crafted a center left mode of governing that was very effective. He had significant economic growth. He wiped out the deficit. We didn’t have major problems overseas. There was no agitation in the streets that led to violence or anything of that nature. He gets credit for being a good president.

Once he righted his mode of government and moved the country solidly forward, he was beginning to build up some significant political capital, and he never really felt the need or desire to invest that capital into anything very bold. So, he governed effectively as a status quo president and ended eight years as a very good steward of American polity, but not a great president. To be a great president, you have to take risks and make changes.

Just as we can learn from the successes, there are lessons to be learned from the failures. What can you say about character traits that do not bode well for a successful presidency?
Scandal harms you tremendously. But I would say that the real failures are people like James Buchanan who faced a huge crisis—the debate over slavery that was descending upon America—and just simply didn’t want to deal with. He wasn’t willing to put himself out in any kind of politically risky way in order to address it. The result was it just got worse. It festered and got worse.

Occasionally, a president will make a comeback in historians’ minds. What would you say is the most reputation-altering presidential biography?
Grover Cleveland is the only president we have who actually is a two-time, one-term president. He is the only president who served two nonconsecutive terms. Each time he served four years, the voters said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to turn away to either another person in the party or another candidate.”

Meanwhile, however, the first poll by Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948 had Grover Cleveland at Number 8. That ranking came a few years after the great historian Allan Evans wrote a two volume biography of Grover Cleveland, in which he hailed him as a man of destiny and a man of character. I am sure that biography had a significant impact.

So, you describe a manner of assessing the greatest of past presidents. But, it is an election year. How do you suggest we evaluate current presidential candidates?
I don’t think the American people need a lot of instruction from me or anyone else in terms of how to make an assessment on the presidents when they come up for reelection. Presidential elections are largely referendums on the incumbent. The American people don’t pay a lot of attention to the challenger. They basically make their judgment collectively, based on the performance of the incumbent or the incumbent party. They pretty much screen out the trivia and the nonsense—a lot of the stuff that we in the political journalistic fraternity (and I’ve been a part of it for a long, long time) tend to take very seriously—and make their assessment based on sound judgments on how the president has fared, how well he has led the country and whether the country is in better shape than it was before. I am pretty confident that the American people know what they are doing.

Do you have any comment, then, on what qualities we might look for in a candidate, so that we maximize our chances of electing a leader of destiny?
One thing that we know from history is that the great presidents are never predicted as being great. They are elected in a political crucible. While supporters are convinced he is going to be great—or she; someday we will have a woman—his detractors and opponents will be absolutely convinced that he is going to be a total and utter disaster. Even after he is succeeding, they are going to say he is a disaster.

You can never really predict what a president is going to do or how effective he is going to be. Lincoln was considered a total country bumpkin from out there in rural Illinois. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously judged Franklin Roosevelt as having a first-rate temperament and a second-rate intellect. Ronald Reagan was viewed as a failed movie actor who just read his lines from 3-by-5 cards. And all three were great presidents.

What idea are you turning to next?
I wrote a history of the James Polk presidency [A Country of Vast Designs] and how the country moved west and gained all of that western and southwestern territory, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and then California to Texas. I am fascinated now by the subsequent time in our history when we busted out of our continental confines and went out into the world in the Spanish-American War. I am looking at the presidency of William McKinley and the frothy optimism of the country at that time when we decided to become something of an imperial power.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?
I guess a big question I would have in terms of the state of the country is, why is the country in such a deadlock? And how in the world are we going to get out of the crisis that is a result of that deadlock?

From my last interviewee, Frank Partnoy, a University of San Diego professor and author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay: How do you know what you know? What is it about your research and experience and background that leads you to a degree of certainty about your views? With what degree of confidence do you hold that idea?
I am not a young man. I have been around a long time. I had certainty when I was young, but I have had a lot of my certitudes shaken over the years. But, if you have enough of that, you tend to accumulate at least a few observations about the world that seem pretty solid and grounded. So, you go with them.

You have to take it on faith that you have seen enough and you know enough and you have certain principal perceptions of how things work and how events unfold and how the thesis-antithesis leads to synthesis in politics or government or history. And, so you pull it together as best you can. Ultimately, the critics will determine how successful you were.

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