Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Heat Wave: The life and career of Ethel Waters by Donald Bogle

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  Almost no other star of the twentieth century reimagined herself with such audacity and durable talent as did Ethel Waters. In this enlightening and engaging biography, Donald Bogle resurrects this astonishing woman from the annals of history, shedding new light on the tumultuous twists and turns of her seven-decade career, which began in Black vaudeville and reached new heights in the steamy nightclubs of 1920s Harlem.

Bogle traces Waters' life from her poverty-stricken childhood to her rise in show business; her career as one of the early blues and pop singers, with such hits as "Am I Blue?," "Stormy Weather," and "Heat Wave"; her success as an actress, appearing in such films and plays as The Member of the Wedding and Mamba's Daughters; and through her lonely, painful final years. He illuminates Waters' turbulent private life, including her complicated feelings toward her mother and various lovers; her heated and sometimes well-known feuds with such entertainers as Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne; and her tangled relationships with such legends as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Count Basie, Darryl F. Zanuck, Vincente Minnelli, Fred Zinnemann, Moss Hart, and John Ford.

In addition, Bogle explores the ongoing racial battles, growing paranoia, and midlife religious conversion of this bold, brash, wildly talented woman while examining the significance of her highly publicized life to audiences unaccustomed to the travails of a larger-than-life African American woman.

Wonderfully atmospheric, richly detailed, and drawn from an array of candid interviews, Heat Wave vividly brings to life a major cultural figure of the twentieth century—a charismatic, complex, and compelling woman, both tragic and triumphant.

And here's what I thought:   I admit, part of why I picked this up is because I'm trying to finish up the book challenge I signed up for ....   but also because I happened across it on my library's shelves, and I was curious.  I was familiar with Ethel Waters, but mostly by name only.   After reading this book, I now feel like I know not only about Ms. Waters, but also about some of the history of Black performers in the United States.

The author has written other books, and it appeared that he did exhaustive research for this book.  He takes the reader from Ethel Waters' childhood all the way up to her death, and gives you so much detail that you feel like you're right there with her most of the time.   Ethel was an extremely talented performer, and it was interesting to read about not only how she started out in her early performances, but also how she continued to build upon her success .... and pick herself up when she wasn't as successful and find a way to keep going.   I like how Bogle would give additional information on other performers, and explain not only what the entertainment atmosphere was for Black performers, but also how Waters influenced other performers.  He writes not only about women like Ma Rainey, whose style impacted Waters, but also how Waters' own style was influential on other artists, as well.

As I mentioned, Mr. Bogle puts a lot of detail into this book.  I will admit that a few times, I skimmed ahead a bit, because I was bogged down a bit.  However, the book overall is very interesting, and a good read.   After reading this, I'm interested in finding more information on some of the other artists mentioned in the book, and I'd like to try to find some recordings to listen to, as well.  

First lines:  With only a few minutes to curtain time, Ethel Waters stood in the wings of Broadway's Empire Theatre, ready to take her place onstage on the evening of January 5, 1950, in the drama The Member of the Wedding.  Though nervous, she knew she could not let her nerves get the best of her.  After all, she had made countless entrances countless nights before in countless theaters and nightclubs around the country.

Chunkster Challenge info --- 624 pages.


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