Vanity Fair Spotlight's Oscar Winner Hattie McDaniel’s Double Life

Vanity Fair Spotlight's Oscar Winner Hattie McDaniel’s Double Life

On February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel made history when she became the first Black person to win an Academy Award, for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. As she stood in front of her white peers at the Cocoanut Grove, she was the picture of pride and joy. “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry,” she said, crying. “My heart is too full to tell you how I feel.”
For McDaniel, life was a tightrope walk of trying to satisfy herself, her prejudiced bosses, and the representation-starved Black community—attempting to be all things to all people. “I always wanted to be before the public,” she once said, per Watts. “I’m always acting. I guess it’s the ham in me.”
Lena Horne remembered her as “an extremely gracious, intelligent and gentle lady.” McDaniel looked for challenges, but her artistic ambition was often blocked by racism and sexism. “When you cease to want, you cease to live. Just like when I won the Academy Award,” she explained, per Watts. “You sit down and think now you have everything, all you want. But of course, you don’t.”
The Queen of Sugar Hill

As Watts notes, while McDaniel was feuding openly with the national head of the NAACP, she was working closely with the group’s Los Angeles branch to save her mansion in Sugar Hill, a neighborhood of stately Victorian homes that had become the Black Beverly Hills.

“I’m a fine Mammy [on the screen]. But I’m Hattie McDaniel in my house,” she told Lena Horne. Generous to a fault, she was known as an avid supporter of the war effort and Black causes. “I got friends that I love and I need like I hope they love and need me,” she said.

Always immaculately dressed, with her beloved dalmatians nearby, McDaniel was a legendary hostess. “She had the most exquisite house I had ever seen in my life, the best of everything,” Lena Horne recalled. At her parties, her close friends Clark Gable, Cab Calloway, Louella Parsons, Paul Robeson, Bing Crosby, Louise Beavers, Duke Ellington, and Esther Williams broke the color lines in segregated Hollywood. “South Harvard became a salon where black artists, including the host herself, could resist white domination of their talents,” Watts writes.

But in 1945, white homeowners in the area began an attempt to push Black residents out of their homes, claiming that restrictive covenants barred them from the neighborhood. McDaniel took the lead in fighting the racist attack, organizing neighbors like Louise Beavers and Ethel Waters, and hosting meetings in her home. 

Read More about her life in Vanity Fair.


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