McDANIEL, HATTIE (Hi-Hat Hattie) (1895–1952) Actress, Singer
Hattie McDaniel will always be inseparable from her best-known role—that of Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). Her performance as the worldly wise slave made her the first African American to win an Academy Award.
Born on June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, McDaniel was one of 13 children of her Baptist minister father and gospel singer mother. Both of her parents were former slaves. Hattie, who early displayed a talent for singing, quit school at 15 to become a full-time performer with a minstrel show organized by her father. During the 1920s, after the show disbanded, she joined several vaudeville troupes that toured the West. In 1925 in Denver, Colorado, she became one of the first African Americans ever to perform on the radio. Left jobless after the 1929 stock market crash, McDaniel moved to Milwaukee, where she worked as a bathroom attendant at the Club Madrid. The nightspot only hired white singers but was finally persuaded to give McDaniel a chance to sing after patrons familiar with her work insisted. Her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” was such a hit that she became the club’s star performer for two years.
In 1931, McDaniel followed the example of three of her siblings and moved to Hollywood to seek her fortune in the movies. While looking for film work, she took jobs as a domestic and as a radio singer performing under the name Hi-Hat Hattie. Hattie played several bit parts before landing her first credited film role in Judas Priest (1934). In the film, she sang a duet with star Will Rogers, who later insisted McDaniel stole the show. With this success, she finally got the attention of Hollywood. Throughout the 1930s, McDaniel had steady work, although the range of work offered to her was limited. In the some 40 movies she acted in during the decade, she played a maid or a cook, then generally the only parts open to African-American actresses.
After reading the best-selling Gone with the Wind, McDaniel campaigned to play Mammy, a house slave of the novel’s O’Hara family, in the much-heralded film adaptation. Against stiff competition, she handily won the role that made her famous. In her many scenes with VIVIEN LEIGH as Scarlett O’Hara, McDaniel’s wise and moral Mammy stood in contrast to the impulsive and selfish Scarlett. When McDaniel accepted the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance, she said, “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry.”Despite the strength and dignity McDaniel brought to Mammy, she was criticized by some African Americans for playing this and other roles that were considered demeaning to blacks.
McDaniel defended her career, once pointing out, “It’s better to get $7,000 a week for playing a servant than $7.00 a week for being one.” Her stance, in addition to her performance in the much disparaged Song of the South (1946), led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to denounce her. During this period, McDaniel also suffered several personal difficulties. Left a widow by a brief first marriage in the 1920s, McDaniel had been married and divorced three times by 1950. In 1944, she had been delighted to find herself pregnant by her second husband. In her eighth month, her doctors, however, discovered that they mistook diabetes and other ailments for a pregnancy. Friends say McDaniel never fully recovered from this grave disappointment.
Adding to her sadness, she saw film studios, leery of charges of racism, growing less and less willing to cast any African-American actors. As her movie career waned, McDaniel returned to radio. In 1947, she was cast as the title character in the popular program “Beulah,” a role previously played by white actors. “Beulah” was a comedy about a quick-witted African-American maid working for a white family. Sensitive about previous criticism of her work, McDaniel demanded that her contract stipulate that no black dialect would be used on the show and that she would be able to strike out any dialogue she found objectionable. It also gave her a starting salary of $1,000 a week.
A television version of “Beulah” appeared in 1950 with ETHEL WATERS in the title role. When Waters left the show the next year, the public demanded that McDaniel take over the part. Soon after beginning filming, she fell ill, first with a heart attack, then with terminal breast cancer. McDaniel died on October 26, 1952, at the age of 57. In her will, McDaniel asked that she be laid to rest in a white casket, covered by a white shroud with a white gardenia in her hair. She also wanted to be buried in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, the resting place of many fellow stars, but the cemetery denied the request because of her race. In 1999, however, the cemetery, under new ownership, finally approved McDaniel’s reinterment there and erected a massive granite monument in her honor.
Harmetz, Aljean. On the Road to Tara: The Making of Gone With the Wind. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Jackson, Carlton. Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1989.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Gone With the Wind (1939). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000/2001.
Show Boat (1951). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.