Carl Van Vechten’s 1936 photograph of Bessie Smith
Queen Latifah’s homage to Bessie Smith, the HBO film Bessie, offers a look at the complexity of this transcendent entertainer’s life. The movie is wonderfully entertaining with strong performances by Latifah throughout, but, like most “biopics,” it is also somewhat flawed. For example, while her overt bi-sexuality, alcohol abuse, violent temper, and tempestuous marital life were central to her life story – and thus important to this film – her great musical talent didn’t feel completely honored in performance.
Given that the myth encompassing Bessie Smith’s death has dominated her life story to the point where prominent historians believe she was better known for her death than for what she accomplished in life, it was not surprising that Latifah chose to end her film without addressing Bessie’s passing. However, when John Hammond made his appearance toward the end of the film, since he was central to perpetuating the myth surrounding her death, it was natural to begin speculating if (and how) Latifah would depict Smith’s death.
Hammond, the legendary talent scout/journalist who approached Bessie while she worked as a hostess at a Philadelphia speakeasy with the idea of recording her with an integrated band, would eventually falsely report the circumstances of her death in Downbeat magazine, and without apology continued to do so years later.
In this excerpt from my 2003 interview with Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson, we talk about her death and Hammond’s treatment of it.
JJM Columbia Records executive John Hammond seems to have contributed greatly to the myths of Bessie Smith. Hammond — via Paul Oliver’s 1959 biography of Smith — claims that Bessie was down on her luck when he met her, and that she had to sing “coon songs” and sell candy to survive. Is that true?
CA Absolutely not. John Hammond contributed a lot of the myths, but he was creating a myth around himself, so a lot of those myths he created around people like Bessie were by products of that one agenda. John had this image of the great white father. He had recorded Bessie, Billie Holiday, and as Benny Goodman’s brother-in-law, it was he who integrated the Goodman band, and so forth. When I came over from Europe, I definitely had the impression that John had probably done more to help black performers than any other white man. Then, sometimes after you get to know people and work with them, you see the truth. Not to say that John didn’t do a lot, because he did, but not as much as he wanted us to think. He was dictatorial, for one thing. He wanted to keep artists down where they were before, and did not like to see them advance stylistically. In fact, during World War II, Leonard Feather wrote an article about John Hammond the dictator in Metronome magazine. The article was entitled “Heil Hammond,” if you can imagine that. I actually saw that myself, and there were many artists who would have nothing to do with him. Lester Young, for example, absolutely refused to talk about him.
JJM It is hard to read some of his comments without a degree of cynicism. Following Smith’s death, for example, Hammond’s published claim that Bessie was refused care at the white hospital looked to be an effort to evoke sympathy for her that would ultimately lead to greater record sales.
CA Yes, and his story ended with a plug for Columbia Records’ reissue of her recordings. While Hammond did not invent the story of Bessie being refused care at a white hospital, he did publicize it. The whole story of her death never made sense to me. Why would an ambulance take Bessie to a white hospital where she would be turned away, when there was a black hospital within a half mile?
JJM To fill the readers in, she was riding in a car driven by her lover at the time, Richard Morgan, who rear-ended a truck that was parked along the side of the road.
CA Yes. Morgan — who was Lionel Hampton’s favorite uncle — was driving Bessie’s old Packard along Highway 61 in Mississippi. It was a very dark road, there were no lights on the truck, and they were upon it quickly. Morgan swerved in an attempt to avoid hitting the back of the truck, but couldn’t. Because Bessie’s elbow was out the window, the crash almost tore her arm off. The driver of the truck knew that something had hit him, but he kept going, driving right into Clarksdale. Right after this accident, Doctor Hugh Smith, who was on an early morning fishing trip with a friend, came upon the scene. Bessie was lying in the middle of the road, so the doctor had his friend go to a nearby house to call an ambulance. Knowing that Bessie was black, he naturally called the black hospital. In the meantime, the driver of the truck had stopped at the white hospital where he reported the accident up the road.
While all of this was going on, a small car carrying a young white couple came down the road and drove directly into the doctor’s car, pushing it against the wreck of Bessie’s Packard. So now there were three wrecked cars on the road. Subsequently two ambulances came, one from the white hospital and another from the black one. The white one took the couple, and the black one took Bessie. She had been bleeding very seriously internally, and they had to remove her arm. She never regained consciousness, and died around ten o’clock that morning. I interviewed Doctor Smith, who told me in great detail of Bessie’s condition. He said that even if the accident had happened right in front of a Memphis hospital — which was better equipped, of course, than those in Clarksdale — it is unlikely that she would have survived.
If there was a hint of racism in those days, the black press played it up. But there was no mention of racism when this accident was reported. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, in a Down Beat article written by John Hammond, that racism was suggested to have played a role in Bessie’s death. Then all the press played it up and that is how this myth started. I asked John how he could make such a claim without first speaking to Richard Morgan or the doctors at the hospital about this, and he was sort of embarrassed about it.
JJM Well, the truth would have ruined his story.
CA Of course, that is what it is all about. Even when he wrote his autobiography a few years later, he invented another story to substantiate his fabricated story, which is amazing, but that is John Hammond.
JJM Are you satisfied now that the circumstances of her death have been properly sorted out?
CA Oh, absolutely, yes. I don’t think that there is any question. I found a letter at the Library of Congress written by the doctor at the black hospital who attended to Bessie that said she never regained consciousness, and that he had to amputate her arm, and the death certificate supports that. And he said that she was taken directly to his hospital, which by the way is now a small hotel called the Riverside Hotel. It is a tourist attraction which people come to from all over the world — mostly from Japan — to spend the night in the room Bessie died in.
JJM You wrote, “Bessie Smith became better known for the way in which she had allegedly died than for what she had done in life.” Do you still feel that way?
CA Yes, unfortunately, although I am hoping that my book will at least diminish the power of the myth of her death. The myth of her death was very well known because in 1959, the playwright Edward Albee wrote a play called The Death of Bessie Smith, which was based on Hammond’s account of her death. In that play resides the story of her being turned away from a white hospital, giving the myth some impetus.
As an aside, I was good friends at one time with well-known radical civil rights attorney named Flo Kennedy, who, among other things, handled the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. But for about three years she didn’t speak to me. One night we happened to attend the same film screening, and I approached her about why she wouldn’t talk to me anymore. She replied by saying that I had no business printing that story about Bessie’s death. I told her it was the truth and she replied by saying she knew it was the truth, but that I had no business printing it! I think that was an attitude shared by some people, that I had ruined a good story.
Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues