The Mississippi Magnolia Ruby Elzy
An Interview with David E. Weaverby Joyce Dixon
A healthy curiosity and a desire to know more about a person or topic has lead to many a great book. In much the same manner David Weaver started a journey that became a passion -- that of learning about soprano Ruby Elzy, who created the role of Serena in the original production of Porgy and Bess. But Ruby was so much more than that...so much more.
Weaver's mission was ignited while working for WOSU, the public broadcasting station of Ohio State University. The name of Ruby Elzy came up during a luncheon, and as Weaver heard anecdotes of her career from one of Elzy's classmates, he was sparked to discover more about this almost forgotten legend of American Theatre, Hollywood and radio -- and she did it all before her death at age thirty-five.
David E. Weaver background of over twenty-five years in the arts and in broadcasting, gives him insight in to Ruby Elzy's world. Likewise, Weaver has sung professionally in more than two dozen roles in operas and musicals. What comes across in The Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy, is Weaver's talent as a storyteller as he retells the events with tenderness, laughter, and determination.
How important was the discovery of Dr. McCracken's fifty-five-page manuscript - the first draft of his biography of Ruby Elzy?
Well, first off, it was not a complete bio -- it only ran up to 1930, when Ruby went to Juilliard. Dr. McCracken had intended to write her entire life story, but his own failing health prevented that. What was so important in Dr. McCracken's work was that he had been collaborating with Ruby's mother, Emma. Emma gave Dr. McCracken details of Ruby's life in MS that would otherwise have been impossible to obtain. And, of course, Dr. McCracken's first-hand accounts of what happened to Ruby after he discovered her and brought her to Ohio State, were also invaluable.
How was Dr. Charles McCracken a surrogate father as well as mentor for Ruby?
Dr. McCracken came into Ruby's life when she was still a young woman of only nineteen. Her own father had abandoned the family when Ruby was five.
Dr. McCracken was a strong and yet considerate and kind man to whom Ruby turned for support and guidance, even in the non-musical aspects of her life. Dr. McCracken, his wife Cleo, and their four children all became an extended family for Ruby, and there was a mutual bond of love and respect that even the difference of their races could not impede.
Ruby Elzy had a strong work ethic that came out during her period at OSU and continued through her life. How did she manage to work, study, and perform without burning out?
Ruby learned from the example set by her mother, Emma. After her husband left her in 1913, Emma supported herself and her four children by working as a teacher at the Pontotoc Colored School in the mornings, picking cotton in the afternoons, then at night doing the laundry of well-to-do white families, often helped by little Ruby. Hard work, prayer and faith were the cornerstones of the Elzy home, and these traits were carried by Ruby and her siblings thru their entire lives.
In a time of Jim Crow, Ruby Elzy seemed to overcome any obstacles with her talent and personality. What was the worst experience she had to overcome?
I would think for Ruby the fact that prejudice was not something limited to the Deep South -- that she encountered in the north, at Ohio State University and elsewhere -- was a great challenge. Yet she usually prevailed, with, as Dr. McCracken noted, her ability to judge people and situations, her sense of humor, and her voice. For example, there were three Texas students at Ohio State who refused to sit with Ruby in choir.
But a few weeks later, these same students told the choir director they wanted to apologize for their behavior, and asked to have Ruby seated with their section once again. As you said, given the chance, her talent and her personality could usually win over even the most die-hard detractors.
What was Ruby Elzy's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance?
Ruby lived in Harlem for all but two years of the 1930s, the second decade of the Renaissance. She became friends and worked with a number of Harlem's leading figures -- J. Rosamond Johnson, his brother James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. Ruby was a headliner twice at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre. While today we remember mostly the creative giants like Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Hughes for the literary works they left behind, the performers of that time, like Ruby Elzy, were an important force (albeit largely forgotten or overlooked) of the Harlem Renaissance. She was unique in that she was a successful artist in both popular entertainment (Broadway, movies, radio) and classical music, a fact highlighted by the leading Harlem newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News, when it ran her obituary in a 3-column story with the headline -- "Ruby Elzy's Death Shocks Concert, Theatre World."
How did Dubose Heyward meet Ruby Elzy and help cast her in her ultimate role as Serena in Porgy and Bess?
They met in 1933, when Heyward wrote the screenplay for Elzy's first film, The Emperor Jones. He and the film's director, Dudley Murphy, picked Ruby, who was working on the picture as musical assistant to J. Rosamond Johnson, for the small but important role of Dolly. Heyward and Ruby struck up a friendship. A few months later, when Heyward began working with George Gershwin on Porgy and Bess, he recommended the composer audition Ruby for the role of Clara. Gershwin was bowled over when he heard Ruby's voice -- and he and Heyward then decided to cast her in the larger and more significant role of Serena.
Compare Ruby Elzy's talent and career to that of Marion Anderson?
They were some striking similarities, and at the same time, striking differences, between the soprano from rural Mississippi and the contralto from Philadelphia. Both sang in opera, concerts, and on radio. Both sang at the White House for Eleanor Roosevelt (and of course, Roosevelt played a major role in Anderson's historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial). Both were great singers of the Negro spiritual. Both were recipients of the Rosenwald Fellowship, Anderson's to study in Europe and Elzy's to study at Juilliard.
Ultimately, Anderson's career was much more prolific and had a greater impact than Ruby's, starting with the fact that Anderson's career lasted four decades, Elzy's barely a dozen years. Anderson had several things Ruby did not have -- a major recording career (on RCA Victor), a powerhouse manager in Sol Hurok, and the advantage of building a successful career in Europe before she achieved acclaim in America. Interesting to note is that had Marian Anderson died at the same age as Ruby Elzy (35), we might never have heard of her. Anderson's triumphs began with the Salzburg Festival in 1935, when she was 38 years old.
Even though Marian Anderson broke the color barrier at the Met (an honor the Met's manager, Rudolf Bing, felt she deserved because of all she had meant to blacks in America), her true calling was as a concert artist. Anderson had a demeanor, an almost regal presence, that made her much more suited to the formality of the concert stage. Conversely, while Ruby Elzy sang many concerts (but only a small number when compared to Anderson), she achieved her greatest success and acclaim in the theatre, when she could combine her voice with her great acting ability.
Elzy, of course, knew Anderson and admired her greatly -- in one interview, she called Anderson "my idol" and in the Anderson archives in Philadelphia there is a program of Porgy and Bess, autographed by Elzy and her fellow cast members, when Anderson came to see the show in 1936.
Marion Anderson and Josephine Baker achieved international fame by going to Europe early in their careers. Ruby could sing in English, French, Italian and German. Was her career and fame limited by staying stateside to work on Broadway, Hollywood and radio?
Elzy told an interviewer in 1937 that one of her ambitions was to spend a year in Europe, studying and singing -- much as Marian Anderson had done in late 1920s. But Hitler was in power, and the clouds of World War II were already on the horizon, so Elzy never got to realize her ambition to go abroad. I do look at the acclaim Anderson and Baker received in Europe, and it only makes me admire Ruby Elzy more -- that she achieved as much as she did without first winning acclaim in Europe. Ruby Elzy's was truly an American career, an American success story -- despite its tragic end.
At Ruby's 1937 White House performance, what was the bond she shared with the husband of Alice Brandeis?
Brandeis' husband, Louis Brandeis, was the first Jew to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. When he was nominated by President Wilson in 1916, it set out a vicious firestorm of protest from anti-Semites. But Wilson prevailed. Brandeis won confirmation, and went on to become one of the great justices. Mrs. Brandeis could relate to Ruby Elzy, overcoming bigotry and prejudice, and rising on the strength of her own her talents, character, and determination to the point where she could be invited to sing at the White House.
Ruby was renown for her vocal range. At the time of her death, she was preparing to make her operatic debut in Aida in the title role. What was the opinion of her potential success at the time of her death?
When Porgy and Bess was revived in 1942, the demanding critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote, "Miss Ruby Elzy, as Serena, gives the single loveliest performance in the cast." In June 1942, Ruby had made a critically acclaimed concert debut in Boston; her notices during the national tour of Porgy and Bess from Sep 1942 to June 1943 were excellent.
By all indications, she had matured both as a person and as an artist, and the prospects for her future success on the opera and concert stage seemed very bright indeed. But it was not to be.
How has getting to know Ruby Elzy through your research and interviews with her living friends and family affected you view of the world and your own music?
I have a much greater appreciation of the struggles Elzy and other black performers of her era had to endure to be taken seriously as artists, especially those in classical music. It also have me a greater appreciation of what George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward did, in insisting that Porgy and Bess be a work cast with black singers, not white singers in blackface, which could easily have been the case. Of how wonderfully Ruby Elzy and her fellow artists brought those wonderful characters and that enduring music to life. Over the years, I've sung with many great black stars of the opera and concert stage -- Kathleen Battle, Martina Arroyo, Cynthia Clarey and Carmen Balthrop. Having researched and written Ruby Elzy's life story, I can now appreciate what a great contribution she and those of her era made in paving the way for these great singers who followed them. No black singer will ever have to be denied, as Elzy was, opportunities simply because of the color of their skin. As Ruby Elzy herself said, "There is no color to talent." Now thankfully, talent is the ultimate thing that counts.
And Ruby Elzy helped to make that happen.
Has this experience inspired you to write about other performers or musicians?
In fact, I am now working on an article about Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who wrote the great plays Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame, and the book for the musical, Mame. But researching and writing Ruby Elzy's remarkable story was a unique and incredible experience, and I wonder if I could ever find a subject that would affect me as deeply. My only hope is that have helped ensure that Ruby Elzy will never be forgotten again, but remembered and celebrated as a truly great woman and artist.
© 2005, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved