She was, perhaps, the most beautiful woman to have ever lived.
There are some who think that about Grace Kelly, the exquisite actress who became a Hollywood legend on the basis of just 11 motion pictures in which she appeared before abandoning Tinseltown for the palaces of Monaco. There can certainly be no doubt that Grace Kelly was a gorgeous woman. And, by most accounts, the beauty of her face and form was mirrored by the beauty of her heart and personality. You'll find few negative stories about the woman who broke Alfred Hitchcock's heart and stole Prince Rainier's.
Now, you may be wondering what Grace Kelly's beauty has to do with America's early black music stars, which was the topic Craven promised to continue addressing in this space two weeks ago. To answer that, you have to know a little more about Grace Kelly's family - specifically, her uncle, Walter C. Kelly, one of two relatives who preceded Grace in a showbiz career. Y'see, as beautiful as Grace Kelly was, that's how ugly Walter C. Kelly was.
When I talk about him being ugly, I don't mean on the outside. Walter C. Kelly was no Cary Grant or even Jimmy Stewart, to name two of his niece's future co-stars, but he wasn't painful to look at. If you'd caught his vaudeville act back in the early days of the 20th century, you'd have seen a broad-shouldered Irishman with a thick neck, a pugnacious face and a simple haircut, sometimes parted on the left, sometimes parted down the center like a schoolboy.
Kelly billed himself as "the Virginia Judge," and wearing a heavy, alpaca coat, the "comic" enacted a hateful parody of a court proceeding, drawing his "humor" at the expense of - mostly - black folks. Copiously peppering his routine with the N-word, Kelly's act was as terribly racist as they came, even then. Nor was it "just" an act; racism coursed through Kelly's veins like charm did through his niece's.
We know this because in 1905, Kelly was scheduled to appear at Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre, one of the leading vaudeville houses in New York City. But he refused to go onstage when he learned that Williams and Walker, the then extremely popular comedy-and-song duo who had broken records as black performers, were also on the bill.
What especially got Kelly's goat was that Williams and Walker were allowed to occupy the theater's star dressing room. Williams and Walker were sanguine about the incident; Walker famously said, "The man is foolish. The day is past for that sort of thing. Both white men and black men have a right to earn a living in whatever manner they find most convenient, providing they injure no one else."
But Kelly guarded his grudge like it was a precious thing, and a couple years later, tried to organize a boycott against a charity event hosted by George M. Cohan - an event that once again was to feature Williams and Walker. Although Kelly succeeded in convincing a couple other white acts to pull out of the charity event, the show went on to huge success. Next week, we'll learn about another important early black American performer - and the incident that proved Grace Kelly didn't share her ugly uncle's racist ways.
Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, supporting nonprofits that work to alleviate hunger in Colorado.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.