Webster lists a lot of definitions for the word "grace," and it's remarkable how much of that lexicon applies to the late Grace Kelly. One definition is "a pleasing appearance or effect," and if there was ever a woman with a pleasing appearance, it was the woman whose effect was such that not just men, but nations swooned at her feet.
Last week, we learned that Grace Kelly's uncle, vaudeville comic Walter C. Kelly, was a racist with an especially strong antipathy toward George Walker and Bert Williams, the popular black comedy duo whose successful career as a vaudeville act far eclipsed that of Kelly. In fact, Williams went on to even greater success after Walker's 1911 death, eventually becoming the first black headliner of Ziegfeld's Follies.
Another important black performer to do time as a Ziegfeld star (although a couple decades after Williams) was the great Josephine Baker. Baker, born in St. Louis, Mo., dropped out of school when she was 12 and lived for three years as a street urchin before landing her first vaudeville chorus gig at the age of 15. She was eventually billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville," but prospects for further advancement were remote in the Jim Crow America of 1925. So still not yet 20 years old, she moved to France, where she became an international superstar, applauded for her singing, dancing - and the fact that she performed nearly nude on the stages of the Folies Bergeres.
By the time she returned to the United States to headline Ziegfeld's Follies in 1936, she had become the first woman of color to star in motion pictures, and was beloved by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior. But upon her return, Baker found an America still not ready to recognize a powerful, autonomous black woman as a star. After a New York Times reviewer referred to her as a "Negro wench," she decided to return to France.
She gave the U.S. another try in 1951 - this time, to much critical and popular acclaim for her one-woman show at the Roxy in Manhattan. But on Oct. 16, 1951, she and a couple friends decided to dine at New York's famous Stork Club. While she was admitted to the club's star-filled "Cub Room," she was never served the steak she ordered. Certain this snub was due to the club's reported penchant for discouraging black patrons, Baker went to one of the Stork Club's telephone booths to call the executive secretary of the NAACP to complain, before returning to her table in anger.
Several of the VIPs sitting in the Cub Room noticed Baker was agitated, but only one got up to approach her. Grace Kelly had been dining at the club that night and when she realized that Josephine Baker had been ostracized, she took the older, black performer by the arm, and left the club with her, announcing she would never return. She never did.
That night was the beginning of a deep friendship between Kelly and Baker. Some years later, at a time when Baker was reeling from bad financial investments, Kelly lent her a villa and enough money to help her get back on her feet. And nearly 24 years after that night at the Stork Club, Kelly helped bankroll Baker's last headline revue at the Bobino music hall in Paris. Four days after opening in front of a superstar-filled audience, Josephine Baker suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage while reading the newspaper accolades her show had elicited... a show that might not have been possible had it not been for the friendship of Grace Kelly.
"The quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful." That's another one of Webster's definitions for "grace."
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.