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The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida • Page 140
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The Palm Beach Post from West Palm Beach, Florida • Page 140

West Palm Beach, Florida
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THE PALM BEACH POST SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2004 'il 1 rv I I I I -3 TIyVfy lit P( Unit-. 1 Zl U. i- HI Jiff --vl I I i iri tes J. UrfA aL. Paul Robeson (right) met his longtime accompanist, Lawrence Brown of Jacksonville, by chance in London.

Brown urged Robeson to perform the old spirituals that later became his trademark. brought Americans face-to-face nudged him toward acting. He appeared in a minor play, Simon the Cyrenian, in the title role in 1921, and later in Mary Wiborg's more successful Voodoo, which helped pay his law school tuition and took him to Europe. Robeson was lionized in London, and it was in Europe that his eyes opened to a wider world. Here, by pure chance, he met a young pianist from Jacksonville named Lawrence Brown, who would later become his accompanist and who first interested Robeson in singing spirituals.

"It was a happenstance meeting," Gilliam said, "but it was very important. In some ways Lawrence Brown is the key to Robeson's singing career. He had a deep feeling and sense of purpose about the old spirituals. He felt they were a way of lifting black music to a very high level." But Robeson wasn't an instant convert He and Essie enjoyed the star treatment he was accorded in London and Paris they hobnobbed with writers Gertrude Stein, Hugh Walpole and Rebecca West but some of the early recordings he made there sound rather embarrassing today, especially songs by Hoagy Carmichael like Fat Little Fellow with his Mammy's Eyes. And the British could be racists, too.

Satirist Evelyn Waugh gibed at Robeson, though not by name, in his Decline and Fall as "immaculately turned out in formal attire, enervated, haughty in manner, with Regency patois driveling through heavy purple lips." Robeson shuttled back and forth between Europe and America, starring in Eugene O'Neill's play All God's Chillun Got Wings in 1924, which was controversial because of a scene in which a white woman kisses his hand. He also starred in The Emperor Jones, which was made into a film in 1933 and still stands as his finest movie, a swaggering, bold tale about a railway porter who rises to become ruler of an island, but who is finally destroyed by greed and primitive superstition. In 1928, he scored a major triumph, being chosen to star in the with race folk tunes and extolled Soviet progress, completely oblivious to the darker side of Stalinism, the gulags, the famines, the forced relocations and collectivizations that made the U.S.S.R a nightmare state the equal of Nazi Germany. All Robeson knew was that he had been treated as a shoeshine boy in America, and as a hero in Russia. To the end of his life he idealized Russia, a blind love that would cost him dearly.

But loving Russia was no sin during World War II, when Russia was the United States' ally against Hitler. Robeson achieved his artistic pinnacle in 1943 when he played Othello on Broadway. Terrific "Distinguished "A consum- mate revival "Stirring the critics raved. "I was left at the close wondering whether his performance had not approached the greatness attributed to actors in other times," said Shakespearean scholar Arthur Colby Sprague. Othello, however, had a scandalous sub-story.

In the play, Robeson was playing opposite the white actress Uta Hagen (who died last month), the wife of Jose Ferrer, who played the traitorous Iago. In a plot-twist that mirrored Shakespeare, Robeson and Hagen became enamored of each other and had a torrid offstage affair that lasted two years and finally resulted in Hagen's divorce from Ferrer in 1948. By law, Ferrer had to catch his wife in flagrante, and so he burst into her apartment with detective witnesses to find her and Robeson sitting together on a sofa. A Hollywood tabloid dramatized the incident with the headline "The Midnight Ride of Jose Ferrer." Everything went downhill for Paul Robeson after Othello. Though at the end of World War II, Robeson had given 25 concerts for Allied soldiers in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, these were forgotten when it was recalled that he had entertained communist Republican troops in Spain in 1938.

Along with mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett, he was named vice president of the 1946 Civil Rights Congress, a loosely i i I Robeson ROBESON from i being urged by leaders such as Booker T. Washington to try to emulate whites, to become successful, well-educated businessmen and entrepreneurs, to pretend they had never been downtrodden, exploited or abused as slaves. Robeson changed all that By reminding blacks, through his splendid voice, of the sorrows of slavery and by uplifting these reminders of toil, suffering and servitude into heartbreaking, psalm-like laments, he went right to the core of injustice. Instead of minstrel-songs filled with mammies and Su-wannees, Robeson would sing: "No more auction block for me, no more! No more! No more driver's lash for me, no more! No more! No more pint of salt for me, no more! No more! Many thousand gone!" Robeson brought Americans face-to-face with the evil that had been done to his race, and many hated him for telling the truth. He blindly praised Russia during the Cold War, because he felt they treated him better than his own country.

When he went before the witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, he made clear his contempt for them. He never bowed, never gave an inch. "Paul Robeson was a Renaissance man at a time when the church, school and state in America called the black man subhuman," said Dorothy B. Gilliam, a former Washington Post editor who wrote a popular biography of him in 1976. "He was an All-America football player, an extraordinary singer, a fine actor and a political progressive during repressive eras.

Moreover, he had a heart for the ordinary person. He willingly sacrificed wealth and fame for the courage of his convictions." His intransigence and his politics probably explains why it took so long for the stamp to ap- Kear. The appropriate year would ave been 1998, the centennial of his birth. The firebrand radical Malcolm got a stamp in 1999, and Malcolm couldn't even sing. When Paul Robeson sang, he sounded like a whole cathedral and choir combined.

"I despair of ever putting into convincing words my notion of this quality in him," wrote critic Alex ander Woolcott in 1933. "Paul Robeson strikes me as having been made out of the original stuff of the world. In this sense he is coeval with Adam and the redwood trees of California." Robeson's life and career spanned the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, World War II, the Cold War and the anti-communist McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, when he was deprived of his U.S. passport for nine years and reduced to near-poverty for his views on the U.S.S.R While he was admired as a champion of civil rights, he also was reviled as "the Black Russian." Baseball star Jackie Robinson publicly repudiated him in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities: "I can't speak for 15 million people any more than any other one person can," Robinson said. "But I know that I've got too much invested for my wife and children and myself in the future of this country's welfare for any one of us to throw it away for a siren song in bass." "Let me make one thing very London premiere of the Broadway musical Showboat, based on a novel by Edna Ferber, with a show-stopping song written expressly for Robeson, and which would later become his signature concert work: 01' Man River, by Jerome Kern.

Ferber attended a revival of Showboat in 1932 in New York and described the scene. Even though the musical was already four years old, Robeson electrified the audience: "Robeson, a few minutes later, finished singing 01' Man River. The show stopped. He sang it again. The show stopped.

They called him back again and again. Other actors came out and made motions and their lips moved, and the bra-vos of the audience drowned out all the sounds." Robeson sang and recorded 01' Man River many times during his life, changing the casually racist lyrics and adding lines that had personal and political resonance for him. No one since Robeson has ever sung it with such magnificent conviction. He turned a magnolia blossom of a show-tune into a stirring battle-hymn for black dignity. Warm welcome in Russia In 1934, Robeson decided to visit Russia at the invitation of Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who wanted to make a film about Toussaint L'Ouverture, the man who led a slave revolt against France in the early 19th century and won Haitian independence.

The trip took him through Nazi Germany, where there was an ugly incident at a train station that affected him profoundly. He, his wife and a travelling companion were harassed and almost attacked by a gang of troops. Only the timely arrival of the train to the Soviet Union prevented bloodshed. The warm welcome he received in Moscow, contrasted with the German experience, impressed him deeply. TI never understood what fascism was before," he said.

"IU fight it wherever I find it from now on." From the mid-1930s onward, Robeson became more and more anti-fascist He recorded Russian --31 a A i i clear," Robeson wrote in his 1958 autobiographical manifesto, Here I Stand. "I care nothing less than nothing about what the lords of the land, the Big White Folks, think of me and my ideas. For more than ten years they have persecuted me in every way they could by slander and mob violence, by denying me the right to practice my profession as an artist, by withholding my right to travel abroad. To these, the real Un-Americans, I merely say: 'All right I don't like you Superhuman talents Paul Leroy Robeson was born April 9, 1898, the son of a runaway slave from Raleigh, N.C., named William Drew Robeson, who served in the Union army and became a minister, and Maria Louisa BustilL whose great-great grandfather, Cyrus Busthill, had bought his freedom in 1732 and supplied bread to George Washington's army at Valley Forge. He was the youngest of four children.

Robeson's mother died in a tragic household accident when he was only 6. A coal from a stove set fire to her dress and burned her so severely that she died several days later. So Robeson grew up practically motherless (one of his tender-est spirituals is Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child) and he was very devoted to his father, whose presence and pulpit oratory may have inspired his acting career. From grade school onward he excelled in sports, theater and singing. He won a scholarship to Rutgers University and played football so well there that he was named an All-America in his junior year.

He also made Phi Beta Kappa, and in the Class Prophecy it was predicted that he would become governor of New Jersey. In 1972, Rutgers named a campus center after Robeson. Right from the beginning, Robeson seemed superhumanly talented. Biographer Gilliam says that his almost-too-golden early career has to be weighed against the odds he had to beat to succeed. "He was born the same year as the Supreme Court decision Plessy vs.

Ferguson was handed down, which legalized 'separate but equal' in America. When Rutgers played the University of Virginia, Robeson had to be benched, because the UVA team wouldn't play against a team with a black player on the squad. He couldn't join the Glee Club at Rutgers, because blacks weren't allowed at Glee Club post-concert parties," Gilliam said. "Later on, when he went to Columbia Law School in New York, he couldn't get a sandwich at any restaurant between 10th and 125th streets," she added. "When he traveled he had trouble finding a hotel.

There's always an idealism about Robeson, an idealism that keeps getting shattered by reality. One of the things that pushed him towards Russia was the amount of suffering he saw blacks enduring in America." Robeson took a law degree at Columbia in 1923 he was one of six blacks in his class, and one classmate, William 0. Douglas, would later become a Supreme Court justice and was working in a minor, clerk's position, writing briefs at a minor New York law firm, when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. Robeson put on his hat, left the office and never returned to the practice of law. By then, he was married to Es-landa Cardozo Goode, a tiny woman just 5 feet tall next to his 6-feet-2, but who would remain his wife for the rest of her life and who firsi 1 1 Paul Robeson speaks at New York's Union shaking hands with President Eisenhower.

7 JU1 1953 Associated Press file photo Square at a May Day rally. In the background are images of Russian Premier Malenkov Robeson had visited Russia in 1934, at the invitation of film director Sergei Eisenstein..

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