Partner Ethel Williams
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Ethel Waters (October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977) was an American singer and actress. Waters frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, but she began her career in the 1920s singing blues. Waters notable recordings include "Dinah", "Stormy Weather", "Taking a Chance on Love", "Heat Wave", "Supper Time", "Am I Blue?", "Cabin in the Sky", "I'm Coming Virginia", and her version of the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow". Waters was the second African American, after Hattie McDaniel, to be nominated for an Academy Award. She was the first African-American to star on her own television show, in 1939, and the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award, in 1962.
Waters married three times, had no children and was bisexual. Her first marriage was to Merritt "Buddy" Purnsley, whom she married at age 13 in 1909; they divorced in 1913. She later married Clyde Edwards Matthews in 1929, the union only lasted four years; divorcing in 1933. Waters third marriage was to Edward Mallory from 1938 until divorcing in 1945. Sometime during the 1920s, Waters was in a relationship with dancer Ethel Williams (d. December 21, 1891 - d. after 1961), the two women gaining the nickname of "Two Ethels". Waters was the great-aunt of the singer-songwriter Crystal Waters.
Soon after Selma Burke's arrival in New York, Burke met Claude McKay, a poet, writer, and major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Through him Burke made the acquaintance of many other notables, including poet Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, poet and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, playwright Eugene O’Neill, and Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis.
Photographed on June 8, 1932, by Carl Van Vechten
In 1938, Waters met famed artist, Luigi Lucioni, through their mutual friend, Carl Van Vechten. Lucioni asked Waters if he could paint her portrait and a sitting was arranged at his studio on Washington Square. Waters bought the finished portrait from Lucioni in 1939 for $500. Waters was at the height of her career in 1939 and was the first African American to have a starring role on Broadway and was already a jazz and blues legend. In her portrait, Waters wears a tailored red dress with a mink coat draped over the back of her chair. Lucioni positioned Waters with her arms tightly wrapped around her waist, a gesture that conveys a sense of vulnerability as if she were trying to protect herself. In 2017, the Huntsville Museum of Art (HMA) acquired the Portrait of Ethel Waters. HMA Executive Director Christopher J. Madkour and historian Dr. Stuart Embury, were able to track down the whereabouts of the painting. The painting was thought to be lost since it had not been viewed by the public since 1942, but the two traced it to a private residence in 2016. The owner graciously allowed the Huntsville Museum of Art to display Portrait of Ethel Waters in the exhibition, American Romantic: The Art of Luigi Lucioni, where it was viewed by the public for the first time in over 70 years. The Museum successfully negotiated the purchase of the painting and, thanks in part to the generosity of the Huntsville community, Lucioni's Portrait of Ethel Waters is now on public display at the Huntsville Museum of Art in Huntsville, Alabama.
In her later years, Waters often toured with the preacher Billy Graham on his "crusades". Waters died on September 1, 1977, aged 80, from uterine cancer, kidney failure, and other ailments, in Chatsworth, California. Waters is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale).
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