Woodlawn Cemetery Bronx, Bronx County, New York, USA
Nina Mae McKinney (June 12, 1912 – May 3, 1967) is known as the seductress "Chick" from Hallelujah! (1929), the first all-black, all-sound musical. Pepi Lederer was an American actress and writer. She was the niece of actress and philanthropist Marion Davies. A vivacious and high-spirited young woman, Lederer was an overt lesbian who had sexual relationships with actresses Louise Brooks and Nina Mae McKinney.
Even though McKinney was acknowledged as a great actress, singer and dancer by audiences in the U.S. and Europe, today she is mostly forgotten. She certainly had the looks, enthusiasm, and acting talent to succeed. But as she and other black women of her time learned, there wasn't much work for a black woman other than as a maid, "mammy" figure, or prostitute. Hollywood was scared to take a chance on an attractive black woman, to make her into a glamorous sex symbol as they would with an attractive white actress. There would be no true glamorous black female sex symbol until Lena Horne's arrival in 1942. Nina learned, as did other black actresses, that there was little success to be had after an initial big splash.
Nannie Mayme McKinney was born June 12th, 1912 in Lancaster, South Carolina to Georgia Crawford and Hal Napoleon McKinney. She eventually became an international figure as an actress, singer and band leader. Her given name was Nannie Mayme McKinney. Her parents, Hal and Georgia McKinney, moved from Lancaster to New York City and left the child with her great-aunt, Carrie Sanders. "Aunt Carrie" lived in a small apartment in the backyard of Col. Leroy Springs, father of businessman and flying ace Elliott White Springs. Aunt Carrie worked as a cook and housekeeper for the Springs family. As soon as Nannie Mayme was old enough she ran errands for Lena Jones Springs, who gave her a bicycle to ride to the post office to pick up the mail. Nannie Mayme's first public performances were riding stunts, or "cutting capers", as amazed bystanders called it. She appeared in plays at the black Lancaster Industrial School (founded by Springs), where she quickly learned the lines of the entire cast.
At about age 13 she headed for New York to stay with her mother, Georgia Crawford McKinney. Choosing Nina Mae as her stage name, she managed to get a job as a chorus girl in the Broadway play "Blackbirds". Her lively performance caught the attention of MGM producer/director King Vidor, who gave her a starring role in Hallelujah! (1929). It was the first all-black sound musical features, even though many theaters billed the film as "a story of murder and redemption in the Deep South." This melodrama was not widely acclaimed at the time, but movie historians now see it as an interesting introduction to black theater (one critic described it as having "a crude power").
Nina was signed by MGM to a five-year contract, but in that period she made only two films, Safe in Hell (1931) and Reckless (1935) (in which she didn't even appear on screen; she dubbed Jean Harlow's songs). Hollywood could accept black character actresses like Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen having a close relationship with white characters in a film, but would not allow a beautiful black actress the same natural role. However, her first film gave her the opportunity to appear in a number of all-black cast or black-themed films, including Sanders of the River (1935) with Paul Robeson, Dark Waters (1944) and Pinky (1949) (as Rozelia), which is considered her finest film.
She had much more success on stage. She played Jeanne Eagels' role in "Rain" at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre. She proved that she could well have become one of America's enduring performers--she had the talent, the beauty, and the star power, but she realized that the doors to real success were permanently barred to her in Hollywood. She soon left the U.S. for Europe. She made film and stage appearances all over the Continent, from Paris and London to Dublin and Budapest, and became known as "The Black Garbo".
When war broke out in Europe she returned to New York, where she married jazz musician Jimmy Monroe and put together a band and toured the country. In the 1950s and 1960s she lived in Athens, Greece, where she was known as the "Queen of Night Life." In the late 1960s she came back to New York but did not perform, and died in New York City in 1967, at age 54, of a heart attack. Her death went virtually unnoticed; trade papers such as Variety and black publications such as Jet and Ebony didn't even print an obituary, and one newspaper that did only called her an "entertainer" and didn't name the church where the funeral would be held.
Not everyone forgot her, though; in her home town of Lancaster, South Carolina, on a wall across from the Courthouse, is a mural with portraits of famous people from Lancaster. Among them two faces stand out. One is former President Andrew Jackson. The other is Nina.
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