First, open your minds eye and think of a fabulous nightclub in England. The music is hot the entertainment is fantastic and Champaign in flowing as if connected to Victoria falls. When I first read an excerpt of Mabel Mercer, I was amazed. A woman in Burton Upon Trent, Staffordshire, England performing and all of those who admired and came after .The ultimate shock she received in New York. . When researching Mabel Mercer the lyrics from a song by the legendary blues man B.B.King when my heart beats like a hammer comes to mind and sums up my emotional state while attempting to revive her life in the mental theater of the reader.
It had to have been confusing to a young girl of eight who was enrolled in an English boarding school, and left with perfect diction. Here the kids as kids will do, they tease Mabel about her kinky hair. The nuns probably didnt make it any easier for her, while explaining that it was due to her Black father. Imagine, a light skin blue eyed girl with kinky hair in America during the 1900s who would fall into the category of octoroon, its definition is seven-eights white.
Mercer spent time with her maternal grandmother prior to enrolling in the boarding school. She would not meet her English mother until later in life, however, her musician father, the nuns may not have mention was already deceased and never married her mother. When she reached fourteen her time at the boarding school was complete and she joined a Vaudeville act with her aunt one of many in a family of entertainers. This is when actions and events took a different turn for Mabel Mercer.
At the outbreak of WW1 the group liquidated due to the absence of a few member. These members who were related to Mabel had enlisted in the Military, believing she had enough experience Mabel began to crave out some success for herself. Her career was advancing rapidly, she would sing and dance with black entertainer whose show was based in part on American minstrels act, which is ironic, when at times black performers could not get work and white entertainers could during this blackface era. However, during the WW2 period things were different, her performance took her across the English too far away places as Egypt, Turkey where she sang to four arraignments by the legendary Duke Ellington. In the Twenties Mabel Mercer would travel to Paris.
When she arrived in Paris it was still on fire from the African-American Lt. James Reese ragtime style. In 1924 the entertainment world of Paris would receive another flame from the United States by the name of Ada Smith, Smith took the nightlife by storm. At 66 Smith known aka Bricktop opened her own establishment in 1931. The two, Smith and Mercer became friends immediately; Smith was under the belief that they complimented each others personality. Up to this point her career was sizzling, but on the horizon was the great depression and circumstances became cloudy. In 1938 her associates were requesting that she leave France before her entertainment skills would be on exhibit for Nazi troops. There is a famous song and some of the lyrics are, she didnt want to do it, no Mable didnt want to go but she did. And when she arrives in New York it felt strange. There is no doubt she was immersed into the Jim Crow restrictions of which she was unaccustomed. Nevertheless, this did not put a damper on the extrodinary talent of Mabel Mercer.
Mabel Mercers first engagement was a club called the Le Ruben bleu. Mabel would remain here for six months, during this time she contracted tonsillitis, have surgery and start her recuperation in the hospital. She would finish it a at a fablouls hotel with a flushed with cash oil heiress named Marion Barbara Carstairs a mannish boat racer and whose friends called her Joe. This friend of Mabels didnt take bulling from bigots. Carstairs owned an island in the Bahamas and invited Mabel there. At the island she discovered a new audience, When the Japanese started to flex their muscle at Pearl Harbor Mabel was yet on the island. This created a problem with re-entering the United States. There is an old adage, where there is a will there is a way and Mabel found one.
Kelsey Pharr wealthy southern open homosexual male friend of her devised a clever scheme. The plan consisted of a marriage of convenience that would allow her to re-enter the United States. This scheme called for the assistance of some very influential people. One of the persons was the Duke of Windsor who stopped a golf game and applied his signature to the needed document. Now back in the states Mabel started to work again.
The United States Connection
Once back in the states, Mabel reunited with Bricktop her friend who had left Paris a full year ahead of Mabel. Bricktop, hoping to rekindle the success of her Rue Piglle in Paris, she opened another club this time in New York. While Mabel was here she started to spend time at a club across the street .The club, Tonys. Mabel would leave her friends club go to work for Tony Soma the owner of the club across the street and remain there for seven years. I like to stay in one place; people know where you are, Mabel would say. Tony Soma had the hottest club in town and his wall murals would attest to it. They included personalities such as, Hepburn, Astair, Marlena Dietrict, Clark Gable, Harold Ross, and the famous Walter Winchell.
Mabel Mercers Performance
During the time Mabel performed at Tonys, he allowed gave her Carte Blanc the number of songs depended on her mood. And you better not talk during her performances. She would stop and get in your face, some claim. At the club she honed her skill and her fan base expanded exponentially. The upper echelon of society visited the club to hear Mabel Mercer. She was married but it was difficult to tell her husband was constantly on the road.
Mabel was a devout catholic and this did not allow for divorce and the arrangement between her and her husband was the type of question you didnt ask Mabel, one who kept her personal business to her self. Going to mass was an absolute must for her. People of the clergy came to see her perform, and they would comment on her and her performances. Many believed Mabel was a very spiritual person. Finally her and her husband would divorce and she would never marry again. However, Mabel had a Jewish businessman, who became her manager and live-in companion from the 1940-1981 they would be buried next to each other. During the time their relationship developed Mabel purchased a farm 125 miles outside of New York, she said it reminded her of Wales. The person who sold her the home claims, many were slightly upset when he sold to her. Nevertheless when they became acquainted with Mabel they liked her
The Later Years.
During the 1960s Cabaret/Vaudeville would go into decline with the advent of the British craze and it would not return until the mid-seventies. Many people would enjoy Mabel Mercer and she would receive many rewards. Unfortunately similar to so many African-American entertainers of her caliber, Mabel Mercer did not make much money yet, just base on my research some one did and I see this group crop up over and over again attached to people of Mercers Caliber. This was my attempt to shed some light on a woman who met with and overcame insurmountable odds to make her mark in history. One comment is worth mentioning the Chairman of the board; Frank Sinatra admits, Everything he knew about phrasing in music he learned from Mabel Mercer.
Summation this Article is about a person who endured racism and bigotry unnecessarily, Mabel Mercer parents fall on both side of a very distinct line drawn very early in America and is still in place as weak as it maybe. Yet, she became famous and lived an extrodinary life. I give honor to all of those who helped her and all of those people who had enough money to say to the establishment not now, not with me