Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1895, in Wichita, Kansas, to former slaves. She was the youngest of 13 children. Her father, Henry McDaniel, fought in the Civil War with the 122nd USCT and her mother, Susan Holbert, was a singer of religious music. In 1900, the family moved to Colorado, living first in Fort Collins and then in Denver, where Hattie graduated from Denver East High School. Her brother, Sam McDaniel (1886–1962), played the butler in the 1948 Three Stooges’ short filmHeavenly Daze
. Another acting sibling of Hattie and Sam was actress Etta McDaniel.
In addition to performing, Hattie was also a songwriter, a skill she honed while working with her brother's minstrel show. After the death of her brother Otis in 1916, the troupe began to lose money, and it wasn't until 1920 that Hattie got her next big break. During 1920–25, she appeared with Professor George Morrison's Melody Hounds, a touring black ensemble, and in the mid-1920s she embarked on a radio career, singing with the Melody Hounds on station KOA in Denver. In 1926–1929 she also recorded many of her songs on Okeh Records and Paramount Records in Chicago. In all McDaniel recorded seven sessions; one in the summer of 1926 on the rare Kansas City label, Meritt; four sessions in Chicago for Okeh (late 1926-late 1927) – of the ten sides, only four were issued, and two sessions in Chicago for Paramount (both in March 1929).
In McDaniel's time, America was racially segregated in virtually every respect. In the South, blacks were barred by law from attending school with whites and subjected to segregation in all other public places. Even outside the South, many restaurants and hotels refused to accept black customers. Job opportunities were limited. Custom orrestrictive covenants kept blacks from living in "white" neighborhoods. Marriage between blacks and whites was illegal in most states of the United States. The United States military required blacks to serve in all-black regiments. Black Americans also faced the terrorism of lynch mobs without the assurance of federal or state protection. Indeed, in 2005, the U.S. Congress issued an apology for the federal government's failure to enact lynching legislation to protect blacks in that era.
The field of entertainment emerged as one profession in which blacks could appeal to both white and black customers. Still, however, the success of black entertainers and their ability to rise into ownership and management was limited by racial restrictions. Often many places that allowed blacks to be on stage did not allow them to sit in the audience as patrons. State laws allowing discrimination and requiring segregation assured that black entertainers were not allowed the same benefits and opportunities as white ones.Black actors were cast repeatedly in menial roles and were consistently required to speak in contrived, stereotypical "Negro dialects." If black actors did not know how to speak that way, they had to learn to in order to succeed in Hollywood. Movie houses often hired white "dialect coaches" to teach the so-called "Negro dialect."
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the only work McDaniel could find was as a wash-room attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Despite the owner's reluctance to let her perform, McDaniel was eventually allowed to take the stage and she soon became a regular.
In 1931, McDaniel made her way to Los Angeles to join her brother Sam and sisters Etta and Orlena. When she could not get film work, she took jobs as a maid or cook. Sam was working on KNX radio program called The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour, and he was able to get his sister a spot. She appeared on radio as "Hi-Hat Hattie", a bossy maid that often "forgets her place". Her show became extremely popular, but her salary was so low that she had to continue working as a maid.
Her first film appearance was in The Golden West (1932) as a maid; her second was in the highly successful Mae West film I'm No Angel (1933), as one of the black maids West camped it up with backstage. She received several other uncredited film roles in the early 1930s, often singing in choruses.
In 1934, McDaniel joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). She began to attract attention and finally landed larger film roles that began to win her screen credits. Fox Film Corporation put her under contract to appear in The Little Colonel (1935), with Shirley Temple, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Lionel Barrymore.
Judge Priest (1934), directed by John Ford and starring Will Rogers, was the first film in which she played a major role. She had a leading part in the film and demonstrated her singing talent, including a duet with Rogers. McDaniel and Rogers became friends during filming.
In 1935 McDaniel had prominent roles with her performances as a slovenly maid in RKO Pictures' Alice Adams, a comic part as Jean Harlow's maid/traveling companion in MGM'sChina Seas, the latter her first film with Clark Gable, and as Isabella the maid in Murder by Television with Béla Lugosi. She also appeared in the 1938 film, Vivacious Lady, starringJames Stewart and Ginger Rogers.
McDaniel had a featured role as Queenie in Universal Pictures's 1936 version of Show Boat, starring Irene Dunne, and sang a verse of Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man with Dunne, Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson, and the African-American chorus. Later in the film she and Robeson sang I Still Suits Me, a song written especially by Kern and Hammerstein for the film.
After Show Boat she had major roles in MGM's Saratoga (1937), starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, The Shopworn Angel (1938) with Margaret Sullavan, and The Mad Miss Manton (1938), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. She had a very minor role in the Carole Lombard/Frederic March vehicle, Nothing Sacred (1937), in which she appeared as the wife of a shoeshine man (Troy Brown), masquerading as a sultan.
McDaniel was befriended by many of Hollywood's most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Ronald Reagan,Olivia de Havilland, and Clark Gable. She would star with de Havilland and Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939).
It was around this time that she began to be criticized by members of the black community for the roles she chose to accept and for her decision to pursue roles aggressively rather than rock the Hollywood boat. For example, in The Little Colonel (1935) she played one of the black servants longing to return to the Old South. But McDaniel's portrayal of Malena in RKO Pictures's Alice Adams angered white Southern audiences; she had stolen several scenes away from the film's white star, Katharine Hepburn. McDaniel would ultimately become best known for playing a sassy and opinionated maid.
In the 1942 Warner Bros. film In This Our Life, starring Bette Davis and directed by John Huston, McDaniel once again played a domestic, but one that confronts racial issues, as her law student son is wrongly accused of manslaughter.
The following year, McDaniel was in Warner Bros' Thank Your Lucky Stars with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. In its review of the film, Time wrote that McDaniel was comic relief in an otherwise "grim study," writing, "...Hattie McDaniel, whose bubbling, blaring good humor more than redeems the roaring bad taste of a Harlem number called Ice Cold Katie...."
Hattie McDaniel continued to play maids during the war years in Warner Bros' The Male Animal (1942) and United Artists' Since You Went Away (1944), but her feistiness was toned down to reflect the era's somber news.
She made her last film appearances in Mickey (1948) and Family Honeymoon (1949). She remained active on radio and television in her final years, becoming the first black American to star in her own radio show with the comedy series Beulah. She also starred in the ABC television version of the show, replacing Ethel Waters after the first season. (Waters had apparently expressed concerns over stereotypes in the role.) Beulah was a hit, however, and earned McDaniel $2,000 a week. But the show was controversial. In 1951, the United States Army ceased broadcasting The Beulah Show in Asia because troops complained that the show perpetuated negative stereotypes of black men as shiftless and lazy and interfered with the ability of black troops to perform their mission. After filming a handful of episodes, however, McDaniel learned she had breast cancer. By the spring of 1952, she was too ill to work and was replaced by Louise Beavers.
Hattie McDaniel's first husband, George Langford, died in 1922, soon after she married him and while her career was on the rise, and her father died the same year. She married Howard Hickman in 1938 but divorced him later that year. In 1941, she married James Lloyd Crawford, a real estate salesman. According to the book, Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams by Donald Bogle, McDaniel happily confided to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in 1945 that she was pregnant. McDaniel began buying baby clothes and set up a nursery in her house. Her plans were shattered when she suffered a false pregnancy, and McDaniel fell into a depression. She never had any children and divorced Crawford in 1945 after four and a half years of marriage. Crawford had been jealous of her career success, she said, and once threatened to kill her.
Then on June 11, 1949, in Yuma, Arizona, she married Larry Williams, an interior decorator, but divorced him in 1950 after testifying that their five months together had been marred by "arguing and fussing". McDaniel broke down in tears when she testified that her husband tried to provoke dissension in the cast of her radio show and otherwise interfered with her work. "I haven't gotten over it yet," she said. "I got so I couldn't sleep. I couldn't concentrate on my lines."
McDaniel died at age 57 on October 26, 1952, of breast cancer in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills. She was childless and divorced from her fourth husband. McDaniel was survived by her brother, Sam McDaniel. Thousands of mourners turned out to celebrate her life and achievements. In her will, McDaniel wrote: "I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery." The Hollywood Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood is the resting place of movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and others. Hollywood Cemetery refused to allow her to be buried there, because it, too, practiced racial segregation and would not accept for burial the bodies of black people. Her second choice was Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, where she lies today.
In 1999, Tyler Cassidy, the new owner of the Hollywood Cemetery that had renamed it Hollywood Forever Cemetery, offered to have McDaniel re-interred at his cemetery. Her family did not wish to disturb her remains and declined the offer. Instead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery built a large cenotaph on the lawn overlooking its lake. It is one of Hollywood's most popular tourist attractions.
McDaniel's last will and testament of December 1951 awarded her Oscar to Howard University, where she had been honored by the students with a luncheon after she had won her Oscar. At the time of her death, McDaniel would have had few options. Very few white institutions in that day preserved black history. Historically, black colleges had been where such artifacts were placed. Despite evidence McDaniel had earned an excellent income as an actor, her final estate was less than $10,000. The IRS claimed the estate owed more than $11,000 in taxes. In the end, the probate court ordered all of her property, including her Oscar, sold to pay off creditors. Years later, the Oscar turned up where McDaniel wanted it to be: Howard University, where, according to reports, it was displayed in a glass case in the University's drama department.