Black and Tan also marked—literally—a transition in Ellington’s private life. After 1928 his left cheek bore a prominent crescent-shaped scar that is easily visible in the film’s last scene (and in the photograph reproduced on the cover of this book). Though rarely mentioned by journalists, it made fans curious enough that he felt obliged to “explain” its presence in Music Is My Mistress:
I have four stories about it, and it depends on which you like the best. One is a taxicab accident; another is that I slipped and fell on a broken bottle; then there is a jealous woman; and last is Old Heidelberg, where they used to stand toe to toe with a saber in each hand, and slash away. The first man to step back lost the contest, no matter how many times he’d sliced the other. Take your pick.
None of Ellington’s friends and colleagues was in doubt about which one to pick. In Irving Mills’s words, “Women was one of the highlights in his life. He had to have women. . . . He always had a woman, always kept a woman here, kept a woman there, always had somebody.” Most men who treat women that way are destined to suffer at their hands sooner or later, if not necessarily in so sensational a fashion as Ellington, whose wife attacked him with a razor when she found out that he was sleeping with another woman.
Who was she? One possible candidate is Fredi Washington. The costar of Black and Tan had launched her theatrical career in 1922 as a dancer in the chorus of the original production of Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along. Sonny Greer later described her as “the most beautiful woman” he had ever seen. “She had gorgeous skin, perfect features, green eyes, and a great figure. When she smiled, that was it!” Washington was light enough to pass for white but adamantly refused to do so, a decision that made it impossible for her to establish herself in Hollywood, though she appeared with Paul Robeson in Dudley Murphy’s 1933 film of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (for which her skin was darkened with makeup) and starred in Imitation of Life, a 1934 tearjerker in which she played, with mortifying predictability, a light-skinned black who passed for white. Ellington never spoke on the record about their romantic involvement, but Washington later admitted to the film historian Donald Bogle that she and Ellington had been lovers: “I just had to accept that he wasn’t going to marry me. But I wasn’t going to be his mistress.” Their relationship was widely known at the time in the entertainment world, enough so that Mercer Ellington could write in his memoir of “a torrid love affair Pop had with a very talented and beautiful woman, an actress. I think this was a genuine romance, that there was love on both sides, and that it amounted to one of the most serious relationships of his life.”
Reprinted by arrangement with GOTHAM BOOKS, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © TERRY TEACHOUT, 2013.