Hattie McDaniel was born June 10, 1895 in Wichita, Kansas to former slaves. She was the youngest of 13 children.
Five years later, her family moved to Colorado, eventually settling in Denver.
She began as a singer songwriter, touring with a black ensemble in the mid-1920’s.
Then from 1926-1929, Hattie recorded many of her songs in Chicago.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the only work she could find was as a wash-room attendant and waitress at Club Madrid in Milwaukee. Eventually Hattie was allowed to perform and soon became a regular entertainer.
In 1931, Hattie made her way to Los Angeles where she worked as a maid.
She appeared on the radio as “Hi-Hat Hattie” but her salary was so low that she continued working as a maid during the day.
Her big break came in 1932, when Hattie made her first film appearance in The Golden West, ironically as a maid.
She then landed a role in Mae West’s film “I’m No Angel” again as a maid who camped it up with Mae West.
Then in 1934, Hattie joined the Screen Actors Guild, attracting attention and larger film roles.
She even sang a duet with Will Rogers in the movie Judge Priest, becoming life long friends.
In 1935, Fox put her under contract to appear in a Shirley Temple movie “The Little Colonel.”
Then she had a comic role as Jean Harlow’s maid and travel companion in MGM’s film China Seas, also her first film with Clark Gable.
Hattie went on to appear in the 1938 film Vivacious Lady starring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers.
Gone with the Wind
The competition to play Mammy in Gone with the Wind had been almost as stiff as that for Scarlett O’Hara.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to film producer David O. Selznick to ask that her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, be given the part.
Hattie McDaniel did not think she would be chosen because she had earned her reputation as a comic actress. One source claims that Clark Gable recommended the role go to Hattie; in any case when she went to her audition dressed in an authentic maid’s uniform, she won the part.
The Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia, was selected by the studio as the site for the premiere of Gone with the Wind, on Friday, December 15, 1939.
As the date of the premiere approached, all the black actors were advised they were barred from attending, excluded from being in the souvenir program, and banned from appearing in advertisements for the film in the South.
Studio head David Selznick asked that Hattie McDaniel be permitted to attend, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia’s segregation laws.
Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless Hattie was allowed to attend, but she convinced him to attend anyway.
Most of Atlanta’s 300,000 citizens crowded the route of the seven-mile motorcade that carried the film’s other stars and executives from the airport to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, where they stayed.
Hattie did attend the film’s Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939. Upon Selznick’s insistence, her picture was also featured prominently in the program.
It was Hattie McDaniel’s role as the house slave that repeatedly scolds her owner’s daughter, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), and scoffs at Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), that won McDaniel the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first black American to win an Oscar.
Hattie had also been the first black American to be nominated.
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
—Hattie McDaniel: Acceptance Speech delivered on February 29, 1940, at the 12th Annual Academy Awards.
“I loved Mammy,” Hattie said later when speaking to the press about the character. “I think I understood her because my own grandmother worked on a plantation not unlike Tara.”
Hattie McDaniel died at the age of 57 on October 26, 1952 of breast cancer in the hospital on the grounds of the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills.
Thousands of mourners turned out to celebrate her life and achievements.
In her will, Hattie 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 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 Hattie 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.
Now WE know em