Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Black Diva of the Thirties

Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy

Copyright Date: 2004
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Black Diva of the Thirties
    Book Description:

    While undergoing routine surgery to remove a benign tumor, Ruby Elzy died. She was only thirty-five. Had she lived, she would have been one of the first black artists to appear in grand opera.

    Although now in the shadows, she was a shining star in her day. She entertained Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. She was Paul Robeson's leading lady in the movie version ofThe Emperor Jones. She co-starred inBirth of the Bluesopposite Bing Crosby and Mary Martin. She sang at Harlem's Apollo Theater and in the Hollywood Bowl. Her remarkable soprano voice was known to millions over the radio. She was personally chosen by George Gershwin to create one of the leading roles in his masterpiece, that of Serena in the original production ofPorgy and Bess. Her signature song was the vocally demanding "My Man's Gone Now."

    From obscurity she had risen to great heights. Ruby Pearl Elzy (1908-1943) was born in abject poverty in Pontotoc, Mississippi. Her father abandoned the family when she was five, leaving her mother, a strong, devout woman, to raise four small children. Ruby first sang publicly at the age of four and even in childhood dreamed of a career on the stage. Good fortune struck when a visiting professor, overwhelmed upon hearing her beautiful voice at Rust College in Mississippi, arranged for her to study music at Ohio State University. Later, on a Rosenwald Fellowship, she enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York City.

    After more than 800 performances inPorgy and Bess, she set her sights on a huge goal, to sing in grand opera. She was at the peak of her form. While she was preparing for her debut in the title role of Verdi'sAida, tragedy struck.

    During her brief career, Ruby Elzy was in the top tier of American sopranos and a precursor who paved a way for Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, and other black divas of the operatic stage. This biography acknowledges her exceptional talent, recognizes her contribution to American music, and tells her tragic yet inspiring story.

    David E. Weaver has sung professionally in more than two dozen roles in operas and musicals. His career in the arts and in broadcasting has spanned more than twenty-five years. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-765-3
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-8)

    Washington, D.C., was getting an early taste of winter that Wednesday afternoon. The skies were gray. The temperature, usually a mild fifty degrees at this time of year, struggled to get above freezing. Bureaucrats and secretaries, heading back from lunch to the government offices where they worked, pulled their coat collars up and walked a little faster.

    It was December 15, 1937. America had entered the ninth year of the worst depression in its history. Yet here, ten days before Christmas, downtown Washington’s fashionable department stores were crowded with shoppers. At Garfinkel’s on the corner of 14th and F Streets,...

    (pp. 9-32)

    The voice of Ruby Elzy was heard in public for the first time on a spring day in 1912, at McDonald Methodist Church in the little town of Pontotoc, Mississippi. Her “debut” was a completely spontaneous performance that surprised the congregation and embarrassed her mother. Emma Elzy had a lovely soprano voice and sang in McDonald’s choir, while her three small children sat in the front pew with Emma’s mother, Belle Kimp. The choir had just finished the morning anthem, and was beginning to sing a hymn when suddenly a child’s voice rose over all the others. It was little...

    (pp. 33-56)

    By the time C. C. McCracken returned to Columbus in early June, nearly a month had passed since the trip to Rust College. The tour of Negro colleges and schools with Dr. John had been completed and the report to the educational commission was ready to submit. As soon as he was back home, Dr. McCracken told his wife about Ruby Elzy, the young black woman gifted with a beautiful soprano voice whom he hoped to bring to study at Ohio State University. Since Ruby knew no one in Columbus, she would have to stay—at least initially—with the...

    (pp. 57-79)

    In mid-June 1930, less than a week after he watched his protégé graduate from Ohio State, Dr. McCracken went to Chicago for an educational conference. Also attending was Edwin Embree, president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Rosenwald was a Jewish merchant and philanthropist who had risen from being a clerk to chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Rosenwald supported many causes, but the one he was devoted to above all others was the Negro. In 1917 he had created the Rosenwald Fund to support projects in health, education, and the arts, all to benefit black Americans. Rosenwald Fellowships were awarded for...

    (pp. 80-98)

    On November 3, 1933, soon after the release ofThe Emperor Jones, and as Ruby was in her final year at Juilliard, a two-paragraph story ran in the theatre section of theNew York Timesunder the following banner:

    To Present ‘Porgy’ as a Musical Show

    Guild to Sponsor New Version—

    Gershwin Brothers and Heyward to Collaborate

    In the seven decades since that brief announcement appeared, millions of words have been written and spoken about the work that became known asPorgy and Bess. Probably no other creation for the American stage has been more discussed, analyzed, and dissected, nor...

    (pp. 99-113)

    When Dr. McCracken and his family saw Ruby off at the train station following the Philadelphia run ofPorgy and Bess(and the upsetting incident with John W. Bubbles in their home), they knew something was wrong. The state of Ruby’s physical and mental well-being genuinely concerned them as they bade her goodbye. It would be nearly nine months before they heard from Ruby again:

    December 11, 1936

    My Dearest Dr. and Mrs.McCracken,

    Please don’t show this letter to the children. Just tell them the good things in it.

    This time I know it will be harder than ever for...

    (pp. 114-123)

    With its intimate space and perfect acoustics, Manhattan’s Town Hall has been a favorite venue of both performers and audiences since its opening in 1921. Many celebrated artists have made their New York debuts at Town Hall, including almost every important black singer from Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson to William Warfield and Leontyne Price. To this stellar list Ruby Elzy added her name on Sunday, October 10, 1937.

    To present a solo recital accompanied only by piano is the greatest challenge for any singer. Performing different types of music, in several different languages, is a true test of the...

    (pp. 124-133)

    Mama came from Mississippi to spend the holidays with Ruby in the cramped sixth-floor apartment on West 115th Street. Together they put up a small Christmas tree, and the place was soon filled with the wonderful aroma of Mama’s home-cooking.

    Emma Elzy had always been proud of Ruby but never more so than now. That her daughter had sung in the White House for the First Lady was an honor Emma could not have imagined even in her fondest dreams. At the same time, Emma was not at all concerned about Ruby being fired from the Kit Kat Club. In...

    (pp. 134-146)

    Ruby returned to Los Angeles in the middle of March 1938. She settled temporarily with a family named Harris on East 42nd Street, with whom she had stayed while rehearsing and performing in Armitage’s production. Thanks to the run ofPorgy and Bessat the Philharmonic Auditorium, Ruby had met a number of key people in the entertainment industry. She began making the rounds of casting agents and producers and soon landed her first job: a small role in the MGM pictureThe Toy Wife.

    In the Hollywood “dream factory” of the 1930s, there was no bigger studio than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer....

    (pp. 147-162)

    When Ruby stepped off the train at Grand Central Station shortly before Thanksgiving of 1939, it had been nearly two years since she had left New York. She had not particularly missed having to contend with its cold winters and living in high-rise flats. California was now home, with its perpetually sunny weather and her own little house in South Central. Charles Marshall had tried enticing Ruby back for some concerts to no avail. But when the opportunity came to star on Broadway with Paul Robeson, it was too good for Ruby to pass up.

    Robeson was at the peak...

    (pp. 163-175)

    When Merle Armitage’s production ofPorgy and Besscame to its abrupt end in San Francisco in March 1938, many people in the theatre world—perhaps even Ruby—thought that was the end of Gershwin’s opera. Although a number of its songs, especially “Summertime,” had become popular on the radio, the show itself seemed too huge and costly an undertaking for any sensible producer to take on. The general consensus thatPorgy and Besswas an interesting but ultimately unprofitable work was validated even by Gershwin’s own estate. After his death in 1937, attorneys cataloging the worth of his compositions...

  15. “I’M ON MY WAY”
    (pp. 176-187)

    Ruby had not seen Dr. McCracken’s eldest son in several years. Bill McCracken was now twenty-six years old and following in his father’s footsteps as an educator. While Ruby was still in Chicago appearing inPorgy and Bess, Bill came to town for a conference. He called Ruby, and they agreed to meet for lunch.

    “We must’ve walked sixteen blocks from the heart of downtown,” Bill recalled, “trying to find a restaurant where a white man and a black woman could be served together.” Finally, they did find a place and over lunch enjoyed a happy reunion.

    The long stay...

    (pp. 188-192)

    A few weeks after Ruby’s funeral, Emma Elzy finally sat down to write a heartfelt letter to Dr. McCracken, an outpouring of affection and gratitude for all that he had done to help Ruby to achieve her dream.

    July 19, 1943. Corinth, Mississippi.

    Dr. CC McCracken and Family,

    I have wanted to write you for several days, but just couldn’t write. Hope this finds you and family well. Ruby attempted to write you the day before the operation. It was so hot and they wanted her to relax. So she didn’t write anyone. She told me where you were but...

    (pp. 193-200)
    (pp. 201-203)
  19. Index
    (pp. 204-210)