Cover image for Becoming something : the story of Canada Lee
Becoming something : the story of Canada Lee
Smith, Mona Z., 1962-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Faber and Faber, 2004.
Physical Description:
xvii, 430 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Always chasing rainbows: the music -- Runnin' wild: the races -- Life can be so sweet: the ring -- Nice work if you can get it: the stage -- Broadway melody: bona fide star -- Why don't you do right: on the road with Jim Crow -- California, here I come: Hollywood, war, romance -- Stormy weather: boy gets girl, girl disappears[pears -- No business like show business: white way and whiteface -- Body and soul: red scared -- Trouble, trouble: Russian spies and pink paint -- Baby, it's cold outside: friendships betrayed -- No greater love: then comes marriage -- So little time: fight to the death -- Blues requiem: speak of me as I am.
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PN2287.L2898 S65 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The first biography of the great black actor, activist, athlete--and tragic victim of the blacklist Imagine an actor as familiar to audiences as Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman are today--who is then virtually deleted from public memory. Such is the story of Canada Lee. Among the most respected black actors of the forties and a tireless civil rights advocate, Lee was unjustly dishonored, his name reduced to a footnote in the history of the McCarthy era, his death one of a handful directly attributable to the blacklist. Born in Harlem in 1907, Lee was a Renaissance man. A musical prodigy on violin and piano at eleven, by thirteen he had become a successful jockey and by his twenties a champion boxer. After wandering into auditions for the WPA Negro Theater Project, Lee took up acting and soon shot to stardom in Orson Welles's Broadway production of Native Son, later appearing in such classic films as Lifeboat and the original Cry, the Beloved Country. But Lee's meteoric rise to fame was followed by a devastating fall. Labeled a Communist by the FBI and HUAC as early as 1943, Lee was pilloried during the notorious spy trial of Judith Coplon in 1949, then condemned in longtime friend Ed Sullivan's column. He died in 1952, forty-five and penniless, a heartbroken casualty of a dangerous and conflicted time. Now, after nearly a decade of research, Mona Z. Smith revives the legacy of a man who was perhaps the blacklist's most tragic victim. Mona Z. Smithis a former reporter forThe Miami Heraldand an award-winning playwright. She lives in Brooklyn. Imagine an actor as familiar to audiences as Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Morgan Freeman are today--who is then virtually deleted from cultural history. Such is the story of Canada Lee. Among the most respected black actors of the 1940s and a passionate civil rights activist, Lee was reduced to a footnote in the history of the McCarthy era, and his death was one of a handful directly attributed to the blacklist. Born in Harlem in 1907, Lee was a Depression-era Renaissance man, reinventing himself numerous times during one of our country's darkest periods: a musical prodigy on violin and piano, he made his concert debut at New York's prestigious Aeolian Hall at eleven; by thirteen he had become a successful jockey; in his teens, a pro boxer; and in his twenties, a leading contender for the national welterweight title, until an unlucky blow to the head cost him the sight in one eye and his fighting career. After wandering into auditions for the Federal Theatre Project's Negro Unit, Lee took up acting and shot to stardom in Orson Welles's Broadway production ofNative Son. He later appeared in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's classicLifeboatand the originalCry, the Beloved Countrywith a young Sidney Poitier. But Lee's meteoric rise to fame was followed by a devastating fall from grace. Labeled a Communist by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee as early as 1943, Lee was pilloried during the notorious spy trial of Judith Coplon in 1949, and his career was ultimately destroyed when his longtime friend Ed Sullivan denounced him in his nationally syndicated column. Lee died in 1952, forty-five and penniless, a heartbroken victim of a dangerous and conflicted time. Now, after nearly a decade of research, Mona Z. Smith revives the legacy of a man who was perhaps the blacklist's most tragic victim. "Armed with extensive research and huge files hoarded by [Lee's] widow, Smith has put together a richly detailed . . . narrative . . .Becoming Somethingdoes an important [service by making] possible much more discussion and reflection on a life that still has lessons to teach us."--Clyde Taylor,The Washington Post Book World "Mona Z. Smith has used her considerable gifts as a dramatist and storyteller to illumin

Author Notes

Mona Z. Smith is a former reporter for The Miami Herald and an award-winning play-wright. She lives in Brooklyn

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A successful prizefighter whose career ended abruptly, Lee went from being the lord of the ring to the toast of the town when he discovered acting. Arguably one of the greatest black actors of his time, Lee's name today is a hardly mentioned in the annals of Broadway and Hollywood stardom, yet Lee broke new ground in his relentless pursuit of roles that would defy the stereotypical portraits of blacks as toadies and lackeys. An indefatigable champion of human rights, Lee's passion for justice and equality drew the attention of the HUAC, where such liberal causes were synonymous with communism. His placement on the dreaded blacklist ended Lee's career, and his early death is often attributed to the McCarthy witch hunt. Indeed, Lee's story is as tragic as those he portrayed on stage: a meteoric rise, a precipitous fall, and betrayal by people he trusted. Smith wondrously brings to life a man whose impact on American theater and culture was far too great to be allowed to lapse into obscurity. --Carol Haggas Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

A talented actor and pioneering civil rights activist, Lee died in 1952 at age 45-technically from uremia, but in the eyes of many, as investigative journalist and playwright Smith shows, from the stress of being blacklisted. Lee's career was extraordinary. Leaving home at 13 to become a racetrack jockey, he became a boxer, dabbled in music and was drawn into acting by the Depression-era Federal Theater Project. He was in Hollywood films, including Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) and Rossen's Body and Soul (1947). Smith deftly depicts New York's theater scene, showing how Lee became one of the first African-Americans to gain acceptance in white theater, and thoroughly documents Lee's outspoken support for civil rights. Lee's speechmaking caught the attention of Cold War Red-baiters, and in 1949, he started hearing rumors he'd been blacklisted. While he did work in one final film-1951's Cry, the Beloved Country-the strain of not being able to work or support his family may have irritated his hypertension, leading to kidney failure. Smith's admiration for Lee-his artistry, his desegregation campaigns, his generosity toward the needy, his fellowship with other African-American artists-is so overwhelming that Lee emerges as a two-dimensional character. Still, students of African-American, theater and Cold War history will find this a valuable reference. 32 b&w illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Peter Rubie. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Canada Lee's distinguished acting career was curtailed and virtually written out of theatrical history during the McCarthy era. A jockey, boxer, and bandleader before turning to acting, he gained fame in numerous venues-on Broadway in Orson Welles's production of Native Son, onscreen in Lifeboat, and on various radio shows. Lee spoke often and eloquently against racial discrimination and supported humanitarian causes, but his activism earned him the label of radical and worse from the House Un-American Activities Committee, the FBI, and, sadly, even his one-time friend, columnist Ed Sullivan. By the time of his death at 45, his career, health, finances, and honor were all but shattered. Smith, a former investigative reporter for the Miami Herald who wrote a play about Lee under the same title, completed years of research and interviews to support her premise that Lee was the victim of unjust accusations fueled by the political climate. She makes a convincing case in this groundbreaking biography, providing a thought-provoking example of the tragic impact of a nation's and an art form's paranoia. For most libraries.-Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Excerpt from Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith. Copyright (c) 2004 by Mona Z. Smith. Published in August, 2004 by Faber and Faber, a division or Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. PREFACE How does a man die? Darkness comes, breath ends, the heart ceases to beat. How does a man's honor die? His glory, his fame, his good name? Honor dies by a man's own hand, or by the hand of another--by rumor and ruin, attack and abuse. Sometimes, when a man's honor dies, his story dies with it, destroyed, erased, deleted. This is the story of a talented and ambitious black man, a musician turned athlete turned artist turned activist, a patriot who fought tirelessly for the rights of his people and for all people who did not enjoy the full privileges of American democracy, a man viciously dishonored and virtually deleted from this nation's history. This is the story of Canada Lee, an unsung hero, a voice of dissent silenced by the McCarthy-era blacklist. In his classic book on the show business blacklist, A Journal of the Plague Years , Stefan Kanfer writes, "Overlooked by almost every theatrical or film historian, unmentioned by such retentive and bitter victims as Alvah Bessie and Dalton Trumbo, Lee is the Othello of the blacklist, at once its most afflicted and ignored victim." Ironically, Canada's story was also a relatively minor episode in Kanfer's book. When recounted at all, the tragic tale of this actor and activist is usually treated as little more than a footnote in the history of the Cold War and the anti-Communist crusade dubbed "McCarthyism" after its most notorious knight, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Most often, the only reason Lee is mentioned is to acknowledge him as one of a handful of people whose deaths are attributed to persecution by the blacklist--a complex machine of journalists, Hollywood executives, congressmen, businessmen, and government agencies that destroyed the careers of the famous and the not so famous. Bibliographies list hundreds of articles, books, plays, and films written during the past five decades about the Red Scare and anti-Communism, about McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), as well as the blacklist and its most famous victims, a group of screenwriters and film directors known as the Hollywood Ten. Interest in the subject spiked in the early 1990s when the Cold War ended and information long buried in archives in Moscow, Washington, and elsewhere came to light. A new generation has become fascinated with those chilling decades of Soviet and American animosity, nuclear anxiety and espionage, Red Scare propaganda and the anti-Communist movement, including the blacklist. Why, then, has Canada Lee's story not been told? Certainly, he was not blacklisted in the usual manner. He was never called before HUAC and asked the infamous question: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" He wasn't sent to jail like the Hollywood Ten for refusing to answer that question. His name was never named by one of HUAC's glamorous movie-star witnesses. He was not cited in the notorious Red Channels , the "bible of the blacklist" that demolished the careers of so many entertainers. Instead, Lee was blacklisted as a result of one of the most peculiar episodes in the history of the Cold War, the now largely forgotten espionage trial of Judith Coplon. Perhaps this is the reason. Or perhaps it is because Canada Lee was black. Little has been written about the entertainers, teachers, labor leaders, artists, and activists of color who were blacklisted. Perhaps Lee's story hasn't been told because African Americans are generally under-represented in our history books; perhaps those who do chronicle black history view the blacklist as a relatively minor misdemeanor compared to nearly four hundred years of criminal human rights abuses in this country. In any event, of all the blacklisted African Americans, we know the most about Paul Robeson, the internationally renowned singer and activist. A colleague and friend to Canada Lee, Robeson was also vilified as a Communist, his passport confiscated, his career sabotaged. Though he lived the last fifteen years of his life in virtual obscurity, Robeson's contributions to the arts and his struggle for civil rights have been reclaimed and celebrated, thanks in part to the indefatigable efforts of his only child, Paul Robeson, Jr. But Robeson's case is the exception. Of the many stories that deserve to be told, I chose Canada Lee's because it was, in the beginning, a fascinating puzzle, a mystery to be solved. While studying for a master's degree in theater, I wanted to write a play about the intersection of jazz and politics at the end of World War II. Leafing through a library book about McCarthyism, I came across a single-line footnote that attributed Canada Lee's death to the blacklist. Intrigued, I unearthed a few entries in reference books describing him as one of the greatest black actors of his time and mentioning some of his most noted roles. That was the extent of the information readily available. How could a man of such talent be erased from history with hardly a trace? Surely, there was more to this. Several years of research squeezed around day jobs, family, and other matters turned up more mentions in more books, including Kanfer's study of the blacklist and Victor S. Navasky's Naming Names . A slim but intriguing folder in the theater research collection of the New York Library of the Performing Arts tossed more crumbs my way. Celebrity profiles described in greater detail Canada's chameleon transformations from violinist to jockey to boxer to actor. Yellowed clippings showed he had worked in the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre during the Depression before achieving Broadway stardom in Orson Welles's adaptation of Native Son . Movie reviews showed that Lee had landed significant roles in several films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat . A newspaper photo of Canada helping to organize a rally against Jim Crow in the theater was the first tangible evidence of his political activism. Though tantalizing, Lee's story was still far from complete. Then came a real breakthrough, followed by crushing disappointment. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem had acquired seven boxes of materials on Canada. After years of turning up bits and scraps, I thought I had hit the jackpot, only to discover that the materials were off-limits to researchers. Archivists said Lee's papers were fragile, and his files hadn't yet been sorted or microfilmed. However, an attorney who had overseen the transfer of these materials to the Schomburg said the donor was Lee's widow, who was still alive. Write a letter describing your project, the attorney suggested, and I'll forward it to her. Soon after, Frances Lee Pearson telephoned with an invitation to visit her in Atlanta. Meeting this woman was a revelation; now in her eighties and legally blind, Frances is an absolute dynamo. Determined to preserve Lee's story, she created a database about his life, copying his files into a computer with special equipment rigged for her by family and friends. When I told her how much I wanted to put Lee's story on the stage, Frances opened her late husband's files and shared her most treasured memories, bringing the richness of Canada's story to life at long last--his rise to stardom, his fight for civil rights, his persecution under the blacklist, his failing health, those final moments before he slipped away from her forever. In one from or another, I have been writing his story ever since. "All my life, I've been on the verge of being something," Canada Lee once said. He almost became a concert violinist, but ran away to the races instead. He tried to make a career as a jockey, but a growth spurt and race prejudice forced him to quit. He found success at last as a prize-fighter, but an accident in the ring ended his quest for the world championship. Then he tumbled into acting, and became a Broadway star. Canada Lee, who grew up in a blue-collar home in Harlem and left school at the age of fourteen, finally got what he wanted more than anything else in the world, the chance to be somebody: a name in the marquee lights, an artist hailed as one of the most important black actors of his day. Lee's achievement is all the more impressive because he earned these accolades when roles for black actors were even more limited and stereotyped than they are today. Most were forced to keep body and soul together by playing the Eternal Menial, characters Lee dismissed as "butlers and handkerchief-heads." He insisted on dignified roles. He created his own opportunities. He shattered barriers and won hearts. Canada Lee got it all and then lost it all--his glory, his fame, his honor, his good name--because stardom was not enough for him. He had achieved the American dream of self-determination and success, but he knew he was luckier than most. He felt honor-bound to use his success as a platform to fight for equal rights for his people and for all people suffering social, political, and economic injustices. The artist turned activist, and it would be his ruin. Lee loved his country and believed in democracy. A man of little formal education, he spent much of his life critically studying and bravely acting upon those famous principles that so many of us learn by rote in civics class and then forget or take for granted: the self-evident truths that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Lee strived to make our union more perfect, to establish justice, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for all Americans. The Constitution taught him that whenever a government becomes "destructive to these ends," when the powers-that-be seek to undermine our freedoms and infringe on our civil liberties, it is the right of the people to alter that government. As a patriot who put his faith and trust in this democracy, Lee fervently believed he had the right to oppose those laws and practices that violated our fundamental civil rights. He demanded an end to segregation, Jim Crow, poll taxes, and lynching. During World War II, he condemned the military for its hypocrisy in sending black soldiers to fight a racist regime in a segregated army. He denounced discrimination in the workplace and the criminal justice system. He lobbied for fair and accurate representation of minorities in arts and media. He insisted on better child care, housing, education, and health care for the poor. He petitioned Congress to remove its white supremacists. He urged the government to take a stand against apartheid and colonialism, and to support the rights of Africans and others to self-determination. He lobbied for international cooperation, unity, brotherhood, and peace. Canada Lee was an idealist, an eloquent, courageous, vigorous voice of dissent. That is what made him so dangerous. To those in power, Lee was a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, a militant, a subversive, a Communist sympathizer if not a card-carrying Red. Canada's political activities were tracked, investigated, and documented in government files, fueling the blacklist machine that finally crushed him. At first, Lee had no idea the government was watching him. But in 1947, as the blacklist began to ravage the lives and careers of left-leaning artists, including his own friends and colleagues, the actor had to know that he was risking everything he had worked so hard for by continuing to speak out. Yet he spoke out anyway. Sifting through crumbling newspaper clippings, marveling over those amazing career transformations and his valiant activism, it is devastating to see Canada's story come to an abrupt end. Once Lee was blacklisted, few reporters took interest in the only work he had left, his volunteer efforts for political and humanitarian causes. When the actor died, obituaries summed up his career in a few sentences and noted he had been labeled a Communist. After the obituaries were filed away and buried deep in the morgues of the newspapers, Canada Lee virtually disappeared from history. Kelly Miller, the late journalist and dean at Howard University, once said that white America doesn't want to take the concerns of black artists and intellectuals seriously, "but tell them about the Negro jockey, banjo player, prizefighter, minstrel, mimic, buck dancer, cabaret critics, jazz orchestra, singer of jubilee glees or Memphis blues, and they will not only stop to hear, but linger to listen." Negro jockey . . . prizefighter . . . musician . . . entertainer. The outsider who proves himself a talented player is cheered for performing a worthy service. But the outsider who proves himself an intelligent, impassioned critic is condemned and silenced. As long as Canada Lee was the great Negro success story, the man who rose from humble beginnings to become a star, he was the darling of the media and beloved by his fans. But when he began to battle Jim Crow and racism, when he began to criticize America's stand on segregation and the state of its own democracy, when he assumed the role of the artist as activist, he was by turns attacked, boycotted, ignored, forgotten. We listened to Canada Lee's story as long as it fit a stereotype we created. We stopped listening when his story challenged our political views, our prejudices, our patriotism, our democracy. We were upset because he achieved the American dream of becoming somebody, and then told America where it fell short of its own ideals. Canada wasn't a perfect man. He was ambitious. He made mistakes. He was human. But he was nevertheless a good man, a brave man, a man who fought for justice and freedom for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed, an artist of color who demanded respect, a patriot who asked his country to live up to its own principles. He accomplished so much. It should not be forgotten. Excerpted from Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xv
1 Always Chasing Rainbows: The Musicp. 3
2 Runnin' Wild: The Racesp. 14
3 Life Can Be So Sweet: The Ringp. 22
4 Nice Work If You Can Get It: The Stagep. 41
5 Broadway Melody: Bona Fide Starp. 68
6 Why Don't You Do Right: On the Road with Jim Crowp. 104
7 California, Here I Come: Hollywood, War, Romancep. 140
8 Stormy Weather: Boy Gets Girl, Girl Disappearsp. 169
9 No Business Like Show Business: White Way and Whitefacep. 192
10 Body and Soul: Red Scaredp. 228
11 Trouble, Trouble: Russian Spies and Pink Paintp. 254
12 Baby, It's Cold Outside: Friendships Betrayedp. 289
13 No Greater Love: Then Comes Marriagep. 320
14 So Little Time: Fight to the Deathp. 336
15 Blues Requiem: Speak of Me As I Amp. 357
Notesp. 371
Indexp. 411