Today, we’re discovering a sexy, socially conscious coffee-table book called Vintage Black Glamour, which came out in 2014 (and I only just discovered…) having started life as a Tumblr feed created by writer and journalist, Nichelle Gainer.

It’s a treasure trove of rarely seen photographs of Black actors, models, writers and entertainers of the early 20th century – from the legendary to the unsung and the obscure – most of whom rarely appeared in the same publications as their white counterparts.

 Although talented, successful and ground-breaking, many of the women in these pages were ignored by mainstream media, but their life’s work and attitude stand as inspiration for us still, today. With its stunning photographs and insightful biographies, this book is a hugely important addition to Black history archives.”

The book starts with an 1891 picture of French horsewoman Selika Lazevski, and ends in 1981 with Sister Sledge. There’s musician Valaida Snow in 1930s London, conducting a white orchestra in thrall to her; Dandridge in the 1950s, striking a pose while her Russian instructor positions her foot; Aretha Franklin backstage in Newark in 1969, eyeliner in one hand, fag in the other, not to mention the vast number of unsung female pioneers, in every facet of the entertainment arena. Not just the stars in movie and theatre, but the wives, the socialites.

What makes Vintage Black Glamour so special are the carefully researched stories that go with each photograph, in most cases. Let’s have a peek…

vintage black glamour
The author’s great aunt, Mildred Taylor, at left, with friend QueenEsther James, modeling at a fashion show in Newark.
This photo (by Walter Iooss) was taken in the year I was born in the city I was born: Newark, NJ in 1969. I was honored (thrilled!) when the legendary poet Nikki Giovanni granted me permission to share an excerpt of her 1970 poem, ‘Poem for Aretha” in my book and I’d like to share a bit of it for you here in tribute to Ms. Franklin: “she is undoubtedly the one person who put everyone on notice she revived johnny ace and remembered lil green aretha sings “I say a little prayer” and dionne doesn’t want to hear it anymore aretha sings “money won’t change you” but james can’t sing “respect” the advent of Aretha pulled ray charles from marlboro country and back into the blues made nancy wilson try one more time forced dionne to make a choice (she opted for the movies) and diana ross had to get an afro wig pushed every Black singer into Blackness and negro entertainers into negroness you couldn’t jive when she said “you make me feel”

Just Nina Simone doing her thing.
Eartha Kitt stopping the trolley car in Istanbul with a pose (c.1949).
Unidentified woman, 1970s. This is not Leslie Uggams, even though this woman has been mistakenly identified as her lately online. I was curious to find out who she was, so I did a little digging. If this website is correct, this woman is apparently one of hundreds who tried out for jobs as in strip clubs in Southern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the prurient minded, the women on the site are in various states of… full dress.
Missy Elliott’s Super Bowl takeover reminded me of this: If she acts, this could be a great role for her. Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) is in the “Scandalous Glamour” chapter in my book, Vintage Black Glamour. She was born in Philadelphia and ostracized by family, friends and even doctors early in her life because they wanted to “cure” her of homosexuality. She was a 16-year-old renegade when she arrived in Harlem and was an immediate success singing at rent parties and clubs. Unapologetically masculine onstage, she was known for her signature top hat and tails and her gleefully obscene set drew large crowds to her shows at The Clam House, the famous gay club, and other hot Harlem venues of the day. She recorded for Okeh records in the 1920s and was the model for a blues performer in “Parties” a novel by Carl Van Vechten, the Harlem Renaissance legend who took this picture. In the 1950s, Ms. Bentley would denounce everything about her notorious career and declare that she was no longer a lesbian – thanks to female hormone treatments. She continued to perform, but her career waned and, just before she was to be ordained as a minister, she died of influenza at the age of 52 in 1960.
vintage black glamour
Right: Jayne Kennedy in April 1977 in a shot from her short-lived NBC TV show, “Cover Girls.” She played Monique Lawrence who was, of course, a secret agent posing as a fashion model. Left: Pat Cleveland in 1972 wearing Stephen Burrows.
pointer sisters
The Pointer Sisters, June, Ruth, Bonnie and Anita, wearing vintage styles from the forties in 1973. The sisters were preachers daughters who topped the R&B and pop charts and were nominated for over a dozen Grammy Awards in the pop, R&B and country categories.
Josephine Baker hanging out with her pet cheetah in 1931. The cheetah’s name? Chiquita.

Dorothy Dandridge, on the set of “Carmen Jones” at the RKO lot in Hollywood in 1954.

Discover the Vintage Black Glamour book’s website, the Instagram, the Facebook page and the Tumblr

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