A teen orphaned by the Rwandan genocide makes the heartbreaking choice to abandon her own children. Years later, an unshakable brotherly bond keeps her bruised but determined boys looking toward the future—and sends them back to her under questionable circumstances.
Hirwa never should have given the phone to Jean-Cloude. His brother might be ten now and almost as strong as Hirwa himself, but Jean-Cloude breaks everything. Now he’s dropped the phone in the water and Hirwa can’t detach his eyes from the broken Tecno. This is all beyond repair. And they’ve only just arrived.
A week ago the boys were still dreaming of being reunited with their mother. From their orphanage perched on the hill, the brothers gazed wistfully at other children being collected by their families. But no one had come for them yet. Jean-Cloude had wet his bed again. He had to sleep on the floor and Hirwa crawled beside him.
Then one afternoon she suddenly came. She wore a black dress and she laughed with her hand over her mouth. Jean-Cloude beamed, but thirteen-year-old Hirwa saw how worried she looked.
Early the next morning they left the orphanage with their mother.
It was already getting dark when they reached Kigali, the capital. Hirwa saw lights everywhere, along with cars, motorcycles, high buildings, billboards, and so many people. From the bus stop, they walked up a wide dirt road, past a Primus beer sign, into an alley. They passed through a corrugated gate. Hirwa saw a large house with two black doors; his mother’s hut was opposite the house. It had no windows. There was a bed and on the little strip of floor in front of the bed he saw bottles of nail polish, Vaseline and a tube of Colgate. A light bulb dangled from the ceiling.
Now that they are here, she leaves her phone with them in the evening, while she goes to work at the bar. Sometimes she is gone for days. There is no money for them to go back to school.
Jean-Cloude is still sitting on the bed when she enters. She sees the broken phone and screams; she has to go, but she will beat them when she comes back.
Hirwa doesn’t know what to do. They have to leave. He looks for the notebook where their mother keeps her money. He grabs all of it. Then the brothers run across the courtyard, through the alley, and underneath the Primus sign. They wait for the bus at the main road. Hirwa gives all 6,000 francs to the driver. They are going back.
* * *
Farida Nyirasinamenye, Hirwa and Jean-Cloude’s mother, was five in 1994 when one of the most notorious genocides of the twentieth century took place in Rwanda. Within three months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu people were killed by members of the country’s Hutu majority, most of them with machetes. Farida’s father was Hutu. He died just before the massacre. Her mother was Tutsi.
Farida’s mother fled home, carrying her baby on her back, ushering her three older children alongside her, to a school just outside their village of Rubengera. Many people were hiding in the school; they heard that the killers would come for them the following day.
That next morning her mother pushed them along paths they had never seen before, to their father’s former home, where his first wife and her children still lived. When they had almost reached their destination, Farida’s mother sent them towards the home and then turned around herself. Even though Farida was only five, she knew she would never see her mother again.
By the time it was over, nearly a million Rwandans were dead, thousands of more ended up in prison, and hundreds of thousands of children were left without parents. International aid organizations set up orphanage after orphanage, until Rwanda, a small but densely populated country with eleven million inhabitants, had 34 new orphanages.
Farida was one of these orphaned children. She went to school and learned to read and write. She ranked second in her class and dreamed of becoming a government minister. But when she was twelve, the orphanage discovered that she still had family living. Farida and her brother and sister were sent to live with her father’s first wife.
There wasn’t enough food for her and her siblings at their new home and when they realized they wouldn’t be able to go to school either, they decided to run away. Her brother and sister both found a family that was willing to take them in. Farida walked to the town of Karongi, some ten miles away and found a family there who rented rooms and could use a maid.
Now thirteen, Farida cooked and washed for the family. One of the tenants, an older student, helped her. Somewhere between gathering firewood, sweeping the yard and fetching water, she realized that she would never go back to school. She gave up on her dream.
A few months later she was pregnant; the older student was the father.
Farida was asked to leave, and the man disappeared. On February 24, 2002 she gave birth to a baby boy: Dorice Hirwa. “Hirwa” means happiness in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language.
She had never had sex for pleasure, but now to get by, she let men pay. A man rented a room for her and her baby and sometimes spent the night. A few months later, she was pregnant again. She told the landlord that her man would come back, but he didn’t and after five months they were put out on the street. She slept with her baby and toddler in the park. People thought she was crazy, living on the streets like that. To minimize the number of people who saw them, Farida would wake Hirwa up as soon as the muezzin called for morning prayer, and then they would quietly trail off.
* * *
Hirwa was eighteen months old when Kadogo found him.
A former soldier who struggles with psychotic episodes, Kadogo had just been discharged from the hospital. It was four in the morning and he saw a little boy sitting outside by himself, wrapped in a blanket. He took him home.
Kadogo would hit other people and curse at them, but Hirwa, who lived with Kadogo for several years, knew he would never harm him. When the voices in Kadogo’s head were overtaking him, as often happened, Hirwa would hang out on the streets with the older boys. They taught him how to steal money from travelers at the bus station, and fruit and cookies from the market. Then he would go look for his mom and Jean-Cloude and share his loot. Most nights he stayed with Kadogo; other times he slept with his mom and Jean-Cloude at the home of her friend Joyce, who had a restaurant next to the bus station.
It was Mama Joyce who told him one day that their mother had left and gone to Kigali. Hirwa was seven. Mama Joyce said the boys could live with her. He and Jean-Cloude didn’t believe their mother was really gone and they went looking for her.
When they were out looking, a car stopped. The driver asked if they wanted a lift. They climbed in and were taken to an Adventist orphanage, hours away from Karongi. The orphanage director had received a phone call about the fact that the boys were living on the street, although Hirwa and Jean-Cloude don’t know who exactly picked them up that day.
Hirwa thought the orphanage was awful. Every morning at half past five the patron would slam his stick on a rusty hubcap to wake them and urge them to attend church service on the porch of the opposite house. Then he would come into their rooms and scold them. Jean-Cloude would hang out at the kitchen, trying to steal pineapple peels, the older kids would beat him and Hirwa would need to come save his younger brother.
* * *
Farida heard from an acquaintance in Karongi that her kids had been taken to the orphanage, but she waited three years before she visited. She didn’t dare; she was sure they would put her in prison for abandoning her children.
Eventually she went anyway. She traveled all day and then stood outside the fence, watching children play football while others returned to the orphanage in their school uniforms. It reminded her of her own childhood.
A guard told her not to be afraid. One of the caregivers, Mama Mado, called for Hirwa and Jean-Cloude and invited Farida to join her. She was happy to be reunited with them and spent the night at the orphanage, exchanging phone numbers with Mama Mado so she could reach her boys when she had enough credit.
The next day, Farida said goodbye and left. The boys sulked, but Farida knew she could never give them this: two meals a day, their own bed and the luxury of going to school.
* * *
Their mother had brought food with her when she came to visit them, so Hirwa knew she had to be rich now. She said she couldn’t take them with her, but he guessed this was because the orphanage wouldn’t accept them leaving.
Hirwa was hurt when she left, but when he played with Samuel and Fisto he knew that his friends shared the same sorrow. When it got dark around seven each evening, they would all huddle up together in the double bunk beds and talk about their futures. Jean-Cloude wanted to become a soldier and then the president. Hirwa wanted to become a doctor, just like Fisto did, because if you’re a doctor, you’re rich. Hirwa wanted to never be poor again. Never sleep in the rain. Never be shooed away by strangers.
When Hirwa first heard that the orphanage was about to close, he figured they would all go to prison.
* * *
Back in 2003, a coalition of NGO’s including UNICEF and USAID founded the Better Care Network with an office right across from the UN building in New York. The UN embraced the network’s Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, which states: “The family being the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth, well-being and protection of children, efforts should primarily be directed to enabling the child to remain in or return to the care of his/her parents, or when appropriate, other close family members.”
In the autumn of 2014 Orphanage l’Esperance, where Hirwa and Jean-Cloude lived, received weekly phone calls from local authorities demanding to know how many children had been placed with families. And so it was that Farida began to receive phone calls that started to sound more and more alarming. First the orphanage director called her, then Mary Kamanzi, whose Peace Plan organization sought homes for the children, and eventually Mama Mado. If Farida did not come to pick up her children, she was told, they would be given up for adoption.
(It wasn’t so easy to shut all orphanages and eventually the closures had to be postponed, but not until after the boys had already left Orphanage l’Esperance.)
The timing was bad. In the fall of 2014 Farida had just managed to get herself off the streets. She had become a housekeeper for a Kenyan expat family, and received a salary of 20,000 francs a month. On the street she’d only get 1,000 francs and with the new job she also got food and a roof over her head. But she couldn’t live there with two adolescent sons. She had to choose: her job or her children.
But then the phone rang and the orphanage director passed it on to Jean-Cloude who said, “Mommy, we’re coming!”
A few weeks later, she got on the bus to go pick up her children.
* * *
The boys had only been at their mother’s house in Kigali for a few days when she came home drunk, saw the broken cell phone, and threatened to give them a trashing. In a panic, they grabbed the money and ran away.
Hirwa thinks they might succeed at getting back to the orphanage. They get on the bus at exactly the same place they got off days before. The bus makes a curve. Then the driver stops, opens the doors and gestures for them to get off. Hirwa doesn’t know where they are. He sees two men in dark blue police uniforms in front of a building. A group of men and women, tied together like a train, are ushered into the building and ordered to kneel in a corner.
He doesn’t know that there is an illegal detention center right behind the police station here, and that until recently prostitutes and street children were being incarcerated without trial, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The driver pushes Hirwa and Jean-Cloude towards a man sitting behind a desk on a small raised platform. Hirwa begins to stutter, as he always does when he is afraid that he has done something wrong. “W-w-w-we-e want to go to Kadogo,” he explains. (Kadogo, their man who watched them in Karongi, had called to check in on them.) “We want to return to Karongi, because we want to go back to school.”
When Farida comes for them, she avoids the police officer’s gaze, but she nods as he tells her to send her children to school.
Back in the courtyard of their home, the landlord comes to meet them. Farida explains to her that her kids took off because they want to go to school. Hirwa stares at the ground. He doesn’t want to hurt his mother, but he really doesn’t want to be poor anymore.
* * *
Farida thinks of asking Mary Kamanzi for school fees. She calls her and Mary sends over a pastor. He brings her rice, beans and oil and gives her 5,000 francs. He has her sign a receipt promising 20,000 more francs. He says they are now members of his Pentecostal church, and that they have to come to his sermons three times a week.
The pastor tells her to get a bigger house so she can sell charcoal from home. He promises to pay her rent. But when she calls the pastor to come look at a place, he is too busy.
Hirwa and Jean-Cloude go to church service three times a week. Often they go without Farida. It’s a half-hour walk, past the police station. They don’t mind as long as their mom gets help from the pastor.
Mary Kamanzi comes with an older white couple and gives Farida 10,000 francs. Farida is happy with the money, but it does not solve her problems.
Farida’s biggest concern is that she is not receiving any medication. A test has confirmed that she is HIV positive.
She has been to two hospitals already; both ask her for a referral letter from the hospital back in Karongi, which she doesn’t have. Because the treatment program is free, measures are in place to make sure patients don’t visit multiple hospitals, receive more drugs than they need, and sell them.
They asked if she really wasn’t registered at any other hospital, and Farida confessed that she had been tested in Karongi after the birth of her youngest. Again she was told to go to back to Karongi and get a referral. She nodded, staring at the ground. She’d already been back to Karongi twice, but she does not know her health insurance number, so they can’t find her in the system.
How much longer will she manage to hide her night life and her illness from her boys? Will they stay if they know she has the disease?
* * *
It’s summer 2015 and Hirwa and Jean-Cloude walk to the main road. Hirwa leans with his arm on the shoulder of his brother. They each wear a yellow shirt and green pants. Their mother still beats them; Hirwa works hard to make sure that they don’t do anything wrong.
“Mommy likes me, but not very much,” says Jean-Cloude.
“Mommy loves you,” says Hirwa. “She’s had a tough life, and sometimes when people have a difficult life, they get rid of their children. But Mom didn’t send us away.”
“And now when she goes at night, she always leaves us money for breakfast, doesn’t she?”
On the pavement more children join them in yellow shirts and green pants, in a long trail passing the houses, the sandy football field, all the way up to two rectangular brick buildings standing on top of the hill.
More than 12 years after Jannie Duncan walked off the grounds of a mental hospital and into a new identity, Debbie Carliner opened a newspaper and got the shock of her life. She was lying in bed in her home in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday morning, thumbing through The WashingtonPost. It was January 5, 1975. Carliner flipped to the Metro section, where the top story was headlined “Fugitive’s Friends Call Her ‘Beautiful Human.’”
Carliner’s eyes widened as she scanned the photos accompanying the article.
“That’s Joan!” she screamed.
Her husband looked over, confused. Carliner showed him the layout, which included five snapshots of a middle-aged black woman looking radiant in various settings. There she was smiling, surrounded by friends in one image, resplendent in a wedding gown in the next.
The woman was Joan Davis, 54, a kindly and beloved former family employee. In the 1960s, when Debbie Carliner was a teenager and her mother decided to go back to work, her parents had hired Joan to make the beds and help with the cleaning. Joan was an excellent worker, and she was warm and unfailingly trustworthy — so much so that when they left on family trips, the Carliners asked her to watch after their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Debbie’s mother had often said that Joan was highly intelligent — “too smart to be a maid” was how she put it. All of which made reading the story that much more bewildering.
The article reported that Joan’s real name was Jannie Duncan. And that was hardly the only revelation: In 1956, Jannie had been arrested for the murder of her husband, Orell Duncan, whose savagely beaten naked body had been buried in a shallow grave near Richmond, Virginia, the story said. She stood trial, was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. After a few years, she was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution in Washington.
That’s when the story went from shocking to surreal. In November 1962, Jannie had walked off the hospital grounds and vanished for more than 12 years. After she was finally arrested again, on January 2, 1975, the story that emerged was as straightforward as it was unbelievable: She seemed to have simply melted into the streets of Washington, mere miles from the hospital, taken on a new name, and plunged into a new life.
Over more than a decade, Jannie had populated her new existence with a bustling community of adoring friends and employers who were oblivious to the considerable baggage of her old life. Even more strikingly, when her secret was revealed, every one of these acquaintances stood by her. The Post story was filled with the kinds of adulatory tributes usually reserved for retirement parties. Friends and former employers described her as a “high-class woman” and someone “of the highest character, the most honest person.” In an article in the Washington Evening Star, former employer Lewis Stilson held nothing back: “She’s astute, intelligent, vivacious, sincere, honest, and unquestioningly loyal to her employers.”
Like everyone else, Debbie Carliner was incredulous. Neither she nor her parents could imagine that the woman they knew as Joan could murder anyone. If she had, the Carliners figured there must have been a plausible explanation. “We did not believe the story about Joan,” Debbie told me this summer. “We certainly believed he deserved it, assuming it happened.”
I stumbled across the story of Joan/Jannie earlier this year while researching politics in the 1970s. I was so fascinated that I spontaneously abandoned what I was doing to look for other articles about her. The more I found, the stranger and more interesting the story became. For example, she told authorities that she couldn’t remember anything of her life from before she was Joan Davis — but she believed she had been kidnapped from the mental hospital.
The more I found out about her in the weeks that followed, the more I became consumed by a question: What was the truth about Jannie Duncan?
Her twin narratives diverged so sharply that there seemed to be only two possibilities: She’d been railroaded on a murder charge and slipped free of a punishment she didn’t deserve. Or she had killed her husband, escaped, and fooled everyone, cleverly concealing her status as a fugitive who had engineered a great escape.
She was a model citizen who had been wronged, or she was a con artist. I decided to find out which.
* * *
The woman the Carliners knew as Joan Davis was born Jane Waller on February 9, 1920, in Gravel Hill, Virginia, a tiny unincorporated community outside of Richmond. Public records indicate that she was the fourth of seven children. She dropped out of high school after the 11th grade, and, after turning 19, married Thomas Bowman, her hometown sweetheart.
The marriage was likely an act of heedless teenage passion. She left her husband after a few months, lighting out for Washington. There she worked as a clerk and maid during the day and plunged into the city’s boisterous nightclub scene by night, according to the Post. The divorce became official a few years later when Jane, whose friends called her Jannie, married a comedian named Telfair Washington in 1944. He died of a heart attack in 1946.
“He was the love of my life,” Jannie told Post reporter Maggie Locke decades later. “I think that’s when my problems started; after he died I was trying to find a man with his same beautiful qualities.”
Jannie took over Washington’s 17-room tourist home (essentially a boarding house) at 1622 7th Street NW. In 1950, she married again, this time to a gambler named James Terry. She divorced him about two years later, but the turbulence in her personal life didn’t seem to inhibit her business acumen. Within a few years, she employed a handful of people and owned a full-length mink coat and a 1955 powder-blue two-tone Cadillac Fleetwood.
In 1954, she met Orell Duncan, 37, a member of a gambling syndicate run by kingpin Henry “Piggy” Leake. In 1952, Orell Duncan had been arrested and convicted of operating a lottery and possession of number slips. Jannie married him in March 1955, but within a few months, they were living at different addresses.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened while she was working at the boarding house on 7th Street during the early-morning hours of March 11, 1956. What’s clear from court records and newspaper reports is that Orell turned up around 12:30 a.m. and a confrontation took place, and she pulled a gun on him. Orell disarmed her and again began struggling with her. Two of Jannie’s friends, Edward James and Calvin Simms, joined the fray on her behalf. Orell was later found dead from multiple contusions to the head.
Within a span of three days, police in Virginia and Washington arrested Jannie Duncan, James and Simms, and introduced a motive: Jannie’s estranged husband was snitching on her to the IRS. That detail became a staple in newspaper reports about the killing.
She was charged with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory death penalty. At the trial that autumn, the government’s star witness, 25-year-old Carl Winchester, a friend of one of Jannie’s employees, testified that Jannie had pointed a gun at Orell and pulled the trigger several times, but it never fired.
The crux of the trial centered around the post-fight drive in Jannie’s Cadillac. The prosecution claimed that the three defendants finished him off in the car, while Jannie and the others testified that they were talking calmly when the men began arguing and struggling with Orell, and he fell out of the car and died from his injuries.
After a full day of deliberation, the jury found Jannie and James guilty of second-degree murder. Simms was convicted of manslaughter.
Her incarceration at Occoquan women’s prison initially passed without incident. One then-inmate later told the Post that Jannie was quiet and tidy and kept to herself, studying law books. After three and a half years, on November 14, 1960, Jannie was moved to St. Elizabeths. Almost exactly two years later, she walked off the grounds and vanished.
* * *
Reconstructing a life from decades past takes time and effort. To dig deeper than the newspaper stories went, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the police, St. Elizabeths and the FBI. I asked a relative who specializes in genealogical research to dig into Jannie’s family history. I wrote letters and called the people connected to the story who were still alive. (There weren’t many.)
Over time, I assembled the jigsaw puzzle that was her life. Once out of St. Elizabeths, Jannie began quietly reinventing herself. She replied to a classified ad in the newspaper for a job as a domestic helper in Potomac, Maryland, then procured a driver’s license and Social Security card under the name Joan Davis. She spent about two years working for that family, according to newspaper accounts.
After she proved herself a solid and reliable worker, she parlayed strong references into subsequent jobs with the Carliners and others. David Carliner, Debbie’s father, was a prominent Washington attorney whose work, according to his New York Times obituary, “helped define modern immigration law.” (He died in 2007.) He described Jannie in the Washington Evening Star as “a lovely, warm, responsible person.”
Jannie never left the Washington area, except for the year she spent in Detroit with her new husband, Wilbert Lassiter, a Michigan native whom she married in 1972. Eight of her friends flew from Washington to attend the wedding. The Lassiters returned to the nation’s capital a year later.
In September 1963, about 10 months after Jannie’s escape, the FBI, frustrated in its attempts to find her, had issued a wanted poster: “Duncan is an escapee from a mental institution. participated in a vicious assault which resulted in victim’s death. Considered dangerous.” The document shows all 10 of her fingerprints and her mugshot. In the photo, her face is tilted just to the right, her mouth slightly downturned; her hair is closely cropped and forms a little wave on the right side of her head. She is listed as 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds.
Jannie made no attempt to leave the area; rather, she doubled down on Washington, steadily building a community there. Irene Carroll described her friend in the Post as fun-loving and generous. “She was a lover of children,” Carroll said. “She would get us all together and take us on picnics to Lake Fairfax. She’d say, ‘Don’t bring nothing. I’ll take care of the food.’”
But cracks eventually began to show in the foundation of her immaculately rebuilt life. She and Wilbert Lassiter separated around May 1974. By December 1974, he had taken up with another woman named Jannie — Jannie Dodd, according to the Post. That month, Dodd complained to the police that Joan Lassiter had made threatening phone calls and left menacing messages at her house. One such note, Dodd said, read: “Have a merry Christmas. This will be your last.” Dodd filed harassment charges.
Public records show that the Lassiters were officially divorced nearly a year later, after Wilbert learned that his estranged wife had been “convicted of an infamous offense prior to marriage without knowledge of defendant.”
That infamous offense came to light in a remarkable way. Police in Arlington, Virginia, arrested Joan Lassiter on the harassment charge on December 31, 1974. She was fingerprinted, processed, and sent home. As her paperwork was being filed — the sets of prints placed among about 310,000 others — a clerk noticed something surprising: The fingerprints of Joan Lassiter, housewife, perfectly matched the prints on the FBI wanted poster for Jannie W. Duncan, escaped murderer.
On January 2, FBI agent Stanley Niemala drove to Magnolia Gardens, the apartment complex in Arlington where Jannie Duncan lived. She was a convicted murderer on the lam, so he brought along two other agents as backup. They watched the building for a while, and when a light popped on in her second-floor two-bedroom unit, they moved upstairs.
When Agent Niemala told Jannie that she was under arrest, she “kind of froze,” he says. He saw astonishment in her expression; after 12 years of freedom, she clearly hadn’t expected to hear the name Jannie Duncan again. “When you’re out that long and somebody suddenly steps up and puts cuffs on you, it’s not easy,” he says.
She stood stiffly, eyes wide and blank, as Niemala handcuffed her. The now-retired agent describes her as “almost catatonic.”
The other two agents each took a shoulder, gently lifting her, for the walk to the car. She was still so immobilized that when they reached the FBI office in Alexandria, Niemala brought the fingerprinting equipment to the car rather than haul her up to the third floor where she would normally have been processed.
Then Jannie Duncan was returned to St. Elizabeths Hospital. After about three weeks of evaluation, officials there declared that she had no mental issues and shipped her back to prison.
* * *
Con men and women have been around for at least as long as humans have traded currency, and everyone who has received emails from a Nigerian prince promising a share of his just-out-of-reach fortune knows they’re still thriving. As I learned more about Jannie, I began to view her exploits more cynically. Several elements of her story fed into this.
For starters, Jannie’s explanation of leaving the hospital sounded fantastical. She told Margot Hornblower of the Post that she had no memory of anything prior to her life as Joan Davis. She said her mind was “like a blank.”
But during that same interview with the Post, she did recall that rather than having escaped from St. Elizabeths, she was actually kidnapped by Orell’s relatives, who were intent on killing her. “I remember being choked into unconsciousness by a heavyset, light-skinned man,” she told Hornblower. “I remember waking up and this lady told me to call her ‘Mama.’ She said I had been very sick and I didn’t know who or where I was …. She said, ‘I’ll find out who you are and everything will be all right.” (Hornblower, whose name is now Margot Roosevelt, said recently that she didn’t remember any further details about the interview.)
The threats leveled by Jannie in 1974 suggested that “Joan Davis” was invented to help perpetuate her escape. Those menacing notes offered evidence of her old, true self leaking out.
Most significant was another Post article that focused on Jannie’s connection with Ernestine Delaney, an Occoquan inmate whom she met in 1958. Delaney (who is deceased) relayed that she was contemplating trying to escape, but Jannie talked her out if it, saying she would only end up with a longer sentence. One passage near the end stands out. “She mostly listened to others and never talked about herself — except her plans to get transferred to St. E’s,” Delaney is quoted as saying. Jannie “wanted the transfer to St. Elizabeths Hospital because she thought it would be easier to receive a parole from the mental institution.”
When I contacted St. Elizabeths, a spokeswoman told me she was permitted only to confirm the dates that Jannie entered and left the facility. The law prohibited her from discussing Jannie’s diagnosis or care.
But the Post passage suggested the possibility that Jannie had planned the whole thing: She had engineered the transfer not because it would be easier to be paroled, but because it would be easier to escape.
* * *
I felt I had a firm handle on Jannie’s exploits by the time I scored my most significant research breakthrough. After calling the federal courthouse in Washington to ask about her murder trial, I learned that the case file is stored in the National Archives. I drove to Washington to see what I might learn.
In the research room, I flipped open the first box, which contained the first few hundred pages of a 3,000-page trial transcript on thin onion-skin-type paper. Though I would eventually read everything, I jumped straight to Jannie’s testimony.
What I read stunned me. It began with a description of her life over the previous year — the entire duration of her marriage to Orell. She said that her husband drank almost daily, and that when he did so, “he would act like a crazy person. He couldn’t remember the things that had happened when he was drinking.”
She testified that a month into their marriage, he came home from a night of partying and “started beating me and picking me up and throwing me back down on the bed and knocking me about,” she said. “He finally knocked me on a table that was sitting beside the bed and it cut me up here with my eye.” She fled to the bathroom and called her mother-in-law, who took her to the hospital.
Soon after that, she was at Russell’s Barber Shop selling tickets to a church event, when Orell “came in and jumped on me and struck me about the head, picked me up and pushed me out of the shop and pushed me into his car …. I had a knot on my head and bruises on my leg.”
Jannie soon moved out but didn’t divorce Orell, and in May 1955 they were in a bar and he wanted to leave just after she’d put a quarter in a jukebox. When she said she wanted to hear the music, he began “striking her about the head.” She fled, but he jumped in their car just after her, pushing her into the passenger seat. After driving a short distance, he reached over, opened her door and pushed her out, then exited and began hitting her while she was on the ground.
The violence escalated. In one instance, he believed that she’d put sugar in his gas tank. When she denied it, “he pulled his gun out and put his gun right up here and he pulled the hammer back on his gun and said, ‘Well, yes, you did put sugar in my car.’”
She escaped that situation, but another time he threatened to stab her to death. She made several hospital visits. At Freedmen’s Hospital, the staff closed a laceration on her left arm with eight stitches; at Farragut, she was treated for a one-inch laceration over the right eye, abrasions on her legs, and multiple contusions to the head.
Then she took his gun one night when he had passed out from drinking, and on February 18, he came into the boarding house at 2:30 a.m. and demanded it back. She said she’d turned it in to the police; he punched and kicked her. This time the district attorney put through an arrest warrant. “I have an open cut on my left knee and bruises all over my body and I am still in pain,” she was quoted as saying in the warrant. “Also my husband has phoned since and said he was going to beat me to death before Monday morning.”
When Orell learned about the warrant, he threatened to have her killed if she didn’t have it withdrawn. She refused, but still, Orell was never once arrested for any of the attacks. (The warrant and hospital reports were introduced at the trial, and other witnesses testified to seeing Orell abuse Jannie.)
All of this culminated with his arrival at the boarding house just after midnight on March 11, 1956. Jannie had finished fixing up Room 7. “Duncan met me in the small little hallway, and he grabbed me by the throat and he started choking me,” she testified. “So he said, ‘I could kill you right now. No one knows I’m in the building.’”
Just then the doorbell rang, and he pushed her back toward the hotel’s entrance. Afterward, he sat her down at the dining room table and said, “I can come up here any time I get ready. You’re still married to me.” He wanted his gun back. When she said she didn’t have it, he “hit me upside the head …. Then he kicked me, and I fell out of the chair. And when I got up, I pulled this gun on him. He said, ‘Oh, so you do have it.’”
She had gone to the bedroom and retrieved the handgun she’d taken from him a month earlier. She held it on him as he walked into the kitchen, then she gave the gun to an employee while she called Edward James. A few minutes later, James and Simms arrived.
Carl Winchester was the key witness against Jannie. In his testimony, he said Orell reached for the gun and struck Jannie — “he lunged at her and almost knocked her down” — when she pulled the trigger. But the employee had removed the bullets when she called James.
James and Simms began scuffling with Orell, but eventually they stopped. Several bystanders broke up the altercation, and the four of them cooled down, settling into a temporary détente. Orell asked Jannie to give him a ride home, and she agreed on the condition that the two other men came along. They headed outside and climbed into Jannie’s car, witnesses said.
A postmortem toxicology report in the file showed that Orell was heavily intoxicated. Given what a sloppy drunk he was, the defendants’ testimony about how he fell out of the car suddenly sounded more plausible: Simms testified that they were arguing and scuffling in the back seat, and at one point Orell said, “Well, I ain’t going to stay in here.”
“And just before I noticed it,” Simms testified, “the door was open and he was out.”
* * *
This was the 1950s, and the nation’s high tolerance for violence in the home at that time has been well documented. While some states began to criminalize domestic violence as early as the 1800s, those laws were rarely enforced, and cases of physical and sexual assault were largely viewed as marital issues best worked out within the domicile. One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry as late as 1964 posited that a husband beating his wife was a positive development, because it served as “violent, temporary therapy” that “served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man.”
Jannie Duncan’s testimony about Orell’s abuse was vivid, detailed and substantiated by witnesses. Yet none of it seemed to register with anyone: not the judge nor the jury nor the reporters covering the drama. There was no mention of it in newspaper coverage. At one point, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Smithson, said of Jannie: “I believe this woman to be that type of individual that … they call accident prone.” He defined that as someone who “make[s] claims against her paramour or husband for the purpose of harassment and to get various pieces of property from him.”
Smithson also questioned whether Orell was capable of beating Jannie in the ways she described, noting that he only weighed marginally more. He wanted the jury to ignore Orell’s obvious physiological advantages—and that in some cases he was wielding weapons.
I was also struck by another aspect of the transcript: It raised serious questions about Jannie’s purported motive for killing Orell. She clearly had issues with the IRS; court records showed that she owed $26,369 in back taxes. But she testified that she’d been on the agency’s radar for years, and her lawyer, James Laughlin, argued vehemently for permission to introduce evidence that “would show an investigation was underway long prior to her marriage or contact with Orell Duncan.” Laughlin, in fact, had represented her during the IRS proceedings.
Independent proof suggests that this was almost certainly true. On April 4, 1956, a few weeks after Orell’s death, the IRS ran a classified ad in the Evening Star announcing an auction for Jannie’s mink coat to recoup unpaid taxes. The IRS typically auctions off property only after expending significant effort, often over the course of several years, to extract back taxes.
But Judge Joseph McGarraghy refused to allow testimony or evidence about Jannie’s IRS history, and the jury apparently accepted the contention — introduced by the police within days of Orell’s death, repeated frequently in newspapers, and advanced by the prosecution — that Jannie was furious at Orell for snitching.
In light of all of this information, it was jarring to see her story so casually dismissed. It was as if the alleged abuse didn’t matter — like it couldn’t possibly have been a factor, even in a crime of passion like Orell’s killing.
But even a casual reading of recent American history reveals that none of it is particularly surprising. The idea that a black woman’s version of events would be ignored in a trial in the 1950s, and that the word of the police and a white prosecutor would prevail: Of everything about this strange story, that was the shortest leap of all.
* * *
Viewed through the lens of the trial transcript and the information the jury never heard, everything about Jannie’s story looks different. Orell died from a result of Jannie’s acts of self-defense during a series of drunken brawls. He could easily have killed her, and probably would have eventually.
Seemingly minor details suddenly take on new significance, like the physical description on Jannie’s wanted poster: “scar in right eyebrow, small scar under left eye … scars on left arm, left shoulder, left side of chest and on right shoulder.” All of them correspond to injuries she described.
The transfer from prison to St. Elizabeths? It could have been her scheming, but one document among the court papers shows that she was moved to St. Elizabeths after being diagnosed with “severe depression, catatonic withdrawal with auditory hallucinations.” Which would be understandable, given what she’d been through.
As for the memory loss, that could potentially be explained by dissociative amnesia. That’s a condition in which a person blocks out certain information, often associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving them unable to remember important personal information. A 2007 study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law noted that the disorder “is associated with crimes that are committed in a state of extreme emotional arousal and in which the victim is known intimately by the offender. Frequently, the crime is unplanned and no motive is discernible.”
The alleged threat to kill Jannie Dodd in 1974? That charge was dismissed, and it appeared Dodd had exaggerated or even fabricated their interaction. U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert, in responding to Jannie’s parole application, noted that because of the way the charge was abruptly dropped, the incident “could not have been particularly substantial.”
Then there was her public support. Given all of the above, it suddenly seemed far more plausible that she’d simply been a genuinely good person caught up in a horrible situation who had navigated her way out as best she was able. In February 1975, a group of 30-plus people formed the Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee, raising money and circulating a petition seeking her release; they collected 5,000 signatures. Friends recruited the support of D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy and Walter Fauntroy, a prominent politician, pastor and civil rights advocate. More than 20 friends and employers offered to provide character statements in court on Jannie’s behalf.
Silbert was the U.S. attorney in Washington then, so he wasn’t necessarily in the business of letting people out of prison early. His response to her parole request is a pitch-perfect coda to Jannie’s uncommon odyssey. It’s obvious, reading between the lines, that he struggled to reconcile the particulars of her story, which he characterized as “a somewhat singular case.” Her interactions in her jobs over her 12 years as Joan Davis “reveal someone in whom these employers have complete trust and confidence and even more — as a person. In addition, this office has had contact with other members of the community who also demonstrate an equally high regard for Ms. Duncan. These comments cannot be lightly ignored. To the contrary, they are most persuasive.”
Jannie was released in April 1977. The Post showed up to cover her departure from prison, taking her picture for a front-page story headlined “The Saga of Jannie.” The subhead is notable for its Martin Luther King Jr. echo: “‘Lady in the Dark’ Is Free at Last.” She said she hoped to one day seek a presidential pardon and write a book about her ordeal. The friend who fetched her from prison suggested a title: “The Case that Rocked the Nation’s Capital.”
But after this brief bit of fanfare, she was never heard from publicly again. It was as if she dissolved into her post-prison life with all the anonymity and quasi-invisibility of her years as Joan Davis.
Her family is content to let her story fade out of memory. Jannie’s sole remaining close relative, a daughter now in her 60s, at first denied that Jannie was her mother. Shown evidence to the contrary, the woman replied that she preferred not to participate in this article. I subsequently sent her a draft of this story. “All I can say is WOW! She had more alias’ [sic] than ‘Mission Impossible,’” the daughter emailed back to me. “All this just explains a lot. I must commend you on the great details you uncovered. However this still does not change my mind. I’d rather remain silent and not open up old wounds.”
But one friend filled in Jannie’s final chapter. Lorraine Sterling, a friend from the Joan Davis years, kept in touch with her by phone after Sterling moved to North Carolina in the early 2000s. Sterling says Jannie lived quietly in Maryland after her release from prison, working and spending time with friends. She evinced no interest in garnering further attention. “She was a very loving and giving person,” Sterling says. “She had friends, but she kind of stayed to herself at times too.”
When Jannie became frail, her daughter moved her into a nursing home. She died in May 2009, at age 89, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her relatives held a quiet ceremony at Scott’s Funeral Home in Richmond on a warm May afternoon, then wended their way to the Washington Memorial Park and Mausoleums in Sandston, Virginia, near her birthplace, for the burial. The circle of her life was complete.
I understand her daughter’s impulse to pat down the earth over this complex tale. But as I exhumed Jannie Duncan’s full narrative, two things stood out. The first was that initial assumptions about people are often wrong. Mine were in this case — and in a time when we’re seemingly growing more alienated from each other, I was reminded to look deeper for the complexities inside all of us, our shared humanity.
And second: Jannie’s story is more relevant in 2018 than ever. She was a black woman who lacked power or standing while facing a justice system dominated by white men aligned against her. She was easy to brush aside; her telling was easy to dismiss and distort.
There are some lingering questions that may never be fully answered, but this much is now clear: Jannie was a survivor. And we know, after these last couple of years, that there are countless survivors today facing the same systemic hostility, the same biases, the same obstacles arrayed against them.
Finally, then: This is the story of Jannie Duncan, survivor. For her sake, and the sake of others whose lives were damaged by what happened one night in March 1956, it’s tragic that no one listened then, more than six decades ago. For the rest of us, it’s not too late.
Everyone in California is waiting for “The Big One,” an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or greater that will destroy infrastructure and cause mass panic. Yet when I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, I discovered that since most of the people I knew were making do with small apartments and ever-increasing rent, having supplies on hand for a natural disaster required a space premium that many couldn’t afford. I began to put together an earthquake kit that would not only serve my household (which over the years fluctuated from one to three other people) but also my neighborhood, if needed. Even with all that work, I didn’t consider myself a prepper, just someone who heeded the Red Cross’s warnings.
When the average person thinks about doomsday preppers, they probably think of paranoid right-leaning wing nuts clinging to a small arsenal of guns and stockpiling toilet paper from Walmart in case their conspiracy theories come true. It’s a fair assumption — many television depictions reflect that mind-set, though the fears vary from group to group. Some are afraid of government collapse, others fear a solar flare, still others are preparing for a race war they think is inevitable. When those are the dominant examples, it’s easy to dismiss the practice as absurd and hysterical.
I am a leftist, anarchist prepper, and while we differ politically, I have to admit, the extreme preppers you see on TV are not completely out of their minds.
I used to focus only on preparing for earthquakes and other natural disasters. That changed in 2011 when I went to my first protest, an Occupy Oakland action, with a medic bag. I didn’t know yet that I’d be out there for hours, so I didn’t have supplies I consider basic now — food, caffeine, extra smokes, insoles for my combat boots. I didn’t know how aggressive the police would be, and the handkerchief around my neck was more for a punk look than medical necessity. I hadn’t received formal training to be a street medic; I just happened to know first aid and CPR and wanted to help. I carried a 15-pound bag on my back, full of medical supplies, mainly gauze and tape but also things like tourniquets that I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I was scared — I’d had rubber bullets shot at me the night before — but I was determined to drop off water to the protesters and make sure that people had sterile supplies.
That night, I tasted tear gas for the first time. You smell it before you taste it, and you taste its strange, bitter sting before it fills your lungs or blinds you. I was alone, and terrified, among a crowd that was shouting and crying and panicked in the streets.
“Disperse!” came the command from the helicopter hovering above us. Every exit point seemed blocked by clouds of tear gas or the loud kapow! of flash-bangs. Every explosion startled me; I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. Rubber bullets were being shot at us from every direction by cops dressed in SWAT gear, as if this was a war, not a protest. Someone next to me fell to the ground grabbing his face. I saw he was bleeding and scared, and I dropped next to him, telling him he was going to be OK, that I was a medic. It was my first time treating a wound in the street during a fray. Looking down at my hands and seeing a stranger’s blood on my gloves chilled me, but there wasn’t time to feel anything. My legs moved on autopilot, going from person to person to check on them. “Do you need a medic?” I found myself shouting over the noise every time I heard a scream.
I went home, shaken and shaking, all of the adrenaline flooding me at once. I slept uneasily, tossing and turning in my bed. I wanted my partner to sleep next to me, but also couldn’t bear to be touched. I had nightmares that lasted for weeks: dizzying, confusing dreams where I was struggling to breathe or see but could hear pain all around me, and I would wake up panting and sweating.
Despite the trauma, I kept going to protests. I felt grimly determined, and as I kept going, I became more desensitized to the chaos. My medic bag evolved into something more suited for treating the effects of police brutality than simply a place to keep extra snacks and water on hand. I learned from other medics how police often target medics and organizers for arrest in order to destabilize and demoralize the entire group, and I grimly prepared for an inevitable attack or arrest.
I also began to realize that I needed to prep for something that’s increasingly as likely as earthquakes: large-scale civil unrest, which I witnessed a taste of in the streets that night. I began to think of how people act when they’re scared, including and especially law enforcement. I started to think about home security, transportation options if fuel was limited, how to access information without the internet. I studied natural disasters and their repercussions around the world as a way to understand how to keep myself and my community safer.
* * *
While I was beginning to explore the art of prepping, I met my partner, a fellow anarchist who specializes in constructing urban shelters and creating makeshift weapons out of random finds from the local dumpster. Ape is many things I am not — slender where I am curvy, tan where I am pale, easygoing where I am exacting. One of the bonds of our relationship is our enjoyment of teaching and learning from each other. Ape teaches me how to handle and care for knives and guns, while I teach him how to recognize medicinal herbs in an urban setting, how to preserve food, and how to stitch up a wound. Rather than depending on each other to do certain tasks, we’ve worked on becoming capable of filling in for each other in a pinch, leading us to learn new skills that we’ve found useful while camping, when the car breaks down, or during any number of other mundane situations. Our shared nerdy interest in preparing for disaster, combined with our complementary skills, has made casual but constant prepping a core part of our relationship. While other couples may prefer a nice candlelit dinner out, I love poring over the most recent articles in Survival Magazine or seeing what new products knife company Cold Steel has this month.
Ape and I had sex at an “End of the World” orgy on the night of Trump’s election. The crowd was mostly sex workers and queer folks. None of us wanted to face this election alone, so we got together at a friend’s loft apartment to handle the news as best we could — with food, alcohol and sex. What was normally a group of boisterous party animals started off with us tentatively nibbling at cheese and crackers, whispering to each other in corners, and halfheartedly making out, one eye always on the votes coming in. The room was increasingly quiet and depressed as the votes were counted and we realized that our worst nightmare, a United States governed by the pinnacle of toxic masculinity, was coming true.
When it became clear that Trump was going to be our next president, silence descended over the mostly naked crowd. Everyone seemed frozen in place. I felt a sinking in my gut and I knew what we needed to do; my boyfriend and I looked at each other and began to dress without a word.
“I’ll grab my medic bag,” I said quietly to him as I pulled my socks on, and he nodded. We knew we were going out into the streets of Oakland that night.
We arrived at the protest in Oakland’s downtown Oscar Grant Plaza while people were still shouting through megaphones at a crowd pulsating with fury and fear. When we took to the streets, I reached for Ape’s hand, both for reassurance and so we wouldn’t lose each other. We interlaced our fingers when we heard the first flash-bang — I flinched but kept walking. It wasn’t long before the police were throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd. While others turned to run and escape, we squeezed each other’s hands and walked into the fray to find people who needed our help. I didn’t know if we were going to be arrested, or injured, or even killed, but I knew I had to be there as long as I was needed.
We were out there for three days straight. Our lungs took weeks to recover from the gas and pepper spray we inhaled, but we took turns making mullein leaf tea to help the process along.
After that, I began to take my prepping a lot more seriously, even going so far as to make connections with similarly minded leftist survivalists to create a local list of resources, both online and off, covering things like who has what skills and who has extra water or food stored away.
* * *
I was on a forum online a couple of months ago looking for suggestions about bugout bags (prepacked bags you grab when escaping a dire situation) for urban environments, particularly if you’re more inclined to “bug in,” or shelter in place. Every sensible idea was accompanied by conspiracy theories about who or what was going to kill us all — a race war, a solar flare, a nuclear blast. Many of the commenters talked frankly, and sometimes cheerfully, about the need to kill other people in order to protect their families. Many of them wore Make America Great Again hats in their profile avatars, or actively supported the police in their forum signatures. They spoke with disgust about those they deemed “un-American,” particularly protesters who participated in Black Lives Matter or Occupy-type actions. Heather Heyer’s death — the woman who was mowed down by a white supremacist’s car during the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest — was seen as hilarious, not traumatizing.
I leaned back in my chair, my eyes scanning the vitriol on the forum, feeling anxious. The sun slowly set while I sat motionless behind the glowing screen, transfixed and horrified, my tea going from piping hot to ice cold. I forgot it was there. I could feel the tension in my gut clench tighter as I read the words of people threatening to spray bleach in the eyes of protesters at the next action. I was trying to figure out how real the threat was.
It was very clear that if I wanted to learn from the people on this forum, I couldn’t say anything about who I was or what I believed. Realizing that I might be chatting with the same people who were wielding guns at the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville was a startling moment, especially when I felt so safe at home in the Bay Area. Here, in my second-story apartment surrounded by an urban herb garden, my two cats weaving around my feet, I was more concerned about the police than my neighbors. But on this forum, I was brushing shoulders with the alt-right. As they regularly and violently vocalized, they were prepping, in part, to protect themselves from people like me.
This had troubling implications for what might happen locally if “The Big One” did hit. Would the people most prepared for life without the internet, hospital care and city infrastructure be the right-wingers who wanted to Make California Red Again? Would my black, transgender and disabled friends have to beg Trump supporters for supplies? That seemed more dangerous to me than the potential disaster itself.
While MAGA-hat wearers believe strongly that leftists and liberals are weak and ineffective in a survival scenario, I discovered that many of us already engage in activities that could be useful in an apocalypse. Knowing how to sew and mend clothes, reuse trash in creative ways, and fix machinery were all things I found among my artsy friends, for example. My witchy friends knew a lot about herbs and urban foraging. And a surprising amount of my Burning Man community not only knew a lot about filtering and recycling water or using alternative energy but also seemed to own and use guns, contrary to the belief I heard on conservative Twitter that a lack of weapons would be the left’s downfall.
Just last week I was sitting at a worn picnic table in the back of my favorite dive bar, drinking a PBR tall can and debating favorite guns with a group of friends. The air was warm even as the sun started to go down, and Edison lights illuminated our faces while we chatted. The conversation was spirited but friendly, all of us bonded by a love of camping, metalworking, and yes, weapons training. I was about halfway through my beer, eagerly discussing my desire to develop my upper-body strength to have a steadier hand with various pistols. The sun set while my friends, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, continued to argue about which guns would be best in a zombie apocalypse, a thought experiment we used to discuss end-of-the-world scenarios that involve medical crises, hostile attacks, and the total collapse of city infrastructure all happening at once. For some, this might just be a silly conversation, but for us it offered a chance to work through multiple disaster scenarios at the same time and talk through real plans and theories.
By talking about prepping with more and more friends, I began to discover that many of them were also interested in developing skills that would be useful in a serious crisis situation. Several of them were already doing the same thing my partner and I had done — creating bunkers full of supplies and developing networks that could effectively take care of each other if the shit hit the fan. My community includes urban farmers, people who butcher their own meat, people who can and pickle the fruit and veg they get in their community agriculture boxes.
While the prepper movement may seem very right wing on the internet, offline I’ve found a vibrant survivalist society that is adaptable and stronger than they get credit for. Being a leftist prepper is less rare than I expected. We just don’t talk about it as much on the internet. Which, if you’re concerned that people are going to raid your compound for supplies, is probably sensible when you think about it! I also realized that the prepping I uncovered in my communities was less about individual survival and more about creating an alternative infrastructure, since the ones in place are already failing our marginalized friends and family, even without a disaster looming. Mutual aid is the core of our organizing, instead of pure self-preservation. Knowing this, I’m confident that we will not only survive, but heal, rebuild and thrive.
In Italy at the end of 1944, the Negro 92nd Infantry Division of the United States Army discovered two gaunt men who claimed they had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. One man was thin and blonde with a “scholarly appearance.” The other had brown skin, a slight build and an erect carriage. After two years behind barbed wire, they said, they had fled the camp and gone on an incredible journey to reach the American lines: swimming in lakes, hiking through the snow-covered Apennines, and taking shelter in barns, caves, woods and the homes of friendly partisan supporters. They claimed they dodged bullets and ate leaves to survive; they said they bore witness to the slaughter of women and babies. Their names were Reed Peggram, an African-American, and Gerdh Hauptmann, his Danish friend, and they were “ragged and near collapse from hunger and fatigue.”
Freelance war correspondent Max Johnson, writing for the Negro newspapers Call and Post, New York Amsterdam News and Baltimore Afro-American, reported this curious find. The headlines that accompanied his stories were purposefully provocative: “Negro Escapes German Camp in Italy,” “Two Scholars Flee Concentration Camp,” “How Boston Lad Studying in Denmark Escaped Nazis” and “Boy Friends Scorn Bombs, Come Out OK.” Although he reported their claims, Johnson was skeptical of Peggram’s tale, not even believing that he was an American citizen, since his “accent was decidedly British.” Another correspondent noted that Peggram claimed to have a bachelor’s and master’s from Harvard, that he spoke English flawlessly, along with four other languages, and that despite his ordeal, it was not his physical suffering that upset him most.
“One of my greatest losses was my diploma from Harvard,” Peggram said. “They don’t issue duplicates. But I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key.”
The two men refused to leave each other’s side, but it was not clear if Hauptmann would be allowed to return to the U.S. with Peggram. Johnson called their story, “a modern version of Damon and Pythias,” referencing the Greek legend of loyalty between friends. Here were “bonds of friendship so strong that even the Nazis were unable to break them.”
“If Peggram’s story proves to be correct,” wrote Johnson, “it will undoubtedly become one of the greatest human interest stories yet revealed in this war.”
* * *
Reed Edwin Peggram was born on July 26, 1914, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Harvey Thomas Peggram, worked variously as a shorthand teacher, a self-employed card writer, and, according to his World War I draft card, an artist. Harvey was inducted into the United States Army on November 6, 1917, and served overseas as a private in the medical unit between May 15, 1918, and September 9, 1919. He returned from the war “100 percent disabled,” and became a permanent resident at the Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia, where he was treated for gas poisoning, according to his family. He would remain there until his death in 1956. For all intents and purposes, young Reed no longer had a father.
In the club photographs for the 1931 Boston Latin School literary and drama clubs, Peggram’s face stands out as the only African-American there. In a class of 262 students, Peggram ranked in the first quarter in scholarship. He received several awards and obtained honors on exams in Elementary Latin, Elementary French, Elementary German, and Advanced Latin. As it has been for hundreds of years of Boston Latin graduates, Harvard was the next step.
On his 1931 Harvard application, Peggram said he wanted “to become an accomplished linguist.” He applied for multiple scholarships, stating on financial aid forms that his mother had three additional children with her new husband, “Mr. Farrar,” and that his grandmother was his sole financial supporter. He also listed his father as dead. He was accepted to the college and distinguished himself, not just as a fine student but as one of the few black students at Harvard at the time.
In 1934, applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, Peggram asked Dean A. Chester Hanford for a recommendation. “He is one of the highest scholars in his class,” wrote Hanford. “Last November he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He is a thorough gentleman.” Hanford shared a copy of the letter with Peggram, who promptly thanked him. But there was another letter Peggram did not see.
“I wish to supplement my letter of May 29th to you about Mr. Reed Peggram by stating that he is a negro [sic],” Hanford wrote in his second letter. “It seemed to me that you should know that fact.”
“Thank you for your testimonial and letter about Reed Peggram,” responded tutor Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow. “I should like to thank you however for telling me that Peggram is a Negro. I should certainly have been somewhat taken aback if I had admitted a man with such a name unwarned.” Although Gow insisted this information would have no bearing, Peggram did not get the scholarship.
Peggram graduated from Harvard in 1935, magna cum laude, with the thesis, “A comparison of the personal element in Madame Bovary and L’Éducation Sentimentale.” Over the next two years, he would get his master’s from Harvard, study English and comparative literature at Columbia, and return to Harvard to begin work on his Ph.D. It is clear from Peggram’s letters that while there, he became infatuated with Leonard Bernstein, who would later become famous for composing the music for “West Side Story.” Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935 and was also a graduate of the Boston Latin School — perhaps the two already knew each other from high school.
One night at Harvard, Peggram and Bernstein sat side by side on a studio couch in a dimly lit room while a quartet played Beethoven. Peggram had asked that the lights be lowered because he believed that it was “more pleasant to listen to music in a room that has been darkened.” Peggram was in “ecstasy and agony at once,” sitting so close to Bernstein. Peggram requested a song from Debussy while Bernstein listened with eyes closed as if he was asleep. In a letter, Peggram would later explain that he felt, “ecstasy because you are here, and agony because I do not dare touch you, even in the dark, for fear of breaking the spell of such exquisite beauty.”
In a series of letters written to Bernstein in October 1937, Peggram referenced T.S. Eliot, Rachmaninoff, Eros and Psyche, Diaghilev’s treatment of Nijinsky, and the speech of Aristophanes in “The Symposium,” a discourse on love that says when a person, “happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment.” Leonard Bernstein’s archive at the Library of Congress only contains Peggram’s letters. Bernstein’s replies are lost, save for a few brief, devastating quotes that Peggram included in his own letters, which suggest that Bernstein rejected his overtures.
“The revelation of your letter,” wrote Peggram, “was after all, a great shock to me, and your use of the words ‘repulsive’ and ‘shudder’ an insult to the tenets which I hold sacred.” Later Peggram — demonstrating his preference for British spelling — beseeched Bernstein, “May I also request that, as a favour to me, you destroy all my letters and any other material that I have sent or given you during this regrettable incident?”
In 1938, Peggram got a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne: a chance to travel, a fresh start.
* * *
In the fall of 1938, Peggram met the person who would change his life. There is no record of how Peggram met Danish scholar Gerdh Hauptmann, who was studying fine art and painting at the Sorbonne, for the same reason that there is no written record of any facet of their relationship: They were gay, in a time when few dared to write such feelings down. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that this was the definitive romantic relationship of Peggram’s life. Hauptmann taught him Danish; he taught Hauptmann English. Within a year, he would write that they were “inseparable.”
“Recent European events have caused me to leave France for Denmark,” Peggram wrote in September 1939. “I hope you will also join your prayers to mine for humanity, civilization, and culture.”
Peggram spent the early months of the war working with Hauptmann on a 120-page manuscript, “Poems and Sketches,” a translation of the 19th century Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen. During this time, Peggram’s family and friends implored him to return to the U.S. while he still could. The U.S. State Department had already warned Americans to leave the European continent, but Peggram did not. Unable to declare his love for Hauptmann and explain that he would not leave Europe without the man he loved, Peggram baffled his family by insisting that his need to collaborate with Hauptmann on scholarly projects “richer and more profound than either of us had produced separately” made it impossible to leave Hauptmann behind.
The men left Copenhagen shortly before it was invaded by the Nazis on April 9, 1940. They fled to Paris to retrieve their luggage and made their way to Florence, Italy, where they wrongly assumed they would be safe. They spent the rest of the year stranded and broke, pleading for money from family in the U.S. who could not understand why Peggram would not just come home.
Information about Reed’s European movements are located in letters between him and Dorothy Norman, the editor and publisher of the journal Twice a Year from 1938 – 1948. “I am struggling for my life,” Peggram wrote on January 15, 1941. “If someone does not help me very soon, I shall just simply die.”
“We wish only to live, to write, to create, to say what we have to say as only we know how to say it,” he continued. “It is because we know we must do this together that we are only annoyed, rather than grateful, when people offer me a ticket to N.Y. as some have indeed attempted — without explaining, by the way, how my collaborator could ever be saved through this philanthropy.”
He assured Norman that he was not begging nor pleading. He said was merely making, “a statement of fact.”
“Two young artists of more than ordinary ability need immediate financial help in order not to perish,” he wrote. “In the name of art, of culture, of humanity in their deepest sense, this message must somehow be spread around where it will take effect at once, before it is too late.”
Hope came in the form of an inheritance. In September 1940, Peggram’s friend from Harvard, 25-year-old music student and aspiring concert pianist Montford Schley Variell, was found dead, according to The New York Times, “under mysterious circumstances” in his apartment. Lying face down, neatly wrapped from neck to feet in a blanket and sheet, Variell “had been dead for several days.” The police were not sure if he had committed suicide, died accidentally, or was murdered. Initially, the medical examiner declared his death a suicide by gas — the cause was later changed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Variell had a will and two life insurance policies that totaled $81,000, and he left money to several heirs, including $11,000 — worth approximately $160,000 in 2018 — to Peggram. This, he hoped, would be enough to get them both out of Europe. But the money would not be released to him unless he came home — without Hauptmann — to claim it.
Despite the legal obstacles, Peggram held out hope. In a letter dated April 9, 1941, he wrote to Norman: “Just how long it will take us to reach the U.S.A. still depends upon how soon acquaintances, consuls, attorneys, lawyers, etc. can experience sudden attacks of intelligence forceful enough to make them understand that we have been living here by necessity rather than by choice. But we know that even these will realize themselves in the end.”
After this, there were no more letters. Communications between Peggram and his friends and family stopped as, according to Peggram, he and Hauptmann were taken into a concentration camp at Bagni di Lucca, less than 50 miles from Florence.
* * *
When Peggram and Hauptmann told the story of their arrest to the Baltimore Afro-American, they did not mention homosexuality. They were taken into custody, they said, because the authorities felt “a Dane has no right to be a friend of a Negro.” After several days of interrogation, the Germans decided that Peggram would be permitted to leave German-occupied territory, but that Hauptmann, as the subject of a conquered country, would be compelled to join the German army. But, as the Afro-American put it, Peggram and Hauptmann “swore that whatever came, they would not break up.”
They were held at Bagni di Lucca until January 1944, when Allied planes gunned the camp, forcing the Germans to move their prisoners to another site. Over the next few months, the two men were shifted from camp to camp until they reached Piacenza, where Hauptmann was ordered to a German work camp. He refused to leave Peggram, whom the Germans would not compel to leave because, they said, “You are American.” The scholars were put in solitary confinement as the Germans pondered their fate.
“We didn’t know how long we stayed there, but it was really hell,” said Peggram. “Just enough soup to lead a miserable existence. For months we did not see a single human being. In fact, we saw nothing that was living. Not even bugs. There was no light, no action — nothing but a great deal of time to think about what was in store for us.”
Before their fate was decided, the camp was attacked by Italian partisans, who freed the prisoners and gave them shelter. Hauptmann and Peggram spent the rest of the year with the partisans, before striking out on their own in an attempt to reach the American lines.
“They found that all German-occupied territory was a prison,” wrote Johnson. “Without passports or other identification, their lives were worth less than when they were confined.”
Peggram and Hauptmann spent weeks hiking across country, once being shot at by German machine gunners, hiding with partisan families during the day and sleeping in barns at night. At last, they reached the 92nd Infantry Division, and were safe.
“They appeared to be as happy as two kids talking about what Santa Claus had brought them,” wrote Johnson. Although the reporter was initially skeptical of their story, there seems to be no reason to doubt Peggram and Hauptmann’s account of their imprisonment and escape. It is true that there was a camp at Bagni di Lucca, and that 16 miles away was another camp, Colle di Compito, that held citizens from the U.S., Great Britain and Denmark. Prisoners were often transferred between the two camps.
Peggram told Johnson, “We are not principally concerned with going to America. We only want to go some place where we can be assured remaining together to work in peace,” but Peggram returned to the U.S. alone, several months after encountering the 92nd Division. He departed Europe on the hospital ship Algonquin from Naples, Italy, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 14, 1945. He would not see Hauptmann again.
* * *
Upon his return to the U.S., Peggram was hospitalized for four years, the result, he said in a 1950 alumni newsletter, of a “nervous breakdown.” After his release, he returned to Boston to live in a multiple-family dwelling shared by his mother and half-brother. His existence was mainly solitary.
“My own postgraduate history is no particular triumph,” he wrote in a later class note. “Either I am too lazy or too comfortable (scarcely the latter) to function as a professional translator.”
According to these missives, he spent the rest of his life singing in Episcopal Church choirs, improving the “seven or eight” foreign languages he knew, and failing to convince a publisher to accept his “antique, revised, unpublished doctoral dissertation.” He died on April 20, 1982.
In 1971 Gerdh Hauptmann published a book of poems, Declaration, in English, by a Danish publisher. One poem, “Ante,” appeared to reference his relationship with Peggram. It began:
I remember once —
we were walking together,
perhaps in a year or two, you said,
and we made plans, and discussed
whether it should be in New York
— in Paris — or maybe
somewhere in China.
We did not know then —
although perhaps we did suspect it —
that the apples would not ripen
on the trees
or the next
The sound of voices in the corridor outside roused me from my fitful sleep. The instant I forced my eyes open, the all-too-familiar feeling of dread gushed through my body. I winced as I leaned on my arm to heave myself upright. The fresh stitches on my forearm from my most recent self-harm tugged sharply. With blurry eyes, I squinted at the clock: 10:43 a.m. This meant I had to wait one hour and 17 minutes until I could have a drink. I never drank before midday; only alcoholics did that.
This hollow feeling of dread had been with me for as long as I could remember, continually gnawing away at my insides. I tried to explain it to my dad when I was about nine years old. All I could tell him was that I felt sick and that something was terribly wrong. My dad took me to a doctor who, of course, found nothing physically wrong with me.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Robin Hood. I would strut around the garden wearing nothing but shorts and a tea towel cape tied around my neck. Grandad would chase me, hoist me onto his shoulders and spin me around like I was flying. It was one of the rare times that I would laugh with the reckless abandon of a typical child. I would grip tightly to his soft balding head and breathe in pipe tobacco and Old Spice as we spun. But as my teenage years approached, suddenly the chasing stopped. Grandad replaced my Robin Hood sword with hideously pink Sindy dolls in cocktail dresses. In his soft Birmingham lilt, he began to insist I “play quietly and sit properly.” I had no idea what “sitting properly” even meant.
As I got older, I began to understand the problem was that I wasn’t what people expected. I didn’t act like typical girls my age, and if it were left up to me, I wouldn’t dress like one either. The trouble was that as my body began to change, it became harder to find any clothes that I was comfortable in. Everything made me feel like there was too much of me. I began to restrict my food in an attempt to lose weight, but my body continued to grow in ways that repulsed me. My grandparents’ gifts started to include dresses, which I was obligated to wear when they visited. I couldn’t hide my disdain; I likely came across as a moody teenager. My grandad’s disappointment in me was evident. The gnawing emptiness was joined by an ever-growing sense of self-loathing.
When I discovered alcohol at the age of 13, it felt like I had found the holy grail. After I hurriedly swallowed a liter bottle of bitterly tart Merrydown cider, the sick feeling was suddenly replaced by a warm, soothing numbness. I felt as if I could breathe freely for the first time in my life.
* * *
I reached over to the bedside table, fumbling for my tobacco tin. My hand found cold metal, and I eagerly grabbed it, preparing to roll my first joint of the day. In my jumbled mind, smoking weed first thing in the morning was somehow O.K., even if drinking alcohol wasn’t. It wouldn’t send me into a blissful blackout, but it would at least take the edge off, enough to function until I could justify having a drink.
I stared across the clothing-strewn floor to my desk, redundant now that I was no longer studying. A few years earlier, I had begun a social work degree. I was 32 years old and it was one of many attempts to get my life together. However, it was there I started to spiral out of control, and just 18 months into the program, my lead tutor suggested that I leave and seek out some help. I hadn’t been able to work since then, and things had continued to get worse. Alcohol no longer took away the feeling of dread, it just barely skimmed the edge off it. Crippling anxiety now accompanied the empty void of despair. I had resorted to self-harming by cutting my arms, in another desperate attempt to blank out the pain. My doctor prescribed medication, and I attended counseling sessions, but the answer as to why I felt like this, or what I could do to change it, never came.
I thought I’d come close to an explanation in my early 20s when I met Denise. I was living in Eastbourne at the time and working as a care assistant in a nursing home. On one early morning shift, Denise breezed into the canteen. My eyes locked onto her face, taking in her sharp angular jawline, which framed a broad cheeky smile. My eyes traveled to her exposed and glorious hairy legs. I mistook her for a man at first and was shocked to discover she was female. Nothing ever happened between us, but the fascination I felt toward her led me to assume that I must be a lesbian. It would explain so much: the tendency to be a tomboy, my lack of relating to anything female.
I then jumped into my lesbian identity with the enthusiasm of an Olympic diver. I had my hair cut short and spiky, and I filled my wardrobe with shirts and ties of every color imaginable. For a while I felt good. I entered into a serious relationship with a woman who loved my masculine ways. However, as the novelty of my reinvention wore off, the deep empty pit of despair returned with new strength. Eventually, my partner couldn’t handle my depression, and she left. It seemed being a lesbian wasn’t my answer after all.
* * *
I inhaled deeply on the joint. As the gray-brown tinged paper burnt closer to my yellow-stained fingers, I began to feel the subtle numbness take hold. Thoughts about trying to sort out my life were soon replaced with thoughts about buying alcohol. It was the weekend; it made sense to wait until Monday to start trying to get my life together. I pulled on the nearest pair of jeans I could find from the heap on the floor, threw on my khaki baseball cap to hide my shame, and headed out.
Being around other people was an anxious and paranoia-inducing ordeal. I hurriedly bought milk and ingredients to make chili rather than just purchasing alcohol. I noticed the wine was on a three-for-£10 deal. I decided it made logical monetary sense to buy all three. Anyway, l was only buying wine as I was having chili that evening. Wine is just something you have with chili — or so I told myself.
The shop assistant did the usual double take when I replied “Thank you” in my high voice after he called me “Sir.” This was a common occurrence for me, and for reasons I could not understand, I really enjoyed it when I was mistaken for a man.
The chili remained unmade that evening, the pint of milk turned sour on the windowsill, Monday came and went.
Four months earlier, l had been discharged from a therapeutic community after completing a 12-month therapy program. There, they tried to teach me controlled drinking, which, based on the state of my life, seemed to have failed. It was clear to me that their therapy didn’t work, and I rang them up to tell them so.
“I’m not managing,” I complained to the receptionist, “I feel like therapy hasn’t helped at all.”
A week later, I met with my therapist, Gilly. Feeling at my wit’s end, for the first time in my life I was honest about the amount of alcohol I was drinking. Gilly looked up at me. A silver chain looped around the large glasses hanging from her neck swayed as gently as the cadence of her soft voice: “Perhaps it would be helpful to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”
“I’m not an alcoholic!” I protested. “If I didn’t have these issues I wouldn’t need to drink.” Despite my protests, I agreed to try it.
The following Tuesday night, I hovered tentatively at the side door of Saint Mary’s Church in Oxford. I was met by a tiny and decidedly over-enthusiastic AA greeter who dragged me inside. The narrow room was furnished with a table at the far end, chairs around its outer walls, and an oval arrangement of chairs in the middle. I wondered if the inner circle was for members only. I had imagined a musty and somber room, but this room was alive with bright smiles and laughter.
The meeting began, and as people spoke, I was shocked to hear them describing the exact way that I felt. Yet, by following a sober life and completing the 12 steps, they had managed to find a happy life. I wanted that, but I could not accept I was an alcoholic. I knew I had a problem, but I was terrified of not being able to drink at all. However, the “one day at a time” approach of AA enabled me to cope with the idea of putting down the drink for a brief while. At my next meeting, I announced myself as having “alcohol dependency issues,” making sure to differentiate myself from the alcoholics.
The following weeks were hell on earth. Without the fuzzy haze of alcohol, the outside world became razor sharp, my internal world a raging waterfall of emotions. Then, finally, in one early morning AA meeting, I stopped fighting. I suddenly found myself announcing, “I am an alcoholic.” Those four words would change everything, but not in the way I expected.
* * *
Over the following months, my life changed dramatically. I remained sober, clean, and free from self-harm. Although the inner void was still there, I had learned healthy ways to manage the pain. I had even started to believe in a future where I could finally be free of it. I embraced facing difficult issues and the healing that came from that. One problem I could not seem to shake was my eating. I knew I wasn’t fat and yet the desire to restrict food was still there. It made no sense.
After sharing my eating issues in a meeting one day, I went for a coffee with Kevin, my AA best friend. We had a surprising amount of similarities in how we each struggled with feelings of shame about our bodies. Kevin leaned in, lowered his voice and asked me if he could trust me. I nodded. He took a deep breath and then, with a shaking voice, he told me that he dressed in female clothing at home. His honesty made me voice something I had only uttered a couple of times in my life: I wished I was male.
That evening, as I searched online for some support for my friend, I discovered the vast community of transgender people on YouTube. I had some knowledge of trans women but no idea that trans men existed. I found a video timeline of a trans guy celebrating a year on testosterone. He spoke about always knowing something wasn’t right, about his distress when his puberty began as his breasts grew and his hips developed. I watched his face light up as he described his growing sense of peace in himself as his face, voice, and body had changed. I suddenly had a moment of epiphany where I understood what was making me restrict food: Keeping very slim meant my figure more closely resembled that of a boy.
But I couldn’t be transgender, I thought; I would have surely known earlier in life. I apparently had some gender issues, wanting a boyish figure, enjoying wearing men’s clothes, so perhaps I fit the term genderqueer. In that case, I could alter my appearance a little, to see if that made me feel less ill-at-ease in myself. Watching numerous videos of trans men in early transition, I noticed that most used a “binder,” a vest made of a unique material to flatten their chests. I had been squeezing into a tight sports bra for years to get rid of the unsightly lumps. I ordered a binder, telling myself that it would just allow me to embrace more of my tomboy self.
The morning it arrived, I hungrily tore back the packaging. I squeezed myself into the skin-tight material, and violently shoved my sweaty breasts under my armpits, as per the instructions. I threw on the nearest T-shirt I could find and then stood back to study my appearance in the full-length mirror. I gasped, the realization like a punch to my stomach. There I was; that was my chest the way it should be. I understood at that moment that I was indeed male. I hadn’t realized earlier because when I was growing up, the words just were not available to describe what I had been feeling. There was a name for the pain I’d been feeling all this time: gender dysphoria.
I felt relief to finally know the reason for this pain, but enormous fear about what this meant. I would have to come out to my friends and family. I would have to go through the process of gender transition, and I didn’t even know where to begin with that. Everything was once again uncertain, the future terrifyingly unclear. For the first time in my life, I felt liked and accepted by people. I was convinced that if I said I was transgender I would lose the friendships I’d made, and likely my family, too. I was so afraid of the unknown future that I considered drinking again and this time not stopping until it killed me. Better that, I thought, than to face coming out and trying to lead a sober life as a man who would never be accepted as such.
I didn’t pick up a drink, but I did sink back into a state of despair and anxiety. Every time someone called my name or referred to me as “she” it was like a blow to my chest. I wanted to scream out that I was male. I wanted to tear my skin off and show people that I am here, that I’ve been here all along, underneath, and that the pain I felt was from years of suffocating the real me. Eventually, I reached a point where the pain of continuing to deny my male identity far outweighed the fear of what people might say to me when I announced it. I knew I just had to take a leap of faith.
Being in Alcoholics Anonymous made coming out particularly challenging. Having to announce my name in meetings meant that there wasn’t a subtle way to slowly come out. I just had to do it, fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. On a Friday morning, I walked into the church hall and was greeted by the familiar buzz of voices and the smell of fresh croissants and filter coffee. I said hello to a couple of people, but I was too nervous to do anything but take my seat and wait for the meeting to begin. The part of the meeting came where members were invited to share. I took a deep breath. My heart felt as if it was coming out of my chest and I could barely keep my head still for shaking.
“My name is Finn, and I am an alcoholic,” I announced.
The usual response is to say hello back, but as this was not the name people were used to, I was greeted instead by “Hello,” followed by incoherent mumbling. I took another deep breath and went on to explain that I am transgender and would be grateful if people could use my new name and male pronouns when referring to me. The remaining 15 minutes of the meeting went painfully slowly, and I felt like I was going to throw up every one of my internal organs.
When the meeting ended, I was engulfed by a large crowd, hugging me, saying my new name, congratulating me and expressing their admiration. At that moment, I felt more loved and accepted than I ever had in my life. The joy at hearing myself referred to as “he” confirmed that I had made the right choice. As I went on to other meetings and told more people, the feeling of knowing this is right settled more deeply into my being. I moved from wishing I was a man to understanding that I already was one — one that needed a few modifications, but a man all the same.
I am now approaching eight years sober and clean, and it’s been six-and-a-half years since I announced the truth of who I am. This morning I awoke to the familiar feeling of gratitude and possibility. I jumped out of bed heading for the bathroom, and the hallway mirror stopped me in my tracks. I paused to smile back at the man with the graying sideburns and white flecks in his full beard. I made a cup of tea and settled into my well-worn desk chair, preparing for a day of writing work and university degree study.
On a rainy September morning in 1950, jazz pianist Hazel Scott stood in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee hoping to clear her name.
The publication “Red Channels” had accused Scott — along with 150 other cultural figures — of communist sympathies. Failure to respond would be seen as an admission of guilt. But her appearance at HUAC had a greater purpose than personal exoneration. She believed she had a responsibility to stem the tide of paranoia that gained momentum by the day.
She told the committee’s members, “Mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem.” With the same poise she brought to the stage as a musician, she testified that “what happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security.”
Chin up, shoulders back, she warned against “profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation’s security and peace of mind,” and that continuing down this road would transform America’s artists from a “loyal troupe of patriotic, energetic citizens ready to give their all for America” into a “wronged group whose creative value has been destroyed.”
Speaking with a voice that simultaneously conveyed clarity and nuance, strength and warmth, she knew what she was doing. She had been rehearsing for this moment her entire life.
* * *
Born in Trinidad, Scott was raised on music. Her whole family played and her mother, Alma, an aspiring concert pianist, taught music to help make ends meet. Unbeknownst to her family, Hazel Scott absorbed everything she heard until one day she woke her grandmother from a nap by playing a familiar hymn on the piano, two-handed and with perfect pitch. Her grandmother woke thinking, not wrongly, that she was witnessing a miracle.
Scott’s arc was fixed in the stars from that moment on. At three years old, she played parties, churches, and gatherings. But economic opportunity was hard to come by, and when her parents’ marriage fell apart in 1923, her mother decided she and Scott would emigrate to New York City.
Scott grocery shopped, prepared meals, and handled the household’s money. When word got around that, in her house, a child paid the bills, a gang of white teenagers broke in and demanded money. Scott refused to give them any. They beat her black and blue, and Scott still refused to turn over the cash. Finally, as police sirens grew nearer, the boys ran off with her blood on their hands.
Another time, Scott was playing near the trench being dug for the subway line that would become the A train when, according to Scott, a white girl from the neighborhood who she had been playing with told her to “Turn around so that I can brush you off and send you to school.” When she did, the girl pushed her into the trench.
The workmen who rescued Scott had the unmistakable look of “fear and guilt” in their eyes. “They, too, were white,” Scott later wrote in her journal. “They had witnessed the horrible act. They were involved and they resented it and me.”
Scott resolved never to be so naïve again — nor did she allow the incident to dictate her life.
She kept playing piano, kept stunning audiences, and impressed one person in particular. The story sounds more like legend than fact, but several sources, including Scott’s journal and the accounts of the parties involved, confirm it.
German-born, wearing a meticulous goatee and a pocket watch, and steeped in the traditions of European classical music, Juilliard founder Frank Damrosch was the very model of high culture in New York City. As such, his blood began to boil when he heard someone in the audition room improvising over Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Major.” Marching down the hall to confront the blasphemer brash enough to attempt such a thing, he heard the ninths being substituted with the sixths. It was sacrilege, he thought, until he saw who was playing.
Since eight-year-old Scott’s hands couldn’t reach the piece’s intervals, she played the sixths to make it sound the way she intuitively knew it should. No one taught her how to do this. She wrote: “I was only reaching for the closest thing that sounded like it, not even knowing what a sixth was at that age.”
When she finished, the auditions director whispered, “I am in the presence of a genius.” Damrosch agreed and Scott was admitted to Juilliard. But her real education wasn’t in the classroom. It was in her living room.
In New York, Alma quickly became a successful jazz musician and befriended some of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars in the process. In turn, they shone on young Hazel. She sat beside ragtime legend Fats Waller — whom she called “Uncle” — at the piano, while his hands strode syncopated rhythms across the keys. Piano legend Art Tatum became a close family friend and mentor to Hazel, advising her to dive deep into the blues.
Meanwhile Hazel’s mother, Alma, bought a brownstone on West 118th Street, opened a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, and taught herself to play tenor sax. Her circle widened. Lester Young and Billie Holiday came over after hours. Young and Alma traded turns playing sax in the living room when she and Holiday weren’t gossiping in the kitchen. Holiday became like a big sister to Hazel, taking her under her wing as Hazel ventured out into the life of a working musician. In an article she wrote for Ebony, Hazel Scott recalled how, once, when “wondering where I was going and what I was doing, I began to cry.” Holiday then “stopped, gripped my arm and dragged me to a back room.” She told Scott, “Never let them see you cry” — a piece of advice Scott followed forever.
While still a child, Hazel Scott played piano for dance classes and churches. At 13 she joined her mother’s jazz band, Alma Long Scott’s American Creolians. When she outgrew the gig, her mother secured her a spot playing piano after the Count Basie Orchestra at the posh Roseland Ballroom. Watching Basie bring the house down, Hazel turned to Alma and said, “You expect me to follow this?” Stage fright or no, she played what would become her signature boogie-woogie style. The crowd adored her. From there, she took flight.
* * *
At the time, the majority of jazz clubs were segregated. Even the famed Cotton Club in Harlem, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway headlined, had a “colored” section. Blacks and whites almost never shared the stage. But in 1938, a shoe clerk from Trenton, New Jersey, opened a different kind of club.
Cafe Society was “the wrong place for the Right people” according to founder Barney Josephson. He once said, “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” It was there that Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time and became a legend, and it was there that Holiday got Scott her first steady engagement.
When Holiday canceled a standing engagement three weeks early, she insisted Scott take her place. By the end of the run, Scott was Cafe Society’s new headliner. Only 19 years old, she inherited the bench previously occupied by piano greats like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. But as The New York Amsterdam News reported, “Hazel more than holds her own, and demonstrates a style all her own.”
As it turned out, not only was Scott a brilliant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, comforting yet provocative — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sublime melancholy that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.
And, she was beautiful. She wore floor-length ball gowns on stage and gazed out into the audience with almond-shaped eyes that seemed to communicate a deep knowledge of everyone they fixed upon. Like watching a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt, when Scott sang, you saw the song traveling through her, taking shape before emerging from her lips. And when she played her boogie-woogie, she grinned ear to ear, looking like self-possessed joy manifested. She was, in a word, irresistible.
Audiences flocked to see her. Fan mail flooded in. Josephson decided to open a second Cafe Society location, uptown for a swankier audience, with Scott as the marquee performer. New York’s finest showed up in droves, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who dropped in one evening for “some entertainment and relaxation,” as one reporter wrote. After the show, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Scott to join her for a late supper. Because she had already changed from her evening wear to streetwear, Scott begged off the invitation.
“I’m inviting you,” said Mrs. Roosevelt, “not your clothes.”
How could Scott refuse?
She was the reigning queen of jazz, a friend to some of the most famous names in the country, and all at just 22 years old.
Hazel Scott had conquered New York. Hollywood was next. But in a motion picture industry where people of color were usually restricted to playing maids, cannibals, or buffoons, was there room for Hazel Scott?
* * *
Nine black soldiers march down a hill to the sound of piano and drum. They are upright, dignified, ready to fight and die. Their sweethearts line the road, waving handkerchiefs and bidding their fellows goodbye. It’s 1943, and the question on the backlot is, “What should these women wear?”
The scene is from “The Heat’s On,” a patriotic 1943 musical. Scott is performing a rah-rah number called “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” In conceptualizing the scene, the director intended to dress the women in what Hollywood assumed all black women would wear: dirty aprons.
Scott wasn’t having it. Her contract always included final script and wardrobe approval, ensuring she’d never play or look the fool. She told the choreographer she wanted that protection extended to the extras who shared her stage.
“What do you care?” said the choreographer. “You’re beautifully dressed.”
“The next thing I knew,” wrote Scott, “we were screaming at each other and all work had stopped. … I insisted that no scene in which I was involved would display Black women wearing dirty aprons to send their men to die for their country.”
Neither side relented, so Scott went on strike. For three days, the studio begged and pleaded for her to return to set. But Scott would not be moved. The more the clock ticked, the more money it cost, a fact of which Scott was well aware. Finally, the studio caved to Scott’s demands, and the women appear in the film wearing particularly fetching floral dresses.
Though she won the battle, Columbia Pictures was far from conceding the war. In the minds of producers who were used to dictating to African-Americans — particularly to African-American women — Scott’s public victory was more than they could stand. In the next two years, she was given small parts in two more second-rate movies. After that, she was finished with motion pictures.
“I had antagonized the head of Columbia Pictures,” wrote Scott in her journal. “In short, committed suicide!”
She packed her bags and headed back east — where love was about to sweep her off her feet.
* * *
Scott was once again wowing crowds at Cafe Society, when she caught the eye of a young politician. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become New York’s first African-American congressman, pulled Josephson aside, and asked for an introduction.
“Are you really interested in Hazel,” said Josephson, who considered Scott a daughter, “or are you just screwing around?”
Powell assured him of his sincerity, Josephson made the introduction, and their romance caught fire — despite the fact that Powell had been married to nightclub singer Isabel Washington since 1933. For the next year, Scott and Powell pursued their love with reckless abandon, damned be the consequences. In 1945, he married Scott 11 short days after his divorce was finalized.
Her career in Hollywood dead, Scott started touring, winning rave reviews at concerts across the country and fighting discrimination throughout. In November 1948, she refused to play a sold-out show at the University of Texas because the audience was segregated, despite the anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract, which allowed her to cancel the booking without forfeiting her pay. And in February 1949, she sued a restaurant in the tiny town of Pasco, Washington, after she and a companion were refused service because, as the proprietor put it, “We don’t serve coloreds.” Scott won $250 in the suit, and donated the proceeds to the NAACP.
Scott was making around $75,000 a year during this time — making her one of the most successful musicians in the country, black or white. After five years’ continued success, Hollywood could ignore her no longer. In 1950, she came to break the color barrier on the small screen.
* * *
Scott sits at the keys of a grand piano in an elegant white gown. With a backdrop of Manhattan behind her, she looks like the urban empress she had become.
“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”
Broadcast on the DuMont Network, The Hazel Scott Show was the first television program to have an African-American woman as its solo host. Three nights a week, Scott played her signature mix of boogie-woogie, classics, and jazz standards in living rooms across America. It was a landmark moment. As a passionate civil and women’s rights activist, the show symbolized a triumphant accomplishment. As a career musician, her program took her to professional heights known by few, assuring her place in the pantheon of America’s greatest performers. To be sure, Scott had arrived at the success she had sought since playing that first simple tune in Trinidad as a three-year-old.
And then, just like that, it all came tumbling down. “Red Channels.” HUAC. Another star tainted by a whiff of Communism.
When she stood in front of HUAC, it only made sense to speak truth to power, to stand up for what she believed in. She believed herself the embodiment of the American dream, and she spoke in its defense. In an unwavering voice she told the committee, “the entertainment profession has done its part for America, in war and peace, and it must not be dragged through the mud of hysterical name-calling at a moment when we need to enrich and project the American way of life to the world. There is no better, more effective, more easily understood medium for telling and selling the American way of life than our entertainers, creative artists, and performers, for they are the real voice of America.”
But they did not hear her, did not believe her. And she in turn underestimated the power of fear, never having bent to it herself.
One week after her testimony, DuMont canceled The Hazel Scott Show. Concert appearances became few and far between. Even nightclub gigs were hard to come by.
Exhausted and unraveled, Scott went to Paris on what was to be a three-week vacation. Her sojourn extended to three years. To her, Paris became “the magic of looking up the Champs-Élysées from the Place de la Concorde and being warmed by the merry madness of the lights.” It was also “a much needed rest, not from work, but from racial tension.”
She played across Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East. Crowds still loved her, still swooned over her swinging classics. But it was not the same. Her spotlight had dimmed, and would never again shine on her the way it had in her halcyon days.
Eventually, Scott returned to America and slipped further into obscurity. In 1981 she passed away at 61 from cancer. Her albums are hard to come by now and her name never appears where it should, beside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and others who we think of when we think of jazz. But for a while, she led them all, until a country twisted by fear pushed her past the point from which even she, the force of nature that she was, could return.