Ethel Waters Exhibit: His Eye is on the Sparrow at the Billy Graham Library (Charlotte, NC) through March 31, 2012.
Denise King: Taking a Chance on Love , by Suzanne Cloud, JazzTimes Magazine, February 9, 2012.
Classic Hollywood: Pioneering black actors helped pave the way by Susan King, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2012.
Book review: 'Heat Wave' by Donald Bogle The story of African American singer-actress Ethel Waters by Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2011.
Terry Burrell Will Be Ethel Waters in World-Premiere Musical Ethel! at Walnut Street by Michael Gioia, Playbill, February 7, 2012.
Letter of support from Diahann Carroll.
Letter of support for the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by Former Congresswoman Diane Watson.
Ethel Waters Star Project Brochure (old brochure)
Portrait of Ethel Waters, "Cabin in the Sky" November 17, 1940. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, LOT 12735, no. 1162]
Photo by Danielle Montreese
ETHEL WATERS REMEMBERED
BY Twila Knaack
Author of I Touched a Sparrow
It was at a Billy Graham Crusade, where I was working as a secretary in Greenville, S.C. in 1966, that I first met Ethel Waters. The accomplishments of this celebrity were far removed from my experiences growing up white in a small Midwestern town. After hearing her sing, I was awestruck meeting her and was just thrilled that I was asked to drive her to the airport for her return to Los Angeles. Our paths would cross often from then on as she traveled from London to Los Angeles singing at Crusades.
From that first encounter, I was adopted into her “family.” She never had children of her own so if she took a liking to you, you were automatically one of her “babies.” The “babies” ranged from President Richard M. Nixon, Julie Harris, Billy and Ruth Graham to her mailman, housewives, secretaries and now me.
In New York, 1970, Ethel learned I was moving to Los Angeles to attend college. She asked if I would “do some things” for her and gave me her unlisted number. Little did I know but my life would change over the next several years.
The first Saturday I arrived at her little apartment, crammed with memorabilia, I left with fabric to make her a dress, just like the one she had taken off and given to me to use as a pattern, under one arm, and a copy of her bestselling book, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” under the other. Up to that point, I had no idea of the struggles and suffering she endured growing up in the slums of Chester, PA – the product of rape, she confided. I was not aware of the road she traveled to gain fame, beginning with that first night she was encouraged to get on stage and sing at the Cotton Club, or what it was like to be the headliner in cities in the South where hotels required her to enter through servant’s quarters because of the color of her skin. I had never known vast fortunes or what it was like to lose one. From hearing her stories, I came to understand why Ethel could not and did not trust everyone and why she longed to be loved for herself.
As the months and then years rolled on, Ethel became more and more like a real Mom to me and I was the daughter she never had. When her sight began to fade, I became her eyes and read her mail to her. She loved getting fan mail. Sometimes it was forwarded from her agent or from the Billy Graham Association. One man tried a unique approach by sending her a letter in care of Mr. Richard M. Nixon at the White House. It worked! She got it. It really amused her but she didn’t want anyone to know. She didn’t want others to try it and make a nuisance of themselves and trouble her “precious child, the President.”
Ethel would rather give than receive. I seldom left a Saturday without a token of her appreciation in my arms. One time it was an extra large pink and yellow chiffon negligee (still haven’t figured out what to do with that!). Another time it was powder, then perfume, kitchen gadgets and once I even went home with her kitchen table. Perhaps the most prized possession I received (after she decided she could no longer stay in her apartment alone) is a round red lacquered box that President Nixon sent her after his historic visit to China in 1972.
Her friendship with the Nixons was evident from letters she received from the White House. One Saturday she was bubbling with excitement to show me the invitation she had received to attend Trisha’s White House wedding. She decided on a dress from her extensive wardrobe but wanted to get a small purse to go along with it. After the wedding, she admitted the purse wasn’t really her style and of course, it was given to me.
In 1972, Billy Graham wanted to honor her so a testimonial dinner was held at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles CA. Hugh Downs was the master of ceremonies, Jim Nabors sang the National Anthem and tributes were given by Billy Daniels, Julie Harris and Peter Lind Hayes. Trisha Nixon Cox was there to bring personal greetings from her father. It was a night for me to treasure. The Billy Graham Association had given her a beautiful engraved silver tray. It wasn’t long before she said, “You take that since you like to entertain.”
As her health declined in her later years, I was asked to accompany her to various crusades around the country. She started referring to herself as “damaged goods.” She became unsteady on her feet and would stay in bed all day to have the strength to get up in front of the crowds and sing. Her songs were familiar: “Partners with God” which she co-authored, “To Me It’s Wonderful”, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” But the song everyone wanted to hear was “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Somehow the entertainer always mustered up the energy to dazzle the crowds.
After several hospital visits, Ethel realized she could no longer be on her own. She gave up her little apartment and moved in with Paul and Julie DeKorte and their family in Chatsworth, CA. Julie, who knew and loved Ethel like I did from church, was a nurse. She and her family set up a room in their home just the way Ethel wanted it and cared for her the last months of her life.
September 1st, 1977, Julie called me with the news. “Twila,” Julie said, “she’s gone.” I imagined the moment she was ushered into heaven; she rushed to Jesus’ side and said, “I’m finally home” and forgot about all the suffering and hardship she had on earth.
At the Forest Lawn funeral service, Cy Jackson, a friend of 20 years, told of the joys of knowing this great woman. He ended his eulogy by quoting Leonard Feather who wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “She was beautiful in her youth, dignified in middle age, poignant in her final years. She will be long remembered by those of us for whom at some point in our lives, happiness was just a woman called Ethel.”
She will forever be remembered by me as a woman I called “Mom.” What a wonderful tribute to see a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for this legendary lady who so richly deserves it!