UW Today

March 27, 2012

Secrets of famous 1930s ‘blonde bombshell of rhythm’ revealed with help from UW library

News and Information

We all have things in our past that we gloss over. Some secrets might just be embarrassing or unflattering. But others may be more serious, and people who conceal these truths may fear that revealing them would undermine their livelihoods.

Such was likely the case with an Emmy-winning female bandleader who rose to fame in the 1930s and led bands until the 1960s. Known as “the blonde bombshell of rhythm,” this sex symbol hailing from Chicago had security to protect her from the men who mobbed her performances.

See why they were so enchanted:

Ina Ray Hutton, who died in 1984 at age 67, also had a secret that could have damaged her stardom.  A reporter from KUOW radio, with help from the UW libraries, recently revealed the secret. It turns out that the blonde bombshell had more than hair-dye to hide.

The ‘blonde as a brunette

In 2007 Phyllis Fletcher, now an editor at KUOW, was choosing music for the radio program “The Swing Years and Beyond,” hosted by Amanda Wilde. A CD by Hutton caught Fletcher’s eye. On one side of the CD’s cover, Fletcher saw a curvaceous blonde. On the other side, Hutton appeared as a brunette.

“That chick is black,” Fletcher thought. Hutton is known as white, and her Wikipedia entry claimed an Irish American ancestry.  But the shape of Hutton’s face, her big cheeks and round lips, struck Fletcher as black features.

She should know. Blue-eyed with curly light brown hair, Fletcher is half black and half white. When Fletcher saw a brunette Hutton, she saw traces of herself.

“I have that big ol’ forehead; I have big cheeks and round lips,” Fletcher said in her radio story that divulged Hutton’s secret. “White people think I’m white all the time, but I’m white and black.”

Fletcher will receive a Gracie award for her radio story, “Secrets of a Blonde Bombshell,” this spring. She did the story for “Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen,” a public radio program on pop culture and arts.

If Hutton were indeed black, that is not how she is remembered. And this bit of trivia was probably not known to the white men who swarmed performances during her heyday as a bandleader.

Revelations from the library

Curiosity piqued, Fletcher began looking for records of Huttons race. She started on Ancestry.com, and purchased her own account on the genealogy site to do the research (she later learned that UW libraries has a subscription, too). She found census records, which become public after 72 years. (Next up is the 1940 census, to be released April 2.) She also unearthed birth certificates and a marriage license.

Fletcher examined the 1920 and 1930 census records, the two from Hutton’s lifetime that are public. She found inconsistent listings for Hutton’s race, because the Census Bureau changed the terms used for race. In the 1920 census she is listed as “mulatto,” which was then dropped in later years. Then in 1930 she is recorded as “negro.” Her parents’ records also showed inconsistencies in race.

Fletcher tried another direction to determine Hutton’s race. She used Hutton’s birth name, Odessa Cowan, to search for records of Hutton as a child.

She examined archives of the Chicago Defender, a national black newspaper in circulation since 1905, for the birth name. If the star-to-be or her family members were mentioned in this newspaper it would indicate that they were part of the black community. This turned out to be the key to revealing Hutton’s race.

Fletcher typed “Odessa Cowan” into the archive and up popped a list of articles mentioning the starlet as a child. There she was in articles about her recitals – she started her career as a tap dancer. And in 1924, the paper published a “Dancing Beauties” photo of the budding star at age 7 with two other black girls, all wearing dance costumes.

The mentions of Hutton and her family in the Chicago Defender showed that they “socialized as black in a segregated city in a segregated time,” Fletcher said. “You didnt have to be a big shot” to be in the Defender, she said.

Along with The New York Times, the Chicago Defender was the first fully digitized newspaper collection the UW libraries bought, said Glenda Pearson, head of the library’s microform and newspaper collections. Ethnic and minority newspapers reveal how  communities view particular issues that affect them. “It makes a difference who’s writing the story,” Pearson said.

In 1925, when Hutton was 8, mentions of her in the Defender ceased, according to Fletcher’s findings. That’s around the time when a white vaudeville producer discovered Cowan and she became Ina Ray Hutton.

Hutton’s skin color was light enough to pass – that is, let people believe she was white. Within the black community, Hutton’s black ties were an open secret during her life. Back then “so many people know that you’re passing for white, but they aren’t talking about it,” Fletcher said.

Family surprised by black heritage

But though it may have been a widely known and kept secret back then, it wasn’t known to everyone, such as Huttons closest living relatives.

Fletcher tracked down obituaries for Hutton and her sister using the UW libraries’ access to The New York Times digital archives. She found that Hutton did not have any children. But her sister June had a daughter.

Junes daughter is white and lives in Oregon. Did she know that she was part black?

One Sunday night in January 2011, Fletcher called her. The niece did not know about her black ancestry. She reacts to this surprise in Fletcher’s radio story.

“Ina’s mother’s choice for her and June to pass is part of a historical context – it was a reaction to Jim Crow, in a very real way,” Fletcher said. “The fact that someone would make this choice for her child before she could make it for herself is dramatic.”

Fletcher clarified the bandleader’s record. She changed Hutton’s Wikipedia entry to indicate her African-American, not Irish-American, descent. Fletcher also wrote about Hutton’s black heritage on BlackPast.org, directed by UW history professor Quintard Taylor.

Her discovery highlights how some secrets that once seemed so important to hide can eventually become non-issues. “Discrimination against blacks still exists, but it’s not codified in a way that has the potential to destroy a career, or quash it before it starts,” Fletcher said. “You dont officially lose access to, say, an audience or a venue or a hotel or a restaurant simply because you’re black. But back then, you did.”

Other secrets
, like out-of-wedlock children and single motherhood, were once shunned too. Fletcher added that these days there could be other forms of “passing,” such as concealing disabilities, sexuality and certain ethnicities.

Hutton hid the truth of her race “to the grave,” Fletcher said. At that highly segregated time, she was a black woman hiding as white in plain sight: up on stage, performing for white audiences and waving a baton as well as her behind.

“I don’t care what her ethnic background was – she was smoking hot!!!!,” summed up one commenter in response to a video of Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears performing “Doin’ the Suzy Q.”

And as Hutton is credited as saying, “I’m selling the show as a music program, not on a sex-appeal basis. … But if curves attract an audience, so much the better.”