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Arna Bontemps interview/Re: Hurston
I; We can probably start. I'll introduce myself. This is an interview
that's being conducted with Mr. Arna Bontemps in his office in Sterling
Library at Yale University on November 18, 1970. I'm doing this book
on Zora Neale Hurston as I told you.
B: Oh, yes.
I: I would be interested first of all I guess in just your general impres-
sion of Miss Hurston. I gather she was not the usual sort of personality.
B: No, I would describe Zora as a character. By that, I don't really mean
it in any bad sense or anything other than that she was a person that one
remembered, who was sort of an original. I don't know anybody else
just like Zora Neale Hurston. She was very outgoing. In any group she
was the center of attention. I don't know whether she was trying to
be but she just, well, somehow attention focused on her because she was
Very articulate and very... she didn't seem pushy or offensive in any way,
but she somehow drew attention.
I: I know that Richard Bruce I think is under that name. I think it's actually
Richard Bruce Nugent, isn't he?
B: Oh yes, that's right, Richard Bruce. I first knew him as Bruce Nugent.
I: The only issue of which they published has in that novel
an account of Zora at the party and people just surrounding her listening
to her tell stories.
B: It seemed so natural to her. She was really not a showoff.'but she
just drew attention in that way. In appearance, Zora was a pleasant,
ordinary, brown-skinned young woman; not studying, about average, a little
above average in appearance, but she had an ease and she somehow projected
herself very well orally, and almost before you knew it, she had
gotten into a story. She had a wealth of them. They all resulted in
these books that she did on folklore. Many of those of us who knew
her personally had heard those stories in her conversations so there
was just a wealth, a storehouse of memories of folk, wisdom and
I: Were alot of them Eatonville stories?
B: A great many were, yes. Those were--at least they stand out in my
memory because I think they were unfailingly interesting, catching.
She was apparently a kind of folklore collector then even before she
came to New York.
I: Even before she began studying with Boas. She was just rich with them.
B: ...Found where the writers were and where it was going on so she came
with all of that material. Now I don't know precisely when she registered
at Columbia, but I suspect it was a little after.
B: So that I could testify then that her stories and her bundle of folklore
was very much with her when she entered.
I: That's very interesting. I'm sure her subsequent research probably just
enhanced what she had to start with.
B: That's right. That's right. I believe that when she became involved
with her studies, and this was some of her stepping stones toward
her possible degree, then she certainly reflected on it and this drew
out other things.
I: Yeah. I think she actually came to New York when Charles Johnson wrote
her and she was at Howard and had published some things in
And she'd been working with Locke and Charles wrote her and asked her
if she had anything else and she sent him some stories. Then she came
to New York and I guess even sponged off the Johnsons now and then.
B; She sponged off of everybody but she did it in a disarming way
because everybody was glad to have her sponge on them a little because
she was so entertaining.
I: There's correspondence with both Fanny Hurston and Van Vechten indicating
that she did that and no complaints whatsoever.
B: No, I never heard or saw any evidence of complaint. She was such good
fun that that took care of it. It was the sort of thing, however, you
know, that lent itself to a little misinterpretation later on. I
think that as time went on Zora began to depend on this disarming quality.
When the depression became grim, she probably exploited it a little.
I: Well, let me push a point for a moment. I've read, for'instance she
made some very ambiguous sorts of statements to the newspapers in the
thirties and forties. They don't seem to me in keeping-with what her
written words project.
I: Roy Wilkins for one has suggested that these were simply publicity
gimmicks on her part to get notice for her book. Do you think that this
B: There might have been a little of that
complications in her personalities and
the fore. The depression happened and
until after the Reinaissance. She was
came out later. By the time her books
dispersed and were scrounging and were
hit Harlep in a very heavy blow that's
date, how devastating it was.
involved. Zora was not without
the time sort of brought this to
her books didn't get published
very conspicuous, but the books
came out, the writers had been
looking for a place to land. It
so heavy it's hard to realize at this
Langston Hughes talks about that pretty specifically.
Yes, right. I would say that everybody involved there began to search
for a place to land, and Zora went the way that was available to her.
She went back to the South, the DeepSouth, Eatonville, partly because
she was looking forward perhaps to publications because she had a
sponsor, she had a patron -- Mrs. Mason. And Mrs. Mason was sort of
underwriting her expenses at that time. I would say that Harlem had
stopped laughing really. The joy had pretty well gone out of Harlem.
It had risen to a high point during the Renjaissance but it was pretty
well gone, and Zora had gone South. Well, I'm not sure whether Zora had
been invited with that other group to go to Russia or not. You may,
you may . .
I: I haven't run across anything where she has gone.
B: No she did not go. I'm pretty sure, she didn't. I'm sure she did not go.
But the reason that comes to my r~ind is because this appears to have empha-
sized sort of a turning point and a breaking away on her part from most
of her previous associates. Now she had this quarrel with Langston
but it was, I'm pretty sure it was, prior to his going abroad because
I don't think he had any more associations with her afterward. And this
was all tied up too, with the fact that both had the same patron at one
time and the patron tried to sometimes help them both siultaneously.
She provided a secretary, I think, who was doing wrk for both of them.
The secretary being Louise Thompson Patterson. She was--well, at that time,
what was she? Married Wallace Thurman, a very short-lived marriage and she
was free again for awhile. And then later on she remarried. Patterson
took her a different direction politically from, the others had not been
political at all.
I: Is Mrs. Thompson still alive?
B: I think/ Somebody wrote me about her last week to ask if I knew her
present address, and I don't. I do remember seeing her in Harlem
two years ago. I think it was at Langston Hughes' funeral. Around
that time, that's the last . I didn't have her address, I have
seen her off and on on occasions something like that over the past
years, and had not heard that she was anything different. But I should
think it'd be possible to find her because her husband is a very
prominent, a prominent American Communist, and had been a candidate
for something or other, you know. But I've aerd nothing about him.
And when I have seen her in the last decade she has always been alone.
They had a daughter and I understood that the daughter had probably seemed
to me gone to Russia, but.I'm not sure about that. I've had no
further comments on it.
I: She was the secretary for both Langston and Zora Hurston?
B: That's right. She came to Harlem from Hampton. She was teaching typing
and Commercial Subjects down there, and was just a young teacher.
She had another girl whose name I can't remember. I had the impression
that another teacher in the secretarial typing department came up and
both of them found ways to earn a living I think in New York because
this literary thing had extensions into the magazines and so forth. She
was doing work even before she went to work for Mrs. Mason because I can
remember her typing a manuscript for me, one of my actually the first
novel I wrote.
I: Nonsense Son?
B: Nonsense Son. Well, actually it was a predecessor of that. And she may
have copied that one too. But she was just doing typing on her own at
that time. She wasn't involved with anyone else. Later on when Langston
and Zora started to collaborate, I now feel that it was related to the fact--
well, I now know that it was related to the fact that both of them had the
same patron. They started working on a play called "Mule Bone." And
it resulted in a conflict, to put it mildly. And I saw Zora Afterwards.
I was traveling, I was speaking at North Carolina College in Durham years
later. And Zora, she taught there, did you know? She was there, yes,
she was doing something and she had the president hypnotized just like
she had everybody in Harlem because he was . .I remember she took me
and introduced me to him. His name was Sheppard. When she came in he
started laughing and just settled back, you know, and dropped all his
cares to listen to Zora as usual.
I: Wouldn't that be about '38 or .39 or . .?
B: It would have to be. Yes, it was during the depression. And I
don't know what her status was with her patron at the time. I think it
was still amicable, because I don't know whether this would be open or
not, but Zora prevailed on me to write Langston a letter and try to
patch up their quarrel. And I wrote it. And to my great embarrassment,
it's over there in the I wrote to him. I told him exactly what
she had begged me to say to him. But it develops that she was . .
I: You were talking about Langston and . -
B: And Zora's, yes, the quarrel. Zora blamed it on Louise Thompson.
She thought that, I mean it wasn't that she thought that Langston was in
love with her or anything like that. I think that she just felt that
probably, well, now this is speculation. Probably she thought that in her
job working for Mrs. Mason and doing secretarial work for both of them
probably, Louise Thompson had access to the patron or might have been
somehow in between her and the person whom they were virtually employed
by. She told me in so many words that she blamed her quarrelling with
Langston on Louise Thompson.
I: Mrs. Mason was a patron not only to Hughes and Hurston, but also to
Aaron Douglas and people like that.
B: Yes. To a lesser degree Aaron Douglas. Prior to this Miguel Corquvias
and probably many others because she was quite elderly at the time and
apparently had a long background or history of patronizing the arts.
very much Carl Van echter whom she thought as being a pernicious
influence on Black artists. Of course he was interested in Black
artists too. I don't know what she thought of Alain Locke. Sometimes
I wonder if she went out on his side, but she was independent. She had
worked this all out in her own mind about something which really, if
followed to its natural conclusion, leans you to this "cult of
I: Right. That's what I was about to say.
I: She apparently had been interested in Indians, and had actually lived
with some Indians.
I: And I think that that may have been why Hurston appealed to her--not
only the kind of spontaneous quality of Zora herself, but also the
folk stories and the books that Zora wanted to do.
B: If there's ever a natural mind, you know, she does admit she was a
natural woman. She was really the child of nature. That was Zora.
Now she differed in some ways, of course. Zora did some things that
were very Zora was . I never saw, well, I saw Zora
dance but that wasn't her, that wasn't her medium. Speech and storytell-
ing was her thing. She was not--well, yes I heard her sing too, in
little groups, you know, I remember she tried to lead a group of us
while Fire was being put together in a song called "Come On . .
Children, Let's Go Around the Wall," or something. It was a spiritual
that she knew that none of us had ever heard before. She was trying to
teach us a different spiritual, although it was not really based on my
real Lord. Singing was not her thing, but the stories were; all
kinds of them. The jokes, the exaggeration, what she would call "the
lies" and so on. She was rich with them and she always had some ready.
I think that your writing a book about her is a wonderful thing.
I think she is a superb, a superbly complicated person; one which
serves a very good purpose. The part that apparently you have been
doing, which I think is very necessary and the reason why . well,
without it you couldn't do a very good book on Zora and that is, filling
the role of Mrs. Mason. If you can sort of get her background and fill
in on her, then you really have a major factor in her career as a
I: Mrs. Mason supported her, I think, from about 1927 to about 1931. I
don't have the precise dates but . .
I: All the research she did after she left Columbia .
I: I'm going to have to check with the people at Barnard, but apparently
she completed her work at Barnard and then left and went to the South
for her folklore research.
B: Yes, for the Mules and Men.
--I: Then she stayed there for about four years, about 1931.
f- B: Right.
I: But then for some reason as nearly as I can determine, her relationship
with Mrs. Mason if not terminated, it at least went into some sort of
a different phose after 1931.
B: Well, '31, that makes sense. After leaving Harlem, '31, when we all
left, I didn't see her again 'till .at least I didn't see her to
spend any time with her until I went to North Carolina. As I think of it
now, I believe she did come to Chica--I was in Chicago for . .at
one time and now I don't know . .
But actually she was, no, she was not writing for the Eagle though,
she was writing for a rival paper there. She could have worked for
The Eagle at first and it could have come from her. And it could have
come from Faye Jackson although she .
I: Wait, now I can't remember the exact name.
B: Oh yeah.
I: See, as long as we're talking about the politics, you mentioned Zora
not going with a group to Russia. Could you elaborate on that a little
bit? I'm not quite sure that I understand.
B: Well, you know that that trip was to become sort of significant historically
because this absorbed quite a bunch of the old Harlem group. Practically
everybody that they could lay hands on who didn't have a place to land,
you know, when the dispersal occurred, caught a ride on this trip to
Russia. They went to make a film, you know. A documentary was going to
be made about the Negro experience. So it was announced. And Langston
was in it. Louise Thompson was in it. Louise Thompson, by that time the
break had occurred. Henty Lee Moon was in the group and Ted Poston
who's for years been at the New York Post and many others. There are
some pictures, I think, over in the of the group that went.
Some of them identified, some of them not. I suppose that the first,
most reasonable assumption is the reason that Zora didn't go,
the reason taht I wouldn't have gone, is because I had something
lese that I found that I could do, which was a job. I had a wife
and a couple of youngsters and that was not, that's the sort of thing
that would have appealed to me if I had been unmarried as Langston was,
and as these other fellows that I named--Loren Miller, by the way,
went too. He later acquired the Los Angeles Eagle. But they went
because it was sort of an adventure and because it was something to do
at a time when it was very hard to find things to do. And most of them
came back strongly anti-communist as a result of it. Langston stayed
longer than the r-ewt because when he got there he found that his first
beek had been translated into Russian and he had a lot of rubles
in the bank which he could .
I: Well, she was invited then but she chose .
B: Oh, I feel sure that most of those who were free were. I really don't
think, I think that probably in Zora's case, as with me, she probably
had found something else that she could do. But probably her break
with Mrs. Mason Hadn't been complete because this had to happen at the
end of '31 or in the fall of '31 because I remember Langston went
to California and on the way stopped at the school where I had
gotten a job and gave a reading and presently continued on to-California
in a car.
I: Was this in Alabama?
B: This was in Alabama, right.
I: I remember seeing a letter from you to Langston at Fisk. The thing
that struck me about it was that you were talking about Nella Larson and
that her, your phrase was: "I think that her ofay novel will get
I: Which I can't remember exactly which one it was involving.
B: Yes. Well, I don't precisely remember the letter but I was corresponding
with him at the time. And I do know that it was from this same trip
but after he'd been to California and completed his tour, that he was
on his way back . he came back to New York and actually he had
listed a number of stops on the way and got about halfway there in
the car and then he disposed of the car and went on and joined the
group in New York. Well, now I have a feeling that Zora, too, may have
sort of known something else that she could do, so that it probably was not
that she was going to somehow parlay this into a doctoral degree.
I,; ,e&, at Fisk in the Rosenwald archives there is a fascinating bit of corres-
pondance between Hurston and the Rosenwald people.
B: Oh, yes.
I: I think she was dealt very poorly by them.
I: Because Mr. Embry, you know, . .
I: He made a grant of for two years, this was in the end. of '34 and
December of '34 he\ made her a grant for two years and said, "You can
pursue your Ph.D. at Col mbia, if BOAS and the Anthrology Department there
will accept you for study." And she went to Colombia. She talked to
Franz Boas. He wrote Embry and said, "Here is the course of study she
is taking, etc." And then in a very short period of time, about a couple
of months, Embry wrote Hurston saying, "I don't feel htat your program
plan will lead to a Ph.D. and consequently we are terminating it at the
end of seven months.
B: Seven months?
I: Yes. And she was never particularly bitter toward the Rosenwald Fund
about this, which leads me to think that maybe the correspondence
doesn't fell everything.
I: But on the basis of the correspondence, it seems to me very clear that
Embry was being very patronizing with her. And was in effect saying
"Well, massa's gonna tell you what you're supposed to do."
B: Right. See, that's very interesting. I don't see her during that
period and I was very close . well, I became very close to the
Rosenwald Fund and to Embry after . .. I came back in '35; actually
about '36 I began to know the people at the Rosenwald and to be associated
with them. But by that time, this was all history. Prior to it, I
Had been perhaps a year in Chicago and the year before that in California
and before that, a short sojourn in North Alabama. That is rather aston-
ishing to me, now it may have been too, you know, Zora got--I don't
remember the dates on it--but she got some very bad publicity as you
I: That was in '48.
B: That was '48? That was not related to it. No, I don't remember what
I: Oh, she was . .
B: Oh, no. She was horrified by it.
I: Yes, I think told you about the letter that she found in the
to Van Vechten about that.
B: Yes, it was addressed from Zora to Van Vechten. I never saw the article
and actually, I don't know anybody who took it seriously. I think the
people who had known her during the Rennaissance pretty well assumed
that she was telling the truth about that. But Zora sort of left
herself open to anybody who was mischievous enough to project such a
tale, because she was so very outgoing and so very, well, almost playful
about things, about some serious things that could conceiveably be
misconstrued. Like this story she tells I think herself about how she
went up to, in print. She went to a fellow, a beggar, and took a dime
out of the thing he was begging with and said: "look here, I'll pay you
back because I need this more than you do."
B; But that's kind of . .
I; That's street subway station ..
B: Yeah, that was right in character. She would have done a foolish
thing like that but it really wouldn't be mean, now would it have been
what seens on the surface. It was just being a little bit devilish,
I: Did you ever know her husband, Herbert Sheen? They were married from
'24 to '27, I think.
B: No, let me see, I did not know her husband. He was certainly not
in evidence in Harlem. Let's see, I didn't meet Zora before '25
or '26. I vaguely remember hearing that Zora had been married, but
I never saw him. She was never with a husband during those days.
Neither on the other hand, did I see her with any other man, you know,
on any level of close association.
I: In Dust Tracks on a Road she talks about the real love of her life and
then she doesn't identify him. She gives you the initials and they're
A.W.P. And apparently this began sometime during the thirties. And
I know it was still current at least during 1932 when Dust Tracks
B: Oh, yes. A.W.P. This probably would relate to Florida I suppose. There
was nothing in her that I saw that suggested a love affair in Harlem.
She was, and she certainly seemed self-sufficient.
I: Yes. It's pretty clear from the correspondence, and even with the
correspondence with Van Vechten, that she didn't particularly abstain
in anything but .
I: But as far as having a steady lover, apparently this was A.W.P. . .
B: Yes, well, that sounds very creditable to me, but he was not anybody
that I knew. Now I didn't hear in Haiti . I happened to follow
her to Haiti, she had been to Haiti I remember when I went in '38.
When did she go?
I: She went in '36. She got a Guggenheim in '36. She was throughout the whole
area in '36 and '37.
B: Yes, they said that she, the rumor was out there that she was going
with a fellow there whose name I didn't catch, I didn't know, but that . .