Trailblazing Facts About Hattie McDaniel, The Hollywood Pioneer

Hattie McDaniel was the African American to win an Academy Award…and that’s not even the most interesting thing about her. McDaniel was a radio and film star and pioneer whose legacy has impacted the lives of Black actors and others alike. Here are facts about McDaniel that proves that her life still matters, even today.

Hattie McDaniel Facts

1. She Almost Never Got Her Breakthrough Role

Hattie McDaniel’s career-defining role was as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. But it’s a role that she nearly never got. The casting for “Mammy” was highly competitive. So competitive, in fact, that then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote to Gone with the Wind’s producer, David O. Selznick, to have her own real-life maid cast in the iconic role. So, how did McDaniel beat out the competition?

2. She Won Her Part in an Ingenious Way

Getting a starring role in a major Hollywood production requires years of work, a lot of dumb luck and the right look. Hattie McDaniel must have known this all too well when she went in to audition for the role of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. To stand out from the competition, McDaniel showed up to her audition in a full, authentic maid’s uniform. She wouldn’t be wearing rags for long, however…

3. She Was Banned From Her Own Premiere

You can imagine how excited Hattie McDaniel must have been to attend the premiere of Gone with the Winduntil she received some disturbing news. McDaniel was told that she was not allowed to attend the premiere of the biggest film of her career because of segregation laws. That kind of discrimination didn’t sit well with everyone…

4. A Hollywood Hunk Stood by Her

Even amongst Hollywood icons, few people compare to Clark Gable. The “King of Hollywood” was very good friends with his Gone with the Wind co-star, Hattie McDaniel. When Gable learned that McDaniel would not be allowed to attend the premiere of the biggest film of all time, he was utterly furious. Gable threatened to boycott the premiere himself.

McDaniel, however, managed to convince Gable to attend anyway. That kind of humility was patently Hattie.

5. She Knew Her Worth

Hattie McDaniel may not have been allowed to attend the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind, but that didn’t take the wind out of her sails. McDaniel received overwhelmingly positive reviews from film critics, and she seized on the opportunity. McDaniel brought clippings of the reviews to producer David O. Selznick to convince him to put her up for Academy Award consideration. Selznick wouldn’t regret the decision…

6. She Was a Total Pioneer

The Academy Awards have had a long road to travel on their path to inclusion—and there’s still some road to travel yet. But Hattie McDaniel took the first step. It was at the 12th Annual Academy Awards that McDaniel would win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and she was the first person of color to receive that honor. Too bad then, that she was treated so dishonorably…

7. The Oscars Nearly Booted Her out

McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere of Gone with the Windbut sadly, it was about to get worse. The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the host of the 1940 Academy Awards, had a no-blacks policy. The hotel only permitted McDaniel to sit at the far end of the room at a segregated table as a “favor” to the Academy. And the night was still young…

8. Her Academy Award Didn’t Open Doors

After nearly sweeping the Academy Awards, the stars of Gone with the Wind went to a nightclub to celebrate their achievements…that is, all except Hattie McDaniel. Much like the Ambassador Hotel, the nightclub had a racist policy and they barred the newly minted Oscar-winner from entering. But it turns out McDaniel didn’t need sweaty, smoky, overpriced nightclubs.

9. She Had Four Messy Marriages

Ah, marriage. It comes but once…scratch that…twice…excuse me, I meant thrice…or, uh…ah heck! It comes but four times in a lifetime—if that lifetime is Hattie McDaniel’s. The radio and film star was married a total of four times, and while McDaniel met with a lot of success in her professional life, her love life was, erm, a little less rosy.

10. She Was a Teenaged Bride

It’s difficult to squeeze four marriages into one lifetime, so you had better start early. Just how early? McDaniel’s first marriage was to Howard Hickman in January of 1911—a handful of months away from her 18th birthday. Sadly, a dark twist was around the corner. Hickman passed on about four years later, and it would be a while before McDaniel found love again.

11. Her Second Marriage Got Violent

McDaniel’s second marriage was to George Langford, and she hoped this time, it would last. Onlythey were doomed to a heartbreaking end. The couple may have lived happily ever after, but we’ll never know if they could have stood the test of time. Just months into their marriage, Langford was fatally shot and passed.

12. Her Third Husband Had a Jealousy Problem

Third time’s the charm, right? That must have been what Hattie McDaniel was thinking when she married James Lloyd Crawford. From the sounds of it, however, there was very little “charm” to this marriage. After just four years and change, McDaniel divorced Crawford because, as she claimed, he was jealous of her success. And there were other stressors in the marriage…

13. She Told a Gossip Columnist a Juicy Secret

Hattie McDaniel was close with the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper—probably because she gave her such juicy tidbits. One of the juiciest tidbits that McDaniel gave to Hopper was that she pregnant with Crawford’s child. McDaniel was so excited to be with child that she even prepped a nursery. Sadly, McDaniel would never get to use it.

Hedda Hopper Facts

14. She Had a Phantom Baby

As it turned out, McDaniel’s pregnancy was actually a “false pregnancy.” Even though McDaniel noticed many pregnancy symptoms in her body, her longed-for baby was nothing more than a phantom. The situation was devastating, and it threw the acclaimed actress into a deep depression she had to claw her way out of for years.

15. Her Fourth Marriage May Have Been Her Worst

And then there was marriage number four. Hattie McDaniel married interior decorator and entrepreneur Larry Williams in 1949. In true McDaniel style, the marriage did not last long…like, at all. McDaniel and Williams divorced after just four turbulent months of marriage. In testimony, McDaniel stated that the reason for the divorce was “arguing and fussing.” That’s putting it, erm, mildly…

16. Her Husband Got Violent

Who really knows what married couples get up to behind closed doors? If you’re Hattie McDaniel and Larry Williams, it’s probably nothing good. Rumors swirled around Hollywood that the power couple constantly got into physical altercations with each other during heated arguments. And then there was the psychological damage.

17. She Starved Herself

According to the woman herself, Hattie McDaniel was “a real hearty eater.” That is, until she got hitched to Larry Williams. The pair’s marital problems affected McDaniel in an utterly brutal way. McDaniel completely lost her appetite. In just two weeks, McDaniel lost about twelve pounds. Pounds weren’t the thing that Williams cost her, however…

18. She Kicked out Her Husband

Despite running a highly successful interior decorating business of his own, Larry Williams much preferred to spend his wife’s money. Williams was even so bold so as to ask Hattie McDaniel to fund a trip for him to Europe. McDaniel was having none of it. “Europe? Europe where?” she replied. “Europe, Pennsylvania? Here’s $50 for a Greyhound bus ticket! Take it and go!”

19. Her Husband Tried to Manipulate Her

Asking for Hattie McDaniel’s money cap-in-hand wasn’t good enough for Larry Williams. The husband of the Hollywood star got it into his head that he wanted to manage McDaniel’s career…for which he would require a joint checking account. McDaniel saw the schemer coming a mile away and proclaimed, “I’m letting no man handle my bank account.”

20. She Had “Irreconcilable Differences” With Her Husband

The rumor mill spat out endless stories about Hattie McDaniel’s marriage to Larry Williams, but one was particularly scandalous. According to the gossips, Williams was actually bisexual. For what it’s worth, McDaniel cited “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for her divorce from Williams and added, “I’m only mentioning incompatibility; of course, I could say a lot more.” Do go on…

21. She May Have Had an Affair With a Fellow Star

Hattie McDaniel was truly loved by all…men and women alike. The Gone with the Wind star made fast and famous friends with just about everyone she met, including the noted libertine Tallulah Bankhead. In fact, some considered McDaniel and Bankhead’s close friendship too close, and whispered that McDaniel was herself bisexual.

22. Not Everyone Loved Her

You might think everyone lauded Hattie McDaniel’s contributions to film, but that wasn’t the case. Producers often typecast McDaniel as a maid—indeed, her two most iconic roles were maids. But while some would recognize her as a character actor, others denounced McDaniel as an “Uncle Tom.” Her response to those naysayers, however, is legendary.

23. She Gave a Biting Put-Down

It would have been easy for Hattie McDaniel to turn the other cheek when her detractors denounced her as an “Uncle Tom.” Instead, McDaniel whipped back with a retort of her own. While McDaniel uttered many quotable lines in her time, this has to be one of the best: “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” Facts.

24. She Broke More Than One Barrier

Not only was McDaniel the first African-American to win an Academy Award, but she was also the first African-American to break down another kind of barrier. When McDaniel got all gussied up and strutted into the Ambassador Hotel, she became the first African-American to attend the Academy Awards as a guest instead of as a server.

25. Hollywood Tried to Use Her

While many people wanted—and tried—to drag Hattie McDaniel into race politics, McDaniel believed she was an entertainer first. When someone approached her to give out placards in support of Richard Nixon, she declined. As she said, “Beulah is everybody’s friend,” a reference to one of her famous roles. She wasn’t really friends with everyone though…

26. She Was an Eternal Optimist

Hattie McDaniel didn’t have much luck in love, but that didn’t stop her from holding out hope. On marrying Lloyd Crawford, McDaniel said that the marriage would “last forever.” We know how that ended. And when she married Larry Williams, she proudly proclaimed that she would be “Mrs. Hattie Williams for the rest of [her] life.” Sigh. By the end of it all, she really had had enough…

27. She Swore off Marriage

Despite all of their bickering over money and Larry Williams’ penchant for stoking drama, Hattie McDaniel wanted to remain friends with him. Nevertheless, after their divorce—and being twice widowed and once divorced—McDaniel was really over this whole marriage thing. McDaniel said, “I’ve been married enough; I prefer just to forget it.” Girl, us too.

28. She Was a Celebrity Chef

Despite facing constant discrimination and exclusion, Hattie McDaniel was always welcoming and inclusive. There’s no better evidence of this than her annual Hollywood parties—a Hollywood institution in their own right. McDaniel hosted the biggest stars in all of Tinseltown every year at her Sugar Hill home. Her hospitality was such that McDaniel even cooked for her guests.

29. She Was a Method Actor…Sort of

Before she “made it”, McDaniel had to take odd jobs to make ends meet. The jobs that she took included working as a maid and laundress. Given that her most famous roles would be as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind and “Beulah” in the hit radio series of the same name, you might say that McDaniel was prepping her character. Speaking of radio…

30. She Has a Little-Known “First”

Audiences today know McDaniel for her role in Gone with the Wind. But way back in the early 1900s, McDaniel was equally known for her immense radio talents, and her contributions to radio were no less spectacular than her contributions to film. Sources vary, but it’s quite possible that McDaniel was the first black person in the United States to ever sing across the airwaves.

31. Her Fans Stalked Her

Those who did love Hattie McDaniel maybe loved her too much. After really gaining popularity as radio’s “Beulah,” McDaniel became the object of much adoration in Hollywood. Such was her success, in fact, that McDaniel made a habit of changing her phone number ever few weeks because fans would start calling her at all hours!

32. She Had a Major Rival

What’s a good Hollywood career without a little rivalry? Take the Hattie McDaniel versus Ethel Waters rivalry for example. McDaniel and Waters feuded publicly over the television version of McDaniel’s radio show Beulah, for which Waters had been cast. While some reports claim things got pretty ugly, but McDaniel remained tight-lipped about the whole thing.

33. She Was Born Free

Many Black Americans can talk about their ancestors’ having been slaves. Hattie McDaniel, however, didn’t have to look that far up her family tree to see such an ancestor. Sadly, she needed only to look around her: McDaniel’s own parents had been born into slavery—an injustice that her father fought as a soldier in the Union Army.

34. She Had a Big Family

Having a large family with lots of children can be kind of fun, and Hattie McDaniel’s parents must have known this. They had 13 children, and Hattie was the youngest. They weren’t always so certain that she’d turn out “OK” though…

35. She Was a High School Drop-out

A good education is every parent’s wish for their child. Whatever else their child decides to do later in life, at least they will have their education…right? No. At least, not Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel was so determined to make her own way that she dropped out of high school before her 18th birthday. And her reason for dropping out is every parent’s nightmare.

36. Her Life Was a Circus, Literally

Not only did Hattie McDaniel drop out of high school, but what she did after that must have had her parents shaking their heads. Where did she go, you ask? I’ll give you a hint…it wasn’t law school. After dropping out of high school, McDaniel joined her brother’s traveling carnival. They went around the American Midwest and made…very little money.

37. She Has Two Stars on the Walk of Fame

Ah, the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For Tinseltown’s legends, getting a star on the famed sidewalk is like having their legacy cemented…literally. Hattie McDaniel’s legacy then will forever be cemented into the very foundations of Hollywood…twice. McDaniel has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—one for her contributions to film and another for radio.

38. She Beat the System From the Inside

Over the course of her life, McDaniel had some very quotable lines—and not just in film and on radio. The Hollywood star was perhaps most quotable in real life. In talking about racism, McDaniel said, “You can best fight any existing evil from the inside.” She would know.

39. She Was Wise

Bad apples have a habit of ruining the bunch. The tendency of the public is then to want to burn down the entire orchard. Hattie McDaniel was well aware of this and said, “The entire race is usually judged by the actions of one man or woman.”

40. Most of Her Film Work Is “Lost”

Hattie McDaniel might be one of the most prolific film stars of all time—and we’ll never know. Over the course of her tremendous career, it is estimated that McDaniel appeared in over 300 films. That would make for an impressive CV…if she’d been treated fairly. McDaniel only received credit for 83 of the films in which she appeared.

41. Her Acceptance Speech Was Incredible

Of all that I can write about Hattie McDaniel, you should really take her own words. McDaniel delivered one of the greatest acceptance speeches in Academy history:

“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”

42. She Made One Request Before She Passed

McDaniel had very specific instructions for her burial by the time she succumbed to breast cancer at 59 years of age. She said, “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery.” Almost all of her wishes were granted.

43. She Had a Heartbreaking End

Despite facing discrimination throughout her career, Hattie McDaniel was paid quite handsomely for her film and radio appearances. At the time of her passing then, McDaniel must have amassed quite the fortune, right? Unfortunately not. McDaniel’s estate was only worth $10,000 when she passed…and she owed about $11,000 in taxes.

44. She Lost Her Oscar

To help pay off her massive debt to ye olde taxman, the IRS had to get a little inventive with some of Hattie McDaniel’s assets. While the star must have had some impressive trinkets laying around, the most valuable one was also the most historic one. To help clear her debts with the IRS, McDaniel’s 1940 Oscar was sold off—but the sale sparked an enduring mystery.

45. Someone Stole Her Academy Award

At the time of her passing, Hattie McDaniel had bequeathed her legendary Academy Award to Howard University. Because of her back taxes, however, the award went instead to the highest bidder and disappeared. Years later, McDaniel’s Oscar reappeared in Howard University, where she wanted it to be all along…but the story doesn’t end there.

46. Students May Have Destroyed Her Legacy

The McDaniel Oscar then disappeared again. Sources at the time claimed that Hattie McDaniel’s famous Academy Award had been an unintended victim of the 1968 Howard University protests. The story goes that angry protesters removed the McDaniel Oscar from its place on display and threw it into the Potomac River. The truth, however, is likely quite different.

47. Her Oscar May Be Hidden in Plain Sight

The 1968 Howard University protests were covered negatively by the press of the time and the protesters were portrayed as hooligans. The disappearance of the McDaniel Oscar and the “Potomac River” theory added fuel to the fire of words. However, historians have revised the events and say it is unlikely that McDaniel’s Oscar was thrown into the Potomac. It is likelier collecting dust somewhere in Howard University’s storage.

Hattie McDaniel FactsShutterstock

48. Her Last Wish Was Denied

It wasn’t enough, apparently, that Hattie McDaniel faced near-constant discrimination during her life, but this didn’t finish even when she passed. McDaniel wanted to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, but this wasn’t to be. At the time of her passing, the cemetery was segregated and would not accept McDaniel’s remains.

49. Her Memory Lives on

In the end, Hattie McDaniel did manage to make it into Hollywood Cemetery…in spirit. The new owner of Hollywood Cemetery offered to have McDaniel’s remains relocated but McDaniel’s descendants chose not to disturb her grave. Instead, McDaniel was given a cenotaph near a small lake in Hollywood Cemetery that has become a major tourist attraction.

50. She Gave Her Husband a Disturbing Gift

McDaniel’s marriage to Williams was tempestuous, and that bad blood didn’t end when she passed, and she left behind a cruel tribute to him. In her will, McDaniel’s bequeathed to Larry Williams the grand sum of… $1. I really, really hope that he didn’t go and spend it all in one place…like Europe. More than likely, however, he spent that money on a date with another lover.

51. She’s Back In The Biz

When Ryan Murphy’s 2020 Netflix show Hollywood came out, Hattie McDaniel gained thousands of new fans. Queen Latifah portrayed the barrier-breaking actress and had choice words about her career: “Her story is an important story…Hattie McDaniel was gifted, but she was relegated to certain types of roles and when you have to decide between putting food on a table or playing a certain role, it is very difficult to make those decisions. And that’s the position a lot of Black actors were put in at that time … and that’s still been happening.” Well said.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

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