Trailblazing Facts About Hattie McDaniel, The Hollywood Pioneer

Brendan Da Costa

Beyond her Oscar-winning role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind, Hattie McDaniel’s life had more epic drama than her famous movie could ever hope to match. A Hollywood outsider who had to fight tooth and nail for everything she had, McDaniel still ruled among the silver screen elite—and endured just as many scandals and tragedies, right until her bitter end.


Hattie McDaniel Facts

1. She Was A Survivor

When Hattie McDaniel stole the show in Gone With The Wind, it seemed like she had burst into Hollywood fully formed. But her beginnings were tragic and soul-crushing. Her mother, Susan, gave birth to a total of 13 children, but only seven—with Hattie as the youngest—survived. And even so, it was barely. The family was so poor that the malnourished baby Hattie weighed just over three pounds.

It was a hard life for Hattie from the start, but she had a plan that would change everything.

2. She Wanted To Be A Star

From the beginning, McDaniel knew she was a star. She sang and danced so much as a child, her poor mother would nonetheless “give me a nickel sometimes to stop.” It quite literally paid off: By the time she was in her early 20s, Hattie founded The McDaniel Sisters Company minstrel show with her sister Etta. And while the show might seem small-fry, it produced the one huge thing.

3. She Earned Her Fame Early

As a performer, McDaniel had a signature statuesque-yet-nimble quality, and she knew just what to do with it. After long years producing her own minstrel shows, she came up with an idea that made her famous. She began perfecting a kooky persona that closely resembled her future character “Mammy” from Gone With the Wind. But before that film, McDaniel had a heart-wrenching twist coming up.

4. She Was A Teenage Bride

If McDaniel started her career young, she also got a head start on romance. In 1911, when she was still 18 years old, Hattie married Howard Hickman. Yet like so much else in her life, her first marriage was destined for heartbreak. Hickman died just four years after the wedding, leaving McDaniel a painfully young widow. And life wasn’t done hurting her.

5. She Had Bad Luck

Soon after losing her husband, McDaniel’s life took a turn for the absolute worst. Her brother Otis passed in 1916, leaving her troupe penniless. Suddenly McDaniel had to scrimp for the barest of supporting roles. She even made a leap into radio, performing several sessions for Paramount records. It was enough for while…until the bottom dropped out.

6. Her Husband Died Violently

In 1922, the eternally optimistic McDaniel gave herself another chance at love and married George Langford. It had a horrific outcome. Just as McDaniel started gaining more ground in her career, her second husband died before his due, this time of a gunshot wound and after only three years of marriage. How could this get worse? Well…

7. She Lost Everything

In 1929, Hattie McDaniel’s life took another terrifying nosedive; the stock market crash turned her nascent entertainment career into dust overnight. The very day it happened, McDaniel had been working the chorus in legendary entertainer Florenz Ziegfeld’s tour of Show Boat, which was currently in Milwaukee. And when Ziegfeld got the news, he was not kind.

8. Her Job Literally Abandoned Her

In the blink of an eye, Show Boat had no more money to pay its entertainers. Accordingly, it dropped most of them—McDaniel included—from the program. Oh, but it gets worse than that. The show didn’t even have enough money to send the performers home, which is how McDaniel found herself stranded in the middle of Milwaukee with not a penny to her name. And desperate times really called for desperate measures.

9. She Groveled For Work

With nowhere to go and in desperate need of some income, McDaniel had to make a heartbreaking decision. She stuffed down her pride and her massive talents and took up work as a bathroom attendant in the nightclub Club Madrid. It was one of the only jobs she could actually find, but McDaniel soon proved how much everyone had underestimated her.

10. She Had A Cinderella Story

While McDaniel worked the stalls, she was really waiting for her chance. One night, it finally came. All of the club’s singers went home early, and they needed one more act before closing. McDaniel jumped on the opportunity, polishing off her version of “St. Louis Blues.” The crowd—and her co-workers—went wild, and the boss hired her on the spot. But bigger, better things were on the horizon.

11. She Took A Huge Chance

Two years later, the Great Depression hit and Club Madrid closed for good—but Hattie McDaniel had learned her lessons well and stayed way ahead of the curve. She took her savings and hopped on a bus to Hollywood, sure that the burgeoning film industry needed her talents. But her plan was risky, and she got one rude awakening.

12. She Had A Double Life

Soon after McDaniel arrived in Los Angeles, she took up more work in a series of sassy maid characters, most famously on the radio as “Hi-Hat Hattie.” But the whole time, she was hiding a secret. Her salary on these jobs was pitifully low; too low to earn a full living. As a result, she often worked as a real maid behind the scenes. Little did McDaniel know, though, this was her key to stardom.

13. She Won A Legendary Role

In 1937, all of Hollywood was eyeing the casting for producer David O. Selznick’s upcoming film Gone With the Wind. Every white woman wanted the role of Scarlett O’Hara, every white man wanted to be Rhett Butler, and every Black woman was throwing her hat in the ring to play the lady’s maid Mammy. By now, we know that McDaniel won the part—but few people know the whole story of just how she did it.

14. Eleanor Roosevelt Saw Her As Competition

The competition for Mammy was so tough, McDaniel developed a famous adversary while going for the role. None other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned to have her own maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, in the part, and she wrote to David O. Selznick personally about her totally objective pick. Yet McDaniel had a trick up her sleeve.

15. She Had Friends In High Places

McDaniel hadn’t spent decades in show business without making friends, and her powerful pals came through for her when it counted. While some stories claim that Clark Gable, who nabbed the part of Rhett Butler, put in a good word for her, others say McDaniel’s brother Sam called in his buddy Bing Crosby to bend Selznick’s ear and cast her.

Whatever the truth, though, McDaniel’s audition—where she walked in with a real maid’s uniform—cinched the deal. And then the trouble started.

16. Fans Turned On Her

Getting a part in Gone With the Wind was a dream come true a first for McDaniel. She soon found out it was a nightmare. Many Black activists criticized her for only taking on servant roles and not advancing the image of Black people as able to perform many roles. McDaniel’s pert response? “I can be a maid for $7 a week, or I can play a maid for $700 a week.” Still, no money in the world was going to fix the tense set of the period epic.

17. She Was In A Hellish Production

The shooting of Gone With the Wind was notoriously troubled. Before three weeks were up, Selznick had already fired the first director and hired another, and another third director would come on before filming finished. McDaniel and the rest of the cast, meanwhile, had to work long hours in itchy, hot costumes. Is it any surprise it reached a boiling point?

18. She Bonded With Her Cast

While on set, McDaniel and the rest of her Black crew members mostly got through it by cheering each other on during the interminable days, with many gathering to applaud after key scenes wrapped. But when it came to McDaniel’s relationship with her co-star Butterfly McQueen, who played the much less flashy maid Prissy, all politeness broke down.

19. Her Co-Star Caused Trouble

While McDaniel became a studio ally for the racial politics of the film, saying in an official press release, “There is nothing in this picture that will injure colored people,” Butterfly McQueen had no such hopes for the movie. One day, she began to get her revenge. First, McQueen started intentionally tripping up her lines…and then she went for the main cast.

20. She Witnessed A Scandalous Slap

During one scene, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara had to slap McQueen in character. But when the white actress went a little too method on the strike, McQueen decided she’d had enough. Tired of playing an obedient servant both on-screen and off, McQueen demanded that Leigh apologize. As tensions rose, McDaniel had to step in with an infamous intervention.

21. She Gave Risky Advice

Butterfly McQueen claims that in the moments following her outburst, McDaniel found her and tried to talk her down. But her words were controversial. Still loyal to the idea of the film, McDaniel advised McQueen not to stir up any trouble, telling her “You’ll never come back to Hollywood; you complain too much.” Yet for all the faith McDaniel put in the Hollywood system, it still tragically betrayed her.

22. She Stole The Show

As production finished on Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick made one enormous realization. Hattie McDaniel and her Mammy were completely mesmerizing, and practically stealing the show from Clark Gable’s Rhett and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. While this might have been a good thing for some films, it nearly spelled doom for Gone With the Wind.

23. The Studio Banned Her From Her Own Premiere

With Hattie McDaniel hitting home runs on every scene, Selznick had a huge problem: The film’s premiere was in Atlanta, and the state of Georgia didn’t want any of the film’s many Black actors to attend the gala and flout their segregation laws. When Selznick tried to finagle an exception for McDaniel, the studio balked and refused to back him. When word got back to the cast, something strange happened.

24. Clark Gable Fought For Her

McDaniel still had tons of friends in the industry, including the Gone With the Wind’s lead Clark Gable. When he heard the ridiculous news that McDaniel couldn’t attend her own premiere, he reportedly tried to boycott it himself. Indeed, the story goes that it was McDaniel who had to convince him to attend, again not to cause a fuss. Nonetheless, there was quite a fuss.

25. She Got An Historic Telegram

Although the premiere went on without McDaniel, she was far from forgotten on the night. Immediately after, the author of the Gone With the Wind novel, Margaret Mitchell, sent the star a telegram about the premiere that read “Wish you could have heard the applause.” Well, McDaniel might have been playing the good girl for now—but she wasn’t going to play for long.

26. Hollywood Couldn’t Keep Her Out

A little over a week after the premiere of Gone With the Wind, Hattie McDaniel got her triumphant revenge. On December 28, 1939, McDaniel was front and center at the Hollywood debut of the film, and Selznick had even made sure that her face was smack dab in the middle of the program (though he’d erase it in future promotional materials). Then came McDaniel’s real triumph.

27. She Was The First

After the release of the film, the Academy Awards nominated McDaniel for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Mammy. This was electrifying. After all, McDaniel was the first Black person—not just actress—to even be nominated for an Oscar, ever. Sure, that says a lot about white society, but it also says a lot about just how riveting McDaniel was on screen. Tragically, the Oscars were nowhere near prepared for her.

28. She Dressed For Success

Oscar night that year was on February 29, 1940, at the famous Coconut Grove restaurant in Los Angeles. When McDaniel walked into the room, jaws dropped. The “maid” had turned into a Cinderella and wore, as gossip columnist Louella Parsons described, her “hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste.” But the best was yet to come.

29. Her Oscars Speech Brought The House Down

That night, when the Best Supporting Actress category came up, they announced “Hattie McDaniel.” Yes, against all odds, McDaniel was now the first Black actor to win an Oscar. With tears in her eyes, McDaniel ended her short speech by saying, “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.” But this was not the end of her story (or, as we’ll see, her Oscar night)…though she might have wished it was.

30. She Was In The Lonely Hearts Club

Throughout the 1930s, McDaniel had concentrated almost solely on her career, and with her Oscar in hand, she finally turned once more to romance in the 1940s. After meeting real estate agent James Lloyd Crawford, she married him in March 1941 and hoped a loving family life would follow their nuptials. Oh, if only that was the case.

31. She Started A Rumor

McDaniel had spent a lifetime building herself up, and now she climbed even higher than before. Then in 1945, she divulged an unbelievable secret. She hinted to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that, at the age of 51, she and her husband James Crawford were expecting a child at last. Suddenly, McDaniel went into overdrive.

32. She Prepared For A Miracle

After a lifetime of focusing on professional concerns, McDaniel threw herself into the role of mother with abandon. She started buying piles of baby clothes and began decorating a room in her house as a nursery. She and Crawford awaited more news of the baby with bated breath, but as the weeks went by, McDaniel got a small, dark feeling in the pit of her stomach.

33. She Suffered A Horrific Pregnancy

As the days wore on and no further signs of her baby appeared, McDaniel knew something was seriously wrong. When disaster struck, it was devastating. She realized with horror that she had actually gone through a rare “false pregnancy,” where all signs point to a baby coming, but there’s nothing there at all. The actress was absolutely shattered—and nothing in her life was the same again.

34. Trauma Broke Apart Her Marriage

When McDaniel could finally accept that she wasn’t going to have a child, she fell into a deep depression and could no longer face her own marriage. The very same year she tore down her nursery, she divorced James Crawford and tried to strike out again on her own. Still, there may have been an even more sinister reason behind their Hollywood split.

35. Her Husband Was Jealous Of Her

In the wake of her divorce, McDaniel made a disturbing confession. She claimed that it wasn’t the loss of her anticipated child that drove them apart, but the fact that Crawford, still a modest realtor, had been jealous of her success and couldn’t take the enormity of her career. Whatever the reason, McDaniel threw herself back into work in the wake of her breakup.

Before long, she was starring as another sassy housekeeper in the hit radio show Beulah. Then she met the man that would throw the last wrench into her love life. And it was a big one.

36. She Had A Quickie Wedding

In the summer of 1949, the working McDaniel met Larry Williams, an interior designer, and fell into a whirlwind relationship. By that June, they were married, and McDaniel thought again that this time, at long last, it would all work out for her. After all, she had a hit show, loads of money coming in, and a new man on her arm. Except, the cracks started showing fast.

37. Her Marriage Imploded

Just five months after marrying Williams, McDaniel filed for divorce. In the days after, the breakup got bitter. In front of the divorce court, McDaniel testified that they had spent their time together “arguing and fussing.” Obviously, that’s not great, but it didn’t seem like grounds for divorce…until McDaniel broke down into sobs and revealed the rest of the story.

38. She Was In A Perverse Relationship

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.

39. She Shed Pounds The Wrong Way

According to the woman herself, Hattie McDaniel was “a real hearty eater.” That is, until she met Larry Williams. The pair’s marital problems affected McDaniel in an utterly brutal way. McDaniel completely lost her appetite and in just two weeks, she lost about 12 pounds. Pounds weren’t the only thing that Williams cost her, however…

40. She Was A Sugar Mama

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 as to ask 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!” But she wasn’t rid of him that easily.

41. Her Husband Used Her

Asking for 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.”

But the final straw came when Williams actively tried to ruin her career.

42. Her Husband Terrified Her

According to the actress, Williams was one insidious piece of work, and while they were together he tried to tear down her work, particularly stirring up trouble among her castmates on Beulah. It was so awful, McDaniel confessed, “I got so I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate on my lines.” McDaniel was 0 for 4 on good marriages, and sadly, she would never get another chance at love.

43. She Was A Controversial Star

Around the time of her divorce, McDaniel found out that she was going to star in the television version of Beulah. Yet this was a double-edged sword. She was actually replacing her friend and neighbor Ethel Waters in the title role of the show, and Waters had dropped out because she didn’t like the racial stereotypes the show perpetuated.

Even worse, Waters wasn’t alone: The US Army refused to even broadcast the show out of fear that it demoralized their Black members. And that wasn’t all.

44. She Had A Professional Nemesis

For better or worse, Hattie McDaniel’s legacy was still one of playing the “help,” and many Black actors and activists continued to criticize her for it. In particular, McDaniel had a long-standing feud with NAACP leader Walter White, who preferred more ostensibly progressive, more socially-conscious (and, often, lighter-skinned) stars like Lena Horne over McDaniel. But McDaniel had her own legendary response to this.

45. She Put Her Haters In Their Place

McDaniel may have built a Hollywood reputation on “not complaining,” but she knew how to stand up for herself when it counted. She dealt her haters a stunning blow. When White held a convention with prominent Black actors, including not just Lena Horne but Hattie’s brother Sam McDaniel, Hattie point-blank refused to attend. Um, and she did it with style.

46. She Had An Iconic Comeback

After years of being pigeon-holed as a “simple” Black woman, McDaniel had no problem letting her rapier wit show for Walter White. In her letter declining his invitation, she wrote that it was impossible for her to come to see White, “for he has openly insulted my intelligence.” She then added, “God has endowed me with other talents, which Walter White and no other persons know nothing of, and they are not menial as he has said.” Shots. Fired.

Even so, McDaniel also knew White was not her worst enemy—and she saved her best for her real rivals.

47. She Was The Queen Of Sugar Hill

Despite her reputation for playing maids, McDaniel’s personal life was downright glamorous. In 1942, she bought a sprawling, 17-room mansion in the neighborhood that became known as “Sugar Hill” or “The Black Beverly Hills.” McDaniel’s close friend and fellow actress Lena Horne called it “the most exquisite house I had ever seen in my life.” Then McDaniel filled the house with very scandalous goings-on.

48. She Knew How To Throw A Party

Like any diva worth her salt, McDaniel loved throwing lavish parties for her friends, and the likes of Horne, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Paul Robeson drifted through her wide hallways, drinks in hand, with zero attention paid to any color lines. McDaniel, meanwhile, could often be found swanning about her party palace with her Dalmatian dogs at her heels, the picture of Hollywood glamour.

Yet once more, it was about to all came crashing down.

49. She Was Fierce

Shortly after McDaniel bought her house in Sugar Hill, the rich white residents around the neighborhood did what they always do: They started complaining about property values now that people who looked different from them were moving in. McDaniel’s response was breathtaking. Using all of her charm, she organized against her unfriendly neighbors, collecting close-by luminaries like Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers in the process. Then she shut down their claims in the court of law.

Better than all that, McDaniel’s moves were, according to her biographer Jill Watts, the beginning of “the end of such residential segregation throughout the United States.” But McDaniel had no such happy ending.

50. Her Health Began To Fail

At the beginning of the 1950s, things were once more looking up for Hattie McDaniel. But she should have known by then that this only meant trouble was on the way—and this time, she couldn’t get out of it. After filming only a few episodes for her controversial television series Beulah, McDaniel started to feel sick and went to a doctor. They gave her news that made her blood run cold.

51. She Died Young

According to the medics, McDaniel had breast cancer, and there wasn’t much they could do to lengthen her life. In 1952, she succumbed to the illness at the age of just 59. Her passing released an outpouring of love, as thousands of fans, friends, and other mourners attended her funeral. According to the specifications in her will, McDaniel was buried in a white casket with a white shroud—plus one more heartbreaking detail.

52. She Had A Beautiful Last Wish

One of McDaniel’s other demands was that there were “white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket.” Although this seems oddly specific, there was an incredible reason for this. McDaniel had famously worn gardenias in her hair and on her dress the night she won her Academy Award. Still, this claim to fame didn’t save her from one last brutal betrayal.

53. Hollywood Betrayed Her

Although McDaniel’s estate did its best to follow her wishes, one of her requests was impossible to grant. The actress had requested that in addition to the gardenias, her executors bury her in the famous Hollywood Forever Cemetery. However, at the time—like so much else in McDaniel’s life—the cemetery was segregated, and she had to settle for her second choice, Rosedale.

54. She May Have Had An Affair With A Starlet

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 bi.

55. Her Oscar Is Missing

In her will, McDaniel also left her Oscar plaque to Howard University, the historically Black college in Washington, D.C. But this was no easy task. First, because she owed debts, the IRS claimed her Oscar. Then, although the award eventually made it to Howard, the plaque disappeared in the 1960s or 1970s. It’s missing to this day.

But McDaniel didn’t just leave us with a mystery. She also left the world with one last laugh.

56. She Gave Her Husband A Disturbing Gift

McDaniel’s marriage to Larry Williams was tempestuous, and that bad blood didn’t end when she passed. She left behind a cruel tribute to him. In her will, McDaniel 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. More than likely, however, he spent that money on a date with another lover.

57. Clark Gable Loved To Tease Her

Hattie McDaniel and Clark Gable had a lifelong friendship, but the details of their relationship are still relatively unknown today. Although Gable famously threatened to boycott the Gone With the Wind premiere for McDaniel, he also had a lighter side when it came to his pal. One day on the set of Gone With the Wind, he swapped out iced tea in a decanter for real brandy, then watched McDaniel take a big swig while filming a scene. What are friends for, right?

58. Her Big Night Was A Huge Sham

When we look back now on McDaniel’s historic evening at the Academy Awards, we tend to see only the good. But the truth about her Oscar win is much more disturbing. For one, the Coconut Grove had a strictly “no Blacks” policy, and they only let McDaniel in as a “favor,” insultingly enough. But if you think that’s infuriating, just wait for what happened once McDaniel got past the front doors.

59. Hollywood Ostracized Her

As it turned out, just getting into Coconut Grove was only half the battle. To “accommodate” McDaniel, the venue had segregated the ballroom, meaning that she had to sit entirely apart from her Gone With the Wind castmates, with her only other companion at the table being her white agent William Meiklejohn. And guess what? THERE WAS MORE.

60. Her Cast Dropped Her

The actual Oscars ceremony treated Hattie McDaniel disgracefully, but that was nothing compared to the hours afterward. See, McDaniel’s idiot castmates had decided to celebrate at a “no Blacks” club for the afterparty, and this time the actress was denied entry entirely.  So there McDaniel was, Oscar in hand and nowhere to go.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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