September 13, 1948– Nell Carter:
“You know what’s a cliché? A black woman serving pancakes to a white kid.”
Nell Carter was a series of contradictions and conundrums: Black, Southern, Jewish, Lesbian, Right-Wing Conservative. She was a giant talent in a tiny (4 foot 11 inch), if expansive frame. Those contradictions in Carter’s personality made her a unique performer. She possessed a little girl voice that was capable of belting to the back row of the balcony. An exponent of stomping Soul or Blues in the tradition of Dinah Washington and Bessie Smith, she could be quiet and heartbreaking singing Mean To Me, a ballad by Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk from 1929.
Carter had a mischievous sense of the comedic and she used it in both her singing and her acting styles. She was a big girl, but she was light and nimble on her feet. In the never to be forgotten television special Baryshnikov On Broadway (1980), she shimmied and shuffled, holding her own with the most famous dancer in the world to Honeysuckle Rose.
Carter first received a lot of attention from critics and fans with her Tony Award-winning performance in the musical revue of songs by and associated with Fats Waller, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978), where she stopped the show nightly. She also won a well-deserved Emmy Award in 1982 for her performance on a special television broadcast of the Broadway musical.
Carter got interested in cocaine during the run of Ain’t Misbehavin’. She later claimed that at one point, she was spending $2000 a day on drugs. In the mid-1980s her pal Liza Minnelli, like a shimmering, shiny guardian angel, personally accompanied Carter to rehab at Hazelden in Minnesota. Carter got clean, and she later said:
“Thank God I got help. God and Liza Minnelli.”
And I thought God was Liza Minnelli.
Carter was cast as Effie in the original production of director Michael Bennett‘s 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls based upon the showbiz dreams and triumphs of R&B acts like The Supremes and The Shirelles. She left the production just before rehearsals were to start to take a role on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. We all know how that turned out.
Carter starred for six seasons playing the “mammy” role to a white family on the off-putting, obnoxious and oddly popular prime time sitcom Gimme A Break!. The cast included a young and closeted Rosie O’Donnell, who fought with Carter on the set.
During a 1990 Los Angeles run of the moppet musical Annie, playing Miss Hannigan, Carter attempted suicide. Even though she had been given a brand new musical number added to the score just for her, she was distraught when ads promoting the show used a different actor, a white actor, as Miss Hannigan. The producers claimed that the commercials, which were made during an earlier production, were too costly to reshoot. Carter cried racism:
“Maybe they don’t want audiences to know Nell Carter is black.”
Carter lived a trouble filled life. Born Nell Ruth Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama, she began performing professionally when she was 11 years old on a weekly radio show in her hometown.
When she was 16, Carter was raped and became pregnant. She give birth to a daughter who was raised by her aunt. Carter moved to New York City when she was 19 years old and found work right away as a cabaret singer appearing at spots like Reno Sweeney’s and The Village Gate.
Carter had always wanted more family, but she experienced three miscarriages. She tried to adopt on two occasions; once the young woman changed her mind and once there was an attempt to get cash by extortionists, or something like that. In 1989, with her career in an upswing, she successfully adopted two baby boys within months of each other.
She tried to do well for her family, but Carter was dogged by drug and booze addictions; she had two divorces, and she twice had brain surgery to remove an aneurysm. During that time Carter learned she had diabetes. In the late 1980s, her brother died of HIV complications. Troubles aplenty, Carter twice declared bankruptcy.
She picked herself up, got sober again, and found a perfect role in a revival of the 1973 Tony Award winning Raisin, a musical adaptation of lesbian writer Lorraine Hansberry‘s play A Raisin In The Sun (1959). Just as rehearsals began in January 2003, Carter checked-out for good, taken by diabetes, heart disease and heartbreak. She was just 54 years old.
When she left this world, her friends and family were surprised to discover Carter had just $200 in her bank account. They were further shocked to discover that Carter had a female lover Ann Kaser, for more than 15 years, that they had lived as a couple and custody of her daughter and two sons had been left to Kaser.
The Husband and I saw Carter live on stage in Ain’t Misbehavin’ two times, on Broadway and on tour in Seattle, plus the television version. Her performance was astounding in skill and charisma. Her vocals were hair-raising. I remain a very big fan.