Anita Reynolds, born in 1901, was “a smart, upper-class, sexually unrepentant black woman at a time when there was precious little model for that.” So writes Patricia Williams in her Foreword to Reynolds’s remarkable memoir, which we’ve just published as American Cocktail: A “Colored Girl” in the World. The memoir—discovered by the literary scholar George Hutchinson in the Howard University archives and never before published—recounts Reynolds’s repeated flouting of boundaries national, racial, social, and sexual; the great many people she met around the world; and all the fun she had along the way. Reynolds’s own Foreword, a quick outlining of the full story she’ll tell, is below.
I scarcely noticed the group of German tourists sitting at the table next to mine on the hotel terrace overlooking the Caribbean until one of them leaned over to me and asked in English: “How long did it take you to get that wonderful tan?”
I gave out just the slightest sigh and answered by rote: “About four generations.”
My questioner turned back to his companions and translated. In the ensuing conversation, I thought I heard the word “Nigger” tossed about.
At that particular time, I was fuming over calls to impeach the black United States ambassador to the United Nations for daring to suggest that our country was less than ideal in its handling of human rights issues here, and I was not in any mood to tolerate any racist remarks.
However, I bit my tongue and said nothing; they were, after all, guests at my husband’s hotel. But it did enter my mind to tell them of the fate of the last white man who called my father “Nigger.” He was killed by a blow from a shoe.
The mind wanders to pleasanter times. Paris in the ’30s. Montparnasse and St.-Germain-des-Prés, where the artists and writers flocked in never-ending numbers. I was an asteroid then, in orbit about the brilliant stars: Breton, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Max Ernst, James Joyce, Hemingway, Carlos Williams. Perhaps, I thought, some of their genius would rub off on me. Perhaps a word of encouragement.
Moments savored: Man Ray suggesting a career in stage; Matisse sketching my portrait; Picasso asking me about my experiences in the Spanish Civil War. If the truth be told, I believed my only talent to be that which had been uncovered in an aptitude test a few years earlier at Columbia Teachers College—an ability to recognize spatial relationships. Not much call for that. Still, that did not stop me from trying to imitate those about me, and there were triumphs.
An article in The Messenger reviewing a new F. Scott Fitzgerald work from the point of view of a flapper won for me an invitation to visit the author’s Long Island home, an invitation I must confess I had little interest in accepting. (My friends were upper class Negroes and the Greenwich Village crowd which included Eugene O’Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The newly rich Irish and arriving Southamptoners in the mid ’20s did not attract me at all; rather dull and unintelligent, I’d heard.)
Then there had been my work in clay, and dancing with Denishawn and Norma Gould, whose devotion to the “Greek” style of barefoot dancing made famous by Isadora Duncan led me to be hired as an exotic-type extra (earning $10 a day) in such Hollywood epics as The Thief of Bagdad and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I was also cast as the “star” of the first black-produced movies made at that time.
It is true I was encouraged to write the history of my family by William Aspenwall Bradley, editor and agent for most of the English-speaking writers in Paris, but life was too short then to invest the time and concentrated effort to develop this or any of my talents. Rather, I contented myself with enjoying the wit and beauty surrounding me. And on occasion, the star-gazer would be elevated to the upper stratosphere when photographer / artist Man Ray would ask me to join him for lunch at La Closerie des Lilas, or when sitting with André Derain, listening to him speak of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Botticelli as if he had lived and worked among them.
The scene fades and reality intrudes as the German tourists get up to leave. No, best not say anything now. Save it for another time.
This story is another time. It is a distillation of my memories of growing up a “colored girl” in the United States, Europe and North Africa. It is the people I have known and the sights I have seen. The facts are as I recall them and may sometimes differ from the way others might remember. This is the nature of memory, and I make no apologies for mine.