Saturday, June 13, 2015

Happy Birthday, Nina Mae McKinney! (Appreciation Post)

Today marks 103 (or 102, depending on your source) years since the birth of Hollywood's first black leading lady, Nina Mae McKinney.

Nina Mae McKinney was born Nannie Mayme McKinney on June 13, 1912 in Lancaster, South Carolina. Below are links to "everything Nina Mae McKinney" available online:

*Also, some sources list McKinney's birthday as June 12th*



1. Nina Mae McKinney made her screen debut in King Vidor's 1929 film, Hallelujah!. The role of "Chick" was the first leading role for a black woman in a Hollywood film. You can click here to watch Hallelujah! in its entirety on YouTube. 

2. McKinney received rave reviews for her performance in Hallelujah! but subsequent roles were limited and few. Her next role as a "Singer/Dancer" in the MGM short, Manhattan Serenade (1929). Then, in 1930, McKinney played the uncredited role of a singer in They Learned About Women.

*Manhattan Serenade was long thought to be a "lost film", but was found in 2014 and screened at the Film Forum in New York City on November 9, 2014. If you live in or near New York, you can catch a screening of it at the MoMA.*

3. McKinney's next (and more significant) role came with the 1931 Pre-Code gem, Safe in Hell. I've inserted two YouTube clips of our Star of the Month as "Leonie - the Hotel Manager":

[Clip 1 - Nina Mae McKinney introduces the song "Sleepy Time Down South"]

[Clip 2 - Gilda books a room in Leonie's hotel]

4. Nina Mae McKinney appeared in a couple of shorts in 1932--Passing the Buck and Pie, Pie Blackbird. You can watch Pie, Pie Blackbird below:

5. Like a lot of entertainers of color, Nina Mae McKinney would leave Hollywood to try a hand at success in Europe--and she was successful in her attempt! It was there that she was dubbed "the Black Garbo". Click here to watch a clip of her performing in a London nightclub.

6. McKinney's next major film appearance was alongside Paul Robeson in the London Film Production, Sanders of the River (1935). Watch the full movie on YouTube by clicking here.

7. Get a glimpse of Nina Mae McKinney in the 1935 film, Reckless (starring William Powell and Jean Harlow). The trailer for the film is below:

8. In 1936, McKinney made an uncredited appearance in The Lonely Trail and also appeared in the musical short, The Black Network:

You can find more of Nina Mae McKinney's film credits on IMDb. Below are two additional movie links (both leading to YouTube):

Nina Mae McKinney starred as "Isabelle Walton" in the Sack Amusement Enterprises pictures, The Devil's Daughter (1939).

Nina Mae McKinney played the role of "Rozelia" in Pinky (1949), a 20th Century Fox film.



Nina Mae McKinney introduced Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle" in Hallelujah!. Watch her lively performance of the tune below:

In the early 1930s (circa 1932), McKinney recorded a few songs with jazz pianist, Garland Wilson's accompaniment. Among the known recordings are "Rhapsody in Love" and "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day".

You can also hear Nina Mae sing "If You Want My Love, You Gotta Do More Than That". This song can also be heard The Big Broadcast, Volume 9.


Nina Mae McKinney: The Black Garbo
 is the first--and currently, the only--biography written about Nina Mae McKinney. It was written by famed biographer Stephen Bourne and published in 2011. Mr. Bourne himself has admitted that The Black Garbo wasn't his best work, but again, the biography is still is the first and only attempt at telling Nina Mae McKinney's life story, so far.

Other Books That Mention Nina Mae McKinney:

by Charlene B. Regester
(I had the pleasure of reading this book in college, it's a great read!)

by Frank Manchel

by Donald Bogle

In the Media

Magazine Articles

"A Jungle Lorelei" (Photoplay - July 1929)
Yep. That's the title. Writer Herbert Howe wrote an article on the 17 year old Nina Mae McKinney for the July 1929 issue of Photoplay magazine (a month before Hallelujah!'s theatrical release). Click with caution--the actual article gets no better than its title.

"Ex-actress Nina Mae McKinney trying to peddle her life story to a book publisher..." (Jet magazine - February 13, 1958)

Nina Mae McKinney to break in a new act on a USO tour of Japan... (Jet magazine - February 4, 1954)

Newspaper Articles

"Nina Mae McKinney Libeled in Nasty Magazine Article"

(The Afro American - March 29, 1930)

"Miss Nina Mae McKinney" 

(A photo of Nina Mae McKinney applying the last touches to her makeup in the July 27, 1935 issue of The Afro American)

"Nina Mae Tires of Playing "Hell-Cat" Roles, Now She's a Lady in Revue"

(The Afro American - September 7, 1935)

"A Talk With Nina Mae McKinney"
(The Age - September 25, 1937)

"Nina Mae McKinney, star of early theatre, buried"

(An obituary in the May 20, 1967 issue of The Afro American)

Interesting Finds

Did you know that Nina Mae McKinney was the leader of an orchestra at one point in her career? Read more about it in Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925-1950 by Barbara J. Kukla.

(From I'll Keep You Posted)

From Family Search:

Passenger List from Le Havre, France to New York (March 11, 1931)

As a child, Nina lived with her "Aunt Carrie" while her parents moved to New York. I believe this may be a record of who "Nannie Mayme" lived with as a kid. The woman of the house is listed as "Galie McKinney"--perhaps Carrie's name was accidentally heard as "Galie"?

McKinney was briefly married to trombonist Jimmy Monroe in the 1930s. This may be a record of their marriage.

Based on previously shared news articles, Nina Mae McKinney lived with her parents (specifically noted, her mother) for a long time. When her mother passed away in 1962, she was living with her. Here is a 1940 Census record that may list Nina as the "daughter" of James Maynor and Georgia Crawford. Many online sources state that Nina Mae's father was Hal McKinney, leading me to believe that her mother may have remarried at some point. 


I hope you find this appreciation post to be quite an educational one! Please, feel free to share!

Also, please check out Guest Blogger, HepClassic's, birthday tribute to Ms. Nina Mae McKinney: "Nina Mae McKinney: Vivacious Lady".

No comments:

Post a Comment

Rude comments will be deleted. Irrelevant comments will be ignored.