The dancing seal shared a bill with Florence at the Hippodrome in 1925

Florence Mills trivia: everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask

When I was writing my Florence Mills book I wanted to put in every detail I found, a sort of Florence Mills encyclopedia. Wiser heads advised me Florence's story would be lost in a flood of information overload, so a lot of things came out. However, the Internet is the home of information overload and I can do what I like on my own website, so here it all is. You can either scroll down or follow the book marks (links) below to take you to the items, and use your browser's "Back" button to return as you wish.


    
Her baby grand piano

    Other Florence Millses 

   Literary links

Cartoons

Documents
   
Death report & Funeral

 

 

Her baby grand piano

One of Florence's proudest possessions was her Baby Grand piano. When she and Kid Thompson moved into their new home in Harlem in 1924 they were looking for a haven of respite from the grueling life of traveling on the road with her shows. They furnished it lavishly,  with carpets imported from China and a music box that played records without rewinding. “Quite the finest music box in Harlem,” according to singer Jules Bledsoe. Pride of place went to the beautiful Steinway Grand piano, a Model M, in mahogany with a brown art lacquer finish. The Steinway Company delivered it on February 7. Thanks to Professor Robin Kelley (noted historian and Thelonious Monk expert) we have the following information about Florence's specific Steinway: "serial #222258 Grand M 5ft 7inch Mahogany with a brown art lacquer finish.  It was completed at the Steinway factory in Queens on January 31, 1924."  Here is what it would have looked like:

Here is how the Steinway company advertised it at the time (ironically this ad is copied from the reverse side of the page on which the Philadelphia Record reported Florence's death):

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Other Florence Millses

Despite the relative neglect since her death there is little doubt that when the name Florence Mills is mentioned today it refers to the great Black entertainer but it wasn't always so. Others who had their moments of fame include:


The White Florence Mills

The horse Florence Mills
 Florence Mills, cellist
The mills at Florence

 

 

White Florence Mills

In 1919 when the Black Florence Mills was on the road out west, struggling for recognition as one of the Panama Trio, her White namesake was enjoying success in a major Broadway role in the sensationally successful musical Irene , which featured the ever popular song "Alice Blue Gown." She later played the lead role, Irene, in the road production (also played by Debbie Reynolds in the 1973 revival) and was active in burlesque productions up to at least 1926. Though eclipsed by her Black namesake in later years, she had a long successful career in burlesque theatre from as early as 1909, playing with many leading burlesquers like Fred Irwin with his Gibson Girls, and Frank Finney. Like the Black Florence Mills, she was considered a good singer, dancer, and comedienne. She appears to have made one brief film appearance, as Bride 9, in the not very successful (and presumed lost) 15-part thriller serial Bride 13 (1920).


White Florence Mills, as she appeared in "The Great Behman Show" circa. 1911

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The Horse Florence Mills


From cover of "The Thoroughbred Record" Lexington, Kentucky May 1, 1926

When veteran Black showman Sherman H. Dudley retired from managing his theater chain, he settled on a farm in Maryland to breed thoroughbreds as a hobby. In tribute to his most admired entertainers, he called two of his horses "Florence Mills" and "Harry Wills," (after the famous Black boxer). Florence, a bay mare born in 1923, was christened by her human namesake and went on to a career almost as sparkling. Her track record for  1926 was a stunning: eleven first, eight second, and three third places in thirty-four starts. Her prize money for that year totaled $15,770. Over a four-year racing career the mare won $42,374 (over half a million in today’s dollars). Her win in the prestigious Ashland Oaks, Lexington,  in 1926 was worth $3,359 and was significant enough to put the horse on the front cover of Thoroughbred Record (see above) with jockey Edward Legere. Legere rode four winners at the Lexington event and was a successful local jockey, although his best run in the Kentucky Derby was sixth place in 1925. Sadly for Florence the horse actually outlived her. Here is it's career record:

                      RACE RECORD USA AND CANADA                           

YEAR

AGE

STARTS

1ST

2ND

3RD

USA$

1925

2

16

4

3

3

4,784

1926

3

34

11

8

3

15,770

1927

4

32

10

9

2

11,355

1928

5

19

5

1

2

10,465

TOTALS

 

101

30

21

10

42,374

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Florence Mills, cellist

Little is known of this charming young lady beyond what can be gleaned from the University of Iowa Libraries site on which pictures of Miss Mills and her fellow concert performers can be seen. Perhaps someone somewhere may know something about her later career?

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The Mills at Florence

If you search for Florence Mills-related items on the Internet, sooner or later you will encounter the Florence mills at the town of  Forest City, North Carolina. Built in 1897, just a year after the birth of our Florence Mills, they were named after Florence Haynes, daughter of their original owner- builder, Raleigh Rutherford Haynes. Shut down in 2001, they are now the property of the town of Forest City and subject of a community redevelopment project. Their history and more pictures can be seen at the link above.

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Literary links

During the Nineteen Twenties Florence Mills was such a household name and iconic figure it's not surprising she appears in many  biographical memoirs of the era but she also crops up as a character in quite a few novels and fictional works. Many contain just passing references but others are more substantial. Below is a listing of  those I know about with some comment on content.  I will be happy to add to the list on receipt of new information.

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh)

Evelyn Waugh lived through the Twenties as an associate of the Oxford Set and The Bright Young People, who epitomized the Jazz Age in England. His diaries reveal that he was irritated by the admiration his friends expressed for Black entertainers. Nevertheless, he went to see Florence Mills perform several times and met her socially at fashionable soirees. When he came to write his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited years later, he included her as a character (Book 2, Chapter 3, page 233-236 in my 1981 Penguin edition, Pages 195-197 for the English edition, and 202-205 for the American edition, used by the Companion site linked above). Chronologically he places the incident described as during the 1926 General Strike but Florence and the Blackbirds didn't  reach London from Paris till well after the strike was over.

The character Anthony Blanche in Brideshead is generally believed to be a composite of Harold Acton and Brian Howard, both of whom were fervent admirers of Florence.  Acton organized a party for her and the Blackbirds troupe at Oxford.

In 1981 the BBC made a superb TV adaptation of Brideshead. At one point, where a hand puts a record on a turntable and the characters dance, the music is "Smilin' Joe" by Florence's Plantation Orchestra, recorded in London 1926 (though the scene is set in 1923-24 ). The Black singer in the 1926 scene bears no physical resemblance to Florence and  sings "Bye Bye Blackbird" not "I'm a Little Blackbird." but apart from these picky details it's a wonderful series.

 

Tit For Tat (Harold Acton)

In 1972, long after he had organized Florence's Oxford visit, Harold Acton wrote a book of short stories called Tit For Tat, which included a story titled "The Machine is Broken Down", satirizing the mania for lionizing Black entertainers that gripped London in the Twenties, including the sentence:

[Parties] had become much of a muchness, whether in fancy dress or traditional costume, until Florence Mills and the Blackbirds took London by storm.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos)

Remembered nowadays more for the 1953 Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell movie this was a 1925 novel by Hollywood writer Loos. The central character Lorelei Lee is a ditzy crazy-like-a-fox dumb blonde brilliantly portrayed by Monroe in the movie. On Page 31 (of the Vintage Books paperback edition) Lorelei passes up a chance to meet Florence Mills, saying:

So the famous playwright friend of mine who is called Sam called up this morning and he wanted me to go to a literary party tonight that he and some other literary gentlemen are giving to Florence Mills in Harlem but Gerry does not want me to go with Sam as Sam always insists on telling riskay stories. But personally I am quite broad minded and I always say that I do not mind a riskay story as long as it is really funny. I mean I have a great sense of humor. But Gerry says Sam does not always select and choose his stories and he just as soon I did not go out with him. So I am going to stay home and read the book by Mr Cellini instead, because, after all, the only thing I am really interested in , is improving my mind.

In real life Anita Loos met Florence often. They both traveled to Europe on the same ship in 1926. In my book I speculate that the "famous playwright" is based on Samson Raphaelson, author of the play The Jazz Singer (on which the first sound movie was based), who was a fervent Florence Mills admirer and a friend of Loos. However, in one of her memoirs Loos describes being at a cocktail party to which writer and critic George Jean Nathan brought Florence, and she sang Gershwin songs accompanied by George Gershwin at the piano, so maybe that's the event Lorelei didn't go to .

 

 

Nigger Heaven (Carl Van Vechten)

Although the Harlem Renaissance is renowned for the high quality literary output it produced from Black writers, it was a White writer who produced one of its most sensational books. Carl Van Vechten was a wealthy  socialite with a strong admiration for Black culture, which he strongly supported and promoted. He intended his Nigger Heaven as a sympathetic but realistic portrayal of Harlem but the use of the offensive N-word ( a reference to the upper gallery of theatres where Black audiences were segregated) gave offense to many who hadn't read it. Many of the characters in the book are lightly disguised depictions of public figures in Harlem e.g. Lasca Sartoris is Nora Holt Ray, Randolph Pettijohn was the real-world Caspar Holstein, 'Numbers game" king and philanthropist. Florence Mills is one of the few Harlem public figures mentioned under her own name in the book. She refused a generous financial offer to review it and disliked it, not because of its title but because she considered it's lead characters to be weak people who did not represent her race truly, probably having particularly in mind the male lead Byron Kasson. An extended discussion of the issues raised by Nigger Heaven can be found at "Nigger Heaven and the Harlem Renaissance" (Robert F. Worth, African American Review. Fall 1995. 29(3):461-473), which can be accessed in many libraries via JSTOR

 

 

Various assorted

Nella Larsen was one of the best known writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  Quicksand, her first novel, largely autobiographical, has a passage about the ambivalence of Black middle class attitudes:

"But she aped their clothes, their manners, and their gracious ways of living. While proclaiming loudly the undiluted good of all things Negro, she yet disliked the songs, the dances, and the softly blurred speech of the race. Toward these things she showed only a disdainful contempt, tinged sometimes with a faint amusement. Like the despised people of the white race, she preferred Pavlova to Florence Mills, John McCormack to Taylor Gordon, Walter Hampden to Paul Robeson."

Angus Wilson, English novelist, in the short story "Rex Imperator" from his collection Such Darling Dodos, has one of his characters respond to the suggestion that music hall star Marie Lloyd was one of the most generous entertainers:

'Well, of course,' she said, 'I'm not old enough to remember much about Marie Lloyd, but I'm sure no actress can have been more generous than Florence Mills. What a wonderful show that was! Of course, there's no doubt that the coloured people have us completely beaten where dancing is in question. You remember Blackbirds, Rex,' she said, turning to her brother 'or you ought to, we all went together that evening Hugh was so squiffy.'

Rebecca West, feminist, writer, sometime lover of H. G. Wells, wrote a short story for the American market  in 1930, "Lucky Boy" ( originally published in The World's Best Short Stories of 1930 and reprinted in The Only Poet Virago Press, 1992) in which a White entertainer talks about her life in 1924:

"Well, we were both just crazy on Florence Mills, and that's when she use to be at the old Plantation. Were you ever at the old Plantation before it was padlocked? It was a swell place. And that second show Florence Mills used to give, round about half after two, was just grand. Jim used to take me along there after the show two or three times a week."

Herbert Simmons is an admired African American novelist  whose book Man Walking on Eggshells (1962) is a well written story of a Miles Davis-like musician's struggle to rise from his Depression slum background. The book opens with the hero's birth day as follows:

"And the blues descended like a dull slate sky wrapping around a mountaintop. All over the country the blues descended, all across the nation as the news got around. Florence Mills, symbol for aspirations among ten million people, was dead.
        Darkness rolled into St Louis with the news. Darkness drowned the sun in the sky and washed activity from the streets below. The city stabbed at the darkness with feeble glowing streetlights and rivers of silence flowed from the wound."

Henry Miller, notorious for the sexual content of some of his work, is nevertheless a highly regarded literary figure of the Twentieth Century. He included Florence Mills in a long list of names of iconic figures in his book Black Spring, of which the following is an extract:
"Cab Calloway, Elaine Hammerstein, Kid Mc Coy, Ben Ami, Ouida, Peck's Bad Boy, Patti, Eugene V. Debs, Delaware & Lackawana, Carlo Tresca, Chuck Connors, George Ade, Emma Goldman, Sitting Bull, Paul Dessler, Child's, Hubert's Museum, The Bum, Florence Mills, the Alamo, Peacock Alley, Pomander Walk, The Gold Rush, Sheepshead Bay, Strangler Lewis, Mimi Aguglia, The Barber Shop Chord, Bobby Walthour, Painless Parker, Mrs. Leslie Carter, The Police Gazette"

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed is a book which defies description. It deals with the anarchic phenomenon  of "Jes Grew" (presumably after Topsy, who "just growed"), which might be jazz but might be many other things, all inimical to the ordered world of the  Western Canon. Florence Mills' name does not occur in it but there has been a suggestion that its character Charlotte might be a reference to her. Though Charlotte does not seem to resemble Florence personality-wise the fact that she is a popular performer at a venue called the Plantation Club, and the extract below, with it's White Bird reference, as opposed to Florence's Black Bird, may suggest a coded reference. On the other hand, it's probably hazardous (and Atonist) to assign too precise a meaning to anything in Mumbo Jumbo.

"I am 29 but I don't look it. I said the words that night when we turned the Plantation Club upside down. I said the words and she vanished into thin air hehehehhehehehehehehehehech. Into thin air, do you hear? She just went away. Flew away like a delicate, beautiful white bird. A WHITE BIRD, DO YOU HEAR? the man cries, clutching LaBas by the lapels."

 

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Florence was a cartoonist's delight

                                                                                
                                                                                   
                                                                                            
                                                                

 

The London Pavilion curtain for Florence's Dixie to Broadway featured Bonzo, the famous Studdy cartoon dog

Another kind of cartoon - when Florence and Kid Thompson visited Paris in 1923 for a holiday they purchased some saucy cartoon drawings to decorate their new Harlem  home - here is one of them (courtesy Kid Thompson's friend, Mrs. Gracie Le Brun)


Never drink water!

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Documents related to Florence Mills

Birth certificate


Florence's birth cert - note name of doctor, which became her stage name in honor

 

Census returns
Extract from 1900 Census for 23 Goat Alley NW, DC


3rd column "B" = Black (Note:  December '95 instead of January '96  birth cert - latter correct)

 

Extract from 1910 census for 310 East 80th Street, Manhattan


Note: Nellie gives Florence's age as 17 years to avoid Gerry Society under age charge

 


Death and Funeral


Report from Philadelphia Ledger


Lying in state

Casket lying in state in Adolph Howell (now John Joyce) parlor chapel


The funeral crowd

Harlem's grief for Florence was unprecedented!

 

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