At first, American actor and singer Paul Robeson, 24, was really enjoying his first trip to the UK, touring with a production of Voodoo by Mary Hoyt Wiborg, 34. He had appeared in the Broadway premiere—when it was called Taboo—and Miss Wiborg had used her posh connections to arrange a British tour starring none other than the legendary Mrs. Patrick Campbell, 57.
Mrs. Patrick Campbell
Mrs. Pat, as she is known, has been impressed with Paul’s talents—he was thought by many to be the only good thing in the original show.
She edited the play to make his part better, and, after she heard him humming “Go Down Moses” when he was preparing for a dream sequence, she insisted that he add more singing. During one of the curtain calls, Mrs. Pat pushed Paul forward, saying to him,
It’s your show—not mine”
as the audience’s applause increased. She has mentioned to Robeson that he would make a great Othello.
But their opening in Blackpool was a disappointment; the show didn’t get any better in Edinburgh. There was some improvement last night, here in Glasgow. And Paul got another good review:
Particularly good was Mr. Paul Robson [sic] as the minstrel Jim…[He] sang and acted splendidly…a magnificent voice, his singing has undoubtedly much to do with the success Voodoo achieved last night.”
Robeson has been to a Celtics v. Hibernians “football” match, and generally found he is treated better here as a Black man than he is back in the States.
Now things seem to be turning sour. Mrs. Campbell is mumbling about leaving the show and shutting it down before they get to London.
More worrying to Paul, though, is the correspondence he’s been getting from his wife of one year, Essie, 26, back in New York.
Eslanda Goode Robeson
He writes to her almost every day, with great detail about the show and his experiences:
Mrs. Pat is a really wonderful woman and a marvelous actress…[English theatre] seems in as bad a state as those in New York or worse…Vaudeville pays better here than the legitimate…”
Paul receives letters from her regularly. But they seem odd. Essie doesn’t respond to what he has told her, and doesn’t answer his questions about their future: Does she want to join him over here? Maybe he should think about going to Oxford University for a year? Or should he finish law school back at Columbia in New York? What’s the best plan that will give them a solid foundation for their life together?
Paul writes to Essie that he has too many options.
Worries me sick…[You should] think carefully from every angle…You’ll know what to do…You always know.”
Back in New York City, Essie is in Presbyterian Hospital where she works as a chemist in the Surgical Pathology Department. But now she is a patient.
The day before Paul left for the UK, back in July, Essie’s doctor told her she needed an immediate operation to correct complications from her recent appendectomy.
Essie didn’t want Paul to worry about her while he was away, so she waited until his ship pulled out of New York harbor and then checked herself into Presby.
Essie had written out 21 letters to him in advance and handed them over to friends whom she could trust to mail them to him at regular intervals.
The operation went fine, but Essie developed phlebitis and other complications, so the doctors have kept her in here longer than anticipated.
Essie loves the beautiful letters she receives from her husband. She’s thinking it might be time to send Paul a telegram and tell him the truth.
“Such Friends”: 100 Years Ago… is the basis for the series, “Such Friends”: The Literary 1920s. Volumes I and II covering 1920 and 1921 are available as signed copies at Riverstone Books in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, PA, and also in print and e-book formats on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. For more information, email me at email@example.com.
Later in the year I will be talking about the centenary of the publication of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Manager as Muse, about Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ relationships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, is also available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk in both print and e-book versions.
If you want to walk with me through Bloomsbury, you can download my audio walking tour, “Such Friends”: Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.