Lee, Canada 1907–1952
Canada Lee 1907–1952
“All my life,” Canada Lee told The New York Times, “I’ve been on the verge of being something. I’m almost becoming a concert violinist, and I run away to the races. I’m almost a good jockey, and I go overweight. I’m almost a champion prize fighter, and my eyes go bad.” He could have added to this self-appraisal that he almost became a world-renowned stage and screen actor before his career was destroyed by the Hollywood blacklist during the late 1940s.
He was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in the San Juan Hill district on Manhattan’s west side near the Hudson River in New York City in 1907. His grandfather was a shipowner and importer in the Virgin Islands. His father, James Cornelius Canegata, had shipped out from the islands to New York as a cabin boy, liked the city, and remained. Young Leonard attended Public School No. 5 in Harlem and at the age of seven began studying the violin under black composer J. Rosamond Johnson. Quite talented, within four years he performed Drdla’s “Serenade” at a student concert in Aeolian Hall.
But at the age of 14, Canegata grew bored with school and the violin. Running away to the racetrack at Saratoga in upstate New York, he became first a stable boy and then a jockey. He rode on the Canadian circuit and then at Belmont and Aqueduct racetracks in the New York City area, but only came close to winning a few times, later confessing he never had a “good hand” on a horse. Within a few years, as he grew older and matured, he became too heavy to be a jockey. Instead, he stayed on at the racetrack for a short time longer as an exerciser for the horses.
Returning home nearly penniless after four years, Canegata ran into an old friend who had become a prize fighter. Remembering that he had beaten him in a fight years before, Canegata began training for the boxing ring. Within two years he won 90 out of 100 fights, becoming the lightweight amateur champion in the junior nationals, the national, the inner-city, and the metropolitan divisions. In 1926 he turned professional, fighting more than 200 bouts during the next few years while losing only about 25 times. During this time, prize-fight announcer Joe Humphries, tired of trying to pronounce “Lee” Canegata, named him Canada Lee.
Lee moved up from lightweight to welterweight and finally to middleweight, never winning the championship but beating three former or future champions along the way. Then in a 1931 bout in Madison Square Garden, a blow detached his retina in one eye. He developed blind spots and had to retire from the ring in 1933. Though he had earned approximately $90,000 from his boxing, most of it was gone by 1934. Nearly broke again, he returned to music, forming a jazz band. The band was unsuccessful, and Lee found himself back on the street looking for a new way to make a living.
Born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata, May 3, 1907, in New York, NY; died of a heart attack, May 9, 1952, in New York, NY; son of James Cornelius and Lydia (Whaley) Canegata; married Juanita Waller, 1925 (divorced); children: Carl Vincent. Politics : Democrat.
Stable boy, then jockey at racetracks in Canada and New York City area, c. 1921-25; champion amateur boxer, New York City, 1925; professional prize fighter, 1926-33; stage, radio, and screen actor, 1934-52. Acting credits include Native Son, 1941; Lifeboat, 1944; Othello, 1944; The Tempest 1945; The Duchess of Malfi, 1946; Body and Soul, 1947; and Cry, the Beloved Country, 1952.
Member: National Citizens Political Action Committee; Independent Voters Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt; Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee on the Arts, Sciences, and Professions.
Once again a chance encounter led to an unsuspected career move. Walking through the Harlem Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) one day, he noticed a play being casted and sat down to watch. Asked by the director, renowned black actor Frank Wilson, to give a reading, he did so and was offered a part in Brother Mose. This time there was no turning back. He would be an actor for the rest of his life.
Lee then played the role of Blacksnake in the Theatre Union’s revival of Stevedore. It was an opportune time to be learning his new craft. The federal government—through the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—was attempting to provide jobs during the Depression in various fields, including the theater. It created the Federal Theatre and an offshoot, the Negro Theatre Project, in 1935. Suddenly new opportunities opened up for black performers.
The following year Orson Welles directed an all-black version of MacBeth for the project, the first full-scale, professional black Shakespearean production in theatrical history. Popularly called the “Voodoo MacBeth” because of its innovative Haitian setting and widespread use of drums, it became a huge hit in New York and then toured to national acclaim. Lee was cast as Banquo and became friends with Welles.
Lee then went on to play the leading role of Jean Christophe in Haiti and a minor role in Mamba’s Daughters in 1939. When Welles was preparing to cast a theatrical adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son in 1941, he asked Lee to play the lead role of Bigger Thomas, the bitter black chauffeur doomed by a racist society. Time magazine called the play “the strongest drama of the season,” while The New York Times said, “It is as if the theatre had been shaken up and recharged with life.”
When the play was revived at popular prices the following year, critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times : “The quality of life Mr. Lee imparts to a scene is overwhelming—partly physical, partly magnetic…. Mr. Lee is certainly the best Negro actor of his time, as well as one of the best actors in this country. His headlong portrait of Bigger Thomas is the most vital piece of acting on the current stage.”
Critics searched for the key to his acting success—some judging him a natural, others a consummate professional, and a few finding him just incredibly lucky. Lee himself attributed his stage presence to his boxing experience, stating that his years in the ring taught him not only how to think but also a sense of balance and fluidity of movement. He claimed never to have studied acting, preferring to plumb his own life experiences for his characterizations. “It isn’t difficult for me to play Bigger Thomas,” he once said. “I’ve known guys like Bigger Thomas all my life. I saw them at the racetracks…. I saw some in school, and I grew up with some pretty tough guys. Some of them are in jail now and some of them went to the electric chair. I knew guys who were hungry to death, and I knew guys who said being colored was a bar to everything they hoped to be.”
Lee hoped that Native Son would provide the American audience with a better understanding of blacks as individuals and black frustration in its still largely segregated society. “We’re making history in the theater,” he said. “The Negro has never been given the scope that I’m given in this play. Now things are going to happen. Now they’ll think of the Negro as an actor and not as some butler-valet type [or] some ignorant person.”
His next appearances, however, were in two short-lived productions, William Saroyan’s Across the Board on Tomorrow Morning in 1942 and South Pacific the following year, playing a cynical black sailor refusing to help in the war against Japan until he realizes that no man can be an island onto himself. He then headed to Hollywood to appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat. It recounted the tribulations of a small group of passengers, each symbolizing specific elements in America’s democratic society, adrift after their ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Lee, the only black on the lifeboat, portrayed the pensive, articulate, reserved yet dignified ship’s steward.
Though offered other black roles by Hollywood producers, he chose to return to the New York stage, appearing in Anna Lucasta on Broadway and playing Othello off-Broadway in 1944. He also began to work on radio, narrating a Sunday afternoon show broadcast out of New York City, New World A-Coming, the first radio series ever devoted entirely to the status and treatment of blacks in America. In a similar vein, he served as master of ceremonies for an NBC radio network program that emphasized black contributions to the war effort; appeared on a new feature, Tolerance Through Music; and played in a dramatic episode of the Mutual network’s Green Valley, U.S.A. that made a plea for racial harmony. Lee also found time to narrate a U.S. Department of Agriculture-produced film entitled Henry Brown, Farmer, that linked a farmer’s daily rounds with the war effort.
Lee began to use his celebrity status in the political arena, activities that would later return to haunt his career. In March of 1944, he joined a delegation from the entertainment industry that visited Washington urging Congress to adopt the federal ballot for soldiers. That June he appeared at a Negro Freedom rally in Madison Square Garden. By September he had joined the National Citizens Political Action Committee as well as the Independent Voters Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt, campaigning and registering people to vote for the incumbent president.
The following year Lee appeared as Caliban in a stage production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1946 he starred in a play about black-white relations, On Whitman Avenue, topping that later in the year with a dazzling performance—in whiteface—playing opposite the celebrated actress Elisabeth Bergner in The Duchess of Mal fi. It was the first time a black actor had appeared on the American stage in a white role. “The choice was made simply on Canada Lee’s outstanding histrionic ability,” the London Daily Telegraph reported.
Lee continued his political activism by lobbying for the passage of federal legislation to make permanent the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), a wartime agency that sought to ban discrimination in hiring. When the bill was held up in the U.S. Senate by a Southern-led filibuster, Lee appeared on the Senate floor bearing a petition signed by 25,000 New Yorkers demanding the expulsion of Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo “for conduct unbecoming a member of Congress.” He told the assembled reporters that “the citizens of New York call upon the Senate to meet this challenge, to enforce the will of the Senate majority, and enact the FEPC.”
Hollywood called again in 1947 and Lee responded. “For the first time in my acting career,” he told Ebony magazine, “I’ve found a film role which really satisfies both my artistic and social requirements.” The film was Body and Soul, and Lee played a battered and defeated prize fighter who, after being exploited and then abandoned by the corrupt boxing establishment, tries to save the current champion from a similar fate. Like his role in Lifeboat, this character, too, controlled his emotions, protecting himself as a black male from society’s indignities by living as a stoic outsider. Lee made an unusual and distinct screen presence for the times—there was nothing servile about him.
The following year Lee returned to the stage in Set My People Free and then to the screen in Lost Boundaries, released in 1949, based on a true-life black family that had passed for white in a New England town. But by this time his career was being crippled by charges of communism. Lee and several other actors were named as “outstanding fellow travelers” in the FBI file of Judith Coplón, a Justice Department employee who had passed classified documents to her Russian lover. In addition, Lee’s outspokenness on racial matters had earned him the undying enmity of American political conservatives who would give him no forgiveness. They exerted enough pressure on the entertainment industry to deny him and many other accused or simply rumored “reds” work in their chosen field. This blacklist was extremely effective.
With contracts canceled and no new roles in sight, Lee called a press conference in July of 1949, at the Apollo Theatre in New York. “I am not a communist,” he proclaimed in a speech recounted by Stefan Kanfer. “I believe this constant screech of ‘communism’ is only a smoke screen designed to hide very unpleasant facts…. I freely admit that my work, my art, my livelihood is very much affected by the irresponsible, nebulous, false insinuations directed at my name.” Still, he maintained that he would continue to appear anywhere to denounce racial and religious discrimination as well as join any group working toward this cause. “I shall continue to speak my mind,” he said. “I shall continue to help my people gain their rightful place in this America.” Lee’s valiant speech helped little. Instead, he found himself banned from 40 radio and television shows. “How long, how long can a man take this kind of unfair treatment?” he pleaded to the editors of Variety, according to Kanfer.
British producer Zoltan Korda, less subject to pressure from the blacklist across the Atlantic, cast Lee in Cry, the Beloved Country, based on South African writer, Alan Paton’s novel. The actor gave his finest screen performance as Reverend Stephen Rumalo, an old village priest journeying to Johannesburg in search of his son who has gone astray and become a criminal. Shot on location in 1950, it was the first film to challenge apartheid and the wretched living condition of blacks in South Africa.
During the filming, Lee and his young co-star Sidney Poitier had to put up with difficult working and living conditions in that strictly segregated society. In his autobiography, This Life, Poitier recalled how he tried to accommodate his behavior so as not to precipitate trouble. Lee, however, was another matter, exclaiming, “I will not twist my dignity out of shape to fit anybody’s custom.” Poitier called him “one of the most courageous characters I have ever met, as complex as he was talented.”
Lee collapsed in Africa at the end of the filming. Flown to London, he underwent a surgical procedure known as sympathectomy in January of 1951, to relieve his high blood pressure. Returning to America that May after the death of his father, Lee suffered a heart attack. Finding no new work, he went back to Europe.
The American premiere of Cry, the Beloved Country in January of 1952 brought him back across the Atlantic. But he found himself still blacklisted and unemployable despite excellent reviews for the film and his acting. Depressed, tense, and financially desperate, he went to his friend Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP. “I can’t take it any more,” Kanfer quoted him as saying. “I’m going to get a shoeshine box and sit outside the Astor Theatre. My picture is playing to capacity audiences and, my God, I can’t get one day’s work.” White counseled patience and Lee obeyed.
Instead of in the theater or on the screen or radio, his final act was played out at a meeting in White Plains, New York, called to protest the shooting of two blacks in a tavern by an ex-policeman. “I try not to be emotional,” Kanfer recounts him saying before quoting Othello, “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation.” Then he told the grieving audience: “I am a black man, and black men have been killed, and I must be emotional…. When I think that America, this great and tremendous country, has been built on the backs and sweat of my people; when I think that in every war my people have died for this country; and when I know that my people cannot walk the streets here in safety, I feel bad.” A few weeks later, on May 9, 1952, he died of a heart attack, “the Othello of the blacklist, at once its most afflicted and ignored victim,” according to Kanfer.
Kanfer, Stefan, A Journal of the Plague Years, Atheneum, 1973. Poitier, Sidney, This Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
Cue, March 15, 1941, p. 42.
Ebony, August 1947, pp. 16-17.
London Daily Telegraph, October 16, 1946.
Negro Digest, February 1945, pp. 77-80; April 1946, pp. 47-50. New York Herald Tribune, March 30, 1941, section 6, page 5; December 26, 1943, section 4, p. 1.
New York Post, March 31, 1941, p. 3.
The New York Times, March 30, 1941, section 9, page 1; October 24, 1942, p. 10; February 1, 1946, p. 19; July 7, 1949, p. 31; May 10, 1952, p. 21.
New York World Telegram, April 3, 1941, p. 37. PM, March 30, 1941, p. 21. Time, April 7, 1941, pp. 76-7.
—James J. Podesta
"Lee, Canada 1907–1952." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lee-canada-1907-1952
"Lee, Canada 1907–1952." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lee-canada-1907-1952
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