Watts, Jill 1958–

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Watts, Jill 1958–

(Jill Marie Watts)

PERSONAL: Born May 28, 1958, in Pomona, CA; daughter of Thomas H. and Doris Ruth (Hohlfeld) Watts. Education: University of California, San Diego, B.A., 1981; University of California, Los Angeles, M.A., 1983, Ph.D., 1989.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of History, California State University, 333 S. Twin Oaks Valley Rd., San Marcos, CA 92096. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Weber State University, Ogden, UT, assistant professor, 1989–91; California State University, San Marcos, assistant professor, 1991–94, associate professor, 1994–96, professor of history, 1996–, also served as interim chair of history department, coordinator of film studies program, and co-chair of women's studies department. Has also taught at Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, CA; University of California, Los Angeles; and Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

MEMBER: American History Association, Organization of American Historians, American Studies Association, Western Association of Women Historians, Oral History Association.

AWARDS, HONORS: Carey McWilliams fellow, 1986–87; Rosecrans fellow, 1986–87; Institute for American Cultures fellow, 1986–87; Cornell University for Humanities fellow, 1994–95.

WRITINGS:

BIOGRAPHY

God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1992.

Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Hattie McDaniel: Hollywood Odyssey, Amistead (New York, NY), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: Jill Watts is a professor and historian whose interests include black history, film history, and biography. She is the author of several volumes that focus on subjects in these areas, including her first, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story, an expansion of her doctoral thesis. This book clarifies the life, particularly the early life, of the man who was born George Baker, Jr. (1879–1965) in Rockville, Maryland, and who went on to establish the Peace Mission movement. Baker grew up in a large, impoverished family, experiencing racism and violence in a black ghetto called Monkey Run. He attended a segregated school, but he was an avid reader and influenced by his mother, who was a member of the Methodist Church. Baker formed his own ideology, however, and after her death, he left to begin his preaching career. He did not believe in the concept of race, which he considered a negative descriptor that held blacks back.

Watts emphasizes the positive attributes of Father Divine, noting that he should be considered a religious leader, rather than a cult figure as he is often portrayed. He advocated for pacifism, hard work, and clean living, and he created job training programs and distributed free food during the Great Depression. His ideas, and often his actions, were controversial, however, and by the late 1950s his leadership suffered from negative media, particularly in the Hearst syndicate papers. As Father Divine, he appeared in public until 1963, after which time the Peace Mission membership declined. In 1971, cult leader Jim Jones tried to take over, and when he led the members of the People's Temple to commit mass suicide in Guyana in 1978, some considered it punishment for Jones's harassment of Divine and his wife. Ben Nefzger wrote in Sociology of Religion that "although the book uses no social science framework or concepts, there is much in it for those interested in social movement, charismatic leadership, religious organization, and African-American religion."

Watts wrote the first complete biography of the sexy actress Mae West in Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Watts writes of West's (1893–1980) childhood abuse and insecurity and of the bold, tough persona she created that made her an icon both on and off the screen, in spite of the criticism she endured. Watts also notes how West's work was affected by censorship, and how African-American music and culture affected West, who identified with the working class; the author suggests that West's paternal grandfather may have been black. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "West fans will welcome this new, enlightening biography of the enigmatic star, which offers a broader view of her impact on social and cultural history and as a First Amendment champion."

Hattie McDaniel: Hollywood Odyssey is Watts's biography of the first African American to win an Academy award, which was for her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel (1895–1952) was the thirteenth child of parents who were former slaves. She worked in vaudeville before arriving in Hollywood, following the career path of one of her brothers. As a successful black entertainer, including on radio and television, she sometimes spoke out against racism, but racism cast her in stereotypical roles until she died of cancer. Those roles did afford her a comfortable lifestyle, but at a price. Vanessa Bush commented in Booklist that "Watts offers a thoughtful portrait of a talented and complex woman at a time of severe racial restrictions."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, August, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, p. 2073; September 15, 2005, Vanessa Bush, review of Hattie McDaniel: Hollywood Odyssey, p. 19.

Library Journal, September 1, 2005, Anthony J. Adam, review of Hattie McDaniel, p. 145.

Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1991, review of God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story, p. 41; June 25, 2001, review of Mae West, p. 62; August 22, 2005, review of Hattie McDaniel, p. 57.

Sociology of Religion, spring, 1994, Ben Nefzger, review of God, Harlem U.S.A., p. 100.

ONLINE

California State University Web site, http://www.csusm.edu/ (November 28, 2005), profile of Jill Watts.

San Diego Union-Tribune Online, http://www.signonsandiego.com/ (September 16, 2005), Lisa Petrillo, "Writer Pursues Mystery of Black Actress's Missing Oscar."

Seattle Times Online, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ (October 17, 2005), John Hartl, review of Hattie McDaniel.

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