William Powell gained prominence in New Jersey as a teacher and educational leader prior to attracting the attention of several presidents of the United States who offered Powell opportunities to become an American envoy. Powell, after rejecting two consular assignments, ultimately served as a diplomat to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
William Frank Powell, the son of William and Julia Crawford Powell, was born on June 26, 1848, in Troy, New York. His father's ancestors were Native Americans. Powell attended public schools in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey. He also attended the New York School of Pharmacy and Ashmun Institute in Pennsylvania (later known as Lincoln University) and the New Jersey Collegiate Institute (NJCI). In 1865, Powell graduated from NJCI. Three years later, he married Elizabeth M. Hughes, who was from Burlington, New Jersey.
In 1869, Powell began his career as an educator when the Presbyterian Board of Missions hired him to teach at an African American school in Leesburg, Virginia. In Alexandria, Virginia one year later, Powell founded a school for African American children and led the school for five years.
Powell became principal of a Bordentown, New Jersey, school in 1875. In 1881, he interrupted his career as an educator and was employed as a bookkeeper in the Fourth Auditor's Office of the United States Treasury. Also in 1881, Powell was offered a diplomatic assignment in Haiti, but he rejected it.
In 1884, Powell resumed his career as an educator when he became superintendent of schools in the fourth district of Camden, New Jersey. Under Powell's leadership, attendance increased, manual training was included in the curriculum, and a new school for industrial education was built. In 1886, Powell relinquished his position as superintendent and taught at Camden High and Training School, a predominantly white school. This career move probably made Powell one of the first African Americans to teach in a predominantly white school in Camden as well as the rest of New Jersey. He remained at Camden High until 1894. He rejected a second diplomatic appointment in 1891 during the administration of Benjamin Harrison.
- Born in Troy, New York on June 26
- Graduates from the New Jersey Collegiate Institute
- Marries Elizabeth M. Hughes
- Begins career as an educator at an African American school in Leesburg, Virginia
- Establishes a school for African Americans in Alexandria, Virginia
- Becomes principal of a school in Bordentown, New Jersey
- Accepts job as bookkeeper in the Fourth Auditor's Office of the United States Treasury
- Becomes superintendent of schools in Camden, New Jersey's fourth district
- Teaches at Camden High and Training School
- Accepts appointments as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Haiti as well as chargeé d'affaires to the Dominican Republic
- Marries Jane B. Shepard
- Returns to Camden
- Becomes an editorial writer for the Philadelphia Tribune
- Dies on January 23 (approximate date)
Becomes a U.S. Diplomat
When Powell was offered a diplomatic assignment a third time, he accepted. On June 17, 1897, President William McKinley appointed Powell envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Haiti, and Powell was the first American diplomat to Haiti to receive the title. Eleven diplomats to Haiti preceded Powell; the first two were designated commissioner/consul general while the remaining nine diplomats were appointed minister resident/consul general. At least six African American minister residents/consul generals were appointed to Haiti before Powell: Ebenezer D. Bassett, who was the first U.S. black diplomat; John M. Langston; George W. Williams, who took the oath of office but did not serve; John E. W. Thompson; Frederick Douglass; and John S. Durham. On the same day as Powell was appointed to Haiti, he received a second one; Powell became the sixth U.S. diplomat to Haiti who concurrently served as chargeé d'affaires to the Dominican Republic. His appointment to the Dominican Republic ended on July 23, 1904, and his appointment to Haiti ended on approximately November 30, 1905. Thus Powell maintained his diplomatic status during the first three years of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. The year that Powell began his career as a diplomat, 1897, was the first year of McKin-ley's presidency, and as Benjamin Justesen points out, at least twenty African Americans were appointed consuls during the administrations of McKinley and Roosevelt, which was a period of twelve years.
During Powell's first year in Haiti, a Haitian court fined and imprisoned a German man for assault and battery. As a result, Germany issued an ultimatum. Two German warships would bombard Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, on December 6, 1897, unless within three hours, President Simon Sam agreed that Haiti would pay $20,000. Sam acquiesced, yet it is interesting to note that Powell was the lone member of the diplomatic corps who advised the president not to pay the indemnity. The United States government did not consider the incident in violation of the Monroe Doctrine, and when Powell urged the U.S. government to make Haiti a U.S. protectorate, Secretary of State John Sherman rejected the idea in a January 11, 1898, letter to Powell.
Also in 1898, the Haitian government, heeding Powell's advice, ended the practice begun on October 1, 1897 of imposing a tax on U.S. merchants and clerks. Such efforts by Powell were aimed at improving relationships between the two countries' governments as well as facilitating American business in Haiti. Among the highlights of Powell's diplomatic efforts in 1899 was the release of a U.S. vice-consul general who had been arrested. One year later, Powell successfully defended Haiti's sovereignty against the German minister's plan to create special courts to try foreigners. Also in 1899, Powell married a second time; he wed Jane B. Shepard, who was from Camden. In 1902, Powell witnessed President Sam's forced resignation, the anarchy that followed, rule by a provisional government, and the election of Nord Alexis as Haiti's next president. Powell remained in Haiti through most of 1905.
When Powell ended his diplomatic career, he returned to Camden. In 1907, Powell was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree from Lincoln University, one of the schools he attended in his youth. In 1909, he accepted a position as an editorial writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, an African American newspaper that was founded in November 1884. His approximate death date is listed as January 23, 1920. A posthumous tribute took place when the Tenth Street School, built in Camden in 1926, was renamed the William F. Powell Elementary School.
Although Powell's accomplishments as a teacher, educational administrator, diplomat, and editorial writer are not widely known, he remains an important historical figure who dedicated his life to educating African Americans as well as others and for eight years served the United States as a member of the diplomatic corps.
Logan, Rayford W. Haiti and the Dominican Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Marquis, Albert N., ed. "William Frank Powell." In Who's Who in America. Vol. 7.: 1912–1913. Chicago: A. N. Marquis and Company, 1912.
McNeill, Lydia. "William Frank Powell." In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Vol. 4. Eds. Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996.
Phillips, Glenn O. "William Frank Powell." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Wright, Marion M. T. The Education of Negroes in New Jersey. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1941.
Justesen, Benjamin J. "African-American Consuls Abroad, 1807–1909." Foreign Service Journal 81 (September 2004): 72-76.
Linda M. Carter
Nationality: American. Born: William Horatio Powell in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 29 July 1892. Education: Attended high school in Kansas City; University of Kansas, Lawrence, briefly; American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York, 1911–12. Family: Married 1) the actress Eileen Wilson (divorced 1931), son: William David;2) the actress Carole Lombard, 1931 (divorced 1933); 3) the actress Diana Lewis, 1940. Career: 1912—Broadway debut in The Ne'er-Do-Well; 1913–15—in road company of the melodrama Within the Law; then acted in the Harry Davis company, Pittsburgh, the Baker company, Portland, Oregon, the Jessie Bonsteele company, Buffalo, and others; 1918–19—with Castle Square Stock Company, Boston; 1922—film debut in Spanish Love; 1925–31—contract with Paramount, followed by contract with Warner Brothers, 1931–34, and MGM, 1934. Awards: Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Life with Father, and The Senator Was Indiscreet, 1947. Died: 5 March 1984.
Films as Actor:
Spanish Love; Sherlock Holmes (Parker) (as Forman Wells);When Knighthood Was in Flower (Vignola) (as Francis I);Outcast (Withey) (as DeValle)
The Bright Shawl (Robertson)
Under the Red Robe (Crosland) (as Duke of Orleans); Romola(King) (as Tito Melema); Dangerous Money (Tuttle)
Too Many Kisses (Sloane); Faint Perfume (Gasnier); My Lady's Lips (Hogan); The Beautiful City (Webb)
White Mice (Edward Griffith); Sea Horses (Dwan); Desert Gold (Seitz); The Runaway (William DeMille); Aloma of the South Seas (Tourneur); Beau Geste (Brenon) (as Boldoni); Tin Gods (Dwan); The Great Gatsby (Brenon)(as George Wilson)
New York (Reed); Love's Greatest Mistake (Sutherland);Special Delivery (Goodrich); Senorita (Badger); Paid to Love (Hawks); Time for Love (Tuttle); Nevada (Waters);She's a Sheik (Badger); Feel My Pulse (La Cava)
Beau Sabreur (Waters); Partners in Crime (Strayer); The Last Command (von Sternberg); The Dragnet (von Sternberg); The Vanishing Pioneer (Waters); Forgotten Faces (Schertzinger)
Interference (Mendez); The Canary Murder Case (St. Clair)(as Philo Vance); The Green Murder Case (Tuttle) (as Philo Vance); Charming Sinners (Milton); Four Feathers(Schoedsack and Mendez); Pointed Heels (Sutherland)
The Benson Murder Case (Tuttle) (as Philo Vance); Paramount on Parade (as himself/Philo Vance); Shadow of the Law (Gasnier); Behind the Makeup (Milton); Street of Chance (Cromwell); For the Defense (Cromwell)
Man of the World (Wallace); Ladies Man (Mendez); The Road to Singapore (Green)
High Pressure (Le Roy); Jewel Robbery (Dieterle); One Way Passage (Garnett); Lawyer Man (Dieterle)
Double Harness (Cromwell); Private Detective 62 (Curtiz);The Kennel Murder Case (Curtiz) (as Philo Vance)
Fashions of 1934 (Dieterle); The Key (Curtiz); Manhattan Melodrama (Van Dyke); The Thin Man (Van Dyke) (as Nick Charles); Evelyn Prentice (Howard)
Reckless (Fleming); Star of Midnight (Roberts); Escapade(Leonard); Rendezvous (Howard)
The Great Ziegfeld (Leonard) (title role); The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (Roberts); Libeled Lady (Conway); My Man Godfrey(La Cava) (title role); After the Thin Man (Van Dyke) (as Nick Charles)
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (Boleslawsky); The Emperor's Candlesticks (Fitzmaurice); Double Wedding (Thorpe)
The Baroness and the Butler (Walter Lang)
Another Thin Man (Van Dyke) (as Nick Charles)
I Love You Again (Van Dyke)
Love Crazy (Conway); Shadow of the Thin Man (Van Dyke)(as Nick Charles)
The Youngest Profession (Buzzell) (as himself)
The Heavenly Body (Hall); The Thin Man Goes Home (Thorpe)(as Nick Charles)
Ziegfeld Follies (Minnelli) (as Florenz Ziegfeld); The Hoodlum Saint (Taurog)
Song of the Thin Man (Buzzell) (as Nick Charles); Life with Father (Curtiz) (as Clarence Day); The Senator Was Indiscreet (Kaufman)
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Pichel) (as Mr. Peabody)
Take One False Step (Erskine); Dancing in the Dark (Reis)
The Treasure of the Lost Canyon (Tetzlaff); It's a Big Country(Wellman and others)
The Girl Who Had Everything (Thorpe); How to Marry a Millionaire (Negulesco)
Mister Roberts (Ford and LeRoy) (as Doc)
On POWELL: books—
Morella, Joe, and Edward Epstein, Gable & Lombard & Powell & Harlow, London, 1971.
Francisco, Charles, Gentleman: The William Powell Story, New York, 1985.
Baxt, George, The William Powell & Myrna Loy Murder Case, New York, 1996.
On POWELL: articles—
Current Biography 1947, New York, 1947.
Jacobs, Jack, "William Powell," in Films in Review (New York), November 1958.
Hurley, J., "Nora on Nick: Myrna Loy Talks about Her Co-Star," and "Remembering William Powell," by S. Rabin, in Films in Review (New York), October 1982.
Obituary in New York Times, 6 March 1984.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 14 March 1984.
Buckley, Michael, "A Final Tribute: William Powell," in Films in Review (New York), May 1984.
Rickey, C., "Bittersweet William," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1984.
Winokur, Mark, "Improbable Ethnic Hero: William Powell and the Transformation of Ethnic Hollywood," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Fall 1987.
Drabelle, Dennis, "The Art of William Powell," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1993.
* * *
William Powell specialized in urbane cynicism, signifying unflappable, upper-class charm with the smallest gesture. A dependable actor at the MGM stable in the late 1930s and the 1940s, Powell, whether romantic, comic, or sinister, kept his edge of witty sophistication invariably intact.
Brief stage training in the early 1920s led to film work. His features—trim moustache, expressive eyes, close haircut—were ideal for silent picture villainy. He remained a busy supporting actor during that decade. Powell easily bridged the transition to sound, which utilized his talents fully. With the addition of his persuasive, carnival-barker voice, Powell was roguishly slick rather than suspicious, suitable for lawyer and detective parts as well as smooth criminals. One of his earliest talkie assignments, as the private eye Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case, served as a preliminary for the role most closely associated with him: Nick Charles to Myrna Loy's Nora in the screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. Powell and Loy generated a rare, extraordinary chemistry on-screen, pioneering a concept that would become a staple in screwball comedy—marriage could be fun, a partnership. The stars paired in 13 films altogether, including five additional Thin Man outings.
His subsequent screen roles were variations on the Charles theme, igniting a succession of classic comedies—Libeled Lady, My Man Godfrey, Double Wedding. Health problems led to relative inaction in the 1940s and after, but by choosing his roles with care and accuracy, he eased into genial character parts. In Life with Father, as the irascible Clarence Day, Powell reached another career peak. He chose to retire after his warmly received portrait of Doc in Mister Roberts.
Talent and fortunate material contributed to Powell's success. He ranks among the best sophisticated comedy stars, and his work remains eminently entertaining.