Nina Mae McKinney – The Black Garbo

Nina Mae McKinney (June 12, 1912 – May 3, 1967) was an American actress who worked internationally during the 1930s and in the postwar period in theatre, film and television, after getting her start on Broadway and in Hollywood. Dubbed the nickname, The Black Garbo in Europe because of her striking beauty, McKinney was one of the first African-American film stars in the United States, as well as one of the first African Americans to appear on British television.


Early life

Nannie Mayme McKinney was born June 12, 1912 in Lancaster, South Carolina to Georgia Crawford and Hal Napoleon McKinney.

Shortly after her birth, her mother, separated from her abusive, alcoholic husband often would hide in the house of Colonel Leroy Springs (of Springs Industries), whom she worked for as a domestic.

By 1920, Georgia relocated to Savannah, Georgia, working as a cook for Mrs. Cynthia Withers, her daughter Irene and the rest of the white lodgers. Nannie Mayme remained in Lancaster’s Gills Creek neighborhood at her 70-year old paternal grandmother, Mary A. McKinney’s home on Gay Street. Her father, Hal, supported the family as a delivery man for a local drugstore. Later that year, Nannie’s mother migrated north to New York. Georgia McKinney, while still in Savannah, remarried to James Edwin Maynor and the couple migrated north to New York. Eight-year-old Nannie followed them shortly afterward. However, Nannie’s trip north was short-lived, and she was sent back down south to stay with her Uncle Curtis and his family in Gills Creek as her father had landed in prison. In 1923, her alcoholic father escaped from his chain gang, never to be seen in South Carolina again.

From 1920–1922, Nannie was shifted from relative to relative. After the death of her grandmother, Nannie Mayme was sent to the home of her Great-Aunt Carrie Sanders, who also worked as a maid and a cook for Colonel and Mrs. Leroy Springs, and lived in a small dwelling at the rear of their home.

In 1923, Nannie was sent to live with Col. Springs as a live-in domestic. Her duties were to deliver and collect parcels from the local post office. To entertain herself as she made the trips, she did stunts on her bicycle. She also began performing in small school productions at the Lancaster Training School.

Around 1925, 13-year old Nannie Mayme relocated back to Manhattan to stay with her mother and step-father. She attended public school in 126 Lower Manhattan. By the summer of 1927, she decided to give up school completely.

Marriage and family

In November 1931, McKinney married jazz musician James “Jimmy” Monroe. They divorced in 1938.


Early career (1927–1929)

In mid-1927, Nannie began dancing and singing around Harlem speakeasies. She eventually became close with Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger, who wrote for Nannie, two rather mature songs for a teenage girl, “Dyin’ Crap Shooter’s Blues” and “The Band’ll Play (Who’d A-Thought It?)”. Nannie recorded the two songs at Brunswick Studios at 799 7th Avenue on June 24. Unfortunately, the songs were only used as tests and never released. Ten months later, on April 20, 1928, a determined Nannie, accompanied by pianist J. C. Johnson,recorded two Blues numbers with Gennett Records, “Do What You Did Last Night” and “There’s Been Some Changes Made”. Most likely because of her contract with Brunswick, she recorded under the name, Alice Clinton.

Since January 4, 1928, Lew Leslie’s “Blackbirds Revue” had playing at the Les Ambassadeurs Club. However, by May 9, the show was renamed “Blackbirds of 1928” and moved over to the Liberty Theatre, where it ran for a successful 518 performances. This show starred Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Adelaide Hall. Nannie probably didn’t join the revue until after her 16th birthday, and probably was brought in as last minute replacement for another chorus girl. Nannie was now a part of the Blackbirds Beauties chorus line, as Nina Mae McKinney.

Early October 1928, during Blackbird’s last weeks at the Liberty Theatre, director, King Vidor had arrived in New York searching for actors for his upcoming all-Black soundie, “Hallelujah!”. Actor Daniel L. Haynes and dancer, Honey Brown from Club Highland were to be stars of the film. Throughout October, during the film casting in Harlem, Nina made it a daily task to walk back and forth in front of the building in order to catch the attentions of King Vidor. He said, “Nina Mae McKinney was third from the right in the chorus. She was beautiful and talented and glowing with personality.” And that’s what rocketed her into the world of acting and Hollywood. In no time, she landed a minor role in the film.

On October 15, “Blackbirds” moved over to the Eltinge Theatre for two weeks. Afterwards, the show packed up and moved to Boston for 21 days, however Nina never followed the show to Boston. Instead, along with her mother, she boarded a train west to Memphis, joining the cast of Hallelujah to begin filming. After two weeks spent filming exterior shots in Tennessee and Arkansas, on November 17, the cast arrived in Culver City, California, to begin filming interior shots at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

On December 5, after Honey Brown was injured, it was announced the Nina was to replace her as the new star of the film. During the filming, Nina paired with 39-year old Daniel Haynes and together they performed in local establishments such as the Mayfair Club and Hotel Somerville. Around this time, Nina returned to the recording studio to record two numbers from the film, “Swanee Shuffle” and “If You Want My Love, You Gotta Do More Than That”. Unfortunately, the second was cut from the film and never released.

On March 20, 1929 Nina, Daniel Haynes and Victoria Spivey appeared on Radio-KHJ at 9 pm. Nina performed numbers from Blackbirds, “I Must Have That Man” and “Diga Diga Doo”.

On May 20, 1929, it was announced the 17-year old Nina Mae was engaged to James Marshall, director of Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre. This event coincided with Nina signing a five-year contract with MGM, making her the first African-American major Hollywood film star.

Nina returned to New York early-May to spend time with her parents and new fiancé. During this time, she also working as a domestic for Col. Leroy Springs, who also had a residence in New York, caring for his ailing wife. Nina remained in New York to appear at the Embassy Theatre on August 20 for the premiere of “Hallelujah!”, which was an immense success and secured Nina place as America’s latest star. In Hallelujah (1929), McKinney was the first African-American actress to hold a principal role in a mainstream film; it had an African-American cast. Vidor was nominated for an Oscar for his directing of Hallelujah and McKinney was praised for her role. When asked about her performance, Vidor told audiences “Nina was full of life, full of expression, and just a joy to work with. Someone like her inspires a director.”

The following day, it was also quietly announced that Nina had wed James Marshall. However there was no more mention of the shortly lived marriage and Nina returned to California in September, moving into the Hotel Dunbar and traveling daily to Culver City to film, “The Bugle Sounds”, “Manhattan Serenade” and “They Learned About Women”. Work was hard to come by in Hollywood because not many movies were interracial, and it was difficult for African-American actors, actresses, directors, writers, and producers to find enough work. Especially for African-American women, breaking out into a major role was hard because there were not many choices for roles a woman of color could play. Although McKinney was strikingly beautiful, Hollywood was afraid to make her into a glamorized icon like white actresses of the time; the film production codes prohibited suggestions of miscegenation, so interracial romances were not filmed.

In between filming, she performed at the Club Apex and Club Montmartre and carried on affairs with actress Pepi Lederer and Jagatjit Singh, Maharajah of Kapurthala. Nina also returned briefly to South Carolina to attend her Great-Aunt Carrie Saunders’ funeral.

On December 30, 1929, the cabaret revue “Harlem Scandals” opened at the Lincoln Theatre, with Nina as the star, performing her signature number at the time, “I Must Have That Man” (from Blackbirds). She was replaced by Carolynn Snowden after a week.

Europe (1930–1938)

By late-January 1930, Nina had grown tired of MGM. She had already begun failing to show up for promotional appearances, especially if her name wasn’t in lights above the marquee.

That spring, her new manager, Al Munro, sports writer of the Chicago Whip, arranged a tour of the Mid-West for Nina. She was to appear in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. In late-March, she left for Chicago to appear in a vaudeville show, “Circus” at the 35th Regiment Armory. The following month, she moved on to the Metropolitan Theatre for two weeks. During this engagement, on April 9, Nina appeared on two of Reverend A. W. Nix’s Black Diamond Train to Hell sermons (Part 5 and 6), which was recorded at the Brunswick Recording Library. Horrible reviews followed Nina, who declared her a money-hungry, star struck girl who had grown to despise her own race.

Returning to Los Angeles on June 4, Nina and her mother moved back into the Dunbar Hotel, where throughout the summer, Nina performed at series of private parties and mingled with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Also during this time, she married 23-year old NBA Middleweight boxer named, William “Gorilla” Landon Jones, who bought Nina a $6,000 Lincoln Convertible Coupe as wedding present. This marriage was short-lived. From September to November 1930, there’s no account of Nina Mae, even as her mother roamed around Los Angeles searching for her daughter. Nina surfaced in Crown Point, Indiana on October 23, to marry Douglas S. Daniels, another short-lived marriage that ended on November 20.

Because of the prevalence of racism in the American entertainment industry, many African-American actors and actresses went to work in England, France, and other European countries, where they found more professional opportunities, throughout the 1920s–1930s. On December 5, Nina boarded the SS Bremen, sailing from New York to Cherbourg, France. After eight days at sea, while disembarking from the ship, Nina had a sudden spell of sea-sickness and in the excitement she dropped her purse containing $200 in the sea. Her new manager, William Morris Jr. failed to meet her at the port, but luckily a French gentleman paid her train fare and escorted her to Paris. For the next four months, Nina and the cast of Hallelujah embarked on a European tour to promote their successful film. On December 13, a stage revue “Allelujah!” opened at the Theatre Les Miracles, where it remained for the next three weeks with immense success. After performing all afternoon at the Theatre Les Miracles, she spent evenings singing at the Monseigneur Club on 94, rue d’Amsterdam.

The first two weeks of January 1931, the revue appeared in Cannes and Monte Carlo. On January 16, the revue opened at Berlin’s Kabarett Der Komiker, where it appeared until later February. On February 23, the arrived in Belgrade for a weeks appearance at the Corso Theatre. The Hallelujah revue returned to France, early March, where it remained until March 11th, when the troupe boarded the SS Lafayette back to the United States.

Throughout the spring of 1931, she performed in theatres around Harlem, Astoria and Brooklyn. By May, she was broadcasting from Connie’s Inn. In June 1931, Nina returned to the silver screen as a supporting actress in Safe in Hell, directed by William A. Wellman. McKinney played a hotel proprietor, Leonie, who befriends a New Orleans party girl (occasional prostitute) on the run.

That fall, Nina returned to New York to appear in Ronald Firbank’s stage play, “Prancing Nigger”. However due to the mass disapproval of the African-American community, she turned down the role and the play never materialized. On November 25, she escaped to Portsmouth, Virginia with her latest lover, 24-year old musician, James Norman Monroe, and got married. This would become her fourth husband. Like her previous husbands, many considered Jimmy Monroe to be an extremely bad influence on Nina, even going as far as introducing the young star to drugs.

Nina opened 1932 has the headliner of the “Dear Old Southland” revue, which ran for a week at the Lafayette Theatre starting January 16. The following month, she and Jimmy Monroe left for a tour of the East Coast and Mid-West, appearing in New Jersey, Ohio and Washington DC for the next five months. In-between touring, Nina found the time to film two short soundies with Vitaphone, “Pie, Pie Blackbird” (with the Nicholas Brothers and Noble Sissle’s Orchestra) and “Passing The Buck”.

Returning to New York in July, Nina went straight into rehearsals for Max Rudnick’s latest production, “Folies Bergere” at the Liberty Theatre. After a brief run in Brooklyn, the revue opened early September at the Sam H. Harris Theatre. Shortly afterwards, Nina moved over to the 44th Street Theatre, where she appeared in the Broadway production of, “Ballyhoo of 1932”, performing “Love, Nuts and Noodles”. Opening September 6, Nina remained with the revue for the next three months. Beginning October 4, she also began doubling at the brand new Hollywood Restaurant, headlining in a floorshow revue, “Hollywood Revels of 1933”.

After performing for an evening at the Harlem Opera House, on November 28, Mr. and Mrs. Monroe and the pianist Garland Wilson sailed to Europe arriving on the French coast early December. On December 8, Nina opened in Paris at Chez Florence, where she played throughout the month. Afterhours, she doubled at the La Habanera Cabaret. Also at some point during this engagement, Nina found the time to record two songs, “Minnie The Moocher’s Wedding Day” and “Rhapsody In Love” with French Brunswick Records.

In January 1933, Nina returned to the Theatre Les Miracles to broadcast on Radio-Poste Parisien and later appeared at Le Pigall’s nightclub before departing for a nightclub engagement in Cannes.

The following month, she flew north to London for a four-month’s engagement in the revue, “Chocolate & Cream” at the Leicester Square Theatre, which opened February 13. Nina was an immense success amongst the British public. A week after the opening, on February 17, she participated on John Logie Baird’s experimental television at the London Broadcasting House, performing a song-and-dance routine from her revue at the Leicester, making her the first Black woman to ever appear on television. By March 7, Nina was also doubling at London’s famous Ciro’s Restaurant.

While still going strong at Leicester Square, on April 4, Nina began appearing over at the Trocadero Cabaret as the star of Charles Cochran’s latest revue, “Revels In Rhythm”. Cochran also brought in a film crew to film the cabaret spectacle, to be shown in newsreels across Britain. Soon however, the director/impresario found his popular headliner becoming extremely moody and temperamental. Nina began failing to show up at the cabaret and even randomly demanding large sums of money. She had grown extremely dependent on drugs and alcohol to cope with her extremely grueling work schedule and with Jimmy Monroe’s affairs with his new English mistress. It’s even evident in the filmed version of “Revels In Rhythm” that she is unwell when breaks into a coughing fit in the middle of her dance routine. During the summer of 1933, Nina began appearing frequently on BBC Radio and making appearances at Holburn Empire, Hackney Empire and Shepherd’s Bush Theatre.

After “Chocolate & Cream” closed late-June, Nina and Garland departed for a three-month provincial tour. On July 25, Nina was briefly hospitalized with the mumps. Two months later, on September 26, five minutes before her appearance at Cardiff’s New Theatre, Nina collapsed in her dressing room. Carried to her car by her manager, Stanley C. Mills, she was taken to the Royal Infirmary, where it was declared to the press that the American star was suffering from dysentery.

On November 21, Nina arrived at Croydon Airport for a flight back to Paris, to care for her ailing husband, who was recuperating from an unknown illness at their Parisian apartment. Eight days later, on November 30, Nina began a month’s engagement at Chez Florence.

In January 1934, Garland Wilson and Nina departed for a tour of the Cote d’Azur, beginning in the city of Nice. This marked the beginning of a successful five month European tour. The following month, the duo enjoyed a success filled month in Prague. On March 2, Nina arrived in Budapest, appearing at the Parisian Grill-Bar for another month. In the first week of April, Nina arrived in Athens, Greece to open on the 7th at the Femina Cinema, where she was billed as the Black Garbo (prior to this, she had been referred to only as the Black Clara Bow). As Greek engagement ended around May 6, Nina, who was preparing to sail for Egypt, received a telegram that her mother was unwell back in America. The Egyptian engagement was cancelled and Nina flew back home to London. For some strange reason, Nina never returned to America to check upon her mother.

Instead, on July 15, she opened at London’s Alhambra Theatre, where she remained for the next two weeks. In the meantime, she also appeared in “Kentucky Minstrels” (released in the United States as Life is Real.), her first British film, alongside Scott & Whaley and Debroy Somer’s Orchestra. She also sang the popular song “Dinah” during Music Hall, a radio broadcast show.

During the summer of 1934, alongside Paul Robeson, Nina began filming, Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s “Bosambo” (later known as Sanders of the River) at the Korda Brother’s film studios in Denham. The film, which was set in part in Africa, would portray African culture positively, which Robeson had made a condition of his participation in the project. McKinney and Robeson later discovered the film was re-edited without their knowledge, and that their roles in the film had been significantly downgraded. During the filming, she carried on an brief affair with Robeson to cope with her adulterous husband.

Nina resumed working at the Alhambra in October. During this time, her usual moody attitude returned. After being invited to a private reception, hosted by the royal family, Nina arrived extremely late and stayed barely fifteen minutes before departing. She moved over to the Chiswick Empire the following month. During this time, she and Robeson were in rehearsals to appear in a stage production, “Stevedore”, which never seems to have opened. In the meantime, Nina’s affair with Robeson had ended and she had turned her attentions to Ananias Berry, husband to Valaida Snow, who was visiting England with “Blackbirds of 1934”.

After two successful years abroad, on December 18, Nina returned to America aboard the SS Île de France, arriving on Christmas Day.

Shortly after arriving back in the States, Nina and Jimmy Monroe flew to Los Angeles, moving into the Clark Hotel. Although her contract with MGM had expired in 1933, Nina returned to Hollywood in January 1935 to appear in her final film with them, “Reckless”, alongside Jean Harlow. She even managed to get Jimmy Monroe a small part in the film. Unfortunately, MGM cut out almost all of her scenes. Furious, Nina returned to New York in late-March, for the premiere of Sanders of the River on April 4. Nina announced that she’d never film in Hollywood again, nor would she ever accept maid roles.

On May 26, Nina opened at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre as the star of Somerset Maugham’s “Rain”, a stage play set on a Pacific island: a missionary’s determination to reform a prostitute leads to tragedy. In late-June, Nina began rehearsals for a new floorshow at the famous Cotton Club, where she remained for the next seven months.

On July 5, for a week, she appeared for a week at the Apollo Theatre, alongside Gladys Bentley, Earl Snakehips Tucker and Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. Nina finally opened at the Cotton Club on July 18, for the 26th edition “Cotton Club Parade of 1935” alongside Butterbeans & Susie, Miller & Mantan and the Claude Hopkins Orchestra. In-between performing at the Cotton Club, she also found the time to appear in the short film, “The Black Network” once again alongside the Nicholas Brothers.

In February 1936, Nina left New York for a brief tour of Texas with the Blue Rhythm Show. Returning to Harlem the following month, after a brief hospitalization, Nina sailed back to Europe aboard the SS Caledonia, arriving just in time open at Glasgow’s Royal Theatre on March 30. Instead of Garland Wilson, she was now accompanied by the pianist team, Rudy Smith & Kirby Walker. For the next ten months, she busied herself with a hectic British tour, doing four shows a day. That summer, she was set to appear once again alongside Paul Robeson in his latest film, “Song Of Freedom”. However, due to her temperamental behavior, she was promptly replaced by Elisabeth Welsh. In October 1936, Nina and Jimmy Monroe began contemplating on filing for British citizenship, at the same time, the couple were preparing to adopt a young Afro-British girl, whom Nina had named, Brenda Mae.

The bliss of finally having a family of her own in her new adopted country ended in early-November, when while performing at Dublin’s Royal Theatre, she collapsed onstage. After convalescing for a few days at the Duchess Nursing Home, Nina returned home to discover Jimmy Monroe had fled to Paris with his English girlfriend. He had drained $10,000 from their bank account and opened a nightclub, Au Harlem Cabaret on 58, rue de Notre Dame de Lorette with Freddy Taylor’s Orchestra.

After completing her British tour, Nina returned to London on February 16 to open at the Paramount Theatre. Upon returning from her tour, she had replaced Rudy Smith with the Jamaican pianist, Yorke de Souza. Around this time, she announced her engagement with Jackie Evans (member of the Four Bobs) and began preparations for her latest film, “Unannounced”, created especially for her by independent producer, William Newman. Filming never began, nor did her wedding with Jackie Evans.

On February 27, she appeared at Alexandra Palace alongside Afro-American dancer, Johnny Nit, in the televised revue, “Ebony (revue)”, where she performed the Blues number, “Poppa Tree Top Tall”. Over the next three months, she returned on the road for another hectic British tour. By May, she announced her plans to depart for a brief South American tour, which never materialized. On June 5, Nina and her troupe returned to Alexandra Palace to appear on the televised revue, “Dark Laughter”, where she appeared alongside the Jamaican trumpet player Leslie Thompson.

Having burned bridges with nearly every British theatrical agent and exhausted by non-stop tours across Britain, on July 23, Nina and her troupe boarded the SS Mooltan to Australia with a six-month contract. After a month at sea, and passing through Morocco, Egypt, India and Ceylon, Nina finally disembarked at Fremantle on August 24. From there she traveled to Melbourne, where she opened on September 7 at the Tivoli Theatre in her latest revue, “Hello Harlem!”. After a successful month onstage and a brief radio appearance, the revue departed for Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre, opening on October 14 for another month. As usual, on November 3, Nina collapsed onstage and she recovered at St. Luke’s Hospital and her residence at the King’s Lynn Apartments. On November 29, her New Zealand appearance at Auckland’s Her Majesty’s Theatre was cancelled.

For the next three months, Nina lived quietly in Sydney at her new residence at the Mount Stewart Flats with an Australian woman with whom she had been carrying on an affair. The only media coverage was a small debt she had to settle with the owner of the King’s Lynn Apartments.

Return to America and race films (1938–1954)

On February 17, 1938, Nina boarded the SS Niagara back to the United States with a contract to appear in Ralph Cooper’s latest film, “The Duke Is Tops”. However, by the time she arrived on March 12, filming had already begun and Nina was replaced by the young Lena Horne. She was still asked to appear in Los Angeles on April 1, to sign with Million Dollar Productions. Afterwards, while finalizing her divorce from Jimmy Monroe (who was still in Paris with a new nightclub), Nina vacationed for the next six months with her parents in Harlem.

On September 3, Nina arrived in Los Angeles to begin filming, “Gang Smashers”. Once filming was complete, early-October, she traveled south to Ensenada, Mexico with fellow actor Joel Fluellen, where the two hastily married. However, within weeks, Joel quickly denied any knowledge of the marriage, declaring it was simply publicity for the upcoming film. Nina promptly left for a engagements in Chicago and Pittsburgh before returning to her Seventh Avenue apartment in Harlem.

On February 23, Nina returned to the Apollo Theatre, once again appearing in a production of Somerset Maugham’s “Rain” with Tiny Bradshaw’s Orchestra. The following month, she left for D.C.’s Howard Theatre. In the spring, she returned to Los Angeles to film, “Straight To Heaven”, another Million Dollar Productions picture. From August 17 until the 29th, Nina and other actors employed by Million Dollar Productions traveled to Jamaica to film “Pocomania” (later The Devil’s Daughter). While sailing back to the United States, World War II broke out. If Nina had any plans of returning to Europe, those plans were immediately squashed.

On September 19, in Newark, Nina married 20-year old Apollo Theatre errand boy, Robert “Charleston” Montgomery (making him husband number six), seemingly following the same formula of marrying younger husbands as did Valaida Snow. After the wedding, Nina signed a two-year contract with the William Morris Agency and went back on the road. The marriage was already announced to have fell apart by November.

In November 1939, Nina took over Pancho Digg’s 13-piece orchestra and left for a two month tour of the South and Mid-West. Beginning on December 28, Nina Mae McKinney and her orchestra traversed across South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana in a series of one-nighters. On January 7, 1940, while traveling from Jacksonville (Jimmy Monroe’s hometown) to New Orleans, Nina was attacked by a white shop owner. Abandoning the orchestra at the end of January, Nina returned north in March to fulfill an engagements in Massachusetts, Indiana and New York with Tommy Tucker’s Orchestra. That summer she was back in Harlem organizing for a new orchestra, which never materialized.

Instead, on October 14, Nina opened at the West End Theatre in her latest revue, “The Queen of Harlem” with Edgar Hayes Orchestra and 36 chorus girls. The revue ran for a week before closing.

On January 20, 1941, Irvin C. Miller’s “Tan Manhattan” opened for two weeks at Washington D.C.’s Howard Theatre, featuring Nina as one of its headliners. The revue was supposed to go to Broadway the following month at the Shubert Theatre, but, apparently racial barriers are still high and strongly held; they won’t allow African Americans to attest their contribution to the USA. The revue moved over to Harlem’s Apollo. Success is enormous, and in order to give 4 performances per day, the show is reduced to 90 minutes instead of the original 2 hours and 30 minutes. Critics were still concerned, saying that even as it assembles so many talents, the show lacks vigor, story and scenario.

For the last week of February, Nina remained at the Apollo in the next revue, “Up Harlem Way” which also featured 25-year old singer, Billie Holiday, who was Jimmy Monroe’s latest girlfriend. Nina made it a frequent habit of hers to terrorize Billie’s mother, Sadie Fagan on the phone. Jimmy hastily scared Nina out of town, who went on tour that summer of the Mid-West with the “Tan Town Topics” revue.

That fall, as Jimmy and Billie married and relocated to California, Nina returned to the East Coast to join the cast of, “The Good Neighbor”, a play that toured Connecticut, Maryland and New York. In the meantime, she had quietly become engaged to a slick, ladies-man named Melvin Woolfork.

The years 1942–1944 were extremely slow for the former Black Garbo. She was finally in her decline. Most of that year was spent in small nightclubs around Harlem, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Baltimore. At some point during this period, she finally married her 7th husband, Melvin Woolfork.

A destitute and desperate, Nina returned to Hollywood in July 1944 appearing alongside Merle Oberon, playing a servant girl in the film Dark Waters, and Irene Dunne in Together Again as a nightclub attendant. That fall, she was also cast to appear in “The Power of the Whistler”. She took roles in some smaller films, having to accept stereotypical roles of maids and sex workers.

By 1945, she found employment entertaining in nightclubs around San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.

In the spring of 1946, Nina left with Saunders King’s Orchestra and the “Hollywood Cavalcade Revue” for tour of the South before she left for a solo engagement at Washington D.C.’s Club Bali.

From 1947 to 1948, Nina disappeared again for over two years. There’s no mention of her whereabouts except for her appearance in the film, “Danger Street”.

On January 23, 1949, Nina was back in New York performing at the Audubon Theatre. Two months later, on March 8, shortly after having been cast in the film, “Pinky”, Nina’s step-father, James Maynor passed away. On March 22, Nina arrived in Los Angeles, promptly moving into the Watkins Hotel. A few days later, Nina gave an interview with various newspapers, discussing her plans to return to France once filming was over. For the remainder of March, Nina filmed her few scenes in Pinky, before returning to New York to visit her mother.

On April 17, Nina returned to Hollywood with her new husband, Frank B. Mickey (musician and engineer) and a role in her final film, “Copper Canyon”. The couple remained in California, residing at 122 1-2 West 53rd Street until mid-May, when they returned to New York.

On September 5, Nina was in Indianapolis in the “Stars On Parade” revue at the Walker Casino alongside, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and her former rival, Billie Holiday. A few weeks later, as Pinky was being released, Nina sued Ebony Magazine for $70,000 before retiring from the stage altogether and living quietly in her Harlem apartment.

In the summer of 1950, Nina announced that she was expecting her first baby. However, no baby ever arrived.

On April 4, 1951, Nina and Frank Mickey finally received a marriage license. Most likely, the couple weren’t legally married until 1951, as she was probably still married to Woolfork. Five months later, on August 8, Nina revived the stage production of, “Rain” for a week at the Apollo Theatre. The show then spent two weeks on the road in Brooklyn and Washington DC. The producers hoped that the show would take an extended tour across the United States, but instead the show closed at the end of August and Nina returned to semi-retirement in Harlem.

In February 1953, Nina decided to a make a comeback, spending over $1, 000 on new gowns for Manhattan Paul’s revue at Small’s Paradise. Her latest accompanist was former guitarist for Count Basie, Jimmy McLin. Two months later, the duo traveled down to Delair, New Jersey for an engagement at the New Town Tavern. That winter, Nina reunited with her former husband, Melvin Woolfork, who had recently opened a Las Vegas nightclub called, Mel’s Inn. Together the couple flew to London, where Nina began preparing for her return to Europe. Back in Los Angeles by Christmas week of 1953, Nina was seen in and out of various agencies searching for film and television work.

By February 1954, no longer accompanied by McLin, Nina had learned to perform the guitar herself and was preparing leave the United States again for a USO tour of Japan. Afterwards, from 1954–1959, Nina disappears from the America completely. Her husband, was noted in American newspapers, as making frequent trips to Monaco and the Far East (possibly to visit Nina, who was rumored to have resettled in Greece). She isn’t mentioned again until July 1960, after she checked into a Harlem hospital for some unknown ailment.


In 1930, McKinney claimed to have filed a libel suit against a white reporter, Elisabeth Goldbeck, who stated that McKinney had “repudiated her race” in an article that she composed for the Motion Picture Classic magazine.

Death and legacy

After 1960, McKinney lived in New York City. On May 3, 1967, she died of a heart attack at the age of 54 at the Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan. Her funeral was at the Little Church Around the Corner.

  • In 1978, McKinney received a posthumous award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame for her lifetime achievement.
  • In 1992, the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City replayed a clip of McKinney singing in “Pie, Pie Blackbird” (1932) in a combination of clips called Vocal Projections: Jazz Divas in Film.
  • The film historian Donald Bogle discusses McKinney in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, And Bucks—An Interpretive History Of Blacks In American Films (1992). He recognizes her for inspiring other actresses and passing on her techniques to them. He wrote that “her final contribution to the movies now lay in those she influenced.”
  • A portrait of McKinney is displayed in her hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina, at the courthouse’s “Wall of Fame.”
  • In 2011 BearManor Media published Stephen Bourne’s biography Nina Mae McKinney – The Black Garbo
  • In 2019, The New York Times newspaper began a series called “Overlooked”, where the editorial staff is attempting to correct a longstanding bias in reporting by republishing obituaries for historical minorities and women. McKinney was one of the featured obituaries in Overlooked.

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