Among the pleasures reading the late Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase’s book “Josephine: The Hungry Heart,” their biography of the great dancer and chanteuse Josephine Baker, is the gallery of notables attracted to the performer’s dynamic vortex. Three of them were chorus line dancers with her—Florence Mills, Maude Russell, Evelyn Anderson, and Lydia Jones. And each of them is given considerable citations in the book, particularly Russell.
During my time with Jean-Claude, one of Josephine’s adopted children, at his restaurant on 42nd Street, he would regale me with stories that were too risqué about the dancers, including Russell, to put in the book. He seemed especially fond of recounting the life and times of Russell, and often wished he had more time to devote to a book about her.
He never completed his dream project, nor has anyone else as far as I can discover, though the website Blackthen.com has a brief synopsis of her career that span some 22 years and it was often claimed that she introduced the Charleston dance on Broadway.
Billed as the “Slim Princess” during her glory days on stage and film, Russell was born to a white father and a Black mother in Texas, and as a young girl she worked as a ticket taker and by virtue of this situation met a star performer Sam Russell and they were soon married. Their marriage was as brief as it was violent and having saved a small sum of money, she left him and embarked on her own performances on stage and vaudeville.
Her introduction to the world of entertainment began on stage where she was often cast in the chorus line. It was during these engagements, including at the famous Cotton Club that she performed with a number of aspiring hoofers, none more influential than Josephine Baker. Even so, she had her moments in the spotlight beginning in 1922 with her role in “Liza,” a musical written by Maceo Pinkard. She rocked the show with her routine of the Charleston dance and gained even wider recognition when it was performed in “Runnin’ Wild.”
From this notoriety, she performed in a succession of shows, mostly cameo appearances but nonetheless keeping her name on the tongue and rolodex of countless producers and promoters. “Dixie to Broadway” (1924); “Chocolate Scandals” (1927); “Keep Shufflin’” (1928); “Mamba’s Daughters” (1940); and “The Big White Fog” in 1940, where she was featured with the enormously talented Canada Lee in this play written by Theodore Ward, were among a few of the productions she graced.
“St. Louis Woman” in 1946 is listed as her last show and seven years later she married Septimus Rutherford, chief steward on a major shipping line and retired from performing. But apparently, she had time to reminisce, which she did extensively with Jean-Claude with an emphasis on the time she spent with Josephine.
In several places in the book, she reflected on Josephine’s comic routine that never failed to steal the show. There was a hint of rivalry between them, but they remained cordial friends as they moved from show to show, from continent to continent. In the mid-1930s when Josephine and Russell returned to the states, their relationship was in tatters, and so were Josephine’s performances, so much so that Russell was called in to replace her. Russell was performing with Fats Waller’s band at the Loew’s State Theater when representatives of the Shubert Theater approached her. “They wanted a replacement for Josephine because she wasn’t going over,” Russell told Jean-Claude. “And I opened on a Monday and got a beautiful write-up in the paper, so they came looking for me on Tuesday.”
But apparently things were immediately patched up and Josephine resumed as the star, and Russell continued at Loew’s, according to Jean-Claude. One evening, he said, Russell visited Josephine after her show and spent time with her in the dressing room, where Russell commented favorably on one of Josephine’s outfits. When Russell asked her how it felt to be a big star, Josephine replied, “You get used to it.”
Very little is known about Russell’s life after her career ended on stage, but she was noted as working as a switchboard operator in an Atlantic City hotel, however the years are not mentioned. She was 104 when she died on March 29, 2001. (And this was the only photo available that didn’t include copyright restrictions.)