Jet magazine’s Jan. 29, 1953, edition cover featured a photo of Hazel Washington and Rosalind Russell. It was headlined as “Hollywood Business Team,” and captured Washington’s dual presence as an entrepreneur and a screen star. Her film credits gave her the celebrity and capital to forge a place in the business world, one that was bolstered by her partnership with Russell, herself a movie idol. Washington caught my attention from watching the 1934 version of “Imitation of Life,” starring Claudette Colbert, with Louise Beavers as Colbert’s maid and later a source of income from their pancake mix.
Washington does not appear in the film until the penultimate scene with Beavers on her deathbed, pleading for Colbert and others to find her daughter, who has deserted her, and bring her back for a final reunion. Washington is in the room, but barely utters a word as she stands dutifully by to comfort the ailing Beavers. Interestingly, the daughter is portrayed by Fredi Washington, no kin to Hazel.
As in so many of her films, Washington is an uncredited actor and, for the most part, she is little more than a spectator—part of the scenery to give a slight nod to the marginalized. In such films as “Ben” (1972) and “Willard” (1971), and in various episodes of “The Bill Cosby Show” (1969), she was listed under the Make-Up Department as a hairdresser or stylist. This occupation was another indication of her versatility and a stepping stone to her more formidable role as a businesswoman.
Very little is known about Washington’s early years, although it is noted on several websites that she was born on August 14, 1906 or 1915, in Dallas. Ironically, she went from performing as a maid to actually becoming one, most notably to Russell. Both were creative knitters and forged their skills in designing women’s clothing—tailored mainly in leather for Hollywood stars. As a teenager, she was living in Los Angeles and married to LAPD police officer Roscoe (Rocky) Washington, which means her birth name is unknown. He, by the way, was the uncle of Kenny Washington, the first African-American player in the NFL.
When she wasn’t involved as a fashionista, she authored a column each week in the Chicago Defender, entitled “This is Hollywood.”
For more than a dozen years, beginning just before the start of World War II, the couple marketed their own brand of custom-made sweaters and hand-tooled leather works. With a $10,000 initial investment, they set up Hazel, Inc. in Beverly Hills. Among their customers were Lena Horne, Mrs. Jack Benny, Ann Sheridan, and Lana Turner.
When the supply of leather was no longer available because of the war, the couple switched to making stylized sweaters with sparkling trimmings.
Even after shifting to making more glamorized women’s apparel, Washington still found time to make jewelry cases, personalized gift items, and handbags. Her work was highly praised by such screen idols as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; Van Johnson purchased a portal bar of black kangaroo leather for $250.
There appeared to be a neat division of labor between her and Russell, with most of the handiwork completed by Washington, while Russell looked after the Rolodex of possible contacts and consumers. Whenever Russell was on the road in a production, Washington was invited along to ensure the movement of the team’s products.
On May 19, 1962, 10 days before President Kennedy’s birthday, Marilyn Monroe attended the celebration at Madison Square Garden to serenade him with a breathy “Happy Birthday” song. The dress she wore, a $4,000 sheath created by Jean Louis, was delivered by Washington. It took six hours to get Monroe into the dress, an event that Washington observed while sipping champagne. After the event, she jetted back to her home in Los Angeles. She was apparently a close confidante of Monroe since there are several invoices and photos of her on studio sites with the actress.
Washington died on October 13, 1991, in Inglewood, California.