It’s interesting to see Taylor Gordon’s photo pop up recently in the New York Times—as part of a review of Carla Kaplan’s new book, Miss Anne in Harlem, a study of white women in Harlem and during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. To illustrate the review, the Times printed a photograph of Taylor, Nancy Cunard, and John Banting from 1932. The white Nancy Cunard stands between the African American Taylor Gordon and the white John Banting. The image received quite a bit of circulation in 1932 and was reprinted in newspapers across the nation—sometimes as an illustration for Cunard’s “scandalous” (associating with black people) behavior. More prurient versions of the photo cropped Banting from it, suggestively framing Cunard and Taylor as if they were a couple, a framing reinforced with salacious headlines and captions.
This photograph was a publicity photo for J. Rosamond Johnson and His Inimitable Five, published in this version in the New York Age in 1922. The photograph is actually from 1919 and shows a very early version of the group that was quite different from the 1922 lineup. Taylor Gordon, however, was still part of the Inimitable Five in 1922, and that’s him seating and holding a banjo in this 1919 photo.
From 1919 through the summer of 1922, Taylor Gordon toured with J. Rosamond Johnson on the vaudeville circuit (in conjunction the B. F. Keith vaudeville houses). From 1921, this is a notice of their appearance in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
From The Meagher County News, Wednesday, March 24, 1954:
The first television program broadcast by station KFBB, Great Falls, was viewed last Sunday at the Marvin Corkill home by neighbors who dropped in during the evening. This is the first television program, lasting for any considerable time, which has been received in White Sulphur Springs, although during the past year “skip” or intermittent reception from several points in the United States was reported by Marvin Corkill and Hersman Gwin.
In later television related news, Taylor Gordon appeared on local television at one point after he returned to live in the Springs. An article in The Meagher County News (Oct 26, 1967) describes that appearance:
Tuesday morning, October 24, Taylor Gordon was on KRTV in Great Falls on the “Today in Montana” show at 8:00 A. M. Miss Norma Ashby introduced his book, “The Man Who Built the Stone Castle,” the biography of B. R. Sherman. Miss Ashby also persuaded Taylor to sing three songs. “Because,” “Old Man River,” and one verse of “Camptown Races.”
As a young man, Taylor Gordon worked for circus impresario John Ringling as his valet and as the porter on Ringling’s private railway car. Taylor is mentioned by Henry Ringling North in his autobiography The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story. He relates several incidents revealing something about the relationship between Taylor and Ringling.
Robert Ringling, John’s nephew, was an opera singer, and although possessed of a good baritone voice, “It must be admitted that Uncle John could not stand him.”
Henry Ringling North continues:
I remember one evening when Robert came . . . prepared to give us a marvelously enjoyable evening, and Uncle John naughtily said, “I have a treat for you, Robert.”
He called in his valet, Taylor Gordon, who was studying voice on the side, and Manny (as we called him) sang for hours while Bob listened as gracefully as possible. (172)
Although the Gordons visited Helena with some regularity, I’ve found only a few news items about them in Helena’s African American newspaper, The Montana Plaindealer.
April 26, 1907:
F. E. Gordon better known as Blondie hot footed it back to his home at White Sulphur Springs where he says he knows he can get by.
[At least, this seems likely to be one of the Gordons, but I’m not sure if the initials refer to Francis, in which case it should be J. F., or Emmanuel Taylor, in which case it should be E. T. rather than F. E. The nickname doesn’t help much either, as “Blondie” is not among the many nicknames Taylor lists for himself in Born to Be, and Francis’ nickname was Sam.]
October 30, 1909
Miss Rosa [sic] Gordon and brother were over to visit the fair.
January 28, 1910
R. J. Gordon of White Sulphur visited several days in the city last week.
Edited by African American Helena resident Joseph B. Bass, The Montana Plaindealer was published from March 16, 1906, through September 5, 1911. The newspaper was primarily distributed to the black community of Helena, and its content is reflective of the interests of that community. The newspaper comments on political issues of concern, reports on the activities of members of the community, supports and black-owned businesses (and provides an advertising forum) in the Helena area, and provides news of general interest to black westerners.
I’ve been reading through the entire run of the Plaindealer, in part because it is interesting reading in and of itself, but primarily because I am continuing to look for information about the Gordons. Robert in particular regularly visited Helena and was member of one of the city’s black fraternal lodges. Aside from my interest in the Gordons, the Plaindealer is well worth looking at for the slice of life view it provides of the interests and concerns of early-twentieth-century black westerners living in Helena.
The Plaindealer was particularly active in opposing anti-black legislation introduced in the Montana legislature, including a proposed ban that would make it illegal for African American men to wear insignia indicating their membership in a fraternal lodge. This notice appeared in the February 1, 1907, edition of the newspaper.
Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Rose Gordon bought an annual “seasons greetings” ad in the Meagher County News (as did other business others in White Sulphur Springs), partly as a way of advertising her physiotherapy business. Posting a couple of her ads seemed like a good way of saying best wishes and seasons greetings to the readers of the The Taylor Gordon and Rose Gordon Biography Project blog.
One of the great things about working on the biography of Taylor and Rose Gordon is that I’ve been able to discover a lot of information about African Americans living in Montana before 1900. Not only was there an active African American community in the Gordons’ hometown of White Sulphur Springs, but there were also African Americans coming in an out of the area as part of travelling musical and theatrical shows. The Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville performed in White Sulphur, as did other touring companies made up of predominantly African American performers. One touring group, the McKanlass Colored Specialty Company, advertised their performance in the June 14, 1888, edition of the Rocky Mountain Husbandman.
When Taylor Gordon returned from New York in the late 1950s to settle once more in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, he also returned (at the age of 67) to the concert stage for the first time in well over two decades, performing in the Springs as well as in other Montana towns and cities. One of those concerts is advertised here in the February 24, 1960, edition of the Meagher County News:
The March 2, 1960, edition of the Meagher County News reports on the concert:
“A program of negro spirituals, classical and secular songs was presented in a concert by Taylor Gordon, at the grade school auditorium last Saturday evening. A sizeable crowd, including a number of people from out of town, attended in spite of the below-zero weather that night.
“Mr. Gordon was accompanied by Miss Mary Louise Nelson at the piano.
“The concert was Mr. Gordon’s first public appearance since 1939, and the first time he had sang here since 1936.
“Mr. Gordon began his singing career in 1919. From that year until 1925, he was a vaudeville performer in many eastern cities. In 1925 he formed a partnership with J. Rosamond Johnson and they toured the country giving concerts. They were featured in a radio program, ‘Dixie Echoes,’ on the CBS network until 1930. During this time Mr. Gordon published an anthology of Negro Spirituals, which was issued in two volumes.”
[The MCN is in error here, as it was his partner J. Rosamond Johnson with his brother James Weldon who published The Books of the American Negro Spirituals, although Gordon was connected to the books, as the Johnson / Gordon concerts were intended in part to promote them.]
“In 1932 he appeared in the New York show ‘Shoot the Works,’ which was written and produced by the late Heywood Broun. Later he appeared in ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ with Seth Arnold; and in 1934 in ‘The Gay Divorcee’ which starred Fred Astaire. This last show was taken from New York to Chicago during the World’s Fair and Mr. Gordon went with the troupe to Chicago. His last public appearances were in New York [sic] during the 1939 World’s Fair.
“When the United States entered World War II, he took a job with the Curtiss-Wright aircraft company in New Jersey. After the war he was employed by Merit Studios, a division of Burton, Barton, Durstine and Osborne advertising agency. He returned to White Sulphur Springs last year.
“Mr. Gordon published a book entitled ‘Born to Be’ in 1929. The book tells of his early life in White Sulphur Springs, and of his adventures while traveling with the Ringling circus. Copies of the first edition have become collector’s items, and Mr. Gordon is planning to have the book republished.”