Talent Has No Color Part 3: Success Achieved … and Then

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By Jené McCracken

A high point for Ruby Elzy came in December of 1937. Ruby was invited to sing before a ladies’ luncheon. The guests were the wives of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. Ruby and her white accompanist, good friend and fellow Julliard graduate, Arthur Kaplan, arrived for their performance. Unlike all the other times, she had to enter the houses of white people by way of the back kitchen door solely because of her race. This time she was welcomed and ushered through the South Portico Doors of The White House to be introduced warmly by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. The White House concert was a success. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote an enthusiastic review in her daily newspaper column which was published throughout the nation.

Years later following an eight-month, cross country revival tour of Porgy and Bess, Ruby was selected by the Metropolitan Opera to be the first African American to play the title role of Aida, an Ethiopian Princess, in Verdi’s sumptuous opera. In her life, Ruby had transitioned from a Mississippi “pauper” with uncertain prospects, to an Ethiopian princess with the world spread out before her! All things seemed possible.

Tragically, before the first performance as Aida, Ruby required surgery. Exhausted from the Porgy and Bess revival tour and having only five days of rest before the surgery, Ruby died unexpectedly during the operation.

It was 1943. She was only 35.

Both Emma Elzy and Jack Carr, Ruby’s second and devoted husband, were stunned and grief stricken.

Emma sent a telegram to C. C. and Cleo: “Our beloved Ruby passed during an operation.”
“My dad was never the same,” Ed told David. Bill, Ed’s older brother, later shared with David that “Ruby’s death hit them all very hard. It was a waste, her death, a waste.”
Bill had visited with Ruby in Chicago when she closed at the Studebaker Theatre that January. Bill said, “We must have walked 16 blocks before we could find a place that would allow us, a black lady and a white man, to sit together.”

For Emma, Ruby’s shortened life was not a waste. She wrote to C. C. that Ruby’s work would continue and that C.C.’s own efforts “helped thousands of Negro boys and girls throughout America … your finding Ruby down in the hills of Mississippi … and giving her a chance.”

C. C. and Cleo McCracken retired and relocated to Tavares, Florida, where they had a few citrus trees and grew gladiolus to sell. C. C. visited Emma Elzy in 1952 and he then commenced writing Ruby’s biography. However, he had to abandon the biography due to declining health and died in 1957. Cleo died in 1965.

The manuscript was packed away with other content and found its way to a closet in the Niceville house of Janet McCracken, educator, and Mary Ruth McCracken, artist and educator. The boxes, uninvestigated since C. C.’s death, were relocated to Ed’s house following Mary Ruth’s passing in 2000. Bill died later in 2000 and Janet died in 2003.

Since 1957, the manuscript slumbered for nearly 50 years. Ruby, long forgotten by the public, only as a footnote in other books, came back to life for David. David knew, with Bill’s, Janet’s and Ed’s blessing and support, that his biography of Ruby Elzy was now a possibility.

Cleo’s Baldwin piano, used by both Cleo and Ruby, was also used by Ed in his childhood. That piano eventually passed to Ed, an accomplished amateur pianist who enjoyed playing for his family, friends, colleagues and himself – with fond memories of Ruby and her uniquely exquisite voice.

Ed, Ruby’s favorite, died in 2009.

David Weaver wrote his book, the acclaimed Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy, compiled and produced a CD on Ruby Elzy’s music, and is currently the Executive President of the Ohioana Library Association. He also conducts symposiums, festivals and retrospectives on Ruby Elzy. His book is widely available as a book and as an ebook.
For a quick summary by David Weaver of Ruby’s life, samples of her singing, and the story of his writing the book, start with the You Tube video entitled “Columbus Neighborhoods: Ruby Elzy.”

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series. If you missed Parts 1 and 2, you can read it in Bay Life August and September 2023 at MyBayLifeNWFL.com.