Gertrude Jeannette, Actor, Director and Cabdriver, Dies at 103
Posted April 26, 2018 8:02 p.m. EDT
Updated April 26, 2018 8:08 p.m. EDT
On her first day on the job, Gertrude Jeannette, believed to be the first women to drive a cab in New York City, got in a fender bender — on purpose.
She had pulled up in front of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan looking for a fare but was cut off by other taxi drivers.
“In those days they didn’t allow black drivers to work downtown, you had to work uptown,” Jeannette, who was African-American, later recalled. “They said, ‘Say, buddy, you know you’re not supposed to be on this line.'”
As cabbies hurled insults and hemmed her in, she remained calmly on line — until, that is, a Checker cab lurched in front of her.
“I rammed my fender under his fender, swung it over to the right and ripped it,” she said in 2011 at a ceremony in her honor at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem. When the other driver got a good look at her, he screamed: “A woman driver! A woman driver!”
She was later reprimanded by an inspector, but she drove off with her very first customer.
Jeannette, who was also one of the first women to get a motorcycle license in New York, and who later overcame a speech impediment to become a Broadway, film and television actor as well as a playwright, producer and director, died April 4 at her home in Harlem. She was 103.
Her niece, Angela Hadley Brown, confirmed the death. Jeannette got her hack license in 1942. She had responded to an ad in a newspaper looking for women to replace the male cabdrivers who had been drafted into World War II.
“Women were going into plants and everything else, taking over jobs,” she recalled in a 2005 interview. “I said, well, I know one thing — I can drive a car.”
“Thirty-two of us took the test and only two of us passed,” said Jeannette, who learned how to drive a Chrysler truck at the age of 13 in Arkansas. “But the other girl didn’t get her license because she had citations on her driver’s license. And so I, I was the first.”
(Jeannette is widely thought to be the first woman to get a taxi license in New York City, said Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner for public affairs of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, but records from that period have been lost or destroyed. The first unlicensed female cabdriver in New York City was Wilma K. Russey in 1915.)
Jeannette never wanted to act but was pushed into the theater, she said.
With the money she earned driving, she had set out to correct her childhood stammer by enrolling in the one speech class she could find, at the American Negro Theater, housed in the basement of what is today the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Acting instruction was part of the curriculum, and she studied alongside Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. She was quickly singled out for her stage presence and cast in her first Broadway production, “Lost in the Stars,” which had its premiere at the Music Box Theater in 1949.
She would go on to land rolls in Broadway productions like “The Long Dream” (1960), “Nobody Loves an Albatross” (1963), “The Amen Corner” (1965), “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1975) and “Vieux Carré” (1977), written by Tennessee Williams, with whom she became friends. Her film credits include “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), “Shaft” (1971) and “Black Girl” (1972).
Jeannette began writing plays in 1950, in response to what she saw as an absence of authentic black characters on the stage.
“I saw parts that I knew I wouldn’t play,” she said in an interview in 1995. “And so I started writing about women, and strong women, that I knew that no one would be ashamed to play.”
Gertrude Hadley was born on Nov. 28, 1914, in Urbana, Arkansas, about 15 miles from the Louisiana border. Her father, Willis Lawrence Hadley, taught at a mission on a Native American reservation near Spiro, Oklahoma. Her mother, Salley Gertrude Crawford Hadley, was a homemaker.
Gertrude grew up on a farm with five brothers and one sister, climbing black walnut trees, playing stickball and fishing for trout. During the Depression, she moved with her family to Little Rock, Arkansas, and enrolled at Dunbar High School, a segregated one-room schoolhouse, where she recalled beginning each day singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
On her prom night, she met her future husband, Joe Jeannette, a heavyweight prizefighter 35 years her senior, who was in town from New York. The pair danced the Lindy Hop, a popular dance in Harlem, and by the end of the song he had asked her to marry him.
“Just because I’m a small-town girl, I’m not a fool,” she recalled telling him in a 2005 interview. “And I walked off the floor.”
He persisted, and they eloped to New York in 1933.
Joe Jeannette was the president of the Harlem Dusters, a motorcycle club, and he taught his wife how to ride a motorcycle under the elevated train tracks (now demolished) on what is now Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem.
“The ‘el’ train, they had these big pillars,” she recalled. “And he would push me with no motor running, take the motorcycle and push me around, and have me to guide in and out those ‘el’ posts to get the swing of the motorcycle.”
She got her motorcycle license in 1935, the same year she had her only son, Robert, who died at 5 years old.
Her husband worked as a bodyguard of sorts for Paul Robeson, the baritone singer, actor and political activist. In 1949, the Harlem Dusters, including Gertrude, traveled to what was to be an open-air concert in Peekskill, New York.
“That’s the first time I saw the Ku Klux Klan,” Gertrude Jeannette recalled in 2015. “They came out to lynch Paul Robeson.”
Klansmen set fire to crosses on the field, and American Legion members, protesting what they saw as Robeson’s affinity for the Soviet Union and communism, clashed with concertgoers. The melee became known as the Peekskill Riots.
When the American Negro Theater closed in 1949, many of the company’s black actors moved to California or elsewhere. Some, including Jeannette, were barred from working during the Red scare of the 1950s; she was singled out, she said, because of her association with Robeson.
So Jeannette — “Mother Gertrude” or “Ms. J,” as she was known in Harlem — set up a succession of theater companies in the neighborhood, including the HADLEY players (for Harlem Artist’s Development League Especially for You) in 1979.
“She had many opportunities to go to Hollywood, but she always stayed in Harlem,” said Ward Nixon, who was the artistic director for the HADLEY players. “She stayed in Harlem to make sure the community had top-notch theater.” A demanding director, Jeannette mentored a generation of young black actors in New York. She wrote five plays, which grappled with racism, politics, family ties and the importance of education.
Her first, and her favorite, was “The Way Forward” (1950), which drew upon her childhood in Arkansas. In “A Bolt From the Blue,” she explored the so-called Bronx Slave Market — groups of black women who huddled outside department stores searching for jobs as day laborers or domestic workers in the 1930s and ′40s.
“They were wonderfully dramatic pieces, punctuated by lighter moments throughout,” Nixon said of her work. “You always walked out of one of her plays feeling uplifted and encouraged.”
She continued to act into her 80s and retired from directing at 98. Her husband died in 1956. She is survived by 10 nephews and six nieces.
“Ms. Jeannette left on this earth the feeling of hope,” Nixon said. “That wherever you are in life, and whatever you want to do, you can always rise up.”