Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee

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Faber & Faber, 2004 - Biography & Autobiography - 430 pages
The first biography of the great black actor, activist, athlete--and tragic victim of the blacklist
Imagine an actor as familiar to audiences as Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman are today--who is then virtually deleted from public memory. Such is the story of Canada Lee. Among the most respected black actors of the forties and a tireless civil rights advocate, Lee was unjustly dishonored, his name reduced to a footnote in the history of the McCarthy era, his death one of a handful directly attributable to the blacklist.
Born in Harlem in 1907, Lee was a Renaissance man. A musical prodigy on violin and piano at eleven, by thirteen he had become a successful jockey and by his twenties a champion boxer. After wandering into auditions for the WPA Negro Theater Project, Lee took up acting and soon shot to stardom in Orson Welles's Broadway production of Native Son, later appearing in such classic films as Lifeboat and the original Cry, the Beloved Country. But Lee's meteoric rise to fame was followed by a devastating fall. Labeled a Communist by the FBI and HUAC as early as 1943, Lee was pilloried during the notorious spy trial of Judith Coplon in 1949, then condemned in longtime friend Ed Sullivan's column. He died in 1952, forty-five and penniless, a heartbroken casualty of a dangerous and conflicted time. Now, after nearly a decade of research, Mona Z. Smith revives the legacy of a man who was perhaps the blacklist's most tragic victim.
Mona Z. Smith is a former reporter for "The Miami Herald" and an award-winning playwright. She lives in Brooklyn.
Imagine an actor as familiar to audiences as Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Morgan Freeman are today--who is then virtually deleted from cultural history. Such is the story of Canada Lee. Among the most respected black actors of the 1940s and a passionate civil rights activist, Lee was reduced to a footnote in the history of the McCarthy era, and his death was one of a handful directly attributed to the blacklist.
Born in Harlem in 1907, Lee was a Depression-era Renaissance man, reinventing himself numerous times during one of our country's darkest periods: a musical prodigy on violin and piano, he made his concert debut at New York's prestigious Aeolian Hall at eleven; by thirteen he had become a successful jockey; in his teens, a pro boxer; and in his twenties, a leading contender for the national welterweight title, until an unlucky blow to the head cost him the sight in one eye and his fighting career. After wandering into auditions for the Federal Theatre Project's Negro Unit, Lee took up acting and shot to stardom in Orson Welles's Broadway production of "Native Son." He later appeared in such films as Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Lifeboat" and the original "Cry, the Beloved Country" with a young Sidney Poitier.
But Lee's meteoric rise to fame was followed by a devastating fall from grace. Labeled a Communist by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee as early as 1943, Lee was pilloried during the notorious spy trial of Judith Coplon in 1949, and his career was ultimately destroyed when his longtime friend Ed Sullivan denounced him in his nationally syndicated column. Lee died in 1952, forty-five and penniless, a heartbroken victim of a dangerous and conflicted time. Now, after nearly a decade of research, Mona Z. Smith revives the legacy of a man who was perhaps the blacklist's most tragic victim.
"Armed with extensive research and huge files hoarded by [Lee's] widow, Smith has put together a richly detailed . . . narrative . . . "Becoming Something" does an important [service by making] possible much more discussion and reflection on a life that still has lessons to teach us."--Clyde Taylor, "The Washington Post Book World"
"Mona Z. Smith has used her considerable gifts as a dramatist and storyteller to illuminate the astonishing odyssey of Canada Lee, a man who challenged racism in every quarter, here and abroad, for thirty years, and usually prevailed. Here at last is a full-length portrait of this forgotten hero."--Daniel Mark Epstein, author of "Lincoln and Whitman" and "Nat King Cole "
"A biography of Canada Lee has been long overdue. The story of his dramatic rise and fall is as important as it is moving, and Mona Z. Smith tells it with theatrical flair. This is a first-rate book."--Hazel Rowley, author of "Richard Wright: The Life and Times"
"Smith, a former investigative reporter for the "Miami Herald" who wrote a play about Lee under the same title, completed years of research and interviews to support her premise that Lee was the victim of unjust accusations fueled by the political climate. She makes a convincing case in this groundbreaking biography, providing a thought-provoking example of the tragic impact of a nation's and an art form's paranoia."--"Library Journal "
"Smith deftly depicts New York's theater scene, showing how Lee became one of the first African-Americans to gain acceptance in white theater, and thoroughly documents Lee's outspoken support for civil rights. Lee's speechmaking caught the attention of Cold War Red-baiters, and in 1949, he started hearing rumors he'd been blacklisted. While he did work in one final film--1951's "Cry, the Beloved Country"--the strain of not being able to work or support his family may have irritated his hypertension, leading to kidney failure. Smith's admiration for Lee--his artistry, his desegregation campaigns, his generosity toward the needy, his fellowship with other African-American artists--is so overwhelming that Lee emerges as a two-dimensional character. Still, students of African-American, theater and Cold War history will find this a valuable reference."--"Publishers Weekly"
"Serviceable biography of the pioneering African-American actor, staunch civil-rights advocate, and blacklist victim. Before he ever walked onstage, Canada Lee (1907-52) had been a classical violinist, a professional jockey, and a prizewinning boxer, and he fought throughout his acting career for roles that reflected the full range of black people's characters and experiences. His biographer, a former reporter for the "Miami Herald," adequately outlines Lee's achievements . . . Smith, who had the cooperation of Lee's widow, paints an attractive portrait of a man who loved a good time, always offered a helping hand to his friends, and continued to support the causes he believed in even after he knew what the consequences would be."--"Kirkus Reviews "

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Becoming something: the story of Canada Lee

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Canada Lee's distinguished acting career was curtailed and virtually written out of theatrical history during the McCarthy era. A jockey, boxer, and bandleader before turning to acting, he gained fame ... Read full review

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This is a must read. I found it more than releveant to my families experience in the boxing world. Read full review

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About the author (2004)

Mona Z. Smith is a former investigative reporter for The Miami Herald and an award-winning playwright.

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