The Mystery of Hattie McDaniel's Missing Oscar – and the Incredible Life of the First African-American Oscar Winner
"This is one of the happiest moments of my life," McDaniel said when she won an Oscar in 1940
What happened to Hattie McDaniel‘s Oscar award?
After McDaniel died from breast cancer in 1952 at the age of 57, the award was supposed to be donated to Howard University, per her will. The university, however, has no official record of it ever being received.
McDaniel beat costar Olivia de Havilland to win Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara’s maid Mammy in the 1939 Civil War epic Gone with the Wind.
So what happened then to that historic Oscar after McDaniel’s death? While Howard can’t confirm it ever passed through, it’s possible, if not likely, that the university received the award, but that officials didn’t recognize it as an Oscar. Until 1944, the supporting winners received a small plaque instead of the traditional golden statuette.
Several former Howard drama students recalled admiring the award during their time at the school in a 2010 story from the Washington Post. Charles “Buddy” Butler, a 1968 alum, told the paper it was proudly displayed in a glass case in the fine arts building next to a pair of legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s shoes. The drama chair at the time, Owen Dodson, “Was so proud of having it at Howard,” Butler told the Post. “Dodson talked about it as something we, as African American students, could aspire to.”
There are several theories as to what happened to the trophy, which George Washington Law School Professor W. Burlette Carter outlines in a detailed paper on the subject. Carter conducted an 18-month investigation, and largely dismissed the most commonly held theory, that student activists tossed it into the Potomac River as part of a protest in the late 1960s.
Instead, Carter wrote, she believes “In the midst of dramatic changes wrought by the ’60s, those in charge acted responsibly. They made room for the young to have their say, and they placed the plaque, the shoes, and other artifacts” into a special university archive collection. She does not say where it traveled from that point.
Over the years, the university and other groups have asked for a replacement Oscar to be issued, which is against Academy rules.
“We do not create replacements for heirs or whomever may have come into possession of an award following the winner’s death,” Leslie Unger, a spokesperson for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, told the Post.
The mystery of the missing Oscar is just part of McDaniel’s personal story. Here are five more things you should know about this groundbreaking actress.
1. McDaniel was the daughter of two former slaves and was the youngest of 13 children
Born into a poor family in Wichita, Kansas, in 1895, McDaniel decided to enter show business to avoid becoming a maid like her mother and sisters, according to The Hollywood Reporter
In the late 1920s and 1930s, McDaniel worked as both an onstage performer – she was in Show Boat for a period of time – and as a bathroom attendant on the side. When she arrived in Hollywood, she appeared in movies alongside Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and Jean Harlow.
2. Segregation prevented her from attending her own movie premiere or celebrating Oscar night with her Gone with the Wind with her costars
Gone with the Wind had its premiere in Atlanta, which meant that McDaniel couldn’t attend due to the state of Georgia’s very strict segregation laws at the time.
Even worse, after being showered with praise for her performance, earning her an Oscar nod, McDaniel wasn’t allowed sit with Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, or the rest of her Gone with the Wind costars. The venue for the 1940 awards, the Ambassador Hotel, had a strict no-blacks policy. Producer David O. Selznick called in a favor to get his star into the awards, and she was forced to sit in the back of the room next her escort, Ferdinand Yober.
Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote at the time, “If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.”
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McDaniel said to the room: “This one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the awards. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”
3. She was the first black woman with her own radio show
As Hollywood came under increasing fire for perpetuating shallow, negative stereotypes onscreen, the maid roles that McDaniel played began to gradually disappear.
However, McDaniel did find a second career in radio. In 1947, she was cast as the lead in the situation comedy The Beulah Show, playing a housekeeper and cook. It was a character created 8 years earlier by white male actor Marlin Hurt, who appeared on various radio series. When McDaniel took over, ratings doubled, and ABC optioned it for TV. The actress only starred in a handful of television episodes before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and eventually she was too ill to continue working.
4. McDaniel wanted to keep her family away from Hollywood
“My father [Edgar] said that Hattie was pretty clear that she didn’t want the family to be in Hollywood,” Kimberly Goff-Crews, McDaniel’s great grandniece told The Hollywood Reporter. “She wanted them to have ‘good, normal’ jobs, so to speak – doctors and lawyers. She was no stage mom.”
During her life, McDaniel married four times, but never had any children. Goff-Crews is her sister Etta’s great granddaughter.
5. McDaniel was unable to be buried in the cemetery of her choice
On October 26, 1952, McDaniel died in the hospital at the Motion Picture House in Woodland Hills, California. In her will, she wrote, “I desire a white casket and a white shroud; white gardenias in my hair and in my hands, together with a white gardenia blanket and a pillow of red roses. I also wish to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery.” At the time, Hollywood Cemetery (final resting place for stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and her Gone With the Wind director Victor Fleming) wouldn’t allow black people to be buried there.
Her second choice was Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, which is where she lies today.
In 1999, the new owner of Hollywood Cemetery – renamed Hollywood Forever Cemetery – contacted McDaniel’s family and offered to have her interred there. They declined, not wishing to disturb her remains.