I first learned about Canada Lee (1907-52) from Denise Oswald, my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. One of the books ahead of mine in the FSG pipeline was Mona Z. Smith’s Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee, which Denise was also editing. This was the first biography ever about this major African American cultural hero; doubtless it will remain the definitive one for a very long time.
By any measure, Lee was a remarkable human being. Born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata and raised in Harlem, he studied piano and violin with J. Rosamond Johnson and other teachers. After seven years of serious study, he ran away without warning upstate to Saratoga Springs, where he worked as a professional jockey for two years. Then he went from the racetrack to the ring. In 1923 he began boxing at the amateur level, and turned pro in 1926. He fought as a welterweight until 1931. It was the fight game that gave him his professional handle, as well as his distinctive injured eye, one of his trademarks in his future career.
When he retired from fighting, Lee dusted off his musical skills and started a jazz band, which performed at theatres and nightclubs in the early ’30s. He also briefly operated his own jazz club, The Jitterbug, which lasted about six months.
In 1934, he became an actor, the career for which he is best known today. After touring the five boroughs of New York City with a community theatre production called Brother Mose, he was hired to replace Rex Ingram in the Broadway production of Stevedore, which also toured to other cities. After a short-lived comedy called Sailor, Beware (1935), he was hired by Orson Welles to play Banquo in his landmark Harlem production of Voodoo MacBeth (1936) The relationship later bore fruit when the director hired Lee again to play Bigger Thomas in the original stage adaptation of Native Son (1941, 1942-43). Other early stage productions included O’Neill‘s sea plays (1937), Brown Sugar (1937), Haiti (1938), and Mamba’s Daughters (1939-1940).
In 1939 Lee appeared in his first film, the boxing themed race picture Keep Punching, with boxer Henry Armstrong, Willie Bryant, Hamtree Harrington, and Dooley Wilson. In 1940 he was hired to host the CBS musical radio show Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm. He acted on radio regularly through the rest of the decade. In 1941, he opened Canada Lee’s Chicken Coop, a restaurant and jazz club in Harlem.
Meanwhile, there were more Broadway shows: Big White Fog (1940), a bill of two Saroyan plays (1942), South Pacific (1943-44, directed by Lee Strasberg, not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical), Anna Lucasta (1944-46), The Tempest (1945, he played Caliban), On Whitman Avenue (1946), directed by Margo Jones), The Duchess of Malfi (1946) and Dorothy Heyward’s Set My People Free (1948).
On film, he was also in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), Body and Soul (1947, a John Garfield boxing picture), and Lost Boundaries (1949, a story of “passing” starring Mel Ferrer). A heart attack felled him during the shoot of Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), his last film. He managed to finish the film, but he died of uremia the following year. He was only 45.