Philippa Schuyler's art failed to provide her with racial identity or happiness


"YET DO I marvel at this curious thing," mused the African-American This line is longer than measure/can't be broken writer Countee Cullen: "To make a poet black and bid him sing!"

Cullen's ironic observation might easily be applied to Philippa Schuyler, the Harlem-born child music prodigy whose tragically shortened career from the 1930s to the 1960s epitomized the cruel contradictions of race and gender that have tormented so many artists of color in America.

Schuyler's story is recounted with wit and empathy in "Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler" by Kathryn Talalay, who spent eight years researching her subject. Ms. Talalay was in Baltimore last week to talk about her work at the Johns Hopkins University.

Philippa Schuyler was born in 1931, the only child of an African-American journalist and a white Southern belle who defied her conservative Texas family by running off to New York and marrying across the color line.

Philippa's parents, who thought of themselves as racial progressives, quite openly regarded their daughter as an experiment. They believed that a child of a black-white union would be endowed with what Josephine, Philippa's mother, once described as "hybrid vigor" -- a combination of superior intellectual and artistic abilities that would vindicate the couple's conviction that the solution to America's racial dilemma lay in universal intermarriage.

Young Philippa did not disappoint them. At the age of 2 1/2 she was able to read and write. At 4 she was playing the piano; at 5 she was composing original works, which she performed in public.

Through her father's press contacts, Philippa's picture appeared in the New Yorker and Time and Look magazines, and the young Joseph Alsop wrote about her for the New York Herald Tribune. Philippa was compared to Mozart and held up as a role model and inspiration for a generation of African-American children. The press called her "the Shirley Temple of American Negroes."

At the age of 8, Philippa embarked on a grueling schedule of concert appearances and competitions. Her mother, an artist manque who stage-managed every detail of her daughter's life with an ideologue's obsessive need for control, refused to allow Philippa to attend school. Consequently, the child had no friends her own age. Aside from her parents, the only people she was able to form close emotional ties to were her music teachers. But even there, Josephine intervened, summarily dismissing teachers whenever their influence threatened her own despotic hold over the girl.

Inevitably, Philippa's psychological and emotional development suffered. Adolescence transformed her from a cute little girl into an exotic, dark-eyed beauty -- seemingly further confirmation of her parents' faith in hybrid vigor. But adolescence also brought nearly insurmountable new obstacles.

Like Mozart, she lost the novel appeal of the child prodigy and had great difficulty making the transition to adult concert pianist. Her playing, though brilliant, was undermined by her relentless performance schedule, and the critics' reviews turned lukewarm. Though her parents tried to shield her from the harsher racial realities of the time, she was not immune to them and suffered a triple identity crisis as a biracial child, as a "colored" performer of white Western classical music and as a female pianist and composer in a musical world dominated by men. 3/8 3/8 TC Eventually, Philippa left the United States to concertize abroad, where audiences seemed more accepting of her. But even as a touring concert artist, she could not escape the iron discipline of her mother's control. Back in New York, Josephine continued to insist on running her daughter's life, booking her engagements, even trying to pick her boyfriends. Not surprisingly, when Philippa rebeled by taking lovers of her own choosing, her choices turned out to be spectacularly bad.

Disappointed in love, rejected by white audiences and critics in her native land (though she remained popular among blacks) and tortured by self doubt -- "I am a beauty, but I'm half colored so I'm always destined to be an outsider," she wrote in her diary -- Philippa finally tried to escape her identity altogether by "passing" as a white woman.

She made up a new persona for herself, "Felipa Monterro," an ultra-right conservative who wrote and lectured for the John Birch Society as well as played the piano. Yet Philippa was no more successful at pulling off this deception than her parents had been in trying to use their daughter's talent to smash America's racial barriers.

Ultimately, the portrait that emerges from Ms. Talalay's carefully documented biography is of an extraordinarily gifted artist whose carefully constructed public facade concealed an unhappy, frustrated young woman whose undeniable talent was slowly but inexorably being consumed by loneliness, rage and self-hatred.

Philippa didn't live long enough to witness the Black Pride movement of the late 1960s. She was killed in 1967 in a helicopter crash off the coast of Vietnam, where she had gone to write articles for the conservative Manchester Union Leader and stayed on to work for a Catholic relief agency. At the age of 35 she was just beginning to come to terms with who she was, and one can only speculate how her art might have deepened or what new direction it might have taken had she lived.

As it is, we are left with a fascinating but troubling tale of a great talent stunted by circumstance and America's intractable racial divide. Ironically, Philippa's parents hoped their daughter would transcend that divide through art; instead, it nearly destroyed her as an artist and made her miserable as a person. Compounding the tragedy, Philippa's mother commited suicide by hanging herself two years after her daughter's death; her once illustrious father died alone and in obscurity eight years later. Given Philippa's sad story, is it any wonder why Countee Cullen found it such a "curious thing, to make a poet black and bid him sing"?

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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