The Private Life Of Paul Robeson (1937) 🇬🇧

December 01, 2021

Paul Robeson’s new film, Max Schach’s “Jericho,” is released all over the country this week; here our contributor, Daniel Teago, draws Paul Robeson away from the limelight in which his public is accustomed to see him, and gives you a pen picture of the great artist in private life.

I was talking to Paul Robeson in his dressing-room at Pinewood studios when he was completing his part in Jericho.

I had interrupted him and his wife, Eslanda Robeson, in a game of cards to while away the time between scenes. (“Pinochle,” he explained, as he caught my inquiring glance at the cards, “best two-handed card game I know. I don’t know why it’s never caught on here.”)

I was apologising for my intrusion, but Mrs. Robeson waved my apology away and smilingly explained: “I have to rush back to town right now. You two sit down and talk.”

“Mind how you go, Essie,” said Robeson, “don’t take those corners too fast.” Mrs. Robeson, I should add, pilots their small Daimler with care and skill, but Paul is rather a nervous passenger in any car.

In the many interesting talks I have had with Robeson, this one stands out particularly in my memory because of something he said in the course of conversation.

“Once,” he said, “I just wanted to be an artist, an individualist; I wanted to develop my work the way I wanted to. Then, as my career developed as a singer and an actor, I realised more and more how difficult, how impossible even, it was for me to attain this ideal.

“You see I found out by experience that being a negro, I was to become in a way a representative of the race. I never sought this position; it was thrust on me.

“To go back even to the years when I was playing football in America — if I played well on Saturday, then Harlem on Sunday would congratulate itself on my triumph. If I didn’t — then I was letting my people down.

“I found myself as it were continually challenged by them. My responsibility as a footballer grew out of a mere responsibility to my team — I had, it seemed, a whole race to answer to!

And so with singing and acting. My liking for negro spirituals assumed the guise of subtle propaganda. If on the stage I played the role of a sympathetic or a heroic negro, my fellow negroes were happy.

“If, on the contrary, I took a part, for argument’s sake, of a drunken, degenerate, or generally vicious negro — a storm of criticism would follow.

“‘Robeson!‘ they would say, ‘how can you show a negro in this light?‘

“This is a fantastic situation when you think about it. Can you imagine all Yorkshiremen hurling abuse at Charles Laughton for playing Bligh of the Bounty, and letting Yorkshire down?

“But it’s one of those things you can’t fight against, and a few years ago I decided I would devote myself in every way I could to the cause of the negroes. To-day I am more than resigned to losing my individual status as an artist; I am happy and proud to be of some little use to my people.”

The rest of the story you know. Undoubtedly, Robeson’s fine reputation as a scholar and artist has made people recognise that the negro can contribute importantly to Western culture — has made his own people feel that the race has a cultural background of its own on which it can draw and build.

But my chief object in this article is to take you with me on a brief visit to the place where — away from the limelight— Paul Robeson can call his soul his own.

Mr. and Mrs. Robeson live in a large, comfortable-looking flat in a quiet street off the Strand, from the windows of which they can see the Embankment and the river beyond it. But it is no show flat it — has none of the luxuries to which we are accustomed in a film star’s home.

Paul tells an amusing story of a publicity man who wanted photographs of him at home. At first Robeson shrank from allowing the public in on the one private thing left to him — his home life — but publicity men have a talent for being persuasive and finally he relented under pressure, and asked the publicity man along to have a look.

He was shown into a sitting-room in which all available wall space is lined with books. There were also books on the tables, books on the chairs, books stacked in profusion on the floor; (Mrs. Robeson had been helping Paul to re-arrange his library). In the midst of the chaos a small folding table had been laid for the Robesons’ lunch.

The publicity man murmured something about a “musical background” for the star, and Paul obligingly led him to the music room — the largest room in the flat — and the man was startled to find a couple of thousand (or so it seemed to him) more books, music manuscripts, gramophone records, stacked on, under and around the piano. There was a very comfortable settee and three very inviting armchairs — but all different!

Having pictured in his mind the gilt and polished Babylonian splendours of Hollywood’s luxury homes, the publicity man hastily began to find technical difficulties in the way of taking the photographs — to Paul’s unconcealed relief.

Which proves, I think, that even a publicity man (that most inventive of God’s creatures) can lack imagination on occasions. He could not see that this very confusion spelt peace, quiet and happiness to a man who has little time to enjoy these blessings.

Paul Robeson so appreciates this flat and the quiet hours it yields up to him that it has become to anyone outside his wife’s and his small circle of close friends a fortress, as impenetrable as the Haiti fortress of Sans Souci, built by another great negro — Henry Christophe, the original of O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones.”

The telephone does not ring except at times fixed for calls from friends. Nor is the door, even, answered, unless the caller has an appointment.

I was asked once to deliver to Paul Robeson an urgent message by someone who had tried everything else to reach him, without success.

I was lucky, for when I knocked, the door was opened by Mrs. Robeson, and I found Paul in his music room, looking very comfortable and happy in his favourite armchair by the fire.

He was in his shirt sleeves, reading a weighty tome which (knowing him) was probably a work on anthropology, the collected poetry of Pushkin (he reads him in the original Russian) or an analysis of the structure of the Chinese language (it’s one of his little hobbies!).

He wears horn-rimmed glasses, off screen, and looks in them gentle, benevolent, almost avuncular. It is difficult to believe that tough footballers used to blanch as he charged up and down the field.

I explained to him that I was the bearer of a message and said (rashly!) that I was asked to deliver it because i was known to have a talent for getting beyond that difficult front door.

Mrs. Robeson wagged an admonishing finger at me.

“Don’t you be so sure of yourself, young man,” she said laughingly, “if you want to know the truth I only answered the door because I was expecting the laundryman to call.

“You tell us when you want to come next time, or you might find yourself knocking at the door ‘til Domesday! “

They have been married for sixteen years, these two, and share each other’s interests and enthusiasms. They married when Robeson was twenty-three and they were fellow students at Columbia — he taking law, she pathological chemistry.

Students they have remained ever since, absorbing more and more knowledge as the years have gone by, ever widening the field of their studies. If ever two people give the impression of living their life usefully and spending their money sensibly it is this pair. Not only that, but they refute the oft-quoted theory that fame and home life don’t go together.

Paul Robeson, with Wallace Ford, in a comedy scene from “Jericho.”

Collection: Picturegoer MagazineNovember 1937