Madame Sul-Te-Wan (born Nellie Crawford; March 7, 1873 – February 1, 1959) was an American stage, film and television actress for over 50 years. The daughter of former slaves, she began her career in entertainment touring the East Coast with various theatrical companies and moved to California to become a member of the fledgling film community. She became known as a character actress, appeared in high-profile films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), and easily navigated the transition to the sound films.
Nellie Crawford was born in Louisville, Kentucky, US to former slaves Cleon De Londa and Silas Crawford. Her father left the family early in her life, and her mother became a laundress for Louisville stage actresses. Young Nellie became enchanted by watching the young actresses rehearse when she delivered laundry for her mother. When she was older she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, joined a theatrical company called Three Black Cloaks, and began billing herself as Creole Nell. She also formed her own theatrical companies and toured the East Coast. After moving to California, Madame Sul-Te-Wan began her film career in uncredited roles in director D. W. Griffith's controversial 1915 drama Birth of a Nation. Sul-Te-Wan had allegedly written Griffith a letter of introduction after hearing that Griffith was shooting a film in her Kentucky hometown. Griffith had intended that he would play a rich landowner who spits in the face of a woman who slights him. The scene was cut by the censors but Madame Sul-Te-Wan was hired at $3 a day and this became the first contract for a black woman when she was hired at $25 a week. Sul-Te-Wan had managed to get the role by her extravagant dress which caught Griffith's attention.
In the early 1900s, Sul-Te-Wan married Robert Reed Conley. They had three sons, but Conley abandoned his family when the third boy was only three weeks old. Two of her sons, Odel and Onest Conley, became actors and appeared in several films. Some of these film featured their mother.
Early film career
Following her roles for Griffith, Madame Sul-Te-Wan followed up in 1916 with a role in the Anita Loos-penned drama The Children Pay with Lillian Gish and in 1917 with Gish's sister Dorothy in the Edward Morrissey-directed drama Stage Struck.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Madame Sul-Te-Wan would establish herself as a publicly recognizable character actress. In 1918 she appeared (uncredited) in Tarzan of the Apes as Jane's maid, Esmerelda. Most often appearing in "Mammy" roles alongside such popular actors of the silent film era as Tom Mix, Leatrice Joy, Matt Moore, Mildred Harris, Harry Carey, Robert Harron, and Mae Marsh. She appeared in the 1927 James W. Horne-directed Buster Keaton comedy College, and in the 1929 Erich von Stroheim-directed drama Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan transitioned into the talkie era with relative ease and continued to appear in high-profile films alongside such prominent film actors as Conrad Nagel, Barbara Stanwyck, Fay Wray, Richard Barthelmess, Jane Wyman, Luise Rainer, Melvyn Douglas, Lucille Ball, Veronica Lake and Claudette Colbert. However, as a black woman in the era of segregation, she was consistently limited to appearing in roles as minor characters who were usually convicts, "native women", or domestic servants, such as her role as a "Native Handmaiden" in the 1933 box-office hit King Kong. Despite the motion picture industry's limitations for African-American performers, Sul-Te-Wan worked consistently throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1937, Sul-Te-Wan was cast in the memorable role of Tituba in the film Maid of Salem, a dramatic retelling of the events surrounding of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The film starred Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Gale Sondergaard, Pedro de Cordoba, and Louise Dresser and was rather financially successful. Sul-Te-Wan's performance garnered critical praise.
On September 12, 1953, a banquet was held at the Hollywood Playground Auditorium to honor Madame Sul-Te-Wan by motion picture actors and film personalities. Amongst the 200 guests who attended the event were Louise Beavers, Rex Ingram, Mae Marsh, Eugene Pallette and Maude Eburne.
In 1954, Sul-Te-Wan appeared in the Otto Preminger directed and almost entirely African-American cast musical drama Carmen Jones opposite Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, and Pearl Bailey as Dandridge's grandmother. The film marked a departure for Sul-Te-Wan, who after appearing onscreen for over four decades, was finally able to act in a role that was atypical of her "Mammy" roles. The pairing of Dandridge and Sul-Te-Wan in Carmen Jones spawned a still widely believed but erroneous rumor – that Sul-Te-Wan was Dandridge's actual grandmother (some allege that she is Dandridge's great-grandmother). However, there is no merit to the claim and the two women are unrelated.
At age 77, Sul-Te-Wan married for the second time, to German immigrant Anton Ebentheuer. The marriage lasted three years. During the 1950s, while in her 80s, she continued to appear onscreen in a number of well-received films, albeit now mostly in smaller bit parts and often uncredited. Her last screen appearance came in the 1958 Anthony Quinn-directed adventure film The Buccaneer, starring Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston.
On February 1, 1959, Madame Sul-Te-Wan died after suffering a stroke at the age of 85 at the Motion Picture Actors' Home in Woodland Hills, California. She was interred at the Pierce Brothers' Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California.
Legacy and honors
|1915||The Cause of It All||Mary – the Hotel Cook|
|1915||The Birth of a Nation||Black woman (Dr. Cameron's taunter)||Uncredited|
|1916||Hoodoo Ann||Black Cindy||Uncredited|
|1916||Intolerance||Girl at Marriage Market (Babylonian Story)||Uncredited|
|1916||The Children Pay||Uncredited|
|1917||Stage Struck||Uncredited; also known as Stagestruck|
|1918||Old Wives for New||Viola's Maid||Uncredited|
|1918||Tarzan of the Apes||Esmeralda (Jane's Maid)||Uncredited|
|1918||Who's Your Father?||Black Mother||Uncredited|
|1920||Why Change Your Wife?||Sally's Maid||Uncredited|
|1924||The Lightning Rider||Mammy|
|1925||The Narrow Street||Easter|
|1925||The Golden Bed||Boarding House Maid||Uncredited|
|1927||Uncle Tom's Cabin||Slave at Wedding||Uncredited|
|1929||Queen Kelly||Kali Sana – Aunt's Cook||Uncredited|
|1929||The Carnation Kid||The Maid||Uncredited|
|1930||Sarah and Son||Ashmore's Maid||Uncredited|
|1930||The Thoroughbred||Sacharine||Alternative title: Riding to Win|
|1931||The Pagan Lady||Carla the Servant||Uncredited|
|1931||Heaven on Earth||Voodoo Sue||Alternative title: Mississippi|
|1932||Jungle Mystery||Native Woman in Stockade||Uncredited|
|1933||Ladies They Talk About||Prisoner Mustard||Uncredited|
Alternative title: Women in Prison
|1933||King Kong||Native Handmaiden||Uncredited|
|1934||A Modern Hero||Mme. Azais' Neighbor||Uncredited|
|1934||Operator 13||Slave at Medicine Show||Uncredited|
|1934||Imitation of Life||Black Cook||Uncredited|
|1935||So Red the Rose||Slave||Uncredited|
|1936||San Francisco||Earthquake Survivor||Uncredited|
|1937||Maid of Salem||Tituba|
|1937||In Old Chicago||Hattie||Credited as Madame Sultewan|
|1938||Island in the Sky||Scrubwoman||Uncredited|
|1938||The Toy Wife||Eve, a Black Servant||Uncredited|
Alternative title: Frou Frou
|1938||The Affairs of Annabel||Benzedrina, a Convict||Uncredited|
|1939||Tell No Tales||Jim Alley's mother||Uncredited|
Alternative title: A Hundred to One
|1939||Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite||Ruby – Black Convict Woman||Uncredited|
|1940||Love Thy Neighbor||Lady McBeth||Uncredited|
|1941||King of the Zombies||Tahama, the Cook and High Priestess|
|1941||Sullivan's Travels||Church harmonium player||Uncredited|
|1942||Mokey||Miss Cully, old black woman||Uncredited|
|1943||Revenge of the Zombies||Mammy Beulah, the housekeeper||Alternative title: The Corpse Vanished|
|1943||Thank Your Lucky Stars||Bit in "Ice Cold Katie" Number||Uncredited|
|1949||Mighty Joe Young||Young family servant||Uncredited|
Alternative title: Mr. Joseph Young of Africa
|1949||The Story of Seabiscuit||Libby||Uncredited|
|1954||Carmen Jones||Hagar – Carmen's Grandmother||Uncredited|
|1955||Medic||Grandma Jorson||Episode: "All My Mothers, All My Fathers"|
|1957||Something of Value||Midwife||Uncredited|
Alternative title: Africa Ablaze
|1957||Band of Angels||Flower Vendor||Uncredited|
|1958||The Buccaneer||Good Luck Charm Vendor|
|1958||Tarzan and the Trappers||Witch Woman||(final film role)|
- Lowe, Denise. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films, Haworth Press, p. 504, (2005) ISBN 0-7890-1843-8
- Madame Sul-Te-Wan at Legacy.com
- Bogle, Donald (2006). Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. Random House, Inc. p. 7. ISBN 0-345-45419-7.
- Hunt, Kristin (February 13, 2020). "Madame Sul-Te-Wan's Forgotten Brilliant Career". JSTOR Daily. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
- Harris, Gloria G.; Hannah S. Cohen (2012). "Chapter 10. Entertainers – Madame Sul-Te-Wan: Pioneer Black Actress". Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 151–66 [156–59]. ISBN 978-1609496753.
- Bogle 2006 pp. 7–8
- Regester, Charlene B. (2010). African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900–1960. Indiana University Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-253-00431-4.
- Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. (March 27, 2009). Harlem Renaissance Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 473–475. ISBN 978-0195387957.
- Jet magazine, October 1, 1953. "200 Attend Oldest Black Actress, Madame Sul-Te-Wan's Banquet"
- Bogle 2006 p. 360
- "Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Dies At 85". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. 15 (16): 61. February 19, 1959. ISSN 0021-5996.
- Bogle 2006 p. 8
- The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business 1865–1910 by Henry T. Sampson, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, New Jersey, 1988)[ISBN missing]
- Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia. Volumes 1 and 2. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine. 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York ISBN 0-926019-61-9
- Black Hollywood, Then and Now, NPR, February 16, 2005