Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
Hardback; 464 pages
Nadine Cohodas' Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone is a desperately sad but riveting tale about the troubled life and career of this uniquely talented vocalist, pianist, songwriter and activist, born in North Carolina in 1933. It is not the first Simone biography. There are four others, including one written by her former husband and manager, Andy Stroud, as well as an autobiography. Cohodas' book is different because it presents the author as a spectator giving a fly-on-the-wall account of Simone's life. Most of the action is, therefore, "imagined" and so the book inevitably leaves the reader questioning how Cohodas could meaningfully present such detailed and specific information, without actually having been in the same room as Simone all along.
Cohodas claims she tapped into "newly unearthed material, including stories of family and career." She has even corrected some of Simone's own recollections, as given in her autobiography, stating that Simone's memory lapses were early signs of mental illness. This may be true, but, after reading what is undoubtedly a well researched and clearly written narrative, a picture emerges not of someone who was insane, but who was instead a wise entertainer; one who believed that she had been robbed and used throughout her life, became quite bitter about it, and fought back the only way she knew howby pretending to be a little different.
Cohodas blames the beginning of Simone's erratic behavior on her rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music, a prestigious school in Philadelphia that she applied to attend shortly after she finished high school. Simone herself once said that the rejection was one of the reasons she became a person whose music had an "edge" to it and why her music was for "oppressed third world blacks." But that still doesn't explain why she was such a vocal and consistent activist, risking her career to join the civil rights movement in the 1960s; most people in her position were then afraid to participate in such action. There had to be more to it than the Curtis Institute. What about the hundreds, maybe thousands of young black women and men from poor, working class families who were also rejected from Curtis? Why didn't they become as daring and courageous as Simone? The reader never really gets the answers to those questions. What Cohodas provides instead is a vivid description of the roller coaster ride of a woman who refused to be a working stiff, a semi-slave, in order to help make someone else, rather than herself, wealthy.
The book is, however, a resonant historical journal of the black American experience during the final decades of segregation. It is especially useful for those who are interested in how hard-working blacks dealt with the rigors and restrictions of that demeaning, degrading and insulting era. Simone's parents were people who were employed by well-off whites who helped Nina financially and who encouraged her early in her career. It was these people who convinced her that she could be a concert pianist and that she had a future in European classical music. In fact, according to the book, Nina's early goal was to play European classical music, not jazz. She became a jazz musician after she was denied admission to Curtis, when she started performing to much success at a club in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Shortly afterwards, she changed her name from plain-sounding Eunice Waymon to distinctive, extraordinary, eye-catching Nina Simone. Her life was to change dramatically and for the better. It's hard to imagine Eunice Waymon writing and singing "Mississippi Goddam" or "To Be Young Gifted and Black," or fans lining up to talk to Eunice Waymon about how awful America was and hear how she loved living abroad.
Princess Noire, which includes photographs, an index and a bibliography, leaves the reader wanting even more. It does a tasteful, if sometimes tedious, job of tracing Simone's life from that of a fairly unsophisticated young girl, who started playing gospel music at aged 10 in church in the rural mountains of North Carolina, to her sparkling show business career, her love affairs, her marriages, her time as an expatriate, her struggles with the Internal Revenue Service, other financial ups and downs and, finally, her death in France in 2003. There are very few direct quotes from the subject. That is understandable, because Simone passed before Cohodas began researching the book and she had to rely on secondary sources and interview material taken from previously published sources.
Ultimately, Cohodas' book makes you want to read the other biographies, and especially the autobiographyI Put A Spell On You (Da Capo Press, 1992)to see how they differ from this dark, gloomy portrait. Nina Simone was a true artist and one who will go down in history as a fighter and crusader, not afraid to tell the world that racism was wrong, and who proved that one of the most effective ways to fight back was to put it all in song.