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50 Years/50 Collections: Jimmie Daniels: The King of Nightlife in New York

Jimmie Daniels singing in a crowded ballroom in front of a band, undated.

Jimmie Daniels knew how to woo a crowd, and it was this skill that allowed him to become infused within the upper echelons of New York City’s entertainment community. The Jimmie Daniels and Rex Madsen photograph collection at the Amistad Research Center documents the life of gay African American night club owner and cabaret singer Jimmie Daniels. The collection consists of roughly three hundred photographs, with the earliest dating from the late 19th century. However, the predominant dates of the images are from the 1930s to the 1950s. The photographs highlight Daniels’ career as an entertainer and are comprised of a “who’s who” of African American and White musicians, celebrities, and society figures. The collection was donated to the Center in 1987 by Rex Madsen, a native of Cedar Falls, Iowa. Madsen, a fashion designer who designed for prominent women such as Pearl Bailey, Anita Vanderbilt and Millicent Rogers, was Daniels’ partner. The photograph collection came into Madsen’s possession after Daniels died in 1984. Madsen and Daniels shared an apartment together in the swanky New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Some of the photographs in the collection feature interior shots of Daniels’ home. Jimmie Daniels was born in Laredo, Texas in 1908, but was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. He left Arkansas and traveled to New York in the 1920s, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. He matriculated at Bird’s Business College in the Bronx where he studied business. He returned to Arkansas after completing school to become an administrative assistant for A.E. Bush, the president of Century Life Insurance Company. The monotony of office work and his wish to pursue a career as an entertainer caused him to leave his position. He traveled back to New York where he secured his first professional singing job at the Hot Cha nightclub in Harlem. He soon expanded his performing repertoire to include audiences in Europe. He spent 1933 and 1934 performing at the Summer Sporting Club in Monte Carlo, Monaco and at Ciro’s restaurant in London. After singing throughout Europe in the 1930s, he returned to New York where he became the proprietor of his own club in 1939. It was called the Jimmie Daniels’ Nightclub and he operated the business until 1942 when he entered the military.

Performers Josephine Baker and Paul Meeres, undated. Photograph by Teddy Piaz, Paris.

During the period that Daniels ran his nightclub, he became a muse for renowned African American artist Richmond Barthe´. In 1938, Kenneth MacPherson commissioned Barthe to create a marble bust of Daniels’ head. A photograph of Daniels standing next to the sculpture was taken by Carl Van Vechten, a prominent artistic photographer, and can be found within the collection. While the Barthe´ work featuring Daniels was not donated with his collection, two other pieces of artwork created by Barthe´ were. The sculptures Shoeshine Boy and Portrait of Kenneth MacPherson were added to the Center’s extensive art collection, with Shoeshine Boy being introduced in the Center’s Beyond the Blues art exhibition in 2010 at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photographs of these two artworks can also be found within the Daniels collection. Daniels’ involvement with the talented Barthe´ and the wealthy MacPherson was indicative of the relationships he formed with elite New Yorkers and these associations would serve him well in his next position. Daniels became the host at the Bon Soir club in 1950, and it was in this role where he gained notoriety among New York’s exclusive circle of entertainers and high society members. Daniels was a popular and well-known figure at the club for ten years. The Bon Soir was known as a place where African Americans and Whites, homosexual or heterosexual, interacted without tension. A number of rising stars appeared at the club including Barbara Streisand whose first engagement was at Bon Soir. Unfortunately, the photographs remain the primary documentation of Daniels’ life while he worked at the club. There wasn’t any correspondence or other documents donated that could have offered more insight into, what appears to be, Daniels’ very fascinating life.

Left to right: Garland Wilson, Jimmie Daniels, Dorothy Donegan, Rex Madsen and Kelsey Pharr at Small’s Paradise in Harlem.

Grant Sprandling, the man who helped facilitate the donation of the collection by Madsen to the Center, and a visitor of Bon Soir during the 1950s, gave his recollection of the club’s atmosphere in an oral history. He stated:

"If you didn't know where you were going, you would miss the entrance to the small supper club down a steep staircase below street level protected by an unobtrusive black awning. The bar to the right as you entered was awash with handsome gentleman in grey flannel suites, the rage in the 50s...brilliantly handsome. Jimmie case a spell that made those of us who had just arrived at the club feel we were, for a while part of the famous and glamorous. The ambiance of the Bon Soir was a balance between elegant and intimate, risqué and respectable."

Sprandling was clearly mesmerized by Daniels’ performance like many others who would visit the Bon Soir. Unfortunately, the club’s management did not understand how his very presence made Bon Soir a popular nightlife destination. Daniels was fired after ten years and the club lost substantial business as a result. The proprietors of Bon Soir begged him to return but he steadfastly refused their offers. Daniels continued to perform around New York at clubs, parties, and festivals until his death. The finding aid for the Jimmie Daniels and Rex Madsen photograph collection can be found here.

Images from the Rex Madsen and Jimmie Daniels photograph collection. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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