Phyllis Fletcher opens this wonderful piece of rescued history and solved mystery with a simple declaration: “Ina Ray Hutton was a stone cold fox.” The correct response to this kind of shared confidence – relayed by Fletcher in a rich voice streaked with a lusty glee one doesn’t often hear on public radio – is, of course, “I’m listening.”
At which point Fletcher, a reporter and editor at KUOW in Seattle, has you.
It should be noted that there’s some risk in such an opening. Fletcher, with her first sentence, has made a promise to the listener, a big one, and it must be delivered on. I would translate her particular promise as: “This is going to be one hot piece of narrative.” She’s not lying.
What follows is not news, per se. The events examined by Fletcher mostly occupy the 1930s, when Hutton shook her way into the swing-band scene as the “blond bombshell” leader of an all-female group called the Melodears. If we allow that Fletcher is concerned with Hutton’s entire life and musical output, which ended with Hutton’s death in 1984, then perhaps we could say that this is a radio report about an individual who’s now almost three decades out of existence. (With less forgiving subtraction, we might say that Fletcher’s story is more than 80 years late.)
But “Secrets of a Blonde Bombshell” works so well – and deserves all the recognition it has been given, including an Edward R. Murrow award and a Gracie – precisely because it comes so late, and because it grabs hold of the small serendipity that brought it into existence, examines it smartly, and then proceeds to correct a somewhat obscure historical inaccuracy in a manner that is riveting, smile-making, and much larger than the error that is its genesis. This is one of my favorite types of reporting, the historical corrective. People always talk about journalism as a “first draft of history,” an often rushed piece of work-product that may be cleaned up and clarified later by less harried, more sober historians. The phrase is so overused it’s now seen as something like a law of nature, or at least a law of the nature of this business. But as Fletcher shows here, journalism can operate beyond the bounds of this somewhat limiting idea. Sometimes it’s the journalists who have to run around and clean up after the historians. In this instance, they got a woman’s race flat-out wrong.
But you don’t know that yet. What you know, now that you’re listening, is that Hutton was a “stone cold fox,” and that in videos of Hutton’s 1930s performances conducting her Melodears “she’s got a baton, but that’s not what she’s using to conduct.” As Hutton’s swing-era music plays in the background, Fletcher explains:
She is shaking that thang. Just ask Tammy Kernodle, a music history professor at Miami University of Ohio.
“Ina Ray knew how to cut a rug, boy. You know, which I think is so important in light of what you discovered about her background.”
Fletcher is a master of the hook. There is no chance you’re going to get away now that something interesting is just about to be revealed. The only choice is to lean in closer and ask: What did you discover? “Here’s what I discovered about Ina Ray Hutton,” Fletcher says, continuing:
One day I was in the music library at the radio station where I work, with our swing music DJ, Amanda Wilde.
Wilde: Well, you were going to fill in on the show, and pick the music yourself, and I wanted to get you acquainted with the library. Well, I do remember pulling out that CD. I thought you would be interested in some female band leaders for the show… So, when you and I were looking at this together, I showed it to you, and I remember you saying something like, “I think that chick may be black.”
What I love in this exchange is how Fletcher accomplishes three things at once. One, she moves the narrative forward (and backward) in a surprising way. Two, she shows her commitment to reporting this out: If this particular moment of revelation is going to be reconstructed, then Fletcher, who could just as easily have described the moment herself, since after all she was there, chooses to go to a source other than herself for independent verification. Three, she continues to rope in this cast of wonderful characters – a music professor named Kernodle, a local radio DJ named Wilde – who, just like Fletcher, talk exactly in the manner that they want to talk.
This cuts against any potential concern from the uptight that Fletcher, herself, might be making a show of how different her voice is than the average NPR voice. Everyone’s voice is different than the average NPR voice, something this piece, by mostly featuring nothing close to an average NPR voice, makes brilliantly clear.
“There was something about the shape of her face,” Fletcher says of Hutton in the photo on the CD case, continuing to push the story ahead. “She had that big ’ol forehead. Big cheeks. Round lips. She looked like… me. Not that I’m a bombshell. But I have that big ’ol forehead. I have big cheeks and round lips. White people think I’m white all the time. But I’m white and black. So I went looking for Ina Ray Hutton in the Chicago census records, and the answer was there…”
Now we are talking about it. Now we are talking about everything – race, music, perception, history, journalism, self-awareness, ass-shaking. Fletcher, with proof of Hutton’s blackness in hand, next calls Hutton’s niece, Susan, who lives in Oregon and sounds like some old B-roll audiotape labeled “Oregon White Lady Voice.” Fletcher narrates: “I asked her if she knew about her black family…”
A great exchange ensues, and then another great exchange in which Fletcher talks with Kernodle about what Hutton might have been going for with her successful attempts to pass as white. The professor, being a professor, starts to fly somewhat high with ideas:
Ina Ray, as the leader of a white, all-girl band had to create a stage performance that catered to white audiences. It’s almost a double entendre. It’s a play on culture. You know, to have this white woman who’s passing. She is embodying all of that physicalness that we equate with African-American culture, standing in front of them dancing. [Laughs.] It’s like a cultural joke to me. And I don’t mean joke in a bad way. It’s almost like the, ‘I got you.’”
Fletcher immediately does the opposite of what journalists normally do in a situation like this. Unsatisfied with making that prized connection between her story and some big, professor-approved ideas, Fletcher drives in another direction, connecting us to something a little more down to earth. “And she had that booty,” she reminds Professor Kernodle, suggesting another possible – and much more simple – motivation, something along the lines of: I got it, I can, and so I will.
“Yeah, she did,” Professor Kernodle says, cackling with pleasure. “She had the badonkadonk – not a very scholarly term, but one that I will quote my students as saying to me.”
This, as I’ve said elsewhere, has got to be the best use of “badonkadonk” in a public radio broadcast in recent memory – maybe ever.
Where does Fletcher go next? That question is what this piece, masterfully, keeps forcing the listener to ask, eager for an answer. We are six minutes in. There are three minutes left. The listener wonders how everyone will resolve all the feelings about this discovery and decades-old deception. Fletcher also wonders: “Why did it stay quiet until now? How come nobody called her out?”
You want Fletcher to solve all the mysteries, and even as the swing music playing beneath her words moves toward a fade-out and the answers to the last questions arrive, you don’t want her to stop.
Eli Sanders is an associate editor at The Stranger and the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. He and other Seattle journalists talk about the news every Friday at 10 a.m. on KUOW’s “Weekday.”
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