Isabel Powell, 93
First Wife of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
I was about 22 when I met Adam. He was just as handsome as he could be. He was a preacher’s son and I was a dancer at the Cotton Club. His father, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., was pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church. Mother Powell was always sweet to me, but the old man wanted me to disappear because I was a stage girl. He liked me, but he didn’t like me for Adam because he wanted Adam to take over the church. He took Adam before the deacon board, as a matter of fact. And Adam stood up and told them to a man, “If I can’t have Bunny Girl, I don’t want the church.” I met him at Easter time, so he called me Bunny Girl and I called him Bunny Boy.
I was a soubrette at the Cotton Club, one who leads the chorus line. Then, I was in three Broadway shows. Harlem was the first show. Then Bomboola. And the third one . . . that third one escapes me all the time. My sister, Fredi Washington, was in Imitation of Life, the original movie made in the thirties. She played the black woman who tries to pass for white.
When Adam graduated from Colgate University, the old man put him on a ship and sent him to Europe and Egypt for three months. He wanted to make Adam forget me. But there was no forgetting me. Adam brought me back twelve valves of the most exquisite flower oil. Pure oil. I gave most of it away but I kept one valve and had a great, big bottle of perfume made from it. I still have a little bit left in that bottle.
Adam really cared about the people of Harlem. He fought against high rents in those run-down tenements. When Con Edison wouldn’t hire blacks, he got people to go to their office and pay their utility bills with coins. Adam was a great organizer.
There was a Jewish diamond merchant on the corner of 125th and Seventh, right where the state office building named for Adam stands today. The owner liked Adam. He told Adam, he said, “You can either have a donation of a thousand dollars or this diamond ring.” The man said he smuggled the diamond out of Nazi Germany in his rectum. It was five carats. Adam took the ring and gave it to me when he proposed, this very ring I have on my finger. From the ass of a Jew to my finger.
The old man finally came around. He baptized me at Abyssinian. But when he put his hand over my face and dunked me in the baptismal pool, I thought for sure he was trying to drown me. I came up fighting. It was a sight.
Adam and I were married twelve years. I was never made so happy. But then Adam met Hazel Scott. She was a famous jazz singer and actress. I was hurt, not angry. Fredi, my sister, insisted that I leave Adam when I found out. So I went to Reno and got the divorce. I never talked to him about it. I just went. I’ve got a copy of the Amsterdam News that shows me sitting at the train station. The headline says, “Going to Reno to Divorce Best Husband in the World.” I used to tell everybody that: “Adam’s the best husband in the world.” And he was. If I had a lick of sense, I would never have divorced him. People say to me, “But he had a woman on the side.” I say, “What husband doesn’t?”
Tell you what, I’ve had it all. I’ve seen it all. I just can’t remember it all.
Excerpted from SPIRIT OF HARLEM by Craig Marberry (photographs by Michael Cunningham). Copyright 2003 by Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.