In Lottie's Own Words: Farewell to a Burlesque Legend
This past weekend, news began to spread in the burlesque community that one of our beloved Legends, Lottie the Body, had passed away.
Lottie the Body really needs no introduction -- her name is synonymous with burlesque and exotic dance. She wasn't just a Legend in technical terms. She was legendary, the real kind of urban legend whose talent grew to mythic proportions outside the nightclubs where she regularly performed. When people saw Lottie dance, they talked about it afterwards. They wrote about it, sang about it, tried to explain to others how she had made them feel. Lottie was a star who transcended the stage and danced her way into people's hearts forever -- it's why she was considered one of the best to ever do it.
I was never lucky enough to meet Miss Lottie Claiborne, but I have read much about her since I debuted three years ago. One of the things I found was an 2014 article written by Lottie when she was 84 years old, featured in Coastal Connecticut Magazine. The article is brilliant - she speaks candidly about her journey in burlesque, and it's clear she was a strong woman with very little regrets, if any! There is so much wisdom in her words. I can't find a shareable version online, so I transcribed the article below. (Coastal Mag, don't sue me pretty please -- I searched and searched for an archived version but found nothing!) I've also copied just a small sampling of newspaper blurbs about Lottie - - you can view those below the transcribed article. She was truly a hard-working woman.
Rest in peace, Lottie the Body.
"WHAT WE TALK ABOUT: THE BODY"
Written by Lottie Claiborne (Lottie The Body)
Coastal Connecticut Magazine
June 2014, pp. 61-67
"Lottie the Body."
That is quite a name to be remembered by, especially at my age. Today, I live a quiet life in Detroit with my husband of 20 years, Willie.
We married when I was in my 60s, a testament to the fact that it's never too late to find love. Willie is a retired chef and I feel blessed to have such a sweetheart in my life. Although he’s a bit younger than me, we fit together perfectly as a couple. We have a lot in common, like a
love of cooking, going to mass, and being with our friends and family.
But I didn’t always lead such a quiet life. From the time I was 17 until retirement at 61, I traveled the world performing. Born Lottie Bristow in New York, I studied ballet when I was a girl and loved it, so by age seventeen I’d quit school to become a professional dancer.
I performed with “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers,” a dance troupe based in Harlem that worked all over the country. Herbert “Whitey” White formed the dance company in the 1930s when he saw that white folks were visiting the Savoy Hotel in Harlem, where he was head bouncer, to watch black people dance. Whitey, a black man named for the white streak in his hair, turned out to be a good businessman, taking the dance to the people. His shows were very popular through the 1940s. Famous for the “lindy hop,” a dance that combined jazz, tap, swing, the Charleston, and more, groups of six dancers traveled around performing at events. That’s what I did and that was the beginning of my dancing career.
The name “Lottie the Body” came early on when a sculptor, who was with a college in New York, made a sculpture of me. He named his creation Lottie the Body and the name stuck to the real thing.
At this age, I can admit that I was blessed with a great body. I was even known as the “Gypsy Rose Lee of Detroit” for the town where I eventually settled down. But although I loved the costumes and glamour and attention and fame, that wasn’t what was most important to me. I wanted to entertain men and women through my love of dance. I wanted them to experience the joy of life that I felt. It was my love of people that made me
want to make them happy. I know that sounds too simple to be true, but it is. I think that’s the truth for many performers.
In the 1950s, after Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers ran its course and closed, there was only one place for me to dance, only one place for a professionally-trained black dancer to make a living. Burlesque. It was either take off my clothes while dancing or don’t dance at all. So I took it off.
However, back then it wasn’t like it is today. “Stripping” meant ending up in a bikini bottom and pasties, more than a lot of women wear to the beach these days. In my kind of exotic dancing, it wasn’t the attitude that dancers have today: “Look at what I’ve got that you can have.” It was more like: “Look at what I’ve got that you can’t have.” That’s what drove men wild.
Lots of couples came to our shows, too. I’ve been told that I was sexy and sensual but never offensive to women. In fact, a pregnant woman even came to me once to thank me. She and her husband had seen my show on the night they went home and conceived their child. I was so pleased at that.
Sometimes I didn’t take my clothes off at all, either because the contract didn’t require it or I
didn’t feel it was necessary. Now that really drove men wild. And made sure they’d come again the next night.
The way the shows came together was that all kinds of entertainers worked through an
agent. The agent would send whatever kinds of acts the people wanted and we would sign a contract outlining conditions on both sides. It was decent money for that time. I have too many stories to tell for one chapter—it would take a whole book—or two—so I’ll share a few examples from my adopted home state, Michigan. I love this place.
When I first started performing in Detroit, I loved the music scene here. And the people are so warm. This Midwestern state isn’t always automatically associated with the advancement of African Americans in this country, but long ago black people came here to escape slavery, later to work in the automobile factories, and eventually to participate in the music business. Many Southern musicians came to Detroit to work and they stayed. But let me start with a story that often surprises people because they don’t know there was an area of Michigan, in the Midwestern part of the Lower Peninsula, which was a vacation recreation area for African Americans from all over the country.
Black people moved there to live permanently, too, and to retire. I know, that sounds odd because it was pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. That was why some very smart black business people like Phil Giles, Lela Wilson, and Arthur “Big Daddy” Braggs were able to take advantage of low property costs and buy up a bunch of land to develop a center for entertainment and business in the 1940s. It was a huge hit and drew crowds for years, until the early 1960s. Not only did the entertainment draw African-American audiences, white people from neighboring areas came, too.
I loved performing there. It was known as the “Summer Apollo of Michigan” and “Black Eden.” It was like a Las Vegas show with singers, entertainers, skits, comedians, dancers, and showgirls. Showgirls just had to look pretty. We dancers had to work our tails off. Some of the acts were Della Reese, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Jackie Wilson, T-Bone Walker, the Four Tops, the Rhythm Kings, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Dinah Washington, Fats Waller, and more I can’t even remember.
It was an exciting time. I adored performing with such big talent. Ziggy Johnson, a well-known choreographer, worked with us. Aretha Franklin and I became friends and she is one of the sweetest women you could ever meet. And she can cook her butt off!
I became part of “Arthur Braggs Idlewild Review” of performers he booked to work around the country, as well as in Michigan. We worked the Vagabond Room in Cleveland, the Black Orchid Casino in Toronto, and many more such clubs. Aretha and I were once booked into the Pink Pony in Indianapolis, a popular club “across the tracks” where there was standing room only; the place was always packed. We learned that the owner, Tuffy Mitchell, was known as the head of the Jewish Mafia and that the place also ran a numbers game. Life on the road certainly was an education for young women. As well as working with the Idlewild review, I traveled to other places to perform.
By the early 1970s, Idlewild’s popularity waned because blacks could get into other places they had been barred from before. Then I often performed at the Golden Horseshoe club in Harbor Springs, Michigan. You can probably tell that the club had a western theme. I really liked the owners, kind people who were good to their workers. Harbor Springs is a resort town on Lake Michigan that has a long history of wealthy vacation homeowners from Detroit and Chicago. That area is popular in the summer with boaters, golfers, and lake lovers; and in the winter with skiers and snow lovers.
The Golden Horseshoe was popular with everybody. On any given night customers might include high-rolling big city businessmen, a famous singer or actor or two, a celebrity athlete, a few mobsters, politicians, fraternity boys, couples, locals, a bridal shower or bachelor party, a doctors’ convention, and Vietnam veterans just returned from war…. You name it, they came.
I want to use this example because I know that people wonder what the life of a dancer is like, and they often imagine the worst. Well, I’m here to tell you that we are just like anybody else—all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs and values. A waitress at a club in Harbor Springs told me I was different from some of the dancers. I didn’t go out with customers. I didn’t get drunk. I wasn’t a diva. She was surprised that I would sometimes go out with the workers for breakfast after closing. I certainly wasn’t shy, but I wasn’t into the wild life like some performers, either. I was a dancer; it was my profession. I didn’t even feel competitive toward other dancers. I didn’t have time for that. There was no time to fuss. I was too busy
concentrating on my job. Performing is demanding and takes a hard-working, honest person to do it well.
The most fun night of the week at the Golden Horseshoe was Thursday night because it was “butler and servant’s night” off from work. House workers, almost all black, who came with their wealthy employees to their summer residences, came to the club to hear good music, dance, and watch a good performance. The Dixieland Band had some Lawrence Welk musicians on summer break from filming their popular TV show. They were great musicians. The energy in the place was electric! It was so much fun. The waitresses at the club said the butlers, maids, and servants tipped better than anybody else. I told them
that’s because they knew what it was like to serve other people and they appreciated their chance to be served.
Performers, including me, stayed in the servants’ quarters of the Fisher mansion. It was the vacation residence of the Fisher family of Fisher Body, the automobile company that merged with GM. In Harbor Springs there were, and still are, fabulous vacation homes owned by wealthy families, mostly from Detroit with connections to the auto industry, passed
down from generation to generation. The Fisher home was a beautiful place to stay.
On an exclusive private peninsula, we had to give our names to a guard who would open the big fancy gate to a fabulous world of old money, a world that few ever get to glimpse except from a boat on the lake. Being inside was like being in a movie—with lots of fabulous cars.
I had many experiences like that, staying in interesting places (some much better than others) and meeting all kinds of people. I danced for many more years than most in my profession, and over the years I traveled and met famous people and had experiences that most women couldn’t even imagine. It was hard for me to imagine sometimes. Oh, I was
famous in the world of burlesque but I was meeting politicians, actors, musicians, athletes,
and high society folks who took fame to a whole new level.
For example, when Arthur “Goose” Tatum, one of the founding players of the Harlem Globetrotters, and I were a couple, I traveled with him and other team members to Cuba.
This was the 1950s and Cuba was a totally different place from what we think of it today.
A young Fidel Castro met our plane and I thought he was a very sweet man. He was very gracious to us. I soon discovered that the casinos there were much more, shall I say, “liberal” than what I was used to in the States. There were back rooms with all kinds of “activities.” You name it, it was available: women for men; men for women; combinations of whatever.… Goose disappeared in the back room of one of these casinos, so I waited
in the bar.
And waited. For hours. Chatting with other people in the bar, I learned a lot about what went on there. I was told that not only did a lot of American men come down for female prostitutes; wealthy men would also send their wives for male prostitutes. Sometimes the couples would come together. As I watched the unbelievably good-looking males and females come and go from the back, I had to admit I could understand the temptation. I’d never seen such gorgeous men!
Goose and I, by the way, didn’t last.
Another interesting time was during the 1970s in the Philippines when I got to know Imelda Marcos, wife of the President at that time. Infamous for being a designer shoe fanatic—she was said to own over 2,000 pairs—she took me shoe shopping and bought me some fabulous shoes. This was before her husband was ousted for absconding millions of dollars from the government, probably to pay for Imelda’s shoes.
I had many experiences that I’ll never forget, like being the first black woman to ever dance on television in Alaska, and cutting the ribbon in a big opening ceremony in Fairbanks. I was treated like a queen up there.
I was often treated very well wherever I went, respectfully by both men and women. In a day and age when African Americans were still not always welcome, I lived my own sort of Civil Rights Movement, making friends and connections in my own way wherever I went. Oh, make no mistake about it, there were also times when I was treated like a second-class citizen, but those times were rare. I wish I could say the same for all of my fellow African Americans.
My life was different and I know it. One of my dearest friends whom I met while working was Christine Jorgensen, the first well-known transsexual in this country. We were both born around the same time in New York. Christine was born a man but in the 1950s had sex change surgeries in Denmark. She returned to the U.S. and became a stage performer. I loved doing shows with her. I felt honored to be invited to perform in the Jewel Box Review with artists in drag and others like Christine. She was a great talent and a wonderful person. I especially got a kick out of watching her sing “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” She did enjoy it! Christine passed from cancer in 1989 and I will always miss her.
I worked with many famous people in my day, all over the country, like singer Sammy Davis, Jr.; producer Billy Rose, who was once married to Fanny Brice of the Ziegfeld Follies; Theodore Mann, known for his off-Broadway productions; and Robert Levy, a producer of black movies then known as “race films.” I worked with comedians Redd Foxx and Totie Fields. I’ll never forget Totie’s joke about dieting. “Always start a diet on Monday. That way if you miss this Monday you don’t have to worry about it again for another week.”
I’ve worked in many other countries, too: France, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and countries in Africa. I’ve been given awards along the way, especially for my work as an MC for the Harlem Globetrotters. That’s something I did throughout the years, traveling with them to many places, including around Europe.
My most recent award was presented to me at Detroit Orchestra Hall, which I treasure, not for being Lottie the Body but for my body of work as a performer. I don’t hang on to my old things, including my dance costumes. I had some gorgeous clothes, handmade, beaded, sequined, feathered, and furred. I’ve donated the ones I kept for display in the entertainment section of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History here in Detroit. That’s a wonderful museum that has all kinds of displays, including histories of the Underground Railroad and Motown music. And the events they hold at the museum are great. I can’t go very often these days, but it’s good to know that our history is being so well preserved. It adds to my pride of my adopted hometown.
I spent a lot of my life on the road and that can be hard, so people always want to know if I was ever married back then. Yes. I once married a well-known professional athlete in Juarez, Mexico, and thought it was love. That is, until finding out that not only was he bisexual, he was on the lam from the police for having transported a minor girl across state lines. We stayed right where we were in Juarez, supposedly for our honeymoon, we got a divorce, and he left to go marry the girl to avoid being thrown in jail. So I was thinking that maybe marriage wasn’t for me. I hadn’t done a very good job of picking out a husband.
But after that, for a long time, I was known as the wife of Bob Graves, a handsome man and successful buyer for a big department store in Detroit. We lived in a ranch-style house in a mixed neighborhood with black, Jewish, and white neighbors. The mother of Jimmy Hoffa, the famed Teamsters boss who mysteriously disappeared, lived just a few doors down.
Bob’s family, including his children, became my family, too. I love them dearly. Truth is, even though Bob and I had the marriage papers, we never had the ceremony. We just never got around to it. I was always on the road. After 20 years Bob got lonely, I guess, and found someone else. He left our home and left me unable to pay all of the bills, so I lived for a time without heat or hot water. It broke my heart when he left, but in all honesty I could understand why. It’s hard to keep the home fires burning when you’re gone all the time. I’m a strong woman and I loved my career. I wasn’t willing to give it up.
Unfortunately, the woman Bob chose was not a very nice person and would harass me, throwing eggs at my windows and doing other nasty things. When I finally retired at 61, Bob surprised me by showing up at my door, in the house where we had lived together for so long, with a big present for me. I invited him in and opened the box to find a gorgeous beige linen suit. I thought it was an odd gift but loved it. I put it on and modeled it for him, which delighted him. I asked him to sit down for supper and we shared some of my homemade stew. He said he loved my cooking, and then he said he didn’t know how he could have been so stupid as to leave me. The other woman was no longer in his life. I didn’t hesitate to forgive him. I still loved him. We found our way into the bedroom where we made love.
Afterwards, we were lying there just like we used to, smoking a cigarette, relaxed and laughing about the Detroit Pistons basketball team, which he did not like. Then, with no warning, Bob gasped and stopped breathing. Right there in bed beside me. Frantically, I called an ambulance and his niece, who was a doctor. I tried to revive him. But it was too late. Bob was dead.
When his niece arrived she told me he’d known he was dying of a bad heart. It was then I realized he’d brought me a suit he wanted me to wear to his funeral. So I did.
How fortunate I am to have met Willie Claiborne, my present husband, a few years later. Do I still dance? Well, every now and then if I hear some good music I might cha-cha into the next room, but you’re more likely to find me in the kitchen. I love to cook! Willie and I watch television shows like Dancing with the Stars, attend Mass, visit with friends, and go out to dinner.
I loved the excitement of my life as a professional dancer. But that time has passed and now I enjoy a more quiet life. Lottie the Body may live on in fond memories but the truth is I’m too busy with today to give that much thought. I have no regrets. I concentrate on now.
Just like I’ve always done, I live my life in the most loving way I know how, because that’s
what life is all about. Lottie the Body may have brought me fame but Lottie the Woman has always cared most about the same thing: sharing whatever gifts I have to make people happy.
If I were to give advice to a young woman today, it would be to live your dreams, just like I did. If I could make it in a time when there was everything going against me—a teenaged African-American female in a highly competitive profession during racist times—you can do whatever it is you desire to do, too.
Just remember me, Lottie the Body. If I could do it, you can, too. To all of you women over 60, I pray that you may have the same kind of love and happiness that I enjoy. I send my
love and God’s blessings to you all.
WHO’S TALKING … All Lottie Claiborne ever wanted to do was dance and dance she did, from age 17 to 61! Along the way she earned her claim to fame. Find an 80-year-old man and ask him if he’s ever heard of Lottie the Body. If he says no, he’s lying."
Until next time,