The Info List - Madame Sul-Te-Wan

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Madame Sul-Te-Wan (born Nellie Crawford; March 7, 1873 – February 1, 1959) was an American stage, film and television actress. The daughter of freed slaves, she began her career in entertainment touring the East Coast with various theatrical companies and moved to California to become a member of the fledgling film community. She became known as a character actress, appeared in high-profile films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), and easily navigated the transition to the sound films. Her career spanned over five decades, and, in 1986, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Sul-Te-Wan was the first African American actor, male or female, to sign a film contract and be a featured performer.[1]


1 Early life 2 Early film career 3 Later career 4 Death 5 Legacy and honors 6 Quotes 7 Filmography 8 References 9 External links

Early life[edit] Nellie Crawford[2] was born in Louisville, Kentucky, USA to freed slaves Cleon De Londa and Silas Crawford. Her father left the family early in her life, and her mother became a laundress who found employment working for Louisville stage actresses.[3] Young Nellie became enchanted by watching the young actresses rehearse when she delivered laundry for her mother. When she was older she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, joined a theatrical company called Three Black Cloaks, and began billing herself as Creole Nell. She also formed her own theatrical companies and toured the East Coast. After moving to California, Madame Sul-Te-Wan began her acting career in uncredited roles in director D. W. Griffith's controversial 1915 drama Birth of a Nation and the colossal 1916 epic Intolerance. Sul-Te-Wan had allegedly written Griffith a letter of introduction after hearing that Griffith was shooting a film in her Kentucky
hometown. In the early 1900s, Sul-Te-Wan married Robert Reed Conley. They had three sons,[4] but Conley abandoned his family when the third one was only three weeks old. [5][6] Two of her sons, Odel and Onest Conley, would become actors and appear in several films during their careers, occasionally in films featuring their mother. Early film career[edit]

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Following her roles for Griffith, Madame Sul-Te-Wan followed up in 1916 with a role in the Anita Loos-penned drama The Children Pay
The Children Pay
with young actress Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish
and in 1917 with Gish's sister Dorothy in the Edward Morrissey-directed drama Stage Struck. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Madame Sul-Te-Wan would establish herself as a rather publicly recognizable character actress, most often appearing in "Mammy" roles alongside such popular actors of the silent film era as Tom Mix, Leatrice Joy, Matt Moore, Mildred Harris, Harry Carey, Robert Harron, and Mae Marsh. Some of her most memorable roles of the era were in the 1927 James W. Horne-directed Buster Keaton comedy College, and in the 1929 Erich von Stroheim-directed drama Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson. Madame Sul-Te-Wan transitioned into the talkie era with relative ease and continued to appear in high-profile films alongside such prominent film actors as Conrad Nagel, Barbara Stanwyck, Fay Wray, Richard Barthelmess, Jane Wyman, Luise Rainer, Melvyn Douglas, Lucille Ball, Veronica Lake
Veronica Lake
and Claudette Colbert. However, as a black woman in the era of segregation, she was consistently limited to appearing in roles as minor characters who were usually convicts, "native women", or domestic servants, such as her role as a "Native Handmaiden" in the 1933 box-office hit King Kong. Despite the motion picture industry's limitations for African-American performers, Sul-Te-Wan worked consistently throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1937, Sul-Te-Wan was cast in the memorable role of Tituba in the film Maid of Salem, a dramatic retelling of the events surrounding of the Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials
of 1692. The film starred Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Gale Sondergaard, Pedro de Cordoba, and Louise Dresser and was rather financially successful. Sul-Te-Wan's performance garnered critical praise. Later career[edit] On September 12, 1953, a banquet was held at the Hollywood Playground Auditorium to honor Madame Sul-Te-Wan by motion picture actors and film personalities. Amongst the 200 guests who attended the event were Louise Beavers, Rex Ingram, Mae Marsh, Eugene Pallette
Eugene Pallette
and Maude Eburne.[7] In 1954, Sul-Te-Wan appeared in the Otto Preminger
Otto Preminger
directed and almost entirely African-American cast musical drama Carmen Jones opposite Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, and Pearl Bailey as Dandridge's grandmother. The film marked a departure for Sul-Te-Wan, who after appearing onscreen for over four decades, was finally able to act in a role that was atypical of her "Mammy" roles. The pairing of Dandridge and Sul-Te-Wan in Carmen Jones spawned a still widely believed but erroneous rumor—that Sul-Te-Wan was Dandridge's actual grandmother (some allege that she is Dandridge's great-grandmother). However, there is no merit to the claim and the two women are unrelated.[2] At age 77, Sul-Te-Wan married for the second time, to French interior designer Antone Ebenthur. The marriage lasted three years.[8] During the 1950s, while in her 80s, she continued to appear onscreen in a number of well-received films, albeit now mostly in smaller bit parts and often uncredited. Her last screen appearance came in the 1958 Anthony Quinn-directed adventure film The Buccaneer, starring Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. Death[edit] On February 1, 1959, Madame Sul-Te-Wan died after suffering a stroke at the age of 85 at the Motion Picture Actors' Home in Woodland Hills, California.[9] She was interred at the Pierce Brothers' Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California. Legacy and honors[edit] Sul-Te-Wan was inducted in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1986.[1] Quotes[edit]

"We never did discover the origin of her name. No one was bold enough to ask." - Lillian Gish.[10]


Year Title Role Notes

1915 The Cause of It All Mary - the Hotel Cook

1915 The Birth of a Nation Black woman (Dr. Cameron's taunter) Uncredited

1916 Hoodoo Ann Black Cindy Uncredited

1916 Intolerance Girl at Marriage Market (Babylonian Story) Uncredited

1916 The Children Pay


1917 Stage Struck

Uncredited; also known as Stagestruck

1918 Old Wives for New Viola's Maid Uncredited

1918 Who's Your Father? Black Mother Uncredited

1920 Why Change Your Wife? Sally's Maid Uncredited

1922 Manslaughter Prison Inmate Uncredited

1924 The Lightning Rider Mammy

1925 The Narrow Street Easter

1925 The Golden Bed Boarding House Maid Uncredited

1927 College Cook Uncredited

1927 Uncle Tom's Cabin Slave at Wedding Uncredited

1929 Queen Kelly Kali Sana - Aunt's Cook Uncredited

1929 The Carnation Kid The Maid Uncredited

1930 Sarah and Son Ashmore's Maid Uncredited

1930 The Thoroughbred Sacharine Alternative title: Riding to Win

1931 The Pagan Lady Carla the Servant Uncredited

1931 Heaven on Earth Voodoo Sue Alternative title: Mississippi

1932 Jungle Mystery Native Woman in Stockade Uncredited

1933 Ladies They Talk
About Prisoner Mustard Uncredited Alternative title: Women in Prison

1933 King Kong Native Handmaiden Uncredited

1934 A Modern Hero Mme. Azais' Neighbor Uncredited

1934 Operator 13 Slave at Medicine Show Uncredited

1934 Black Moon Ruva

1934 Imitation of Life Black Cook Uncredited

1935 So Red the Rose Slave Uncredited

1936 San Francisco Earthquake Survivor Uncredited

1937 Maid of Salem Tituba

1937 In Old Chicago Hattie Credited as Madame Sultewan

1938 Island in the Sky Scrubwoman Uncredited

1938 The Toy Wife Eve, a Black Servant Uncredited Alternative title: Frou Frou

1938 The Affairs of Annabel Benzedrina, a Convict Uncredited

1938 Kentucky Lily

1939 Tell No Tales Jim Alley's mother Uncredited Alternative title: A Hundred to One

1939 Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite Ruby - Black Convict Woman Uncredited

1940 Safari Native Woman

1940 Maryland Naomi Uncredited

1940 Love Thy Neighbor Lady McBeth Uncredited

1941 King of the Zombies Tahama, the Cook and High Priestess

1941 Sullivan's Travels Church harmonium payer Uncredited

1942 Mokey Miss Cully, old black woman Uncredited

1943 Revenge of the Zombies Mammy Beulah, the housekeeper Alternative title: The Corpse Vanished

1943 Thank Your Lucky Stars Bit in "Ice Cold Katie" Number Uncredited

1949 Mighty Joe Young Young family servant Uncredited Alternative title: Mr. Joseph Young of Africa

1949 The Story of Seabiscuit Libby Uncredited

1954 Carmen Jones Hagar - Carmen's Grandmother Uncredited

1955 Medic Grandma Jorson Episode: "All My Mothers, All My Fathers"

1957 Something of Value Midwife Uncredited Alternative title: Africa Ablaze

1957 Band of Angels Flower Vendor Uncredited

1958 The Buccaneer Good Luck Charm Vendor

1958 Tarzan and the Trappers Witch Woman (final film role)


^ a b Lowe, Denise. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films, Haworth Press, p. 504, (2005) - ISBN 0-7890-1843-8 ^ a b Madame Sul-Te-Wan at Legacy.com ^ Bogle, Donald (2006). Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. Random House, Inc. p. 7. ISBN 0-345-45419-7.  ^ Harris, Gloria G.; Cohen, Hannah S. (2012). Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present. The History Press. p. 158. ISBN 1-609-49675-2.  ^ Bogle 2006 pp. 7–8 ^ Regester, Charlene B. (2010). African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900--1960. Indiana University Press. p. 21. ISBN 0-253-00431-4.  ^ Jet magazine, October 1, 1953. 200 Attend Oldest Black Actress, Madame Sul-Te-Wan's Banquet ^ Bogle 2006 p.360 ^ "Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Dies At 85". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. 15 (16): 61. 1959-02-19. ISSN 0021-5996.  ^ Bogle 2006 p.8


The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business 1865–1910 by Henry T. Sampson, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, New Jersey, 1988) Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia. Volumes 1 and 2. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine. Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York ISBN 0-926019-61-9 Black Hollywood, Then and Now, NPR, February 16, 2005

External links[edit]

Madame Sul-Te-Wan on IMDb Madame Sul-Te-Wan at the African American Registry (archived by the Wayback Machine) Madame Sul-Te-Wan at Find a Grave

Authority control

WorldCat Identities VIAF: 169963998