Lincoln Perry was ghetto-fabulous long before the term was ever coined. Long before the tabloid headline antics of singer Chris Brown, and the often vulgar displays of NFL and NBA superstars, he was the original bad boy of Black Hollywood. Known to the world as Stepin' Fetchit, he was derisively referred to as "the world's laziest man" and the "white man's negro" during the silent screen era and early 1930's Hollywood. Over on the darker side of town, Central Avenue was the nucleus of the entertainment community where most of black Hollywood were relegated, and it was definitely where they partied. As Perry's alter ego, Stepin' Fetchit played the fool on the silver screen much to the chagrin of other blacks, but looks can very often be deceiving. Step was a brilliant comedian from the old-school of minstrelsy and vaudeville, and in the process he became one of the highest paid African American entertainers of the mid-twentieth century. He also claimed to be very race-conscious during a time when it was all about presenting the best image, but on this level it can be successfully argued that he failed miserably.
Through it all, Perry often retired to a charming bungalow at 1609 E. 4oth St., in South Central, Los Angeles, where he lived with his father and sister, a chauffer, a maid, and a pet whippet. It was attractive, quaint and seemingly sedate with striped cloth window awnings, lined flower beds, exotic plants and a well-manicured lawn but it was extremely modest compared to the over-the-top lavish homes of white contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. His salary ranked among the top of Negro entertainers, it was still far less than that of his Hollywood peers. Still, Perry tried to match the bonafide kings of Hollywood with style and extravagant tastes, expensive clothes, and cars. Along with all of that came all the rest like the public brawls, arrests, outrageous court cases and the numerous suspensions (and rehires) from the movie studios. And then there were the young women! Teenagers, actually! Not that they were all that innocent! Dorothy Stevenson Perry, all of 16, eventually moved into 1609 E. 40th St. as Step's wife, but despite all of the charm and beauty of the place, it was often a scene of raucous and chaotic episodes that duly befitted the exciting nouveau riche African American entertainer.
In the movies, Stepin' Fetchit was a down-home country boy, dressed in rags and farm overalls. He epitomized the mumbling, shuffling, buck-eyed buffoon who acted like he didn't know his ass from a hole in the ground. On the other hand, Lincoln Perry was a man of ostentatiousness, if not downright style. In real life, he was the new high-steppin', hip dressin' fella who had it all togetha while wearing custom designed and imported cashmere suits, some costing as much as $1000 a piece. Much of his wardrobe was reported to have been purchased (and retailored) directly from Rudolph Valentino's tailor after the death of the 20's movie icon in 1926. Lincoln Perry often referred to himself in such a way that clearly elevated him among the elite of Hollywood and something more than what society and the entertainment industry confined him to. Unfortunately, the free-wheeling spending and recklessness would eventually catch up with him. Doesn't it always? But for awhile, Perry and his chauffers, Fred and Phillip, were permanent fixtures throughout South Central in his late 20's Cadillac Phaeton.
John "Bubbles" Sublett (above left) of the pioneering comedy-dance team, Buck and Bubbles, was a frequent guest at the knock-down, drag out, brick-throwing, gun-toting parties and scenes that took place at the Perry bungalow. "Screams, yells, sounds of crashing glass and china, thuds of heavy objects, such as furniture or bodies falling, suddenly emanated from Stepin' Fetchit's residence at 1609 East 40th Street, last Sunday afternoon late. In the midst of the bedlam, out the front door burst the long, lean form of Bubbles leaping like a greyhound with Stepin curving down the driveway from the back of the house and right behind Bubbles throwing full bottles of home brew at him .... one of those struck the long legged runner on the right fore'arm cutting a ragged gash but never slowing his pace. Step's liveried chauffer then speeded out behind Bubbles in Step's expensive limousine .... he succeeded in convincing the dancer that he only wanted to take him to a hospital and get his arm sewed up" (Baltimore Afro American, July 6, 1929). In 1979, John Bubbles told an interviewer that "They was wild times. We partied a lot when I was in Hollywood .... we was on top of the world, thought the party would never end ... I was back at Step's house for another party a week or so after all that mess happened." Stepin' Fetchit's public feuds with other black male entertainers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and actor Clarence Muse are legendary.
With fame and the illusion of power, many women made themselves available. But Step was more attracted to the teenaged girls who may have been a bit more dazzled by the hijinks and lavish attentions of an older man. In fact, 16 seemed to be the magic age! He was already thirty-something in the spring of 1929, when he met a pretty auburn-haired high school student named Dorothy Stevenson, who aspired to be a chorus girl. A few months later, they were married. Before their short courtship began, Perry had also been involved with 17 year old Yvonne Butler, another aspiring chorus girl. After his marriage to Dorothy, Yvonne sued him for an alleged breach of promise to marry her, asking $100,000 in damages. He agreed to a compromise settlement of $5,000 - 2,500 cash and $50 a week for fifty weeks.
Dorothy Stevenson Perry filed for divorce in 1931 after Step allegedly broke her nose, jaw and chin with "his fists and a broomstick" during a brawl. Step said that as a "practicing Catholic" divorce was not an option, and they seperated as Mrs. Perry's health rapidly deteriorated from tuberculosis.
Perry's romantic relationships with underaged girls was scandalous! There was a "marriage of convenience" with Wini Johnson, a gorgeous teenaged showgirl from The Cotton Club, whose blistering affair with Perry was the gossip of Harlem and in the black press in the late 1930's. See Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry (chapter 15) by Mel Watkins for a stunning blow by blow account.
Step's dangerous liaison with 16 year old Juanita Randolph (left) finally put the fading, 41 year old actor behind bars in 1943. The bungalow in Los Angeles where he lived with his first wife, parents, chauffer, Mrs. Jones the maid and whippet were but a memory. And for the most part, so soon would be his career.
In the spring of 1930, an anonymous Hollywood studio executive went to the press and exclaimed that "audiences would tolerate no representation of the Negro as independant, well-dressed, handling money or in a position of dignity." However, most upwardly mobile Black Americans thought differently! Fueled by the black press, they waged massive letter-writing campaigns to the studios in response to the ugly and blatantly racist images that were growing in number in the movies and popular cartoons. Almost from the time Stepin' Fetchit appeared onscreen, Lincoln Perry would find himself in a dilemma. He was criticized for the parts he took and was seen by many as being part of the problem. However, Lincoln Perry saw himself as a movie star first and film pioneer from the beginning who was busy breaking down barriers and paving the way for others of his race. White America embraced his lazy, shiftless caricatures as accurate portrayals of black men and the studios rewarded him for his behavior. As long as he represented the worst of us, the work and the money was there! But there were growing occasions when Perry spoke up (and acted out) about his own dignity as a man and artist versus the things they wanted him to do on the screen. He also began to stand up to the unscrupulous booking agents and theatre managers on the black theatre circuit by demanding back pay and full salaries in advance. None of this, including the hard-to-handle persona he cultivated endeared him to Hollywood.
Lincoln Perry worked for every major studio in Hollywood and was fired by them all for one reason or another. It was usually justified, but Black America knew very little of the behind-the-scenes particulars of his struggle. All they saw was the high-coonery of an ultimate Uncle Tom! As new stars with new more sophisticated personas like Lena Horne began to appear, blacks rapidly turned their backs on everything Perry represented, and his shtick and gimmicks quickly fell out of favor. He continued to work but the gigs now were a far cry from what he had become accustomed to in his heyday. So were the salaries! He became an oldies but not so goodie act and eventually declared bankruptcy in 1949.
Over the years, Stepin' Fetchit made sporadic appearances in film and on the entertainment scene, strangely and most notably as part of Muhammed Ali's entourage in the 1960's. Step made 54 films in Hollywood between 1925 and 1976 - four with his friend, Will Rogers, but they are mostly not available and rarely seen. When they are shown today, his scenes are considered so offensive that they are cut from the film. His legacy is such that we have been taught to revile him, but that tide has turned due to recent scholarship on (and a reassessing of) his life and career. However, his life and career is typical of the never ending story of the African American who gains the world and looses it all through foolishness. But then, Stepin' Fetchit was the master of foolishness! Lincoln Perry died at the age of 83 in 1985. Before his death, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.