Book Review: Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone

Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon Books, 449 pages) by Nadine Cohodas, is basically a sad, riveting, tear-jerking tale about the troubled life and career of the very talented, vocalist, pianist, songwriter and activist, North Carolina native Nina Simone. This is not the first biography. There are four others, including one written by her former husband and manager, Andy Stroud, as well as an autobiography. This book is different and unique because it assumes a spectator, fly-on-the-wall, bird’s eye view of the life of Ms. Simone. It is most subjective and leaves the reader wondering how could she write detailed specific information, as if she was in the same room with the artist. Cohodas claims she has tapped into “newly unearthed material , including stories of family and career.” She even corrected Nina’s recollections in her autobiography by stating that her memory lapses were early signs of mental illness. This may be true, but, after reading this well-researched, clearly-written book, one could conclude that this was not a person who was insane, but a wise entertainer who believed that she had been robbed ,used throughout her life and became quite bitter and fought back the only way she knew how by pretending to be a little different.
Cohodas seems to blame the beginning of Simone’s erratic behavior on her rejection from Curtis Institute of Music, a prestigious school in Philadelphia, that Nina applied to attend shortly after she finished high school. Nina also said, once in an interview, that it was one of the reasons she became a person whose music had an “edge” to it and why her music was for “oppressed third world blacks.” But that still doesn’t explain why she was such a vocal and consistent activist who risked her career to join the movement for civil rights in the 1960s when most people in her position were afraid to participate in such action. There had to be more to it than that. What about the hundreds, maybe thousands of young black women and men from poor, working class families who were rejected from Curtis? Why didn’t they become as daring and courageous as Ms. Simone? The reader never really gets the answers to those questions. What we get is a vivid description of a roller coaster ride of a lady who refused to be a working stiff, semi-slave, and help make somebody else, other than herself, wealthy.
This is, however, a very good historical journal of the black American experience during the period of segregation. It is especially useful for those who are interested in how hard working blacks dealt with the rigors and restrictions of that demeaning, degrading and insulting era. Simone’s parents were people who were employed by well-off whites who helped Nina financially and who encouraged her early in her career. It was these people who convinced her that she could be a concert pianist and that she had a future in European classical music. In fact, according to the book, Nina’s goal was to play European classical music, not jazz. She became a jazz musician after she was denied admission to Curtis when she started performing to much success at a club in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Shortly afterwards, she changed her name from plain-sounding, Eunice Waymon to distinctive, extraordinary, eye-catching Nina Simone. Her life changed dramatically after that and for the better. Can you imagine Eunice Waymon writing and singing “Mississippi Goddam” or “To Be Young Gifted and Black?” Or her fans lining up to see and adore Eunice Waymon talk about how awful America was and how she loved living abroad?
Ultimately, Princess Noire, which includes photographs, an index and a bibliography, leaves you speechless and wanting for more. It does a tasteful, tedious job of tracing Ms. Simone’s life from a fairly unsophisticated young girl who started playing gospel music at the age of ten in the church in the rural mountains of North Carolina, to her sparkling show business career, her love affairs, her marriages, her time as an expatriate, her struggles with the Internal Revenue Service, her financial ups and downs and finally, her death in France. Interestingly enough, there are very little quotes from the subject. That is understandable because she had passed and the author relied on secondary sources and quotes from Nina taken from other books, journals and magazines. This book makes you want to read the other biographies, and especially the autobiography (I Put A Spell On You) to see how they differ from this dark, gloomy portrait of a true artist who will go down in history as a fighter and crusader who was not afraid to tell the world that racism was wrong and who proved that one of the best, most effective ways to fight it was to put it in a song.

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Larry Reni Thomas