Finding VertaMae Smart-Grosvenor: American Icon. Culinary Griot. Citizen of the World
The Making of a Lowcountry Documentary
I first met VertaMae Smart-Grosvenor in 2011 when she attended The Avery Research Center’s celebration of Julie Dash’s iconic film, Daughters of the Dust. Having seen her work in Daughters and Oprah Winfrey’s production of Beloved, I was excited to meet this larger-than-life Lowcountry native. The author of three books including the critically acclaimed Vibration Cooking and The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, VertaMae Smart-Grosvenor has lead a remarkably unique and complex life. Born April 4, 1938 in Hampton County, South Carolina, VertaMae—as she is affectionately known by people around the globe—has always let her imagination be her guide. Such a free spirit and forward thinking was unusual for Gullah-Geechee girls in rural South Carolina. To say that VertaMae has always been “different” would be an understatement. The daughter of Clara and Frank Smart, VertaMae’s tiny body resembled that of a “kuta,” the Gullah term for turtle. Small in stature, the baby girl was a fighter, who survived a tumultuous delivery and came into the world without her twin brother. Speaking to her son-in-law, Sula Ritter—Vertamae’s maternal grandmother remarked matter-of-factly: “Da boy da weight like ov’r a five-pound bag gah sugar (6lbs); the gal da weight like a five pound bag gah sugar gah sugar little ov’r half full (3lbs). The boy dead and the gal bout ta be dead.”
Today, at age 75, VertaMae lives in Ridgeland, South Carolina. Surrounded by photos and other historical ephemera documenting an exceptional life in the arts, Vertamae is a breathing treasure trove of stories documenting her experiences with some of the most influential artists, writers, actors and musical performers of the twentieth century. Her long-standing friendships with African American novelist and poet, Maya Angelou, and South African Jazz musician, Hugh Masekala, reflect the wide circle of people, she calls friends. Perhaps her most complex, yet fulfilling relationships were with the iconic Nina Simone, and actor Calvin Lockhart. With Simone, VertaMae shared a deep friendship that often resembled that of sibling rivalry. Their southern roots and deep love for their children and Black culture kept their friendship alive until Simone’s death. But it was her on again, off again love affair with the Bahamian actor, Calvin Lockhart, that brought her the most joy and the most sorrow. When asked about the nature of their relationship, she simply responds, “We were each other’s everything.”
While most known for her epicurean gift as a “culinary anthropologist,” VertaMae’s influence on Americana is more far-reaching than one would imagine. A singer, dancer, and writer, she came of age in the Beat Hotel on the Left Bank of Paris. In 1956, she left for Paris and found herself enveloped by the freedom-seeking Beats. Unwilling to conform to the limited possibilities imposed on Black Americans, she, too, sought freedom. Like many Black ex-pats, VertaMae was drawn to the creativity and acceptance she found amongst the colony of expat artists and writers including American writer Jonathon Kozol, the French painter Lucien Fleury, and the Scottish folk singer Alex Campbell. It was there in the Beat Hotel that she met her husband, sculptor Bob Grosvenor.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in the Beat Movement. Yet much of this literature focuses on the work of figures such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. Very little is written about VertaMae’s role in and experience with this movement.
“Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” is the working title of a feature length documentary which will chronicle VertaMae’s unconventional career as a writer, dancer, muse, actor, costume designer, broadcaster and, yes, culinary ambassador directed by Julie Dash and produced by the Avery Research Center. The film traces her journeys from the Lowcountry of South Carolina, to Philadelphia, Paris and her life at the Beat Hotel. It gives voice to this master storyteller, placing her squarely as an active participant and living witness to two 20th Century arts movements—the Beat Movement and the Black Arts Movement. The documentary traces her journey back from Paris to New York, on the road again as a Space Goddess in Sun Ra’s Solar Myth Science Arkestra, and as associate, friend, confidant and cook to such artists as Larry Neal, Sonya Sanchez Nikki Giovanni, Charles Fuller, Hoyt Fuller Rosa and Rosa Guy and her second husband, the abstract painter, Elsworth Ausby. VertaMae’s story will come to life through her own unique storytelling style, through the voices of those who knew her, the images and sounds, and extant locales of the times, all punctuated by her recipes for both food and for living. Production on the film is set to begin in August 2014.
Patricia Williams Lessane
The College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture