• Nina Kennedy

Will Alicia Keys Portray Philippa Schuyler?


Back in the 1930s there was a famous American pianist by the name of Philippa Schuyler. She was a child prodigy, and the daughter of a white mother and black father. Philippa's mother was an eccentric Texas heiress, and believed that her daughter would set the example for ending racism. She kept Philippa isolated. Hailed in the New York Times as "the Shirley Temple of American Negroes," Schuyler was performing public recitals and radio broadcasts by age four. In later life, Schuyler grew disillusioned with the racial and gender prejudice she encountered, particularly when performing in the United States, and much of her musical career was spent playing overseas. She fled to Latin America, where mixed races were more prevalent. She chose a voluntary exile of traveling and performing in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Europe. She played at the inauguration of three successive presidents in Haiti. In Africa, she performed for various notables such as Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, at Independence Day celebrations for Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu of the Congo, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and for Albert Schweitzer in his isolated leper colony in Lamberéné. She began passing for white in 1959, at first so she could travel in South Africa, then again years later thinking she'd have a better career if she reentered the American concert scene as a white performer.

Philippa Schuyler

As her concert schedule decreased in the early 1960s, Schuyler followed her father George Schuyler into journalism in her thirties. She supplemented her limited income by writing about her travels. She published more than 100 newspaper and magazine articles internationally, and was one of the few black writers for the United Press International.

Schuyler published four non-fiction books.

Schuyler's personal life was frequently unhappy since childhood. Her mother punished her severely with whippings, and she never made friends because she didn't attend school regularly. When she did attend school, she was ahead of other children her age, and was usually the only minority. Schuyler developed an inferiority complex about her race and viewed her blackness as a "stigma." Schuyler rejected many of her parents' values and viewed their interracial marriage as a mistake. She increasingly became a vocal feminist and made many attempts to pass herself off as a woman of Iberian (Spanish) descent named Felipa Monterro y Schuyler.

Although Schuyler engaged in a number of affairs, she never married. In 1965, she endured a dangerous late-term abortion in Tijuana after an affair with Ghanaian diplomat, because she did not want to have a child with a black man. Schuyler wanted to marry an Aryan man to boost her career and produce white-looking offspring.

Schuyler and her father were members of the John Birch Society. In addition to her native English language, she spoke French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.

In 1966, Schuyler traveled to South Vietnam to perform for the troops and Vietnamese groups. She returned in April 1967 as a war correspondent and serve as a lay missionary.

On May 9, 1967, Schuyler was killed in a crash of a U.S. Army helicopter during a mission in Da Nang to evacuate Vietnamese orphans. 2,000 mourners attended her funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 18, 1967.

Schuyler's mother was profoundly affected by her death, and committed suicide a few days before the second anniversary of her death in 1969.

It was reported in 2004 that Halle Berry owned the film rights to Schuyler's biography. Berry intended to co-produce the biopic with Marc Platt, starring Alicia Keys as Schuyler. I have also heard that Alicia Keys has been asked to portray pianist Ella Sheppard in a narrative on the Fisk Jubilee Singers. When are we going to be able to see these films?

Hey Halle, call me!

Meanwhile, enjoy this recording of Philippa Schuyler playing Chopin.

Halle Berry