Actress. Born Nannie Mayme McKinney to Hal and Georgia McKinney in Lancaster, South Carolina; her parents moved to New York in search of better opportunities leaving her to be raised by a great aunt, Carrie Sanders. As a child she appeared in plays at the Lancaster Industrial School. At twelve, her parents sent for her and she joined them in New York City. By the age of sixteen she landed a role in the chorus line of Lew Leslies ‘Blackbirds' starring Bill Robinson. Spotted by director King Vidor in 1929, he cast her as bad girl, Chick, in his film ‘Hallelujah,' the first all-black musical feature film. Only seventeen at the time, the strength of her performance netted her a five-year contract with MGM. Young and beautiful, she was a leading lady in an industry that had no leading roles for black women and she fell into a round of minor support roles such as the vamp or the domestic in films like 1930's ‘They Learn About Women,' and 1935's ‘Reckless,' or the hotelier in 1931's ‘Safe in Hell.' Frustrated with her career limitations in the US, she left for Europe, appearing in theatre and cabarets throughout the continent where she was known as the ‘Queen of Night Life' and ‘Black Garbo.' She made two British films; ‘Kentucky Minstrels' and ‘Sanders of the River' starring opposite Paul Robeson. She is credited as the first black person to appear on British television participating in the 1935 GPO film ‘BBC - The Voice of Britain' as well as the 1937 BBC Television Demonstration Film. After the outbreak of WWII she returned to New York, where she married jazz musician Jimmy Monroe. Together they put together a band and toured the country. She returned to Hollywood in 1940, appearing in a half a dozen minor films before being offered the role of show stealing Rozelia in 1949's ‘Pinky.' Her last film appearance followed in an uncredited bit part in the 1950 western, ‘Copper Canyon.' She then settled in Athens, Greece, reprising her role as the Queen of the Night Life. She returned to New York by the mid-sixties, all but forgotten by her native country. When she succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 54; her death went unnoticed in the entertainment industry and by the media. In 1978, however, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In her hometown of Lancaster, her portrait adorns the ‘Wall of Fame' across from the Courthouse.
Bio by: Iola