Author Nadine Cohodas will speak at Busboys & Poets tonight to discuss her new book, Princess Noire: the Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. Cohodas, a D.C. resident, previously penned Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington, and Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records. Her new book is a very comprehensive 375 pages followed by 40 pages of footnotes plus a discography, a bibliography, and acknowledgments.
As interesting as this Simone fan found the book—-and especially its theme regarding Simone’s behavior in response to her rejection by the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to study classical music—-I must note that its heavy inclusion of review excerpts is a bit wearying. Also, the book only hints at Simone’s physical and psychological maladies, making it hard to determine to what extent Simone’s often explosive public persona was the result of racism and sexism, and to what extent it had roots in her health. Despite the book’s flaws, Cohodas’ presentation tonight on this unique, opinionated, occasionally rude, sometimes bitter and depressed, talented, and proud performer should be fascinating. I asked Cohodas some questions about the book via e-mail.
Washington City Paper: What made you decide to do a biography of Nina Simone?
Nadine Cohodas: To be sure my interest in Nina starts with her music and her presence—-and after writing about Dinah Washington, who died so young——39—-in 1963, Nina—-a generation younger—-felt like the next step. I have long been interested in the intersection of race and culture, and in Nina one finds an artist whose identity as a proud black woman was bound up in her art in a way different from the wonderful singers of Dinah’s generation—-Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday. I I found that very compelling.
WCP: In your book you mention Simone’s autobiography and you cite the Sylvia Hampton biography of Simone in your bibliography; it appears that you found those books useful but felt you could do more? Is that right? Can you elaborate?
NC: I considered these books starting points, and the second book—-Hampton—-repeated a good bit of what Nina had written about her own life. I believe my answer to the next question helps answer this one.
WCP: How much time did researching the book take? You have listed countless newspaper reviews and a number of interviews.
NC: This book was five years from start finish, roughly four of them intensive research. Among the most enriching part of the research was the time I spent in Tryon—-three trips—-to understand the world of Eunice Waymon, before she became Nina Simone. And it was enormously helpful, not to mention interesting, to talk with so many musicians who played with Nina as well as her family members. Her brother Sam, who played with her and acted for a time as her manager, provided particularly helpful insights.
WCP: Did you see Nina Simone perform? A number of times or just once or not at all?
NC: I did not see her perform.
WCP: Did you ever interview her?
WCP: It seems hard to determine if some of Nina’s behavior over the years was due to racism (including the failure to get into the Curtis Institute of Music) or her own mental health, or a combination of the two. Did you find yourself playing doctor, psychiatrist, historian all at once?
NC: That is a very good description—-along with occasional detective trying to sort out fact from fiction.
WCP: My reading of your book suggests that her mental health seemed to get worse over the years, is that correct?
NC: Indeed, in Nina’s later years, she spun out of control to a greater degree and more dramatically than in her younger years.
WCP: How did writing this book compare to your others?
NC: It was the most complicated, which I thought Nina would appreciate and find appropriate …(I say that truthfully and with a smile. Honest.)
WCP: Are you involved in the screenwriting of the planned Nina Simone movie?
WCP: Are you already working on a new project you can talk about?
NC: Nothing in the works.
Nadine Cohodas will be appearing for free tonight, Tuesday June 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th Street NW (and V. St.). (202) 387-7638