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Famous and Not Forgotten: Taylor Gordon

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Emmanuel Taylor Gordon’s life began between six and seven o’clock on Saturday morning, April 29, 1893, at White Sulphur Springs, Montana, in a little three-room place in the country with two gables, two doors, four windows and a cloth ceiling.

Taylor was the youngest of five children of John Francis Gordon Sr. and Mary Anna Goodall Gordon. His father claimed descent from Zulu ancestors, and his mother had been born in slavery in Bourbon County, Kentucky. The couple and their baby son, Robert, moved to Montana from Cairo, Illinois, in 1881, traveling up the Missouri River via steamboat. John worked as a cook in the gold mining camps of Barker and Castle and for cattle roundups. Sometime around 1885, the family moved to White Sulphur Springs, where they became—and remained—the town’s only African American family.

The senior Gordon left White Sulphur Springs in 1895; he headed out for the Alaskan gold fields but reportedly was killed in a train crash in Canada. Mary raised the children alone, supporting the children primarily by working as a laundress.

Young Taylor spent his early years attending the local school and carrying out a variety of offbeat jobs, including messenger for the town’s brothels, pin setter in a bowling alley and preparer of opium in the town’s Chinese opium den, before he left home to become a chauffeur, Pullman porter, auto mechanic and chef in the personal train cars of circus owner John Ringling. Ringling had a ranch near White Sulphur Springs; the tiny town of Ringling some ten miles south of White Sulphur bears the family name.

White Sulphur Springs was a “cultured cowtown” then. Its population was about eight hundred but it had eight or ten grand pianos. Some of the country’s best stage shows played in the old auditorium operated by Robert Sutherland and it was a time of jovial and fancy parties. The Gordon home was filled with music; all members of the family sang and played various instruments. Mary Gordon was renowned for the haunting beauty and power of the spirituals she sang. Taking a cue from his mother, Taylor would sing as he worked.

Gordon eventually made his way to New York, where he became John Ringling’s personal valet, traveling throughout the country on Ringling’s private rail car. In 1915, in St. Louis, Missouri, a passerby overheard Gordon singing along to an Enrique Caruso record and suggested that he pursue a musical career. With Ringling’s support, he moved to New York to study with composer Will Marion Cook, and after stints as a dockworker, bricklayer, elevator operator and immigration agent, he began performing with B.F. Keith’s vaudeville revue in 1919.

In New York City, Taylor Gordon became a dynamic part of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural, social and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem, New York, between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s.

Gordon partnered with pianist J. Rosamond Johnson in 1925 in a musical vaudeville act, performing spirituals. The duo toured for several years – including a series of concerts in Europe in 1927 – before separating in the early 1930s. As an interpreter of “Negro spirituals,” he was reported to have had “no equals.” Gordon’s career peaked in 1927 when he toured France and England, performing for a number of dignitaries, including England’s King George V and Queen Mary.

An article in the Billings Gazette in 1928 refers to Gordon as “the Negro singer who put Montana on the map.” Gordon continued entertaining privately, and eventually pursued an acting career, appearing as a cast member on Broadway as well as in the film "The Emperor Jones" (1933), with Paul Robeson. Yet he never reclaimed his previous level of success. In 1929, Gordon’s autobiography, “Born to Be,” was published.

Gordon returned to White Sulphur Springs in 1935 and spent the winter of that year in a cabin at Sheep Creek Ranch. During this time he wrote a novel, entitled "Daonda," which was never published. It became increasingly difficult for Gordon to make a living as his attempts to renew his musical career fell short. He eventually turned to inventing toys and working as a lathe operator in a New Jersey B-29 factory during the World War II.

Gordon suffered a mental breakdown in 1947 and was hospitalized in New York for most of the following twelve years. According to a biographic note in the Emmanuel Taylor Gordon papers, he became increasingly paranoid, "his problems being exacerbated by a dispute with John Steinbeck's publisher Viking Press... Gordon had previously submitted [his novel] "Daonda" to the same publisher, and he believed that Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" had been plagiarized from his work. The feeling of having been cheated out of wealth and fame, and the subsequent belief that he was continually under electronic surveillance by the government, dominated much of the rest of Taylor Gordon's life."

In February 1959, Gordon was released from Central Islip Hospital into the care of his sister, Rose, who still resided in White Sulphur Springs. He lived there in anonymity, surviving on rental incomes and an antique business. He also occasionally provided concerts and talks for local groups.

At a live show in Montana in 1960, Gordon’s songs rolled out with all the warmth and feeling that had started his vocal career many years before. He sang with his fine tenor voice, reaching out over the silent auditorium, whose audience had braved subzero weather to attend the concert of a hometown artist. His winter concert was his first in Montana in almost a quarter of a century.

“The people who heard it seemed quite pleased,” said Gordon to the Great Falls Tribune. “So, if I can rake up the music I want I’ll be singing some more soon... and in be- tween, I hope I’ll be able to develop a few things I have in mind, if I can afford the expense. I feel sure they will be enjoyed by many people.”

He continued to write, including the 1970 “Born to Be” sequel, but his only other publication was a 1967 booklet entitled The Man Who Built the Stone Castle,” describing White Sulphur Springs’ historic landmark and its creator, B.R. Sherman.

Taylor Gordon died on May 5, 1971. Shortly beforehand, future novelist Ivan Doig taped his reminiscences of Harlem in the 1920s. Gordon was the inspiration of Doig’s Monty Rathbun in the popular novel Prairie Nocturne. Rathbun in the book is a black chauffeur whose career mirrors that of Taylor Gordon. In the book’s preface, Doig refers to Gordon as “a gifted singer who went to New York, blazed through the Harlem Renaissance and got a little famous, then blew his money and wound up back in Montana.”

Without question, Taylor lived a remarkable life and is today considered one of the state’s most intriguing Montanans.

—Brian D’Ambrosio

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