Adam’s Belle: A Memoir of Love Without Bounds

by Isabel Washington Powell with Joyce Burnett

DBM Press, LC | August 2010 | 193 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

authors powell & burnett

First Wives Tales

Why would a young, beautiful, and successful showgirl give up her career for a preacher’s son? According to this memoir, the answer is simple—love. The young woman was Isabel Washington, a dancer and performer at the Cotton Club and in various all-Black revues. The preacher’s son was known as none other than Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Powell courted Washington, a divorcee with a small son , while he was still in college. Although she never admits it, she and Powell were about the same age. Washington was one of the all-Black cast members of the Broadway play, Harlem, when they met.   She was unimpressed by him during their first meeting at the apartment of a mutual friend.

A man walked through the door looking like he had come from a concentration camp,” she writes.

However, Powell was impressed. He began courting her almost immediately. Given what history has recorded about the unflinching determination of Powell, it’s hard to believe this was an accidental meeting. It seems likely that he had been interested in Washington, and planned to meet her. At any rate, when he went back to college, he began writing to Washington and gave her a nickname, “Bunny Girl.”  As the correspondence continued, Washington and Powell fell in love.

The thin, lanky, fair-skinned college boy who looked like he needed a good Thanksgiving meal slowly became a tall handsome prince who took my breath away,” Washington notes in her memoir.

Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., y oung Powell’s father, expected his son to become the successor as the pastor of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

The only child of a white, German mother, and a father who was of mixed race, Powell Jr. led a privileged life. He was raised with house servants and chauffeurs. He went to good schools and he played polo and tennis.

No slouch herself, Washington was the younger sister of one of the most famous African American actresses in America, Fredi Washington, of Imitation of Life fame. The daughter of working class parents, Isabel Washington was earning a living for herself, her child, and her aging grandmother.

She became a single mother after her marriage to the photographer, Preston Webster, went sour. Webster demanded that Washington give up her career and become a housewife. She was to stop working at the Cotton Club where a Black man “couldn’t patronize,” he’s quoted as saying.

Their relationship deteriorated beyond repair when Preston hit her one evening during an argument. “We were both surprised when he struck me,” she writes. Then she took their son Preston, Jr., and moved back in with her beloved “Big Momma.”

Soon after she left Webster, Washington found she was pregnant a second time. She used a homemade abortion formula, consisting of powder, that she bought from a local drug store to terminate her pregnancy. No mention is made of whether Webster ever knew about either the pregnancy or the termination. The couple divorced, and some time later, Webster committed suicide.

In contemplating her divorce and Preston Webster’s death, she writes, “I didn’t need another man who would be just like Preston. Maybe I didn’t need a man at all.” Soon after, she met Powell. When he proposed, he insisted that she give up her career. She did, seemingly without regrets.

Why did she change her mind for him? There is a fairytale aspect to the story. Powell was wealthy, charismatic, handsome, intellectual, and destined for power. He grew up with servants during the Great Depression. In short, he really was a prince.

The fact that Adam Sr. was fiercely opposed to the marriage didn’t deter his son one whit. This was further proof to Washington that her “Bunny Boy” could move mountains.

Thus began an 11-year marriage that included trips around the country and around the world. The couple loved to throw lavish dinner parties and were frequent guests at equally wonderful soirees. Even more, Washington outlines her hiring and firing of maids. It reads that happily - ever- after i s to be their destiny and i t was—until Powell met his true love—politics.

At this point, the beginning of the end of their marriage became apparent. As outlined in the book, Powell rose from the ministry of Abyssinian to become the first Black member of the City Council of New York. His next move was to run and win a seat as Congressman from black Harlem. He describes himself as “the first black Congressman from the East.” After he won that election, “It was clear to us, he was thinking about the presidency in the distant future,” Washington says of his dream trajectory. In a just society, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. would have been elected president. However, wherever the path was to take him, Washington was never to accompany him. After he won the race for the Senate, “In a slow, calm, but steady voice, he managed to say, ‘Bunny, I love you more than anything in the world , but you won’t be needing those dogs. You won’t be going to Washington with me.’ ” She was devastated. Shortly thereafter, she learned that the rumors about her husband’s affair with entertainer Hazel Scott were true. After the divorce, he and Scott married.

At this point, the book, which i s rich with detail about the early life of Washington, her siblings, her career, and her marriage become incomplete. Although she received alimony (which Powell protested), it’s unclear if it was enough to support her and her son. She explains that Powell had adopted Preston Jr., but he abandoned the boy after the divorce.

At one point, Washington learned to be a barber, but “One day I had a drunken judge come in. I was very nervous with him in the chair. I nicked him with the razor and the blood started running. Honey, I flew upstairs and Carl [the boss] was right behind me.” She quit and never went back to the profession. She writes about working with special needs children for the New York City Board of Education for over 20 years. However, the book doesn’t specify whether Washington was a teacher or not.

In her personal life, she dated but didn’t remarry. Years seem to fly by without a defining moment or clear facts to distinguish one period of her life from another.

For example, she talks about her son separating from his wife. We are never told when he married. When she talks about her grandson, he’s a young man. The vivid details that inform the first part of the book are missing in the second part.

Plus, there is a subtext that deserves a book in itself. While Washington mentions it only cursorily, she and Powell had something else that many Black people struggling through the racism of segregated America didn’t have. That something was light-skinned privilege. Both were so fair that they could pass for white. According to Washington, Powell actually did so for a short while in college.

When Adam was housed at Colgate, initially his room-mate was white. Once his “color” became known, his room-mate wanted him out and the few colored students who were on campus were not too pleased.”  Washington insists that Powell wasn’t passing. She talks about the fair skinned dancers at the Mafia owned Cotton Club. Then, she drops a bombshell. Apparently, white women passed for Black so they could dance at the Cotton Club. This bit of history alone would make an interesting book.

Similarly, it is clear that to Washington, her marriage to Powell was a great love. She was, for a time, a princess. Upon reading this memoir, it becomes clear that it was a marriage much like any other that lasted 11 years and ended in divorce. Consequently, her reason for making the decision to marry him is explained. The reason for writing the book is not.

Loretta H. Campbell is a writer, teacher and activist with the New York office of the National Writer's Union.

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