Today’s Notable Texan – Cyd Charisse

Today’s Notable Texan – Cyd Charisse
(Texas State Historical Association)

Tula Ellice Finklea (better known as Cyd Charisse), dancer and actress, was born on March 8, 1922, in Amarillo, Texas, to Lela (Norwood) and Ernest Enos Finklea, Sr., owner of a jewelry store.

Cyd CharisseShe grew up at the family’s 1616 Tyler Street home, receiving her later stage name from her younger brother who could not pronounce ‘sis’ and called her ‘Sid.’ As a frail six-year-old, she began dancing lessons to help her overcome a slight case of polio. Her father took an interest in Cyd’s developing ballet talent, and when she was fourteen, on the advice of her dance instructor, he sent her to a professional school in California. Soon after, she was touring with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Company under faux Russian names, including Felia Sidorova. Upon hearing of her father’s failing health, she returned to Texas to be with him until his death. She then joined back up with the company in Los Angeles and began training with Nico Charisse, a French ballet instructor she had met when she was twelve.

While on a European tour that was cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II, Nico, age thirty-two, met up with Cyd and asked her to go with him to Paris. The couple spontaneously wed in France on August 12, 1939. Cyd attracted notoriety in conservative Amarillo when she brought her older husband home to visit. Her mother, upon receiving the news, insisted the couple remarry in a “proper ceremony” in New Mexico. The newlyweds then moved to Hollywood, where they taught dance at Nico’s school. As a favor to friends who choreographed for movies, Cyd began appearing in small films, including Mission to Moscow (1943) and Something to Shout About (1943), using the name Lily Norwood. She initially had little interest in movies, however, as her goal was to become a prima ballerina. Because of this aspiration, she had not planned on getting married as young as she did and attributed her sudden marriage to the loss of her father. Cyd’s life was further changed when she and Nico had a son, Nico (Nicky) Charisse, Jr., in 1942. Realizing she would not be able to tour easily with a child, she began to pursue a career in film, which would still offer her the opportunity to dance.

By 1946, due to her previous connections in the industry, Cyd had signed a contract with MGM Pictures for $150 a week and began taking vocal lessons to rid her of her Texas twang. Upon the suggestion of producer Arthur Freed, she adopted the stage name of “Cyd Charisse,” changing the spelling of Sid to Cyd. She first received roles in the period’s popular movie musicals, including Harvey Girls (1946) with Judy Garland and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), in which she found herself pirouetting around future dance partner Fred Astaire. By 1947 her marriage had grown bitter and she and Nico divorced. This was her chance to partake in the dating scene she had missed out on as a teenager. Garnering the attention of famous men, she ultimately found herself in serious relationships with both billionaire Howard Hughes, Jr., and singer Tony Martin. Martin won out, and the couple married on May 9, 1948, in Santa Barbara. That same year, she had disappointingly lost a role alongside Fred Astaire in Easter Parade(1948) due to an injured knee and was replaced by fellow Texas dancer Ann Miller. She recuperated in time to take a part in The Kissing Bandit (1948) with Frank Sinatra, and did a memorable dance number with Miller and Ricardo Montalban, but the film itself was unsuccessful. Then in 1950, she made the decision to pass on a lead role with Gene Kelly in the Academy Award-winning An American in Paris after discovering she was expecting a baby with Martin.

Finally in 1952 Cyd, at thirty-years-old, got another chance through a star-making part in Singin’ in the Rain. Her one dance scene, “The Broadway Melody Ballet,” had her playing both a vamp seductress and an innocent bride to Gene Kelly. She followed this with a starring role in The Band Wagon (1953) with Astaire. Their memorable final dance number “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” which found Charisse once again vamping it up, this time for Astaire’s private-eye character, has gone down as one of the most popular dances in the history of film. Cyd continued to partner with the two dancing greats in Brigadoon (1954) and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) with Kelly and Silk Stockings (1957) with Astaire. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as leading actress in Silk Stockings.

After the movie musical genre began to decline in the late 1950s, she continued her career in smaller films, including Twilight for the Gods (1958) with Rock Hudson, Party Girl (1958) with Robert Taylor, and Something’s Got to Give (1962), Marilyn Monroe’s last, unfinished film. Throughout the rest of her career, she made frequent appearances on television shows and commercials and went on a nightclub tour with husband Tony Martin. Later, she made her own exercise video for active seniors, worked with a chemist to create a product, Arctic Spray, to help with her mother’s arthritis, and made a cameo in Janet Jackson’s music video for the song “Alright” (1990). She always continued her ballet training, and in 1992, at the age of seventy, Cyd made her Broadway debut playing an aging ballerina in Grand Hotel, a musical directed and choreographed by Texas native Tommy Tune. In her eighties, she appeared in documentaries and specials chronicling old Hollywood.

Cyd was best-known for her dancing. Self-admittedly, she was never much of a singer or an actress, as most of her songs were dubbed and she always strived to improve her acting. She was, however, uniquely successful in a competitive field of tap-dancing actresses due to her background in traditional Russian ballet. This afforded her opportunities that she treasured. When asked which partner she preferred, Astaire or Kelly, she always said that her husband could tell which one she had been dancing with, noting in a New York Times interview, “If I was black and blue, it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.” She would always add, “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They’re both delicious.” Astaire had similar kind words for her in his memoirSteps in Time (1959), calling her “beautiful dynamite” and saying, “That Cyd! When you’ve danced with her you stay danced with.”

With sixty-five years in show business and a dance career that spanned even longer, Cyd received many awards over the years for her achievements. Some of the most notable include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, induction into the Texas Film Hall of Fame in Austin in 2002, and a National Medal of Arts presented by President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony in 2006. She also received the first Nijinsky Award from Princess Caroline in Monaco for her lifetime contributions to dance in 2000. In 2001 Cyd gained attention for one of her most famous assets, her long legs, which Guinness World Records conferred the title of “Most Valuable Legs.” This was based off of reports that an insurance policy had been taken out on them for anywhere from $1 to $5 million dollars in 1952, but the raven-haired actress often laughed this off as an exaggerated sum created for publicity.

On June 16, 2008, Cyd was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after suffering a heart attack. She died the following day on June 17, 2008, at the age of eighty-six, and was buried at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. She was survived by her husband of just over sixty years, Tony Martin, and her two sons. In the joint biography she and Tony published in 1976 entitled, The Two of Us, Cyd frequently cited her Texas heritage as having had a big influence on her life. She was very happy to speak with an Austin American–Statesman reporter in 2002, reminding him, “Once a Texan always a Texan.”

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This Day in Texas History: Race Riot Erupts in Beaumont

This Day in Texas History:

Race Riot Erupts in Beaumont

June 15, 1943

Beaumont Race Riot of 1943On this day in 1943, whites and blacks clashed in Beaumont after workers at a local shipyard learned that a white woman had accused a black man of raping her. On the evening of June 15 more than 2,000 workers, plus perhaps another 1,000 interested bystanders, marched toward City Hall.

Even though the woman could not identify the suspect among the blacks held in the city jail, the workers dispersed into small bands and proceeded to terrorize black neighborhoods in central and north Beaumont. Many blacks were assaulted, several businesses were pillaged, a number of buildings were burned, and more than 100 homes were ransacked.

Acting Texas governor A. M. Aikin, Jr., placed Beaumont under martial law. More than 200 people were arrested, fifty were injured, and two–one black and one white–were killed. Another black man died later of injuries received during the riot.

On June 20 of that same year, a similar riot exploded in Detroit, lasting three days.  34 people were killed, of which 25 were black.  Approximately 600 were injured.

Twenty-nine of those arrested were turned over to civil authorities on charges of assault and battery, unlawful assembly, and arson. The remainder were released, mostly because of lack of evidence.

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This Day in Texas History: Novelist Dies After Fistfight

This Day in Texas History:

Novelist Dies After Fistfight

June 07, 1979

On this day in 1979, Asa Earl Carter, part Indian, segregationist, politician, speechwriter, and novelist, died as a result of a fistfight with his son in Abilene.

Asa Earl CarterCarter was born in Anniston, Alabama, in 1925. By the late 1950s he was in Birmingham, Alabama, where he hosted a radio show for the American States Rights Association and was a leader of the Alabama Council movement. Later he founded the North Alabama White Citizens Council.

He created a KKK group of his own: the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, a very scary paramilitary organization. Its members participated in the stoning of a black female who tried to register at the University of Alabama. They beat up a local civil rights worker and stabbed his wife. They physically attacked singer Nat King Cole on stage at a Birmingham concert. Read more here.

He was one of two writers said to be responsible for the words “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” uttered by Governor George Wallace. After an unsuccessful run against Wallace in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1970, Carter gave up politics and left Alabama.

He adopted the pseudonym Bedford Forrest Carter and settled in Sweetwater, Texas, where he used the resources of the City-County Library to work on his first novel, Gone to Texas (1973). The highly successful film version starring Clint Eastwood is entitled The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Carter wrote three other books, including the purported autobiography The Education of Little Tree (1976), before his untimely death.

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On This Day in Texas History: Convention Meets to Discuss Sectional Crisis

On This Day in Texas History:

Convention Meets to Discuss Sectional Crisis

June 03, 1850

On this day in 1850, delegates from the southern states collected in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss the sectional crisis resulting from the Mexican War.

In 1849 a bipartisan convention met at Jackson, Mississippi, and called for a southern convention to meet at Nashville in June 1850 “to devise and adopt some mode of resistance to northern aggression.” Both Texas senators, Sam Houston and Thomas J. Rusk, opposed the convention. Nevertheless, the Texas legislature passed a joint resolution recommending that the people choose representatives to the convention on the same day they selected a permanent state capital.

J. Pinckney Henderson was the sole Texas delegate to attend the convention. Like most Texans, he was primarily concerned about the boundary dispute with New Mexico. A total of 175 delegates from nine southern states met at the McKendree Methodist Church on June 3-12, 1850, passed a series of resolutions, and called for a second convention if Congress failed to meet their demands.

The passage of the Compromise of 1850, by resolving the boundary issue with New Mexico to the satisfaction of most Texans, kept Texas away from the second Nashville conference in November 1850. However, the two conferences helped pave the way for the Confederacy, which would ultimately draw Texas from the Union.

State Capitol Sunset

State Capitol Sunset


State Capitol Sunset
Austin, Texas

Copyright 2012 Warren Paul Harris
All Rights Reserved

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This Day in Texas History: Halley’s Comet Strikes Northeast Texas

This Day in Texas History:

Halley’s Comet Strikes Northeast Texas

May 19, 1910

On this day in 1910, a 500-pound meteorite fell to earth outside the northeast Texas community of Charleston during the passage of Halley’s Comet.

Halley's Comet 1910Delta County’s most publicized event of the decade was not without precedent, however, as more than 230 meteorites have been catalogued in Texas. The earliest written record dates from 1772, when Athanase de Mézières learned of the Texas Iron from Tawakoni Indians near the Brazos River. Considered the largest preserved find from Texas, this 1,635-pound meteorite was venerated by several Indian cultures for its supposed healing powers and is currently housed at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.

Other finds in Texas include the 500-foot- diameter Meteor Crater at Odessa, the third largest crater in the United States, and the Peña Blanca Spring meteorite, which plunged into a swimming pool on the Gage Ranch in Brewster County on August 2, 1946.

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This Day in Texas History: Victory Over French Marks Origin of Cinco de Mayo

This Day in Texas History:

Victory Over French Marks Origin of Cinco de Mayo

May 05, 1862

On this day in 1862, Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza defeated French expeditionary forces at Puebla, Mexico. This event is celebrated annually as El Cinco de Mayo.

Along with El Diez y Seis de Septiembre (September 16), on which is commemorated Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s 1810 call for the end of Spanish rule in Mexico, El Cinco de Mayo is one of the Fiestas Patrias, annual celebrations of Mexican national holidays and of the ethnic heritage of Mexican-Americans.

Happy Cinco De Mayo

Happy Cinco De Mayo

Happy Cinco De Mayo Y’all!

From our “Winston Says” collection

Copyright 2013 Warren Paul Harris

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This Day in Texas History: Texas Radical Republican in Haymarket Massacre

This Day in Texas History:

Texas Radical Republican in Haymarket Massacre

May 04, 1886

On this day in 1886, Albert Richard Parsons, a labor organizer from Texas, was implicated in the infamous Chicago Haymarket Massacre.

Albert Richard ParsonsThe brother of Confederate colonel William Henry Parsons, Albert served in Parsons’s Brigade, a unit of Texas cavalry commanded by his brother during the Civil War. After the war he became a Radical Republican and traveled throughout Central Texas registering freed slaves to vote. When Reconstruction came to an end in Texas, Parsons was hated and persecuted as a miscegenationist and a scalawag.

He moved to Chicago with his wife, Lucy E. Parsons, a woman of mixed racial heritage, and became a leading agitator for social change there. On the evening of May 4, 1886, Parsons spoke at a meeting in Haymarket Square to protest police brutality. He and his family were in nearby Zepf’s Hall when nearly 200 policemen marched into the square; an unknown person threw a bomb, and police began shooting wildly. Most of the seven police officers and seven members of the crowd who died apparently sustained wounds from police revolvers.

Albert Parsons and seven others were tried for conspiracy to murder; he was among the four men who were eventually hanged for the crime. Six years later, Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the three defendants who remained in prison and condemned the convictions as a miscarriage of justice.

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This Day in Texas History: Neiman Marcus Founder is Born

This Day in Texas History:

Neiman Marcus Founder is Born

May 03, 1883

Carrie Marcus NeimanCarrie Marcus Neiman (1883–1953), merchant and fashion authority, was born on May 3, 1883, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Jacob and Delia (Bloomfield) Marcus, German immigrants.

In 1895 she moved with her family to Hillsboro, Texas. Although Carrie did not complete a formal high school education, she enjoyed a cultured home environment that encouraged reading in the excellent family library and the appreciation of music. About four years later she moved to Dallas and entered business as a blouse buyer and saleswoman at A. Harris and Company, a department store. She was a conscientious worker and by age twenty-one was among the highest-paid working women in the city.

In 1905 she met Abraham Lincoln (Al) Neiman, and shortly thereafter they were married. Mrs. Neiman resigned her sales position to become a partner with her husband and her brother, Herbert Marcus, in a sales promotion business in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1907 the partners sold the successful enterprise for $25,000 and returned to Dallas to open a speciality shop for high-quality women’s ready-made garments.

In the first advertisement, of September 1907, the three founders stated that Neiman Marcus would be a new fashion center for southern women and a “store of quality and superior values.” Personalized service and customer satisfaction were paramount objectives of the partners. A woman of impeccable tastes, Mrs. Neiman often guided customers in their choice of garments designed with simplicity and made with excellent fabrics and workmanship. As a buyer for the firm, she displayed a fashion awareness and an uncompromising demand for quality in her numerous trips to New York to buy merchandise. Along with colleagues Moira Cullen and Laura Goldman, Carrie Neiman helped to establish the store’s high reputation in Dallas and throughout the nation.

In 1928 Mrs. Neiman divorced her husband, and Herbert Marcus purchased Al Neiman’s interest in the firm. Carrie Neiman continued to be a visible and vital part of daily operations. She encouraged the establishment of weekly fashion shows, fall fashion expositions, and, beginning in 1938, the annual Neiman Marcus Awards, given to designers for distinguished service in the field of fashion. After the death of Herbert Marcus in 1950, Carrie Neiman became chairman of the board and reluctantly agreed to the expansion of the store to suburban branches.

Some 200 pieces of apparel from her personal fashion collection later became the basis of the Dallas Museum of Fashion, located at the University of North Texas in Denton. Carrie Neiman was a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and the Columbian Club. She was devoted to her family, to the store, and to the preservation of high standards of service. She died of pleurisy on March 6, 1953, at her home, after an illness of several months.

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This Day in Texas History: U.S. Recognizes Republic of Texas Claims to Disputed Territory

This Day in Texas History:

U.S. Recognizes Republic of Texas Claims to Disputed Territory

April 25, 1838

Republic of Texas 1869On this day in 1838, the United States and the Republic of Texas signed the Convention of Limits, which recognized Texas claims to disputed territory in Red River County (the present Bowie, Red River, Franklin, Titus, Morris, and Cass counties).

The agreement also set the west bank of the Sabine River as the eastern boundary of Texas. However, tension continued between the two countries regarding Indian depredations along the republic’s northern border. U.S. chargé d’affaires Alcée La Branche protested Texas army crossings of the border in pursuit of Indians.

In the twentieth century the exact location of the Texas-Louisiana border became the subject of a dispute between the two states.

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This Day in Texas History: Author Releases Fictional UFO Story

This Day in Texas History:

Author Releases Fictional UFO Story

April 18, 1897

Aurora CemeteryOn this day in 1897, S. E. Hayden, a cotton buyer in the small Wise County community of Aurora, released a fictional “news” story describing the crash of a mysterious airship just outside of town.

Aurora was founded in the late 1850s and had grown considerably by the mid-1880s. But an outbreak of spotted fever began in 1888, and by 1889 fear of the epidemic had caused a mass exodus. Two years later, when the Burlington Northern Railroad abandoned its plan to lay tracks through Aurora, most of the few remaining inhabitants moved to Rhome, the site of a new railroad stop two miles to the southeast.

Hayden’s story succeeded in causing a sensation because tales of UFOs near Fort Worth were already current. Aurora remained comatose, however. In 1901 postal service was discontinued. The construction of State Highway 114 through the town in 1939 probably saved it from extinction. In the early 1970s Aurora underwent a rebirth as the town became a bedroom community of Fort Worth.

See more images of the Aurora Cemetery on our website

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