Adam Shatz reviews What Happened, Miss Simone?, a Netflix documentary film directed by Liz Garbus, and What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography by Alan Light. I've seen the documentary and it is both excellent and harrowing.
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of her parents’ eight children. Her father, John Divine, had lost his dry-cleaning business during the Depression, only to be idled altogether by intestinal obstruction. Her mother, Mary Kate, a traveling Methodist minister, supported the family as a maid. Mary Kate was an emotionally distant figure, but she recognized her daughter’s precocious musical talent, and by age six Eunice had become the regular church pianist in Tryon. At revival meetings she learned how to improvise, as well as how to put audiences into a trance.1Performing on piano with the community choir in 1939, Eunice attracted a pair of white benefactors. One was her mother’s employer, Mrs. Miller, who offered to pay for classical piano lessons. The other was the woman who became her teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich, the British wife of a Russian painter. Every Saturday she crossed the railway tracks to study Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms with “Miz Mazzy,” a kindly woman who, with her white hair and pale skin, struck her as “an alien.” The town took immense pride in its young prodigy, and established a fund to pay for her education. Music, she discovered, was power, but it was also a terrible “burden.” To most whites in Tryon she was an oddity—Mrs. Mazzanovich’s “little coloured girl”—while no one in her family “knew how isolated my music made me.”2 Her mother barely showed her any affection, yet expected her to become America’s first black classical pianist. At her first recital, when she was ten, her parents moved from their seats to make way for a white family who wanted a better view of her fingers. Eunice refused to perform until her parents could return to their seats. Some whites in the audience giggled. After that, “nothing was easy any more,” as she wrote in her 1991 memoir I Put a Spell on You.