Louise "Scottie" Scott drops famous names from the 1920s through the '40s like peanut shells at the ballpark. Joe Louis. Lena Horne. Count Basie. Cab Calloway. Billie Holiday. Jackie Robinson. And Al Capone.
Seated in her smoky, one-room apartment, she's flipping through the memories of her life as a black woman in Capone's Chicago and New York's Harlem. A craggy voice and a crackling laugh deliver the names and stories with an underlying creed: Push me and I'll push back. Mrs. Scott is small, around 90 pounds, with a heart of bawdy gold.
"I was there at the Apollo Theatre when Ella Fitzgerald won the amateur contest that started her career," she says. Scott danced in the chorus line of the legendary theater in Harlem for six years. All the big-name black entertainers dazzled audiences under the Apollo's bright lights, and Scott says she knew most of them.
"The stage-door Johnnies used to come with flowers," she says. The Apollo and the Cotton Club ruled the nights in Harlem, drawing blacks and whites. "We'd tell 'em to meet us outside, and then we'd leave them standing there unless they had a big diamond ring," she laughs. "Then we'd go out to dinner with them."
Scott's father was Frank Young, a sportswriter for the Chicago Defender, the leading black newspaper of the day. But Scott's mother disappeared a few months after Scott's birth, leaving an aunt to raise the baby.
Scott maintains she was born Nov. 16, 1898 at a Chicago hospital that has since burned down, destroying the records. "I wrote the Bureau of Statistics," she says, "and they gave me the street address of where and when my mother and father lived [in Chicago]. That's the best they could do." She remembers Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson visiting in later years.
1898 was the year the US warship Maine was blown apart in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, and Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders stormed San Juan Hill. Black soldiers from the US 10th Calvary took part in the raid.
Back home, American society was hard on blacks. In the 1930s, the Chicago Defender encouraged blacks to escape the segregation and lynchings in the South and move north to Carl Sandburg's "city of the big shoulders."
When she was 12 or 13, Scott was sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Leavenworth, Kan. Later, in Chicago, she got a job running an elevator in a bordello, one of Capone's many illicit operations in a notoriously corrupt city.
"Capone always wore good clothes," says Scott, "and he'd say hello. When I told him I was going to the Apollo, he said, 'Louise, don't ever tell anybody what you saw here because there's nowhere in the US you can go that I can't find you.' "
In New York, she danced, drank, and caroused for a while. She started smoking then and hasn't stopped. Life on the road was hardly carefree for traveling blacks. "We couldn't stay in hotels or eat in the cafes," says Scott. "We had to stay with friends or sleep in cars."
When her dancing days ended, Scott returned to Chicago. "I was applying for jobs," she says, "and I left an application blank when it asked if I was an American. The guy asked why did I leave it blank? I said, 'I can't sleep in your hotels, eat in the restaurants, or drink from the fountains, so I don't call myself an American.' "
She eventually met and married James Scott, a concrete finisher who later became a maitre d' at hotels around Chicago while Scott worked as a maid for a white family in Skokie. "I helped take care of their kids, too," she says, "and wore a white uniform with a black apron. They were good people."
Two tragedies have rocked Scott's life. Her son was killed at Iwo Jima during World War II, and years later a drunken driver killed her husband. "It's been hard," she says, showing a visitor photos of her family. "Otherwise I've had a pretty nice life. What's gone is gone, and I can't let it worry me."
She came to Phoenix when the owner of a Chicago restaurant decided to open another one here. "He paid our way out here," she says. Because he had "gang affiliations," he was encouraged by authorities to move along. He left, but Scott stayed.
For many years, she supervised the salad department at an Arizona State University dormitory cafeteria. She retired in 1986 and lives with her spoiled cat, Josephine, in the Westward Ho resident hotel.
On the wall are certificates for her civic work. "I help at the polls, and I've got 1,000 [volunteer] hours at the county hospital," she says, proudly. "I try to live each day to the fullest. Maybe that's why I've lived so long."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society