A Woman to Know: Blanche Dunn

A party was not a party, a place not a place, without Blanche. — Richard Bruce Nugent

A party was not a party, a place not a place, without Blanche. — Richard Bruce Nugent

(image via Library of Congress)

In 1926, Blanche arrived in New York City. The Jamaican-born model immediately found a job at a fashion studio, where she borrowed styling tips and tricks from the legendary designer Wilda Gunn.

Blanche’s beauty entranced celebrity photographers like Carl Van Vechten and writers like Richard Bruce Nugent. She tried to break into the Broadway scene with little success, wondering to friends if her West Indian accent turned off white casting directors. She instead set her sights on Harlem fame, headlining acts at the Cotton Club and Hot Cha. As one reporter later wrote:

She knew everyone, and when they came to Harlem they all (everyone) looked for her. Her popularity opened doors for her in Harlem, and being on the right side of these Harlem doors opened yet more white doors to her. The snowball of her popularity grew, as did the number of her admirers, the greatness of their names, the lavishness of their expenditures, the expensiveness and extensiveness of her wardrobe, the autocracy of her charm.

Her renowned beauty and chic style became the stuff of Harlem Renaissance legend. She began making money for club appearances, raking in money from Mafia haunts as well as uptown establishments. The club would cover all expenses so long as Blanche showed up dressed to the nines, even more if she brought a coterie of stylish friends.

When the Great Depression hit New York, she escaped to Europe, touring the continent and posing for photos along the way. In 1940, she moved to the Bahamas, taking up with a crowd of “queer moneyed women,” among them the notorious Joe Carstairs. Rumors circulated: was Blanche a gold-digger? a lesbian? a washed-up starlet? But eventually Blanche moved on from Whale Cay to live in Capri. She got married, settled down and vanished from history. The same reporter wrote of the star’s disappearance from the headlines:

Blanche is reputed to be a kept woman. There are also reports that Blanche plays a dual role, in that sort of a part time woman and part time lesbian. The interviewer cannot be credited for having been able to verify neither deny this.

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