Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, the son of an escaped slave. He showed a talent for sports as well as acting, his sport of choice being football. When Robeson became only the third black student to be accepted into Rutgers College, he managed to win a spot on their football team, despite the alleged attempts of others to force him out of the reckoning through excessive on-field violence. Perhaps he had inherited his father’s determination and resilience: Robeson was not one to give up easily. He attended Rutgers on a scholarship earned through his academic ability and was also lauded for his singing talents.
Robeson met his wife Eslanda Goode (Essie) while reading law at Columbia. They married a year later and she later helped push him in the direction of the stage when his law career faltered due to racism within his company. In 1924 he won two roles which brought him fame: the lead role of Jim in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and Brutus in the revival of The Emperor Jones (the pair also worked on The Hairy Ape also). Essie gave up her job to tour and manage her husband’s career.
Showboat at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1928 was a highlight of Robeson’s career. His rendition of Ol’ Man River is still lauded today and the production was a massive success, running for over 350 performances. The Robeson’s bought a house in Hampstead and settled down with their young son, Paul Robeson, Jnr. Robeson’s next great role was to take on Othello, the first black moor to walk onstage in Britain since Ira Aldridge almost one hundred years earlier. Amanda Ira Aldridge saw him perform and presented him with the gold earrings which her father had worn to play the role. Interestingly, although the play ran at the Savoy Theatre, adjacent to the Savoy Hotel, Robeson was not welcome at the hotel, and in fact was once refused entry to the Savoy Grill.
Robeson was not faithful to his wife, and his most infamous affair was with his Desdemona, Peggy Ashcroft. She was astonished to receive hate-mail for appearing opposite a black actor and upset by Paul’s treatment by the Savoy Hotel. Essie left her husband for a short time after discovering the affair (publicly the pair kept their private life hidden but their son later revealed certain facts in a memoir).
Robeson was offered a steady stream of work between the US and Britain, and also studied several African languages at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). Paul and Essie were both politically active. Robeson met with President Truman in 1946 to request legislation to end lynching. He was vocal about ending exploitation of African states by colonising powers, and supported the Welsh miners in the late 1920s. He also had many friends in the Soviet Union and it was his perceived status as a Communist sympathiser that ended his career.
Both Essie and Paul were forced to testify before McCarthy committee in 1956 and were from then on condemned. Robeson was blacklisted in the US, and with his passport revoked was unable to work abroad. His crime was to refuse to confirm that he was not a member of the Communist party, despite there being no proof that he ever had been. His attempted comeback on the return of his passport two years later faltered and he attempted suicide in 1961. He survived but was in poor mental and physical health. Essie died in 1965 and Paul became almost a recluse. He died in Philadelphia in 1976.