Women Of Black History: 5 Things To Know About Harlem Renaissance “It” Girl Blanche Dunn

February 7, 2017  |  

In today’s world, many people work to make themselves “It” girls via social media. They might be the children of famous parents or just know how to gain followers with provocative Instagram posts, but just about anybody can be a “socialite” of sorts these days. But back in the day, the original “It” girl was Blanche Dunn. Born in Jamaica, Dunn came to the States in the 1920s and soon after, became a constant face and fashionista on the scene during the Harlem Renaissance. Not only was she beautiful, but she was exceptionally stylish. Check out five things you should know about the Harlem Renaissance-era actress and socialite.

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In 1927, Blanche Dunn caught the eye of dress designer Wilda Gunn , who brought her to New York City, from the West Indies. Dunn had beauty, style, and grace which opened up tables for her at the most swankiest nightclubs, in Harlem and the best seats were reserved for her by mysterious admirers, for opening nights on Broadway. . Dunn tried her hand at singing and acting, appearing in "The Emperor Jones", in 1933. Although the film was successful, Blanche Dunn seemed to catch praise for just being, Blanche Dunn. She was a frequent party guest at Salvador Dali's and other extraordinary NY characters. In 1940, Blanche met a British oil magnate and speed boat champion. In 1940's modern fashion, she moved to the Bahamas with him. The couple hosted a number of celebrities at their mansion in the Islands, including Marlene Dietrich, Langston Hughes & Mabel Mercer. Only after a year, the tempestuous relationship fizzled and the two returned to NYC and called it quits, in 1941. The photographer Van Vechten compiled a portrait collection of Dunn. Some of his photographs are considered exploitative, but in Blanche's case she's defiant and confident of her beauty, in these amazing photos. Legend has it, that Blanche Dunn was a muse for characters in poems, films, and books. She most likely was! Her beauty and poise was something to behold.

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She Was Mentored by a Fashion Designer Who Taught Her How to Dress Stylish

According to the book Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era, after arriving in New York city in 1926, Blanche met fashion designer Wilda Gunn. The designer ended up taking Blanche under her wing and taught her how to put together chic alphets. You could consider her an early muse of Gunn, as the designer’s teachings would go a long way in helping Blance turn heads uptown.

When She Wasn’t Being a Socialite, Blanche Dunn Was an Actress

Blanche tried her hand at acting. She was a showgirl for the Broadway musical Blackbirds. If you read our “5 Things to Know About Actress Nina Mae McKinney,” then you know that she got her break from having a similar role in the same play. As for Blanche, well, she got a check and became an insider on the Great White Way, showing up to a whole host of parties for the different shows that were going on. Blanche also had a small role in the 1933 Paul Robeson film, The Emperor Jones. 

She Was a Consistent Subject of Famous Photog Carl Van Vechten

Even though he was White, photographer Carl Van Vechten took many pictures of up-and-coming Black actors, actresses and figures in their early years (Alvin Ailey, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, and many more), particularly during the Harlem Renaissance. Blanche Dunn was a good friend of the writer and photog and was always invited to his legendary parties. She was also photographed on quite a few occasions by Vechten, posing for her friend as early as 1924 and as late as 1941.

She Was the Life of the Party

According to Richard Bruce Nugent, an iconic writer and painter of the Harlem Renaissance (who was in the friend circle of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes), Blanche Dunn was, as we would probably say today, the queen of the turn up. He said that “a party was not a party, a place not a place, without Blanche.” Tables were always reserved for her at popular nightclubs in Harlem like the Hot Cha, she was invited to parties hosted by Salvador Dali, and she was also a mainstay at Broadway first night parties.

You Could Find Her Traveling Around the World

As writer Linda M. Carter put it in Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era, “Dunn’s beauty, personality, and sophistication enabled her to wear expensive clothes, shop in Paris, and travel to other European locales.” Blanche’s appeal (including to an ex-boyfriend who was a British oil magnate) allowed her the chance take nine-month vacations to Europe and travel frequently. When she finally tied the knot, Blanche and her husband relocated and settled down in Capri.

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