It was one of those lucid moments, a tender memory shared.

Linda Cielinski was visiting with her aging father, Raymond LaFave, a couple of years ago on Veterans Day. LaFave, now 91 and living at the Veterans Home, has been juggling memory-loss issues for years.

“Then out of the blue,” she said, “Hilda Moses came up.”

Her father recalled growing up in north Minneapolis in a diverse neighborhood where white and black, Scandinavian and Jew, lived side by side in something near harmony.

Ray told his daughter about a girl named Hilda Moses who lived in a flat across the street — a schoolmate of his late sister, Esther, at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

“Dad just said she would come over and sing in their living room with Esther,” Cielinski said. “Out of this long ago time was this sweet, dear memory of a pretty black girl singing in his living room with his much loved and missed sister.”

Her dad said something else that autumn day, something about Hilda heading off to Hollywood, which she did, by way of Broadway.

Hilda Moses, one of11 siblings, was born April 15, 1918. Her parents, Emile and Lydia, were devout Catholics. Hilda graduated from St. Margaret’s Academy and set her sights on a teaching career. But she came of age during the Depression and money was so tight, she couldn’t afford the cost of tuition and books at the University of Minnesota.

At 25, Hilda moved to New York City — finding work on radio dramas. She joined the American Negro Theater Co. and took charge of sound effects, props and publicity.

She married William Simms in 1941, but within a few years, they were divorced. She kept his name as her stage name.

According to the New York Times, Simms played a southern ingénue in a play called “Three’s a Family” before landing her big break in 1943. Playwright Philip Yordan had crafted a drama called “Anna Lucasta” about a beautiful, middle-class woman who stumbles into prostitution before clawing her way back to respectability. He wrote the play for a white cast.

But Simms’ theater company took the bold step to stage the work. And Hilda Moses Simms landed the title role. Although most cast members were amateurs, they drew rave reviews and the play moved from Harlem to Broadway in 1944.

“For the first time, American playgoers saw an all-black cast acting in a drama that did not deal with racial issues,” according to the New York Times.

For her part, Simms landed in the Oct. 9, 1944, edition of Life magazine. The smash-hit play had a run of 950 performances. Her mother, Lydia Moses, reportedly refused to attend because she hadn’t raised her Catholic daughter to portray a prostitute.

By 1947, the production moved to London with Simms retaining the starring role. In Great Britain, she married again. American actor Richard Angerolla would remain her husband until she died. While in Europe, Simms sang in Parisian nightclubs under the stage name of Julie Riccardo.

The couple re-crossed the Atlantic in the 1950s and Simms launched a movie career soon mired in controversy. She played the heavyweight boxing champion’s wife in the 1953 film “The Joe Louis Story.” She portrayed a hat-check girl in the “Black Widow” in 1954.

She didn’t play her signature role of Anna Lucasta in either of its two movie versions. The 1949 adaptation went with an all-white cast. Then in 1958, Eartha Kitt was picked to play Anna alongside Sammy Davis Jr.

Simms insisted the slight was no coincidence and she was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist during the 1950s Red Scare era when anyone with a whisper of a Communist connection was shut out of acting jobs.

In 1960, she penned a first-person story headlined “I’m No Benedict Arnold” for the Pittsburgh Courier. She accused the Department of Justice of denying her passport in 1955, canceling a 14-week tour of military bases in Europe.

Never mind that she had entertained the troops during World War II. Allegations of an affiliation with the Communist Party in the late-1930s and early-1940s doomed her career.

She found a little work on and off Broadway, in productions of “The Cool World,” Tambourines to Glory” and a revival of “The Madwoman of Chaillot.”

She played a neurologist in the television series, “The Nurses,” from 1962 to 1964 and hosted her own radio show called “Ladies Day” in New York.

An activist, not just an actress, Simms served as the creative director of the New York State Human Rights Commission — amplifying racial discrimination concerns. She’d credited with opening up better film roles for African-American actors in the 1960s and beyond.

And her teaching dreams never quite faded. She earned a master’s degree in education from the City College of New York, working later in life at drug treatment programs and living in Manhattan.

She died at 75 from pancreatic cancer at the home of her sister, Evelyn Sharp, in Buffalo, N.Y. But her memory has been rekindled — thanks to a lucid anecdote of an aging neighbor who recalled her singing in his living room.

“A year or two ago, he would have been thrilled to know his memory of a neighbor girl could possibly lead to a newspaper column,” Cielinski said. “This is so special because my Dad’s memory of this time in his life will be remembered.”

 

Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com