A new graphic novel explores the life of ‘Queenie’, a Harlem Renaissance mob boss

Halfway through Elizabeth Colombo and Aurélie Lévy’s new graphic novel, Queenie: Godmother of Harlemthe viewer is confronted with a harrowing scene.

The protagonist, a young Afro-Caribbean immigrant named Stephanie Saint Clair, is traveling south from New York on a bus to escape an abusive relationship – when the Ku Klux Klan stops the vehicle. After ordering Saint Clair and all the other black passengers off the bus, the Klan violently attacks them.

This was the first scene that New York artist Colomba drew and presented to publishers after she and Lévy, her longtime Parisian collaborator, began scripting the project three years ago.

“It’s a pivotal moment in her life,” Colomba said. “She could have easily been killed, and I’m sure they left her to die… And so it’s almost like a Phoenix, it’s almost a miracle. There’s something so powerful that it surpasses that.”

<em>Queenie</em> depicts Stephanie Saint Clair’s rise from a traumatic and impoverished childhood to a glamorous New York mob boss, fashion icon and black community defender.” srcset=”https://npr.brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/e3e872c/2147483647/strip/true/crop /5095×6600+0+0/resize/1760×2280!/quality/90/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.npr.org%2Fassets%2Fimg%2F2023%2F01%2F20%2Fqueenie-001_ink_us_custom-8ca237309f369d6d68cd0c8d51e2248x3c864.jpg width=”880″ height=”1140″ src=”https://npr.brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/e1564c1/2147483647/strip/true/crop/5095×6600+0+0/resize/880×1140!/quality/ 90? +xml;base64,PHN2ZyB4bWxucz0iaHR0cDovL3d3dy53My5vcmcvMjAwMC9zdmciIHZlcnNpb249IjEuMSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMTQwcHgiIHdpZHRoPSI4ODBweCI+PC9zdmc+”/></p>
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/ Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

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Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

Queenie follows Stephanie Saint Clair’s rise from a traumatic and impoverished childhood to a glamorous New York mob boss, fashion icon and black community defender.

From the proverbial ashes of this moment, Stephanie Saint Clair, who also went by the name “Queenie,” has created a new persona, one to use as she runs a numbers game—an illegal lottery—at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The action is set in 1933, on the eve of the end of Prohibition, Queenie: Godmother of Harlem tells his story, which until now was mostly forgotten. Unfolding like a mob thriller and interspersed with memories of Saint Clair’s childhood, the book follows her battle to hold on to her empire as rival gangs intrude on her numbers racket.

Colomba and writer Aurélie Lévy have extensively researched Saint Clair’s life and the period in which she lived. But they admit that there were some details that they had to fill out. For example, historians disagree about whether Saint Clair was born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique or Guadeloupe. And it is not clear if she actually met the Klan. But including that scene allowed the writers to explore the racial dynamics of the times Saint Clair — who spoke English with a French accent — faced, as well as her character’s naivety about being black in America.

“Because she’s from Martinique … she thinks she can get away with things. She thinks she’s not going to be seen as African-American, but as either French or Caribbean,” Colomba said, comparing the character’s encounter with American racism with culture shock.

Although Colomba and Lévy included many real-life figures—including Saint Clair’s protégé Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson and rival mobsters Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano—others were fictional and intended to remove different layers of Saint Clair’s experience and mindset. For example, Lévy and Colomba invented a white Jewish male character named Rosenfeld, who acts as a father figure to Saint Clair and spearheads her business. Lévy explained that this was necessary because, as a black woman, Saint Clair probably would not have been able to invest on her own.

Characters like Rosenfeld—Saint Clair's confidant and father figure who also runs her business because he's white—reveal the racial dynamics that Saint Clair likely had to navigate as a black woman.

/ Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

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Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

Characters like Rosenfeld—Saint Clair’s confidant and father figure who also runs her business because he’s white—reveal the racial dynamics that Saint Clair likely had to navigate as a black woman.

“We felt a great responsibility,” said Lévy, reflecting on the writing process. “[Her story is] very densely historical. And then we had to find out as much as we could about her and then make up the rest,” she said. “It was both a blessing and a curse to have those gaps.”

Damn because Saint Clair also carefully controlled her own narrative, so it’s impossible to know what’s true and what might be embellished. A blessing because Queenie was a great gangster and fashion icon.

In 1912, Saint Clair boarded a ship bound for New York City. By the 1920s, Saint Clair had established her racket in Harlem, and within a few years she was earning about $200,000 a year, or $3.5 million today.

Set during the Harlem Renaissance, <em>Queenie</em> pays homage to iconic Harlem institutions like the Cotton Club, a jazz venue where black musicians like Duke Ellington regularly performed.” srcset=”https://npr.brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/d2e2194/2147483647/strip/true/crop/5095×6600 +0+0/resize/1760×2280!/quality/90/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.npr.org%2Fassets%2Fimg%2F2023%2F01%2F20%2Fqueenie-075_ink_us_custom-7cd349987241ea7cab9146a72f017ae95b20df63.jpg 2x” width= “880” height=”1140″ src=”https://npr.brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/fc97df6/2147483647/strip/true/crop/5095×6600+0+0/resize/880×1140!/quality/90/ ?url=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.npr.org%2Fassets%2Fimg%2F2023%2F01%2F20%2Fqueenie-075_ink_us_custom-7cd349987241ea7cab9146a72f017ae95b20df63.jpg” loading=”lazy” bad-src=”data:image/svg+xml ;base64,PHN2ZyB4bWxucz0iaHR0cDovL3d3dy53My5vcmcvMjAwMC9zdmciIHZlcnNpb249IjEuMSIgaGVpZ2h0PSIxMTQwcHgiIHdpZHRoPSI4ODBweCI+PC9zdmc+”/></p>
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/ Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

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Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

The action is set in the Harlem Renaissance, Queenie pays homage to iconic Harlem institutions like the Cotton Club, a jazz venue where black music greats like Duke Ellington regularly performed.

As her empire and wealth grew, Saint Clair created a persona of wealth and power through advertisements she bought in the New York Amsterdam News, a widely circulated black newspaper. The ads featured photos of Saint Clair in fine clothing and jewelry.

“It was propaganda,” Lévy said. “You had to be pretty smart to understand the power of the image.”

But Saint Clair also used the ads to advocate for poor and black Harlem residents. They included small op-eds in which she called out police brutality and corruption – often by name – and condemned illegal searches. In this way, she helped educate her community about their civil and voting rights. Her business was also lucrative because blacks at the time were largely excluded from participating in legal forms of investment. Banks often refused to serve blacks and denied them loans. As a result, many saw the illegal lottery game as one of the few ways to create wealth.

“I think what blew us away was how advanced, precocious and visionary she was,” Lévy said. “And whatever she left you, she left it on purpose. I think she was very careful about it.”

With the end of Prohibition and rival mobsters and the police eyeing her lucrative racketeering, Saint Clair must fight to keep control of her empire.

/ Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

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Elizabeth Colomba, Aurélie Lévy/Abrams Comicarts – Megascope

With the end of Prohibition and rival mobsters and the police eyeing her lucrative racketeering, Saint Clair must fight to keep control of her empire.

The graphic novel portrays Stephanie Saint Clair as a smart, brilliant woman with an uncanny sense for numbers and chronicles her transformation from a precocious child longing to escape Martinique plantation life to a woman who is both ruthless and tender.

Lévy and Colomba said they wanted to avoid the pitfalls of a biopic while telling Saint Clair’s story. Both were well aware of the burden of representation that often accompanies black characters who are the first of their kind.

“Unfortunately, when we meet people of color, there’s a tendency to simplify them and make them reassuring. They have to be either really bad or really good. And that doesn’t make them human,” Colomba said. “I think that by creating a layered character, it is humanized [Saint Clair]. Being complex is just being human.”

“And I don’t think anything speaks more to how hard times were than who you had to be to survive as a woman, and even more so as a black woman. So there’s no way she could have been [one-dimensional]Lévy said.

Colomba said she first learned about Saint Clair through her mother, Lucíanna, a former teacher and immigrant from Martinique who taught her children about their Caribbean roots, history and heroes.

“My mother always was [making] point to introduce us to people from the Caribbean … who have some power in the culture and which she felt [were] it’s important that we know,” Colomba said. “She always wanted us to know more about our culture.”

As soon as Colomba learned about Saint Clair, she was immediately enchanted and wanted to know more, to understand how Queenie became the person she was.

“When you’re born in Martinique and right before the 20th century, your choices in life are few. And it takes an incredible mind or tenacity to think you deserve more. And for [Saint Clair]she decided at a very young age … to envision something bigger,” Colomba said.

And she and Lévy hope Queenie’s story will resonate with others.

“There’s something quite inspiring about someone who is so persistent and decides that the box they’re put in won’t fit,” Colomba said.

“She rewrote her own story. That’s how I like to think of her: as someone who controls the narrative,” Lévy reiterated.

Edited by Mallory Yu

Copyright 2023 NPR. For more information, visit https://www.npr.org.

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