Lawd, Miss Scarlett, Look at What Butterfly McQueen Is Up to Now
12/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
Butterfly McQueen is standing in a school playground in Harlem wearing a homemade green dashiki that's patterned with red and ivory hearts. She's short and stout, like a teapot, with closely cropped gray hair and long, metallic blue fingernails. There's no mistaking her helium-filled voice. It hasn't dropped a giddy note since Gone With the Wind, when, as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's slave, she squealed, "Lawdy, Miss Scarlett, I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!"
So here's McQueen, at 75, doing volunteer work five days a week at P.S. 153, located a few blocks from her one-room apartment. For three years it's been McQueen's job to tidy up the school's bleak, asphalt playground, which means picking up the liquor bottles that the drunks left the night before. It's her job to make sure the elementary school's 1,700 children, mostly black and Hispanic, behave themselves at recess, which means no fighting, no littering, and, if she can help it, no candy or junk food.
But McQueen is more than a school volunteer these days. She's back in the public eye, playing a religious native in Harrison Ford's new film, The Mosquito Coast, filmed on location in Belize last year. This is her first feature film in more than a decade. "It's been a while between pictures. It always is," she explains, unable to remember when the last one was—it was Amazing Grace with Moms Mabley in 1974. After 1939's GWTW, her first picture, she appeared in a string of movies, including The Women, Mildred Pierce and Duel in the Sun. In the early 1950s McQueen co-starred as a domestic in the TV series Beulah, opposite Ethel Waters in the title role. And in 1978 she played a fairy godmother in The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody, an ABC children's special.
Answering questions is not McQueen's favorite pastime. She hates to talk ("that's why my voice has never changed," she says), and has refused to have her telephone repaired so she can't be bothered by unwanted callers. "I try to limit my interviews to 20 minutes and a dozen questions," she says, asking, "Why aren't you prepared? Why didn't you write down your questions in advance?"
Suddenly, metal doors crash open and a horde of screaming children rush onto the playground. McQueen takes off, in this direction, in that direction, reporter in pursuit. "Tell him you're sorry, that you didn't mean to hit him," she says, prying apart two little boys. From a paper sack she takes out a pair of gloves, which she wears to protect her hands while picking up refuse. Inside that sack she keeps a small broom, garbage bags, raisins to feed the birds and sawdust to spread on the asphalt should a child throw up. "It's that fancy food and the strawberry milk they serve 'em here," she says.
When a girl puts her sandwich wrapper in the garbage can, McQueen rewards her with a nickel. "Now don't spend it on sugar," McQueen instructs, adding, "As a little girl I spent all my money on peanut brittle. Now half my teeth are gone." She opens her mouth and says, "See..." To the children who don't speak English, McQueen speaks Spanish—she majored in the language at City College of New York, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975. "I try to steer the children right," she says. "That's because I was a naughty little girl. I remember going back to my elementary school in Augusta, Ga. to tell my teacher, Miss Viola Smith, how sorry I was. Oh, I remember how I made her cry. But it was too late. She was dead."
It was McQueen's idea to do volunteer work. "Three years ago I passed by here and saw the children up to their knees in paper and trash," she says. "I went in and removed 10 pounds of broken wine bottles." She then went to the principal's office to ask if she could continue her mission. "I was surprised when she told me her name," recalls principal Lloyd Campbell. "She said she wanted to help make the area safe and healthy. What she's instilling in them is really wonderful." Adds assistant principal Sandra Fraser, "We'd do anything for Butterfly. The kids know she's someone famous and are very protective of her. Last weekend she took two children to the theater who'd never been before." Her fairy godmother role must have rubbed off. "She gives us a dollar or buys us ice cream and cookies when we do a good job of cleaning up the yard," says maintenance man Wing Ng. "Without her this school would be just a cold institution."
Though McQueen started off working at P.S. 153 year-round, she now takes winters off. "I had to because the work was breaking my health," she says. She also interrupts her job to travel with her one-woman show, which she performs in churches and auditoriums: "I sign autographs, talk about Gone With the Wind, dance, sing, then present a surprise period."
Of her life, she says simply, "I was an only child. My father was a stevedore on the docks of Florida. We came north to Georgia in 1924 so my mother could get a job as a domestic in Augusta." As to why she never married, Butterfly says, "When I was a child I was in love with two little boys. I couldn't make up my mind which one to choose so I never did." Asked if it's true that her real name is Thelma, and that a girlfriend nicknamed her Butterfly after seeing her dance the Butterfly Ballet in a New York stage production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, she snaps: "See, you know all about my life. So why do you keep asking me questions? Talking discourages me and we've been at this for an hour."
It's easy to understand McQueen's reticence. Everyone who meets her wants to know what it was like making Gone With the Wind. "Oh, I hated it," she says. "The part of Prissy was so backward. I was always whining and complaining. But I adored Mr. Gable. One day he said to me, 'What's the matter? If they're mean to you, you let me know.' But now I'm very glad I made the film because I make a living off it. You wouldn't be here if I hadn't been Prissy." Of course everyone wants McQueen to repeat her famous line about birthin' babies. "I tell them I've already filled my quota for the day," she says, adding, "They understand."
McQueen spent eight years in Hollywood, but returned to Harlem in the late 1940s after being discouraged by the roles she was offered. "I didn't mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business," she says. "But after I did the same thing over and over I resented it. I didn't mind being funny but I didn't like being stupid." She says she-didn't make much in films, though she was paid a then respectable $5,000 for GWTW. "I support myself now from my [Actors' Equity] pension, my social security and the rent I get from a house I own in Georgia," she says. In 1980 she sued Greyhound Bus Lines for $300,000 after claiming she had been falsely arrested in the downtown Washington, D.C. bus terminal and accused of being a pickpocket. In an out-of-court settlement, she says she received $60,000.
McQueen says her energy comes from avoiding red meat and sweets. She doesn't drink or smoke either. "No, sir, I'm dizzy enough," she says, giggling. Compliment her on her dashiki and she says, "Thank you. I made it from my curtains. Before that it was my tablecloth and before that a mattress cover. Now it's back being a dress." Someday she hopes to move to Africa, and would like black Americans to join her. "White people don't want us here," she says, "so why don't we move and give them more space?"
Still, McQueen allows that she'd like to make another movie. "I hope people will be seeing me again soon," she says. Then she scurries across the schoolyard to chide some children who are eating their lunch in an undesignated area. "We only eat over here!" she tells them, translating the command into Spanish. Meanwhile 9-year-old Christian Cuenca pulls at her dashiki and asks for a kiss, which she willingly dispenses. "They're my children," she says, "and I love them all."