Louise Cook, nicknamed "Jota" or "Snake Hips," was an exotic dancer in Harlem who appeared in Oscar Micheaux's breakthrough 1931 film "The Exile." She also turned comedian Milton Berle onto marijuana.
Louis Armstrong wrote of her, circa 1929, "we had a job Down in 'Connie's Inn' in Harlem, at 131st + 7th Ave. That Club and the Cotton Club were the Hottest Clubs in Harlem at that time. --I started Doubling in "Connie's Hot Chocolate" show, down town...'Ol Louise Cook--I shall never forget her, and her Dance. --She was so wonderful in her 'Shake dance she would take 5 and 6 Encores."
Louise was featured in "the rain dance" which, according to the reviews, she performed with great seriousness. "Little Egypt," wrote the Evening World's Bide Dudley, "had nothing on Louise Cook, who...had very little on herself."
In his 1974 autobiography, Berle says of Cook, "She was known as one of the greatest belly dancers in the world, and her act was sensational, with everything going like a flag in a hurricane. She was one of those rare women that men had only to look at to want. And that was even standing still. She was slender, and light-skinned like the color of coffee with too much cream in it, and she had her hair in an Afro, which wasn't standard gear then. When she worked, she covered her body with oil that made it shiny and sexy-looking."
Milton and Louise had encounters in Beryl's car, parked near Connie's Inn. He wrote: "One night, we were parked in my car up along the Hudson, and she took out a little brown cigarette and lit it. It smelled funny. I asked what it was, and Louise smiled and said, 'Take a puff." I did and it made me cough so hard I nearly vomited. That was the first and last time I ever tried marijuana!"
Jazz raconteur Buck Clayton wrote that Louise was "a big-timer" and he was proud to be her friend. Seeing her one day on Central Ave. (in LA), he wrote, "She had been to a party and was feeling kinda good. She always reminded me of Clara Bow when I'd see her."
This was around the time Cook married Herbert Mills of the Mills Brothers and appeared in Oscar Micheaux's 1931 film "The Exile," the first sound feature-length film by an African-American director. "Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American to produce a feature-length film...is not a major figure in American film just for these milestones, but because his oeuvre is a window onto the American psyche as regards race and its deleterious effects on individuals and society." (IMDB)
Beryl wrote that their six-month friendship ended when New York Mirror columnist Lee Mortimer threatened to expose the scandal of their interracial romance. Later he wrote that Cook "went the Billie Holiday route with booze and god knows what else." He got word in the mid-1950s that she was in jail and ill in Chicago, and bailed her out "and about three months later I saw to it that poor Louise Cook had a decent funeral." [I've been unable to uncover anything else about Cook's demise.]
Photo from Rhythm for Sale by Graham Harper Reid.