As a world-renowned author, performer, and chef from rural South Carolina, Vertamae Smart- Grosvenor has led a remarkably unique and complex life. Born April 4, 1937 in Hampton County, she was strongly influenced by her African American Gullah Geechee community. She was also determined to follow her imaginaLon and creaLvity beyond the Lowcountry. At the age of 10, Vertamae Smart moved with her family to Philadelphia. Although her existence was largely sheltered, she established friendships with the future poet Larry Neal, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Charles H. Fuller. There, she also met the up-and coming musician, Nina Simone who encouraged her move to Paris. Her basic knowledge of food preparaLon and Gullah culinary tradiLons would serve her well, as she embarked on her new journeys.
At the Beat Hotel, she found a colony of expat arLsts and writers — the ScoVsh folk singer Alex Campbell, the American writers Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and the French painter Lucien Fleury. She would meet and marry one of them, the sculptor Robert Grosvenor. In Paris, Verta Kali Smart, as she called herself, wrote arLcles about life at the Beat Hotel for theLe# Bank This Month, a short-lived publicaLon which she has also been credited with helping to produce. Bob and Vertamae would return to the U.S., se\ling in New York where she would find herself in the center of two American cultural movements. She bore two children, hosted parLes for arLsts and intellectuals, pursued her goal of acLng, and divorced. By 1963, she had embarked on a new journey that took her across the country and again across the ocean, as costume designer and sun-goddess for Sun-Ra’s mysLcal Arkestra. Back in the U.S., she published three books, including the criLcally acclaimed Vibra4on Cooking: The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl(1970), which has been called “the book that changed the nature of academic scholarship about women, race, and food.” She also pursued a career as a journalist for NaLonal Public Radio. In 1983, Grosvenor earned a Robert F. Kennedy Award and an Ohio State Award for her work on the documentary, “Dafuskie: Never Enough Too Soon.” In addiLon to her work on several notable films, she became a contribuLng writer for Essence, Ebony, Jet, Publishers Weekly and Redbook.
Today, at age seventy-seven, Grosvenor lives in an artist colony in Ridgeland, South Carolina. Surrounded by photographs and other historical ephemera documenLng her exceptional artistic life, Grosvenor is a treasure trove of stories about her experiences with some of the most influential artists, writers, actors, and musical performers of the twentieth century. Her long friendships with African American novelist and poet, Maya Angelou, and South African Jazz musician, Hugh Masekala, are examples of her wide circle of influential connecLons. Perhaps one of her most complex, yet fulfilling relationships was with the iconic musician and singer Nina Simone. With Simone, Grosvenor shared a deep friendship that ojen resembled sibling rivalry. Southern roots, love for family, and connecLons to Black culture kept the friendship between these creaLve women strong until Simone’s death in 2003.