July 2, 1906. Richard Bruce Nugent is born in Washington, D.C. His father, Richard Henry Nugent, is a Pullman porter who later becomes a messenger for the Supreme Court of the United States. His mother, née Pauline Minerva Bruce, belongs to the Bruce family, which occupies an exalted social position in Washington’s light-skinned African American elite. The Nugents’ financial circumstances, however, are not commensurate with her social status.
July 16, 1909. Bruce’s brother, Gary Lambert “Pete” Nugent, is born. Pete later becomes a renowned tap dancer; in the late 1930s his troupe “Pete, Peaches and Duke” is the leading “class act.” During World War II he spends his military service touring in Irving Berlin’s show This is the Army, entertaining American troops around the world. His is the first integrated unit in the army, because Berlin insists that the number “This is What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear” be presented by Blacks.
September 22, 1919. Bruce enters the M Street School (Dunbar High School) from Garnett elementary. Among his teachers is Angelina Weld Grimké.
February 7, 1920. Nugent’s father dies. Nugent’s mother moves to New York in search of employment to support her sons and herself. Bruce and Pete stay in Washington with his mother’s sister Mabel (Mrs. William English).
Fall, 1920. Bruce and Pete join their mother in New York. Bruce helps support himself and his mother with a succession of mundane jobs—delivery boy for Youmans hats, bellhop at the Martha Washington Hotel, art apprentice at the catalog house Stone, Van Dresser. He attends art classes at the New York Evening School of Industrial Arts and the Traphagen School of Fashion.
Late 1924 or early 1925. Nugent decides he is an artist and will no longer waste his time working. His mother refuses to support him and sends him back to Washington to live with his paternal grandparents.
Spring, 1925. Nugent attends the “Saturday evenings” of poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. These salons attract the culturally active members of Washington’s African American community as well as visiting dignitaries, black and white—including Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Waldo Frank, as well as the cultural/political giants James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Nugent had known Georgia Douglas Johnson from his childhood; her two sons had been his playmates. She becomes very fond of him; they collaborate on a play and remain in touch for the rest of her life.
June, 1925. Nugent meets Langston Hughes at one of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s affairs and the two become fast friends.
August 14, 1925. Nugent and Hughes journey to New York to attend the Krigwa awards dinner sponsored by the NAACP, where Hughes receives two prizes. Hughes introduces Nugent to W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Eric Walrond, Rudolf Fisher, and Carl Van Vechten, among others. The next evening Hughes dines at Van Vechten’s apartment and Nugent joins them after dinner.
October, 1925. Nugent’s poem “Shadow” is published in Opportunity, the monthly magazine of the National Urban League edited by Charles S. Johnson.
December, 1925. The New Negro, a seminal anthology edited by Alain Locke, appears. It includes Nugent’s story “Sahdji.”
December, 1925 or January, 1926. Nugent returns to New York, where Hughes introduces him to Wallace Thurman. Nugent moves in with Thurman soon thereafter. (They do not, however, become lovers.)
Winter/Spring, 1926. Nugent joins Jean Toomer’s Harlem Gurdjieff group. Among the other participants are Thurman, Dorothy Peterson, Aaron Douglas, and Nella Larsen.
March, 1926. A Nugent drawing graces the cover of the March issue of Opportunity.
Summer, 1926. Nugent, Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, and John P. Davis plan their new art quarterly, FIRE!!, Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. Their activity centers around 314 West 138th Street, where Thurman and Nugent live. Hughes, a student at Lincoln University since January, rents another room in the same house for the summer.
July 23, 1926. Nugent, Thurman, and John P. Davis attend a party given by Zora Neale Hurston. Carl Van Vechten notes in his diary that all three were drunk.
October, 1926. Nugent’s poem “My Love” appears in Idella Purnell’s prestigious little magazine, Palms. The issue is guest-edited by Countee Cullen.
November, 1926. FIRE!! is published, containing two Nugent drawings and his most famous and widely reprinted work, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade.” It is a stream of consciousness prose composition written from an explicitly homoerotic perspective, complete with bedroom scenes. FIRE!! also contains notable works by the other contributors and has a striking cover by Aaron Douglas. Despite FIRE!!’s high quality, its seven editors, who financed the publication themselves, did not have the wherewithal to publish any more issues.
November/December, 1926. Nugent and Thurman move to 267 West 136th Street, a house owned by Iolanthe Sydney, a civic-minded Harlem businesswoman. She offers reduced and seldom-collected rent to artists. Other residents include the singer Service Bell and the aspiring artist Rex Gorleigh. The house soon becomes a continuous party scene, dubbed “Niggeratti Manor” by Nugent (or was it Hurston?)
May 11, 1927. Carl Van Vechten writes to Langston Hughes that he saw Nugent at the recent Opportunity dinner in evening clothes “with his usual open chest and uncovered ankles. I suppose soon he will be going without trousers,” Van Vechten added.
October 10, 1927. Dorothy and Du Bose Heyward’s play, Porgy, opens at the Guild Theatre with Nugent, Thurman, and Dorothy West in the cast as supernumeraries. Porgy will later be the basis of Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess. It is a great success and runs for months in two New York theatres before going on the road. Thurman leaves the play in December, but Nugent stays for the entire run, which lasts more than two years and includes six weeks in London. Nugent becomes very close friends with Rose McClendon, the most eminent African American actress of her day, who is in the cast, as are Frank Wilson, Evelyn Ellis, Georgette Harvey, and Leigh Whipper.
December, 1927. Nugent’s four full-page “Drawings for Mulattoes” are published in Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea, edited by Charles S. Johnson and published by the National Urban League. Two incidental drawings by Nugent appear in several places throughout the publication as well.
May, 1928. Wallace Thurman’s article about popular dance, “Harlem’s Place in the Sun,” appears in Dance Magazine with several illustrations by Nugent.
March 26, 1929. The Porgy cast disembarks on the S.S. Columbus for England.
April 10, 1929. Porgy opens at His Majesty’s Theatre in London.
May 25, 1929. Porgy closes in London.
January, 1930. Porgy ends its two and a half year run in Philadelphia.
February, 1931. Four of Nugent’s works are included in the Harmon Foundation’s exhibition of Negro artists. This is one of the few venues available for black artists to show their work. (The current whereabouts of Nugent’s pieces are unknown.)
May 22, 1931. Sahdji, a ballet adapted by Nugent from his story of the same title in The New Negro, is performed at the Eastman School of Music with music by William Grant Still.
1932. Infants of the Spring, Thurman’s roman à clef about the goings-on at Niggeratti Manor, is published by Macaulay. Nugent, under the name of Paul Arbian [RBN], is a major character in the book.
March 1, 1933. Nugent appears on Broadway as one of the Bahamian dancers in Run, Little Chillun, a “Negro Folk Drama” written by Hall Johnson, in which a “pagan religious cult” challenges a small Southern town’s revivalist Christian faith. The dance material had previously been gathered in the Caribbean by Zora Neale Hurston. Doris Humphrey coaches the dancers, assisted by her partner, Charles Weidman and their protégé Jose Limon. The show has a four-month run on Broadway and then goes on tour.
December, 1934. Wallace Thurman dies of alcoholism and tuberculosis.
1934 – 1937. Nugent participates in the no-holds-barred discussions of the “306” group of artists and intellectuals who gather frequently at 306 West 141st Street—the studios of Charles Alston and Henry “Mike” Bannarn. The topics range widely over art, politics, and current affairs. Alston is director of the W.P.A. Mural Project at Harlem Hospital. Young Jacob Lawrence, his protégé, uses the studio as well. Other “306” participants include Romare Bearden, Selma Burke, Norman Lewis, Charles White, Claude McKay, and Ralph Ellison. Nugent becomes particularly good friends with Bannarn, whom he later came to consider underrated. Lawrence and Bearden go on to become the most important African American artists of the century.
Spring, 1937. One of Nugent’s most important writings, “Pope Pius the Only,” appears in Dorothy West’s little magazine, Challenge.
1938-1940. Nugent finds employment with the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal government program. He researches and writes vignettes of Harlem and Dutch colonial personalities as part of an effort to produce a history of blacks in New York. This project is directed by Roi Ottley; among Nugent’s co-workers were Claude McKay, Dorothy West, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.
1941-1942. Nugent studies and dances with the Negro Dance Company, founded by Wilson Williams in 1939.
1945. Nugent’s only stand-alone publication, Beyond Where the Stars Stood Still, was issued in a limited edition by Warren Marr II. Marr’s sister, Grace, later marries Nugent.
1952. Pete Nugent founds the Dancecraft studio with Honi Coles, but tap is no longer in fashion, and the studio folds after a couple of years. Pete is later employed as road manager for the Temptations.
December 5, 1952. Nugent and Grace Marr are married. He shared accommodations with her and her three brothers, Charles, Warren, and James, for several years after the Negro Dance Company broke up in 1942. The couple are deeply in love, but the marriage will never be consummated. Bruce has made no secret of his homosexuality; he urged Grace not to marry him, but she has persisted. Apparently she believes that she can eventually “change” him. Bruce’s reasons for allowing the marriage to proceed are unclear. It is certainly not a ploy to hide his homosexuality; he is already notorious. Perhaps he simply finds this, like so many of his other complex and unconventional relationships, intriguing.
July 13, 1953. Langston Hughes writes to Arna Bontemps that “Marriage has improved him [Nugent] no end.”
April 29, 1960. Nugent’s mother, Pauline Williams, dies. (She had remarried.)
June 6, 1964. Nugent attends the Community Planning Conference at Columbia University as an invited speaker. The conference was held under the auspices of the Borough President of Manhattan/Community Planning Board 10 and Columbia. The idea of forming an organization to promote the arts in Harlem emerged from the conference’s Cultural Planning workshop and led to the formation of the Harlem Cultural Council. Nugent takes an active role in this effort and attends numerous subsequent meetings.
January-February, 1965. The Harlem Cultural Council is incorporated and Nugent is elected co-chair (a position equivalent to vice president). He also serves as chair of the Program Committee until March, 1967.
May 16-29, 1965. The Sixth Annual Arts Festival of Temple Emanu-El in Yonkers includes four Nugent works: Boy with Bongo-La Perla, Mother and Child, The American, and Study in Black and White.
Summer, 1965. The Harlem Cultural Council sponsors Jazzmobile, which brings major jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, and, later, Billy Taylor, Herbie Mann, and Randy Weston to the streets of Harlem, playing on a portable stage.
November, 1965. Jazzmobile is incorporated as a separate organization. Nugent is among the incorporators and serves on the Board of Directors.
June 27 – July 25th, 1966. Nugent’s work is included in an exhibition of painting, “The Art of the American Negro” sponsored by the Harlem Cultural Council. The show is curated by Romare Bearden.
Summer, 1966. Jazzmobile expands it activities and Dancemobile begins operations, using the same methods to bring important dance groups like the Elio Pomare Dance Company to Harlemites without charge.
Fall, 1968. The Harlem Cultural Council withdraws support from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s forthcoming exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” charging that knowledgeable Harlem residents have been excluded from the planning process. The artists are also angry that this, the first-ever acknowledgement by the Met of the existence of the black community, focuses on photography and will exclude their work. Nugent plays a central role in the discussions of these issues with Thomas Hoving, the Met’s director.
December 4, 1969. Grace Marr Nugent commits suicide.
September, 1971. Nugent visits Rome. There he meets and falls deeply in love with a young Italian. He maintains the relationship and visits Rome every September for the next several years.
December, 1971. Nugnt’s drawing “Frankincense” is on the cover of Crisis magazine.
April 25, 1973. Pete Nugent dies.
September 11, 1974. Nugent is interviewed in the Russian Tea Room by David Levering Lewis for his book When Harlem Was in Vogue.
September, 1978. Nugent makes his last trip to Rome.
Ca. 1979. Nugent moves to an apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, in which he will live for the rest of his life.
November 29, 1981. Nugent is introduced to book collector and Harlem Renaissance enthusiast Thomas Wirth by Arnold Rampersad, who had interviewed Nugent for his forthcoming biography of Langston Hughes. Nugent and Wirth hit it off and were soon meeting regularly for Sunday brunch. Wirth will become Nugent’s executor and heir.
April 4, 1982. Nugent is interviewed by James Hatch of the Hatch Billops Collection. The interview is published in Artists and Influences 1982.
April 21-23, 1982. Nugent and Wirth attend the College Language Association’s annual meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
April 17, 1983. Nugent is interviewed for the film Before Stonewall.
August 16-21, 1983. Nugent and Wirth attend the annual Convention of the National Association of Black and White Men Together in Columbus, Ohio, where Nugent has been invited to speak.
November 29-30, 1983. Nugent and Wirth attend the Black Bibliophiles conference at Howard University.
March 28, 1984. After serving many years as the Harlem Cultural Council’s delegate to the Fine Arts Federation of New York, Nugent is nominated to the Board of Directors for the 1984-1985 year (beginning in June, 1984). Nugent is subsequently elected.
May 2-4, 1985. Nugent participates as an invited panelist in the Harlem Renaissance Conference at Hofstra University. Also on his panel—“Life and Times of the Harlem Renaissance”— are Selma Burke, Ida Cullen Cooper (widow of Countee Cullen), Ethyl Ray Nance (secretary to Charles S. Johnson of Opportunity), and Mrs. Hale Woodruff.
June 27, 1985. New York premiere of Before Stonewall. A clip from Nugent’s interview opens the film.
July 12, 1986. Nugent and his many friends celebrate his 80th birthday at a party held at Tom Wirth’s residence in Metuchen, New Jersey.
May 27, 1987. Nugent dies of congestive heart failure at St. Mary’s hospital in Hoboken.
July 2, 1987. A celebration of Nugent’s life is held at the Schomburg Center.
March 5, 1988. Nugent’s cremains are interred in the grave of his mother at Lincoln Cemetery, Suitland, Maryland.