Frances Elizabeth Taylor: Dancer, Actress, Muse

Frances Taylor at the Miles Davis exhibit

Frances Taylor

While watching the PBS documentary on the life of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool), I was very interested in the interview with dancer Frances Taylor, to whom Davis was married from 1959 to 1968. After doing some research, I learned that Frances Taylor was the first African-American ballerina to perform with the Paris Opera Ballet. She was a member of the Katherine Dunham Company, had roles in the Broadway musicals Mr. Wonderful, Shinbone Alley, and was an original cast member of West Side Story. Taylor also appeared in the Off-Broadway productions of Carmen Jones and Porgy and BessWhile working on Broadway, she was credited as Elizabeth Taylor because there was already an actress named Frances Taylor, so she used her middle name.

Frances Taylor and Leonard Bernstein

Frances Taylor was a member of the original cast of West Side Story, working alongside Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim. It was during this stint that Miles Davis said to her, "A woman should be with her man. I want you out of West Side Story." In truth, Taylor was known for having the "best legs in the business," and Davis didn't like the idea of strange men watching her dancing on stage.

Miles Davis was also addicted to pain medication, alcohol, and cocaine. As his addiction spiraled out of control, Taylor said that he became physically abusive. In the film, she recounts how Davis had knocked her out in the kitchen after she innocently commented that Quincy Jones - with whom they both had hung out that night - was good-looking. "I saw stars," she said, while lying on the floor.

Davis wanted Frances to be a stay-at-home mom to his children from his first wife. She sacrificed her career to his whims. She said she used to disappear upstairs for hours at a time just to look at her old ballet slippers. Frances continued to endure his abuse, and finally left him in 1965 and stayed with her friend Nancy Wilson. The divorce was finalized in 1968. After their separation, she appeared as a maid in the film The Party, and performed in television appearances with Elvis Presley. But we can only imagine the career she might have had if she had remained in the cast of West Side Story.

Frances and Miles
Regarding the physical abuse, Miles Davis wrote in his memoir: "Every time I hit her, I felt bad because a lot of it really wasn’t her fault but had to do with me being temperamental and jealous."

It is NEVER a woman's fault when she is abused. A man should NEVER put his hands on a woman, period!

Frances Taylor passed away on November 17, 2018 at the age of 89. Rest well, Frances. We celebrate you this Black History Month.


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