Philippa Schuyler was a pianist child prodigy, born in the 1930’s. She composed a famous piece called “Harlem’s Mozart: The Shirley Temple of American Negroes.” Born to a black journalist and a white daughter of a Texas ranger, (who had at one time, worked as a bathing beauty for a local slave owner), Philippa’s parents were determined to use their daughter as a poster child for integration. Her mother, Josephine Cogdell, raised her daughter on raw meat, vegetables and cod liver oil, believing that it would make her more of a genius. Her mother even wrote publicly about her experience in being with a black man in “The Messenger” publication.
Philippa’s parents saw promise in her only four weeks after she was born, when she began to crawl. She was reading and writing by age two. By the time she was four years old, she was playing her own piano compositions on the local radio station. With an IQ of 180 at seven, Philippa graduated from elementary school at ten years old. At the young age of 13, she had written 100 music compositions for orchestra. Her first piece, “Manhattan Nocturne”, was performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1944. Cogdell was known to issue tough love to her daughter, demanding perfection with little affection.
Though she performed countless concerts overseas as an adolescent, Philippa was unhappy with her childhood. She had even developed different personas overseas, passing for women of different races, depending on the situation. Feeling as if her life was an experiment by her parents, she would play until she reached her thirties, then discovered journalism and followed in her father’s footsteps. However, she would pass herself off as Spanish to escape her parents’ values.
In 1962, Schulyer released “Who Killed the Congo?”, addressing the independence of Zaire. A year later, she released “Jungle Saints” about Catholic missionaries.
Philippa Schuyler traveled to Vietnam during the war in 1967 as a war correspondent. She also worked as a Catholic lay worker, ferrying orphans to safety from Hue to Danang. During a helicopter mission to evacuate the orphans, her helicopter crashed into the sea. Even though she survived the crash, she couldn’t swim and drowned. It was later discovered that the accident was the fault of the pilot and could’ve been avoided.
Philippa Schuyler died on May 9, 1967 at age 35. Prior to her passing, she had openly addressed her issues with her mother’s choice of upbringing in a written letter, accusing her of imposing impossible expectations upon her daughter. In 1969, Jody Cogdell Schuyler committed suicide.
There has been a discussion about a biopic of Schulyer’s life. The family papers are kept at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in a collection entitled “Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler.”