How Chadwick Boseman's Private Love Story Added Another Layer to His Legacy

Before he died of cancer a year ago, Chadwick Boseman quietly married his longtime love Taylor Simone Ledward, a heartbreaking but inspiring coda to the Black Panther star's story.

By Natalie Finn Aug 28, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Watch: Chadwick Boseman Married His Longtime Love Before Passing Away

By so many accounts, Chadwick Boseman led a generous, purposeful and fulfilling life, building his career one carefully considered role at a time, amassing a credit list that included mighty historical figures and a game-changing comic book superhero.

But only after he died a year ago did the lens zoom in on the inner life he'd deliberately kept to himself, his private world suddenly of mass interest. Because learning about what Boseman was like behind the scenes was all that was left to peruse alongside his now frustratingly small body of work that should've had decades more to grow.

In fact, that was when most people found out that the 43-year-old had recently gotten married, reading that his wife was at his side when, on Aug. 28, 2020, he lost his battle with colon cancer—a seemingly impossible-to-hide health setback that he did in fact manage to keep a secret from everyone who worked with him for four years.

So, over the past 12 months, Taylor Simone Ledward has been the keeper of his legacy, a role no person mourning the love of her life would ever want but one she gracefully stepped into.

Left to speak on his behalf as he was repeatedly honored for what turned out to be his final performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Ledward dutifully cracked open the door so his countless fans and admirers could get a better understanding of the man she knew perhaps better than anybody.

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"As an artist, an actor, and a person, Chad made a practice of telling the truth," she said at the Gotham Awards—which honored Boseman with the Actors Tribute—in January.

"He is the most honest person I've ever met," continued Ledward, noticeably referring to her late husband in the present tense. "Because he didn't just stop at speaking the truth, he actively searched for it—in himself, in those around him and in the moment. The truth can be a very easy thing for the self to avoid, but if one does not live in truth, then it's impossible to live in line with a divine purpose for your life. And so, it became how he lived his life, day in, day out. Imperfect, but determined."

And open to sage advice.

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Denzel Washington, who produced Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, recalled to CBS News after Boseman's death, "I used to watch how she took care of him and I actually said to him, I said, 'Man, you need to put a ring on that finger.' Because she kept her eye on him and she watched him. I'm like, man she loves that guy. But I didn't know what we know now."

Meaning, Ledward was there not just to support her partner as he shot the 1920s-set drama in the summer of 2019, but also to make sure he was taking care of himself as he threw himself into playing the brash trumpeter Levee, who has high aspirations but is irreparably haunted by family tragedy and the horrors of the Jim Crow South.

The Netflix-bound production wrapped that August and Boseman reportedly popped the question in October.

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Ledward, a singer with a degree in music industry studies from Cal Poly Pomona, had first turned up by Boseman's side in photos taken in 2015. That was in the wake of the Howard University grad's serious bump in esteem from his turns as Jackie Robinson in 42 and James Brown in Get on Up but before his cinematic immortality was assured when he assumed the mantle of Wakandan royalty T'Challa/Black Panther, first in 2016's Captain America: Civil War and then in his Oscar- and SAG Award-winning standalone film.

So, even when he first burst into the greater consciousness as one of the most compelling members of the MCU, he was spoken for—despite the endless online shipping that tried to pair him off with his Black Panther love interest Lupita Nyong'o. "It's not hard to fall in love with Lupita," Boseman told E! News in 2018. "She's a beautiful person."

All true, but he loved her like a friend, people. Not to mention, in hindsight that was a perfect cover for his real-life role of Ledward's devoted boyfriend.

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Also in real life, everyone got along swimmingly, with Ledward part of the standing ovation at the 2019 SAG Awards when the ensemble went up to accept their win for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

Their relationship had become subtly more public as Boseman's rising star gave him more red carpets to walk with his forever-date. Finally, in March 2019, it was time for a shout-out. He gave Ledward a kiss at the NAACP Image Awards before he headed to the stage to snag his trophy for Best Actor in a Motion Picture.

"Thank you, God, for not just winning," Boseman began. "Thank you, God, for the trials and tribulations that you allow us to go through so that we can appreciate these moments, we can appreciate the joy that comes from winning. 'Cause it's not just me that's winning right now."

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He continued, in a nod to the history Black Panther had made with its mostly Black cast, Oscar nomination for Best Picture (plus three wins) and billion-dollar box office, "This is a beautiful time in Black filmmaking that we are celebrating right now. It's not just a normal time, we have to recognize that."

"Simone, you're with me every day," Boseman added, reaching out toward her in the audience. "I have to acknowledge you right now, love you."

She blew him a kiss, mouthing "love you" back at him.

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Days later he went to Southeast Asia to film his small but pivotal role in Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods, what would be his penultimate film. The director was one of countless people who later, upon finding out Boseman had been battling cancer since 2016, marveled at the actor's physical stamina on set.

"I didn't know Chad was sick," Lee told Variety in the fall of 2020. "He did not look well, but my mind never took that he had cancer. It was a very strenuous shoot. I mean, we all didn't get to Vietnam until the end of the movie at Ho Chi Minh City. But that other stuff, the jungle stuff, was shot in Thailand. It was 100 degrees every day. It was also at that time the worst air pollution in the world. I understand why Chadwick didn't tell me because he didn't want me to take it easy. If I had known, I wouldn't have made him do the stuff. And I respect him for that."

Then, in July 2019, it was off to Pittsburgh with Ledward to make Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. In the ensuing year, they got engaged and tied the knot. And then, on Aug. 28, 2020, came word that Boseman was gone. It was a wretched shock, the news pinging out on a Friday night and positively devastating everyone who knew him as well as a legion of fans. Memories of how frail he had started to look in pictures from the prior 12 months became unavoidable, photos that no one wanted to think too hard about, brushing off the idea that the situation could be serious.

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He was laid to rest Sept. 3 in a private funeral at Welfare Baptist Church Cemetery in Belton, S.C., which was followed the next day by a public memorial in his nearby hometown of Anderson. 

In addition to the outpouring of love and tributes, and then of course the expected curiosity as to how Marvel was going to fill the irreplaceable Boseman's shoes for the slated Black Panther sequel, anticipation ramped up for the debut of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom—Boseman's final film—on Netflix.

The adaptation of the August Wilson-penned drama didn't disappoint and the movie ended up showered with award-season recognition, most of it for Viola Davis in the title role, her stellar hair and makeup team, and Boseman.

And that's when the spotlight shifted to Ledward, left to share with the rest of us what the accolades would have meant to Boseman, and what he meant to her.

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Alone on the couch in her golden gown and speaking remotely (like almost everybody else) via Zoom when Boseman won a Golden Globe in February at the pandemic-delayed ceremony, Ledward astutely guessed that he "would thank God."

"He would thank his parents," she continued, blinking back tears. "He would thank his ancestors for their guidance and their sacrifices. He would thank his incredible team...He would thank his team on set for this film...He would say something beautiful, something inspiring, something that would amplify that little voice inside of all of us that tells you you can, that tells you to keep going, that calls you back to what you are meant to be doing at this moment in history. He would thank [the film's director] Mr. George C. Wolfe, Mr. Denzel Washington, lots of people at Netflix. He would thank Ms. Viola Davis..."

She thanked several more before concluding, "And I don't have his words. But we have to take all the moments to celebrate those we love, so thank you, HFPA, for this opportunity to do exactly that. And honey, you keep 'em coming."

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And so he did, giving Ledward multiple opportunities to share her truth about the bittersweetness of it all. 

Accepting on his behalf during the Critics' Choice Awards in March, she admitted, "For those of us who know Chad—intimately, personally, professionally, those he taught, those he gave a word of advice, those who taught him—it is so hard to find a celebratory feeling in these moments, as much as we are proud of him."

She concluded invoking a Greek proverb: "'Societies grow great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they may never sit.' And our society may be a far cry from great, but I know that the seeds you planted will grow into forests."

Then it was onto the NAACP Image Awards, the scene of their tender moment just two years prior, where she used the platform to remind Black people to be vigilant about their health and, if they're at least 45 years old, get screened for colon cancer. A disease that's "beatable," Ledward said, so long as it's caught early enough.

Boseman was "an uncommon artist and an even more uncommon person," she said. "But the manner in which we lost him is not uncommon at all. Not in our community...Don't put it off any longer, please get screened. Please, you are so needed and you are so loved. Please take your health into your own hands."

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When he won Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Film (one of his three nominations) at the SAG Awards in April, Ledward offered, "If you see the world unbalanced, be a crusader that pushes heavily on the seesaw of the mind. That's a quote by Chadwick Boseman."

Then, of course, when the Oscars finally rolled around a few weeks later, pretty much anybody who'd been paying attention all season was expecting to see Ledward speaking once again from the heart while accepting another well-deserved honor for her husband. But in what will go down as one of the all-time miscalculations in award-show production history, the Oscar for Best Actor—moved so it would be the final award of the night for the first time since the 1940s—went to Anthony Hopkins.

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The 83-year-old star of The Father was in Wales and reportedly offered to Zoom in to accept, if needed, but—in yet another inexplicable choice—producers turned him down. When he posted his acceptance speech to Instagram the next morning, he made sure to mention Boseman, "who was taken from us far too early."

So whatever Ledward may have planned to say if Boseman's name had been called stayed between them instead, no additional statue necessary to burnish her memories.

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And her determination to help prevent more unnecessary loss was evident again when she appeared on the annual Stand Up to Cancer special, which aired Aug. 22, to perform the 1938 standard "I'll Be Seeing You."

"I'll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new," Ledward sang, "I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you."

They weren't her words or his, but they fit just the same.