Donyale Luna arrives on the planet, somewhere, sometime

20 Jul
Donyale Luna, head shaved, as salome

"I'm from the moon, baby!" Donyale as Salome in Carmelo Bene's 1972 film, head shorn before a blood-red moon

Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, was, for two years in the U.S. and for a dozen years afterward in Europe, famous beyond her wildest dreams. (And she dreamed wildly!) Time magazine proclaimed 1966 “The Year of Luna.” Andy Warhol used her in five movies. She was Salvador Dali’s compadre and favorite model. Her lovers were film and rock stars—even a real prince.

The spotlight was ubiquitous and intense. Yet it captured no more than her silhouette. Her inner life, and even large chunks of what was knowable, remained wrapped in mystery.

This is as Donyale wanted it. Once past her first few interviews in her native Detroit, she hit her stride as an enigma, seldom giving two reporters the same answer to the same question. When I encountered this trait in her at age 17 or 18 (Which was it? More about that later), I concluded that she had a hard time separating reality from fantasy. While I still think that was partly so, her later interviews show that she clearly liked to play with the media.

At any rate, here and now in 2010 a host of Internet sites about her are issuing contradictory facts or information that just ain’t so. Donyale’s ghost rises from her grave, gives us that Giocanda smile and says, “I’m seven feet tall,  I can see out of my third eye and I eat rats.”

The intrigue starts with her birth: when was it? and continues right up to her death: what was the cause? This post examines just the beginnings. And only the basics, the kind of questions to which we more prosaic mortals give the same monotonous answers every day: name, birthdate, place of birth.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s Henry Ford, already one of America’s most innovative geniuses, came up with perhaps his most novel idea: pay Negroes as much as whites to work in his auto factory. This altered America’s sociological landscape as radically as his Model T and other vehicles altered the physical landscape. Negroes poured into Detroit from the South. Along with them came a man named Hertzog, who was not Negro but German. But he lived with a tall, dark and beautiful woman named Peggy. Peggy was mulatto, but at that time in America anyone with one drop of Negro blood was considered Negro. The Hertzogs had a daughter, Josephine, born sometime around 1936. Their relationship went on the rocks, and soon after their arrival in Detroit Peggy was on her own. She shipped Josephine back to Georgia to be raised by her sister.

The tragic circumstances that led to the star-crossed union of Peggy with Nathaniel Freeman are lost in the mists of time. We know only that Nate’s family also arrived from Georgia to cash in on Henry Ford’s magnanimity, and he and Peggy met and eventually married.

Nate, like Peggy, may not have been a full-blooded Negro. His youngest daughter Lillian identifies him as “a black man from Georgia.” But his eldest daughter Peggy Ann (aka Donyale Luna) claimed he  was, among other things, Mexican and “Quechuan, from the Islands.” Now, Quechuan is not an ethnicity but a family of languages, spoken originally by the Incas. It’s still spread among the indigenous tribes of northwestern South America.

Donyale is a most unreliable source. But the photo below shows a man whose high cheekbones and narrow nose look more Incan than Negro: might Donyale have known something about her father that Lillian did not? Quechuan is not spoken in the Caribbean. But Nate or his forbears could have moved. Negro or Native American, he must have descended from slaves to carry the surname “Freeman.”

Donyale Luna age 7 months with dad

Dad and Peggy Ann, age 7 months, from The Imperfect Dream, a fictionalized biography of Donyale by Dorothy Maria Wingo. This is the only known extant photo of Nathaniel Freeman and the only known extant photo of Donyale before she was 17.

What was her name?

Nate and Peggy conceived two daughters—and here, at its start, we enter the maze of conundrums that made up the life of Donyale Luna.  The first daughter, Peggy Ann, re-named herself Donyale Luna in high school and insisted thereafter that Luna was her “real” father’s last name. ‘Donyale Luna’ was the short version: the full name was “Peggy Anne Donyale Aragonea Peugot Luna.” She  frequently gave the whole mouthful to the media, who duly reported it as her birth name.  At least one top current website, fashion insider, still repeats it.

Donyale’s parents named her after her mother, Peggy Freeman, adding a middle ‘Ann’ to keep the two from becoming confused with each other on documents, forms, mail etc. At home they were simply Big Peggy and Little Peggy. Duke University art historian Richard Powell, Donyale’s most accurate biographer, inexplicably tacks an ‘a’ onto her middle name: Anna. But according to younger sister Lillian, and to various newspaper articles in Detroit, she was born Peggy Ann Freeman, no ‘a’ after Ann and no ‘e’ either.

Birthplace?

Where was Donyale Luna born? When ex-beau and lifelong friend Sanders Bryant met her at age 15, she told him she was from Hawaii. When I met her a couple years later, she was Polynesian. During her final decade, in Italy, she often told the media that she came from Boston. She also told them she ate three kilos of meat every day and had three brothers who played in a band, but they still duly printed Boston without checking.

Donyale continued the Hawaiian charade with Bryant all her life, even though he was a close friend of the whole family and knew she was born right there in grimy old Detroit. “In Henry Ford Hospital,” he says.

Eventually, when asked where she was born, the diva came up with the last word: “I’m from the moon, baby!”

Birthdate?

Finally, when did this mystery woman arrive on the planet? Four dates are in contention: Aug. 31, 1945 and 1946, and Jan. 1, 1945 and 1946.

Richard Powell claims it was Aug 31, 1946. His source, who ought to know, is Donyale’s mother, quoted in The Detroit News. Judith Stone of the New York Times, who claims Donyale’s birth certificate as authority for her name, pegs her as 18 years old when her landmark Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared in Jan. 1965, which also jibes with the 1946 date.

I too subscribe to Aug. 1946. When I met Donyale in Dec. 1963 or Jan. 1964, she told me she was 17. I know better than to take Donyale’s word for anything. But what high-school girl lies about her age backwards, especially to an older boyfriend and his cohorts?

However, sister Lillian, who also ought to know, claims she was born in August, 1946, when Donyale was already a year old. Ex-beau Sanders Bryant, born Aug. 27, 1945, insists that he and Donyale were only a few days apart in age.

Donyale Luna high school graduation photo

“P Freeman” graduated from Detroit’s High School of Commerce in Jan. 1964. Photo courtesy of Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library, main branch

What can we learn from Donyale’s high-school yearbook?  “P Freeman” graduated in Jan. 1964. Most kids enter kindergarten at age 5, turn 6 during the school year and graduate 12+ years later in June at age 18. Those born in summer, like Donyale, enter school so soon after their fifth birthday that they’re still 5 when kindergarten ends in June and therefore still only 17 when they graduate in June 12 years later.

Those in the January class either take an extra load and graduate early or fail some classes and graduate late. Donyale was a bright student; she conceivably could have finished school early. If she were scheduled to graduate in June of 1964, she would have been in kindergarten from Sept. 1951 to June 1952, placing her birthdate in 1946.

But Lillian believes Donyale had to make up some classes (probably because she took too many artistic electives). That means she should have graduated in June 1963, at age 17, and sets her birthday in Aug. 1945. That also jibes with the birthdate Lillian ascribes to her.

The Jan. 1 dates appear on various Internet sites. Most of them stem from Wikipedia, which says Jan. 1, 1945. Where did Wikipedia get the date from? If Donyale Luna were to make up her birthday, what better one to choose than Jan. 1? Not that our girl would ever do a thing like that!

(Note to Djellabah, who wrote the Wikipedia entry: If you read this, will you please send a comment? I’d like to compare notes with you.)

uncredited detroit news photo of Donyale Luna

This uncredited photo from Richard Avedon’s spread in the April, 1965 Harper’s Bazaar accompanied the article “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” by Detroit News Fashion Editor Yvonne Petrie, a year later. Petrie reported that Donyale was 19 when the article appeared, which would set her birthday in Aug. 1946.

Did Judith Stone of the New York Times actually see Donyale’s birth certificate? For some reason birth records are confidential to anyone but immediate family—even records of celebrities who have been dead for 31 years. The mystery could be solved in a moment if the Michigan Dept. of Vital Statistics would simply make the document available.

So there you have it: three solid sources, including (indirectly) Donyale’s mother, assert that she was born Aug. 31, 1946. Two probably even better sources say Aug. 31, 1945. Which date is more persuasive to you?

NEXT BLOG: “She was always a weird child”…but was she?

Sources:

Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2009

High School of Commerce, Detroit, yearbook, 1964, in Detroit Public Library, main branch, Burton Collection

Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April ?, 1966

Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black portraiture, U. of Chicago Press, 2008

Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, May 19, 1968.

Lillian Washington, conversations, Oct. 2009 & July 2010

wikipedia: donyale luna

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6 Responses to “Donyale Luna arrives on the planet, somewhere, sometime”

  1. Kat Fegley July 23, 2010 at 2:34 am #

    Looking forward to next chapter, “Always a Weird Child”. Most likely she was highly intelligent and creative. Often times mistaken for strange or weird. Love the pix…!!

  2. miguel stuckey August 18, 2010 at 1:15 am #

    thanks soooo much for posting this. I have learned soo much more about her. Her life was truly and still is a mystery. I heard that jennifer poe was going to make a film about her life. Do you know if that’s still going to happen? I would love to see some type of film about her where they have interviews, pictures, and the final word about her life. I think people would find it very interesting.

    • donstrachan August 18, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

      Thanks, Miguel. Ms. Poe recently informed me that her project is on the back burner for now. Jennifer, if you’re reading this, are you willing to elaborate? We all hope you’re able able to return to Donyale soon.

      • miguel stuckey August 20, 2010 at 3:21 am #

        thanks for letting me know! I tried finding her contact information to ask her myself but I can’t seem to find it. If she ever lets you know why, could you inform us? thanks! I watched ‘who are you polly maggoo’ a few days ago and it was beautiful! (I wish she was in it more!) I wish I could see her warhol films.

  3. donstrachan August 20, 2010 at 3:39 am #

    Calling Jennifer Poe! Come in, Jennifer! If you read this, are you willing to tell us what could possibly be more important in your life than the Donyale film?
    Miguel, if you live anywhere near Pittsburgh, you can see Donyale’s Warhol films at the Warhol Museum there. You need to call ahead, and you may need a reason to see them. I hope to go there and see them soon myself.

  4. Jennifer Poe August 20, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    Hi Don and Miguel,

    I put the breaks on the Donyale Luna film because of a personal career choice among other things. In the New York magazine article you will see I was a writer first and a filmmaker second. I started out in film very young—when I was sixteen in fact. As I grew older I grew out of my fascination with the film world. However, I decided to continue the Donyale Luna project anyway. Then an opportunity and huge project in my writing career has taken hold of me and is moving along at lightning speed, but again I decided to continue with the Donyale Luna project. Working on both at the same time came to be overwhelming and near impossible.
    Donyale Luna is a very complicated subject to do any piece of work on (Don, I am sure you can attest to that fact) and to pull off a film on her you would have to be wholeheartedly dedicated to the project (fundraising in the six figure area, connecting the pieces to the mystery of her life, research, tracking down the people who knew her (if you can find them all) and hoping they will want to talk, securing interviews without giving compensation (another hard thing in this economy), producing, making a six figure budget, directing, hiring crew and a thousand other things that go into making a documentary film). A lot of people don’t realize how much goes into such an endeavor. Some documentaries take 10 years to make and if you don’t have the funds, even longer. A film about Donyale Luna has the potential to be 10 years in the making. That being said I came to a crossroads and decided to go with my writing project that is only a year or two in the making. Other personal reasons that I will not discuss here also helped play a part in my decision as well.
    If all goes well and according to plan, I will be in a better position to work on a film about Donyale Luna. As of right now I am not. To try and force it would be unfair to the film and Donyale’s legacy. If someone else were to make a film about her it would be a marvelous thing; they would just need to prepare for years of hard work and dedication. I hope now there is some understanding about my decision.

    Xoxoxo

    Jen

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