Supernova Luna Strikes New York!

2 Aug

(Note: I’ve truncated the last post and tacked it onto the end of this one. Why? To celebrate! Donyale burst onto the New York fashion scene like a supernova, and that glory deserves capturing and retelling.)

Three months after Donyale Luna became the first woman of color to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Richard Avedon also pulled off a first there: he became the first Guest Editor in Harper’s history.

He asked for, and received, carte blanche. And he put together probably the most amazing magazine issue in fashion history. The Sixties were about to explode, and Avedon was on top of the times, with photos of everyone from Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Roy Lichtenstein, artwork by Stan Vanderbeek and writing by Tom Wolfe and Renata Adler to  Jean Shrimpton as Galactic Girl in a designer astronaut jumpsuit.

Donyale got star status, appearing in 11 full-page photos in outfits by Rudi Gernreich, Paco Rabanne and James Galanos.

Crabwalking in Galanos dress, head intact. This photo by Richard Avedon appeared in the landmark April 1965 Harper's Bazaar. For excellent photos from that issue, including the three others of Luna in Galanos, see devo.com website (use link in paragraph below)

Apparently Donyale’s appearance stirred up some racial tension, though just how much is—naturally—a mystery. In 2009 Vanity Fair reported that a Galanos studio dress designer, herself a black woman, threatened to quit if Donyale appeared in her clothes. She and Avedon compromised, according to the story, and the magazine ran three headless shots.

However, as the devo.com website shows, Harper’s published four “Luna in Galanos” photos and the headless shots show another model, one with fleshier arms, wearing couturier Norman Norell’s designs.

Also according to Vanity Fair, “advertisers with Southern accents pulled their ads,” hundreds of readers canceled their subscriptions and publisher William Randolph Hearst, Jr. expressed his unhappiness to editor Nancy White.

While our source struck out on the headless shots, the rest could be all or partially true: the year was 1965, remember; the Civil Rights movement was starting to smoke and the fires of backlash burned everywhere. Until now, Donyale had appeared before only in line drawings, cast in a whiter shade of pale. Now here she was, the first woman of color in a major fashion magazine. It would be more surprising if no readers or advertisers quit. And it would not be the first racial storm that Donyale inadvertantly stirred up in her brief U.S. career.

Luna in Rabanne. Photo by Richard Avedon

How much the special issue had to do with Avedon leaving Harper’s after 20 years in 1966 to join ex-Harper’s editor Diana Vreeland at Vogue, we’ll never know. We do know that Vogue was still not using models of color, and Donyale never appeared in Vogue US. As Avedon was to later lament, “For reasons of racial prejudice, and the economics of the fashion business, I was never permitted to photograph her for publication again.”

(Ironically enough, less than a year later Donyale became the first black woman to grace the cover of Vogue U.K.)

More from Avedon, Harpers Bazaar 4/65

Luna/Avedon/Rabanne, Harper's Bazaar 4/65

When Karen Miller did not take up Donyale’s invitation to join her, la Luna attempted to solve her loneliness problem by other means: she got married!

And this marriage, even more than any of Luna’s other adventures, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. First, whom did she marry? Well, according to the invitation Karen Miller received, it was Phillip Clark Jackson, a struggling local actor. See the invite below: it’s hard to ignore physical evidence.

Invitation to Donyale's reception following her marriage to Phillip Clark Jackson. Courtesy of Karen Miller

On Feb. 28, 1965, Donyale married Phillip Clark Jackson. The reception was held at the home of “Mr. and Mrs. Miles Davis.”

Yet both Donyale’s sister Lillian and long-time friend Sanders Bryant insist the groom was none other than Ron O’Neal, later of Superfly fame but then an unknown young actor himself. Bryant says the reception was at the home of May Britt, who was soon to creaate an uproar herself by becoming Sammy Davis Jr’s bride. The invitation puts it at the home of Miles Davis.

Bryant even describes at length visiting the newlyweds in New York a few months later and feeling inappropriate for becoming so engaged with Donyale that O’Neal left to buy a newspaper and still hadn’t returned at 3am.

Lillian remembers Donyale bringing O’Neal to Detroit and being impressed with how handsome he was.

Might things be less mysterious if Miller, Bryant and Lillian had attended the nuptials as planned? Unfortunately, on Feb. 28, the wedding day, Detroit was hit with one of the worst blizzards in its history. “I was snowed in,” says Bryant; “I couldn’t get off the block, let alone to New York City.”

O’Neal’s lifelong friend David Walker, who helped him with his unfinished autobiography, knew nothing of the marriage and says O’Neal never mentioned Donyale’s name to him.

In subsequent times Donyale told reporters she had been married to an “actor” (or occasionally a “gigolo”), but never divulged who the groom was (no easy feat, with the media sniffing around her like bloodthirsty hounds). The names of bride and groom never surfaced in connection with each other again.

The marriage was a disaster, lasting by most accounts 10 months. (Donyale told me in 1967 that she was “married to a sailor for two weeks.”)

If marriage failed to solve Donyale’s loneliness issue, she could always fall back on her mainstay: night life. Everyone who glittered in Manhattan wanted to know her, and in short order she knew them all. She hung with the Rat Pack, especially Sammy Davis Jr.; Miles Davis; psychedelic artist Mati Klarwein, Andy Warhol…

David McCabe, who published a book called A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, covering parts of 1964 and 1965, also undoubtedly introduced Donyale to Warhol and the Factory. This was a mixed blessing: Donyale made four “Screen Tests” and a feature with Warhol and in a roundabout way through him connected with Otto Preminger and her only U.S. film role (see Skidoo review 10/26 on this blog).

FLASH NOTICE! SKIDOO release, which didn’t happen last autumn when I said it would, happened July 19 through Olive Films (olivefilms.com). $18.72. Critic’s Choice also offers it for $21.21.

But what was Warhol’s influence on Luna? According to art historian Richard Powell in Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture,
“Tales of Luna’s drug use and physical abuse at the hands of boyfriends littered Andy Warhol’s reminiscences of the late 1960’s.”

This is an inexplicable untruth and character assassination in an otherwise excellently-researched chapter on Luna. In fact there is but a single reference to Luna in the single reminiscence Powell refers to, Popism: the Warhol Sixties. The bashing boyfriend is there, but Donyale is outspoken against drugs:

“And Donyale has this crazy boyfriend who came in last night and smashed her over the head with a beer bottle”—Geraldine laughed—“right after she was giving us this big lecture about how disgraceful it was that we were smoking pot and taking LSD.”

Pot and LSD were like milk and cookies at the Factory, where mainlining and buggering were standard fare. Donyale, who didn’t even drink or smoke when I knew her several months earlier, had to be repulsed.

Ubnderneath its shine, The Apple was proving to be rotten at its core.

Before finally escaping New York, Donyale suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in Bellevue Hospital. “She wasn’t there for very long,” says Sanders Bryant. “I think it had something to do with her marriage. That’s all I know.”

Two years later she told the New York Times that she fled from New York when she found “they said beautiful things on one side and turned around and stabbed you in the back.”

But more than mere betrayal drove her away. In the space of a few short months, everything happened at once to Donyale— rocketship to the top of the world—father shot dead by mother (see “Four Weddings and a Funeral” post 10/15 on this blog)—loneliness in a new city—the unspeakable decadence of the Factory—failed marriage. No wonder our already-delicate diva wound up in the funny farm.

When she stepped out the doors, it was time for a change of country. Next stop: London.

SOURCES
Sanders Bryant, conversation, Nov. 2009
devo.com
Richard Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (U of Chicago Press, 2008)
Karen Miller, conversation and emails, March-July 2011
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, May 19, 1968
David Walker, email correspondence, 2010
Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: the Warhol Sixties (New York: Harper & Row, 1980)
Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

2 Responses to “Supernova Luna Strikes New York!”

  1. miguel stuckey August 9, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    As I re-read the first blog I noticed that you have answered most of the questions at this point. Does that mean you are all most finished sharing what you have learned? :(

    • donstrachan August 10, 2011 at 1:10 am #

      With the second NY post, I’m through with NY, at least for now

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