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Happy Birthday Donyale!

31 Aug

Is this an outtake from the film Salvador Dali: a Soft Self-Portrait, or just horsing around on the set? Donyale is in the movie, and the piano, and the water, but not all three at once.

Today (Aug. 31) Donyale Luna would be 65 years old.

I contacted two astrologers to do a chart and reading for her. One, however, lives on a houseboat in the wilderness and quite likely hasn’t even seen my e-mail yet. The other agreed but failed to deliver.

Sorry, Donyale!  I was hoping to celebrate you and honor and acknowledge your contributions to the world of fashion and to opening doors for women of color to appear in previously segregated fashion magazines. Oh well, next year!

I did talk with one of the astrologers about the two conflicting dates of her birth  see “Donyale Luna arrives on the planet somewhere, sometime,” this blog, July 20, 2010), She showed all the characteristics of someone born Aug. 1946 and few of anyone born Aug. 31, 1945. So if you’re inclined to believe in astrology, as did Luna, add that to the evidence for that date.

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

Anna Magnani she wasn’t; Donyale Luna she was!

17 Apr

One of Donyale Luna's top roles was Ariel, from Shakespeare's The Tempest, for the Detroit Civic Centre Theatre in 1964. She got to play it barefoot. All photos by Karen Roscup

Sorry for the delay posting: I was on vacation in Mexico and have also been recovering from a near-death experience: 19 blood transfusions.

But great news! Someone from Donyale Luna’s distant past has emerged from the ethers of the cyberworld to fill us in on the diva’s final days in Detroit and her beginnings in New York. Karen Miller (she was Karen Roscup then) appeared with Donyale in several plays for the Detroit Civic Center Theater, including Stage Door, The Music Man, Anything Goes (one performance) and Moliere’s Servant of Two Masters.

More great news: Karen was not only an actress (and makeup artist) but a photographer. We are indebted to her for the only known photos of Donyale before she left for New York—seven vintage shots from Detroit Civic productions, six of them unpublished before— which she has graciously agreed to share with us. Donyaleluna.wordpress.com WORLDWIDE EXCLUSIVE: Photos of Donyale, 1964, by Karen Roscup. Please, don’t rip them off without Karen’s permission. (To ask permission, send a comment to this site.)

Another shot as Ariel

Miller was probably Donyale’s closest girl friend during this time. “I loved her from the moment I met her,” she says. “She was so beautiful and so sweet. And I could tell she was troubled. There was something secretive about her.” Donyale gave the two of them nicknames: Tyger Donyale and Tyger Karen (the ‘y’ spelling possibly reflected Blake’s poem). In remembrance, to this day Miller collects tigers.

The troupe had a repertoire of 10 plays, which they performed at Ford Auditorium and Wayne State University’s MacGregor Auditorium. In summer they mounted productions in the parks around Detroit—Patton, Chandler, Palmer, even the State Fairgrounds—and in the Jeffrey Projects, where kids threw eggs at the performers. “We just dodged them and laughed,” says Miller.

Young Donyale aspired to becoming a great actress, “like Anna Magnani.” She told Miller she wanted to go to New York and appear before the footlights. Ironically, in New York she became instead the world’s foremost supermodel.

Horsing around with dance director Amalita (left) and unidentified fellow actress, Stage Door, March 1964

The consensus by those who saw Donyale on the Detroit stage was that her acting abilities were less than promising. This didn’t stop every director who met her from wanting her in his show. But none gave her high marks for her talent. Roland Sharette, who headed Detroit Civic productions, was diplomatic: “She was a personality,” he told Detroit News writer Yvonne Petrie: “It was the way she carried herself, loose and relaxed, and her large, expressive fawn’s eyes. She sang a sort of soprano. She was a natural born dancer.”

David Rambeau, her director at the Concept-East, an innovative, mostly-Negro theatre with an excellent critical reputation, didn’t mince words. “She was too tall and too young,” he said. “She was too frilly in her acting.” He  liked Donyale, and agrees that she was “a striking personality” with “a stunning face.” But “her acting talent was virtually nil.”

From Anything Goes, Aug. 1964. Probably the least flattering outfit Donyale was ever photographed in

Karen Miller does not disagree with these assessments. “But she was so graceful,” she says; “a beautiful dancer—a persona, a personality.”

Once, a couple months after Donyale and I had gone our separate ways, Karen Roscup had to drop out of a play at the Concept-East. Donyale stepped in to replace her. I was a “theatre critic;” that is, I reviewed plays for the Wayne State newspaper, and later for a brief metro daily that sprang up during a newspaper strike in 1964. I wound up reviewing Donyale Luna in this play.

Donyale was no worse than a lot of actresses in Detroit, but I thought she ruined the play just by walking onstage. Standing a head taller than her fellow actors, she declaimed all her lines in flawless diction, her voice like music, in the same breathless good cheer, no matter what emotion was called for. The audience got swept up in her charisma, all eyes followed her every move, and the play got swept out the window.

An easy trap in writing criticism is to become ruthless. If you think an actor is bad, you have to say it. But you can say it with compassion. I didn’t bring my heart into my reviews: I was arrogant then and full of judgment. My criticism was good, but good can be cruel when you are in the critic’s seat. “Truth,” or my rabid-student version of it, was worth more than personal relationships.

Donyale and my paths crossed a couple of times after the review. Did she ever read it? She acted as though she didn’t, and I assumed she hadn’t. Now, 45 years later, I know that she inhaled every word written about her, especially about her acting. My words must have landed like a kick in her stomach. Acting as though she hadn’t read them was Donyale the actress at her finest: she cast a spell on me that lasted 45 years! Donyale was a great actress, possibly the world’s greatest, in the role that she created: Donyale Luna.

Even as she faltered in the footlights, there was also another area where Donyale’s thespian talents shone:  she was preparing to bring innovations from the stage to the runway.

With Bob Muldowan in Anything Goes, Aug. 1964. Donyale played Chastity with a star pasted to her cheek. This photo ran in black and white in The Detroit News (unbeknownst to Karen Roscup) and here with an earlier post

Sanders Bryant, a teen boyfriend who hung with her family all his life—he still sees her sister Lillian from time to time—was undoubtedly her first photographer. He describes a technique that he and Donyale co-created called “Method Modeling,” based on Method Acting.

What was Method Modeling? Bryant, a student of Stanislavsky’s Method Acting, says a basic tenet  is, “you don’t act, you react. Be yourself, and you can portray any kind of move. Modeling is just capturing in a moment what you would build up to in a scene. As a model, you have to pantomime it.” In other words, Method Modeling was Donyale working her way into the core moment, the all-encompassing Moment of Truth in the scene when the character’s soul is captured, and Bryant capturing it on film when it came.

Whose idea was Method Modeling, Bryant’s or Luna’s? Bryant charitably says, “I just put words to what she was already doing.” But elsewhere he alludes to her initial awkwardness before the camera. Donyale turned that awkwardness into a strange grace that the world had never seen before—with lots of input from Bryant, I’m sure: it was a joint venture.

She also, as we will see later, revolutionized the runway with it. Later, when Luna grew into mythological roles, she could still draw from Method Modeling to delve more deeply into her character.

Mugging it up with fellow actor Al Clark in Anything Goes, Aug. 1964

Sources

Sanders Byant, conversation, Nov. 2009
Karen Miller, conversation & correspondence, March-April 2011
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April 1966

Race Part II Four Fateful Words: Donyale Puts her Foot in her Mouth

9 Jan

Sorry for the long delay, folks; I’ve been traveling. Here’s the next installation about Luna and race.

I’ve also added photos to the last post.

Enjoy! —Don
_________________________________

If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.
—Donyale Luna, New York Times, May 19,1968

This wonderful photo by Michael Alexander accompanied the New York Times article. The caption read: Luna, 6-foot-2-inch model, will act Groucho Marx's mistress in "Skidoo." Will her job open up movie roles for Negro women? "I couldn't care less."

If you’ve ever googled Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, you’ve read those words. She uttered them in response to interviewer Judith Stone when Stone asked her if she thought that being cast in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo would open up more movie roles for “Negro women.”

Donyale’s answer kindles passions in Blacks to this day. A future post will run some of the fiery comments on Luna blogs more than 40 years later.

She initially responded to Stone’s question with an icy, “I don’t think about that.” How long had she been telling the media she was of mixed heritage? Wasn’t Stone listening to her?

Then Donyale’s fiancé, German actor Georg Willing, piped up, “She’s white, didn’t you know?” I’ve disliked Willing ever since I read that remark: what a sarcastic clod! And I can see I’m doing the same thing as people who castigate Luna for her reply to Stone. Willing may have been merely showing support and it came out wrong.

“But then,” writes Stone, “Luna reconsidered for a moment. ‘If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less’.”

Read the first sentence. Donyale, living the role of “Donyale Luna,” probably, as she said, “didn’t think about that.” Now she thought about it and it sounded good. Had she stopped there, she had said the right thing and also made her point that her blood was not pure Negro but mixed.

But would her landing the role actually bring down the barriers? Offhand, she didn’t know: “It could be good, it could be bad.”

Then out tumbled the Four Fateful Words: “I couldn’t care less.”

Why on earth did she add them? The more I ponder it, the more I think they were an unfortunate rhetorical fillip, words to fit the rhythm of a conclusion, spoken in haste by an uncertain woman all of 21 or 22 years old, beating a hasty retreat from a subject that could trigger a lot of pain and confusion inside her back into the role of diva.

This was before Donyale and Salvador Dali had become buddies, when she would take a page from his book of tricks and make up an outlandish response for the press, not a lie so much as an imaginative creation to further her public image. At this point she didn’t have the tools to handle a savvy journalist like Stone.

Salvador Dali claimed Luna was the reincarnation of Nefertiti

Stone’s portrait of Donyale is actually the most sympathetic and perceptive I’ve read. An unkind editor ignored Luna’s first two sentences and wrote the photo caption: “Will her job open up movie roles for Negro women? ‘I couldn’t care less’.” Later, Wikipedia’s account also accentuated the Four Fateful Words and suggested that Donyale renounced her race. A hefty percentage of Net profiles copied Wikipedia.

But it simply wasn’t true that Donyale couldn’t care less.

Ex-beau Sanders Bryant tells of a time Donyale and he visited a museum of slavery artifacts in Dresden, Canada one day when she still lived in Detroit. “When Donyale saw those artifacts and the slave conditions,” recalls Bryant, “she broke down in tears.”

Remember, this was “Donyale Luna,” who was going to be happy only, who had banished tears from her life.

Early articles about Luna portrayed her as the new top Negro model. “She never denied that,” says Bryant. “But she had that other side….To Donyale, denying any part of that was like denying herself.”

Donyale’s remarks to Detroit Free Press reporter Colleen O’Brien in 1966 show careful wording about her ethnicity: “Most of my publicity has been because I’m dark-skinned. But I think the reaction would have been the same if I were white because of my features.” Note two things here:

1. She said she wasn’t white.
2. She described herself as “dark-skinned” as opposed to “Negro” or even “colored.” (And she wasn’t even that dark-skinned.)

When asked whether she thought her success was due to her color, she also told O’Brien, “I never think of myself as a brown-skinned girl.”

While Donyale was tuned into the racial struggle, Bryant says, “she felt that she should be above the fray.” She was a seeker. She adorned her third eye with bindis. She took psychedelics. She saw the Big Picture, where racism was resolved. There she dwelt—by herself, if necessary, until the struggle and fighting was over.

Not a position that gains you points in history, but understandable for an artist who chose to live her life at the mythic level. Three years later, sounding weary of the subject, she told Free Press reporter George Kirvay, “I honestly don’t know what I am. I’ve been described as being both a white person and a Negro. Whatever people want to think…they can.”

I’m not exonerating Donyale from the charge that she denied her heritage. At age 15 she told Sanders Bryant she was Hawaiian. At age 17 or 18 she told me she was Polynesian. She was honing a story that eventually included a Mexican father and a veritable but unverifiable smorgasbord of colorful ancestors.

But as was usually the case with Donyale’s fabrications, this one had some truth mixed in: her mother was half Irish and that entire side of her family, according to Sanders Bryant, “could have been more ‘Hawaiian’ than she was.”

Donyale was a scared little girl playing diva, the only role in life large enough for her to make her qualities virtues, not flaws. As such, she wasn’t tapped into the world of ordinary reality so much as a deeper, more powerful truth. She was descended from Nefertiti, from goddesses and mermaids. Her ancestry was part of her mythic life.

Many if not most of us, black and white alike, while being primarily of one ethnicity, have mixed heritage. Negroes were much more second-class citizens 45 years ago than now, and it was common for those who could pass for white or mixed to do so.

The mythic part of Donyale loved her skin. She was proud of it. The little girl part felt ashamed of it and afraid in the world. She passed; or at least she tried to. What a heady game to play when you’re front and center on the world stage!

From that location, every foible, every shortcoming becomes magnified in people’s minds. Donyale was no trailblazer, no Muhammad Ali. Neither are most of us, but we live with our other pedestrian fellows quietly and no one thinks badly of us.

Sometimes the times turn some of us into trailblazers. Donyale lived in one of those times, an extraordinary time. If she failed to pick up the machete, how does that make her worthy of anyone’s derision? It merely shows that in this arena she was ordinary. Rather than anger or blame, we might choose to feel compassion for her. What would you or I have done for our primary race in her shoes (when she wore them)?

How many of us can handle the limelight? Especially a limelight so dazzling, so sudden, so early in life, with no one to guide us through its blinding brilliance? When I first learned of Donyale’s rise to glory in 1966, after I had moved to California., I thought: “Of all the people I knew in Detroit, Donyale is the last one I would have wished fame upon.” (Incredibly, when I was seeing her, I didn’t even know she was seeking it.)

Be careful of what you wish for, the adage goes, lest your wish comes true. Donyale Luna’s wish came true and she paid the price: this subject of race that so pained and tormented her, this issue that she fled halfway across the globe to escape, was thrust in her face wherever she went.

Sources:
Sanders Bryant, conversation, Nov. 2009
George Kirvay, Detroit Free Press, 1969
Colleen O’Brien, Detroit Free Press, 1966
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, 5/19/68
wikipedia, Donyale Luna

Donyale and race, part I: an outcast in her white boyfriend’s world

10 Nov

OK, we’ve looked at the volatile relationship between her parents as one factor in Peggy Ann Freeman’s teen decision to mold herself into “Donyale Luna.” Today we’ll look at the other: racism.

Full disclosure first: I’m a honky. My mind and capacity for empathy allow me a degree of understanding, but I was on the other side of the Black experience of the 1950′s and 60′s.

That said–racism is a huge topic in Donyale’s life and we’re opening a potential Pandora’s Box here. This inaugural post is up close and personal:  four stories from my time with her in 1964. Remember, although Donyale and I informally “went together” for four or five months, I learned only last year that she was “colored.”

The many shades of Donyale Luna: Here she's lily-white on her groundbreaking Harper's Bazaar cover

Here she's dark chocolate with Brian Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First story: I took Donyale to dinner at The Famous Italian Cafe, where I worked part-time delivering pizzas. The next night when I showed up for work, feeling proud, I asked one of the waitresses what she thought of Donyale.

“We don’t like ‘them’ in here,” she sniffed.

I was taken aback. “She’s not Negro, Kay. She’s Polynesian.”

“We still don’t like ‘them’ in here,” Kay repeated.

Second story: I lived in a seedy apartment building off-campus with a lot of sad tales. It was a tough neighborhood and Jimmy, the manager, locked the door each night about midnight. One night after Donyale and I left Verne’s Bar, I brought her over to my place. I knocked until Jimmy let us in.

The next morning Jimmy told me, “We don’t allow ‘them’ in the building.” Yep, same word. Same inflection.

Same reaction from me: “Jimmy, she’s not Negro. She’s Polynesian.”

“So she says. We still don’t let ‘them’ in here.”

A few mornings later, Jimmy told me, “That colored girl came over to see you again last night. I didn’t let her in.”

Of course Donyale never mentioned it. What, did she want me to suspect she was Negro? And I didn’t mention it to her: I felt embarrassed, bad that I missed her, but basically I was clueless.

Blue-eyed and pale-skinned on the cover of Queen

A pale bindi and white canine accessory darken Donyale's skin

Third story: Donyale never said no when I suggested going anywhere or doing anything. The only time she even hesitated was when I invited her to an overnight visit to Albion College (all-white, I realized only when I re-examined this last year), where I had attended the year before. “Where will I sleep?” she asked me. I figured she was afraid I was trying to trick her into bed. “I’ll call my friend Ann. Somebody in the dorm is always away, and you can stay in their bed.”

Ann said sure, no problem. There never was.

We arrived later than planned, just before the girls’ 9pm curfew. Ann was less overjoyed to see us than I expected: I figured because we were late. She said she thought she could find a bed. (What, she didn’t have one lined up?) I couldn’t stay to make sure; boys had to be off the premises at 9pm. I told Donyale to call me at the frat house if there was any problem.

The next morning I asked her how it went.

“OK, I guess,” she said. “Ann brought me a blanket and pillow and I slept in the lobby.” Again, clueless, I heard her “OK” and figured the dorm was uncharacteristically full.

We were going to stay the day. But a few minutes later Donyale said, “Let’s go home now.” My plan hadn’t been very well-conceived; I had nothing specific in mind for the day anyway.

“Let’s  have breakfast first.” We ate and drove home.

Only last year did I put myself in Donyale’s shoes (she did wear them, mostly) and feel the heart-stabbing grief that must have gnawed at her heart–the rage at being turned away from the door of the guy she was sweet on because someone thought she wasn’t fit to enter; the shame of having to sleep in the lobby because no white girl would share a room with her.

I can only guess at the awful patterns created in her mind and heart, the same self-deprecating–even self-loathing– patterns that governed Negroes everywhere at that time. I can begin to understand the black man who told me recently that he watched Leave it to Beaver and wanted his mother to look like Louise Cleaver. “I know white supremacy is real,” he said, ” because I’ve been a white supremacist, although I’m in black skin.”

And only now do I see the culturebound racism inherent in my response to Kay and Jimmy. True, I thought Donyale was Polynesian. Nonetheless,  today I’d jump all over their racism. Back then, although I knew their attitude was wrong, the idea of challenging it just didn’t exist in the white world–in my clueless world, at least. I had heard about Malcolm X and his murderous Black Muslims out in California (I didn’t even know he was from Detroit). Even while Abbie Hoffman and other prescient white youth were getting their bones broken by Jim Crow lawmen in the South, I watched a Negro rally march along Woodward Avenue past the Famous Italian Cafe (along with the rest of the crew, including Kay) and didn’t know what I felt about that: the idea of Negroes marching was a new neuronal implant to me.

For the era, I was relatively unprejudiced: my parents fought for Negroes in the unions, and I went to a well-mixed high school. I dwell on myself here to illustrate the pre-civil rights white mindset –even the liberal white mindset–to balance what I’ve  imagined of the Negro mindset.

Now for the final story.

Jimmy’s three little words: “So she says,” got a little toehold in the back of my mind: was Donyale a Negro?

One day we were sitting on a bed in a friend’s house. Donyale was knitting, smiling her perpetual smile.  I felt I had a right to know. “Are you Negro?”

The needles clacked;  behind the smile was an almost imperceptible tightening. It was the only time I ever felt tension between us. “I’m Polynesian,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter to me if you are Negro,” I said. Was that true? Yes: what prejudice I held was all unconscious. It would make her slightly less exotic to me, but she’d still be the most exotic woman I’d ever met.

“I’m Polynesian,” she repeated.

About a month after I stopped seeing her, I saw her with three Negro men at the Little Theatre at Wayne State.

What got into me? I greeted her and said, “You said you’re not Negro, but I see you hanging out with Negroes. Are you sure?”

Graceful as always, she replied: “I seem to get along with them. I like them and they like me.”

Last year her sister told me Donyale was heartbroken over a white boyfriend who accused her of being black. “She cried and cried,” she said.

I cried too–45 years too late.

Four weddings and a funeral

5 Oct

donyale luna underwater

Donyale Luna: off in another world?

It’s a given on Internet lore that Donyale Luna created a fantasy world to escape the terrors of growing up with a father who worked sporadically and was an abusive brute.

What is the source for this? Is it true, or has Nathaniel Freeman been given a bum rap?

Whatever his nature, he and Donyale’s mother Peggy had a really wild ride: they were married and divorced four times!

A powerful chemistry must have bound them together, because as life partners they were like oil and water. Or better, oil and fire.

Nate came to Detroit from Alabama as part of the great Black migration to the auto factories. Contrary to reports of his lackadaisical approach to work, he was employed by Ford Motor Co. nonstop for 37 years. He worked most of those years in the foundry, shoveling metal into hot furnaces. “At one point he was going to quit,” says his daughter, Donyale’s sister Lillian,  “because he was getting older and the work was so hard.  He went in and talked to the bosses, told them he was tired of getting burned. They gave him a promotion to an easier job in a different division.”

The foundry was hard work, but the pay was much better than what Nate could earn down South. He was not qualified for office work, and he was content to muscle down for eight hours, then kick back with his family.

His wife Peggy was beautiful, but she was a woman and a Negro. (She was only half-Negro, but in those days mulattos were Negroes.) As such, her job as a receptionist at the downtown YWCA might be as much as she could reasonably aspire to. But she had drive, the same drive that she imparted to her eldest daughter. Seeking to climb the social mobility ladder, she played real estate. This undoubtedly created friction between her and Nate, who after eight hours of shoveling was content to read the paper, have a beer and watch TV.

No alcohol in the house

That was another source of friction. Peggy didn’t allow alcohol in the house—which also meant no visits from his brothers, who drank.

“Our mother wouldn’t allow us to associate with my father’s brothers,” says Donyale’s sister Lillian. “You can’t do that to a grown man, tell him he can’t have company in his own house, when he’s bringing money home, working every week. He has to have his way sometimes.

“She was strong-willed and what she said went. There was no argument; that’s the way it was. She was strong; almost the head of the household. But the man has to be the head of the household. When you have a 100% man like my dad, you can’t have a second head of the household.

“So they clashed. My dad was high-spirited and my mother was even more high-spirited. They clashed on a lot of things.”

If anyone, it was Donyale’s mother who was abusive to the children. Sanders Bryant remembers Lillian telling him that Peggy was physically abusive to both Josephine and Donyale, hitting them at times. Lillian concurs that Josephine had a rough time:. “My mother treated her very harshly.” But Donyale, she says, got preferential treatment.

Where did Peggy get her aversion to demon rum? Was she traumatized early in life by an alcoholic parent? Or did Nate have a drinking problem?

“My favorite was my daddy,” says Lillian. “I was closer to him.” Donyale loved him too, and visited him whenever he and Peggy were between marriages. This suggests that Nate Freeman was not a rummy.

However, everyone agrees that he did get drunk and beat Peggy on occasion.

By AA definition, if your consumption of alcohol negatively affects your life, you’re a candidate for the 12 Steps. Beating your wife is a felony. So Nate had a problem, yes.

Peggy had a problem too: she was rigid, a control freak. And she was smart and sophisticated—hell, she was even half white—and she could talk rings around Nate. Both of their problems, really, were each other. They loved each other and they hated each other.

Donyale loved both parents

Donyale loved her dad and she loved her mom. Her dad must have also brought fear into her heart. Not that he would ever do anything to harm her, but if he came home with liquor on his breath, he and her mom would shout. It scared her a lot when they shouted, because shouts could come to blows, and that made her sick and took her right out of reality into dissociative denial. It was the most horrible of all the bad memories Donyale Luna was learning to banish from her psyche—out, where they could do her no harm.

Or so she thought. “She tried to keep it all out,” says Sanders Bryant, “but you could see some things got in.”

One day in March, 1965, about six months after Donyale had left for New York, Bryant visited the family. He found Peggy sitting on Nate’s lap. They were considering yet another spin on their marriage-go-round. “I had never seen them so close,” he said.

Sometime after he left, somebody pushed somebody’s button and the koochie-koochie stopped—we’ll never know how the argument started. Nate left and headed for the bar.

She makes me so mad, I’m gonna punch out her lights. I’ve done it before. True,  but it made him feel so bad when he sobered up, he swore he’d never do it again.

But after he got mad he started getting scared, and another drink and the anger returned, only without the shame this time, and he felt pretty righteous, and finally he figured it out: she’s taking away my manhood, trying to wear the pants in the family. Even my daughters can see that I’m not half a man around her. If I don’t show them what a man is, they could turn out like her. And I’ll show her too, bitch! Just a few more drinks while I plan out what I’m gonna say to her. She won’t be talkin’ back to me if she’s afraid I’m gonna hit her; she’ll listen to my side all right.

And finally Nate had enough to drink, and he had his words figured out, and off he went.

Peggy heard him pull into the driveway. There he is, steaming drunk again, thinks he’s gonna hit me around and hurt me, hurt me real bad and put bruises on my skin that makes me feel shame whenever anyone looks at me. But hey, I’m not gonna be freezing up in fear this time. No more! She opened her purse and got out the gun she had bought for the next time. And I’m not afraid to use it! Not to kill him: I’ll shoot him in the leg.

Oh God, my heart’s pounding, I can hardly breathe, I can’t do it—yes! Yes I can! She holds out the gun and walks in a dream world to the door: “You go away Nate. Do you hear? I got a gun and I ain’t afraid to use it.”

Listen to her, out on the porch, still yelling! Nate got out of the car and headed toward her.

A gun! He never figured on that.

But when she tried to aim it at him, Nate saw that she was too riled up to hold her hand steady. It just pissed him off more. He walked straight at her, didn’t even break his stride.

Peggy empties the gun

That was the final frustration for Peggy: didn’t he even see the gun? A strange energy moved through her body and she could barely hold it in her hand, which was shaking like she had the palsy. Suddenly something else took control and the weapon exploded in her hand, and kept exploding, six shots in wild succession, firing off in all directions.

House where shooting occurred. Bullet remains in tree.

The house where the shooting occurred. 45 years later, a bullet remains lodged in the tree on the right

Two bullets landed somewhere in distant corners of the neighborhood. Two more drilled holes in the car that Nate was driving. One burrowed into the trunk of the tree in the front yard, where it remains to this day. The other—by chance or in a moment of life-changing clarity?—sped straight into Nathaniel Freeman’s heart.

Was it the first bullet or the last? Even for this, there are two stories. Sanders Bryant says the last. Lillian, who at age 18 witnessed the shooting, says it was the first.

“My mother didn’t want to kill him,” she says. “She just wanted to shoot him and knock him down or something.”

Bryant concurs: “It wasn’t a murder; it was almost a fluke. She wasn’t angry; she was afraid, and he kept coming at her. She told him to leave. He was coming toward the porch when he was shot. She was on the porch and he was in the driveway. The distance between them was no more than here to there. She missed five times.”

Lillian called the ambulance. “The hospital was half a block away and nobody tried to get him there. Nobody tried to revive him or keep him awake or anything. They didn’t do anything for him. I don’t want to talk about that any more.”

The police arrested Peggy. Lillian, in shock, called Sanders Bryant, who came and stayed in the house with her. The next day, after interrogating Peggy Freeman for 24 hours, the police called it self-defense and released her. When Nate was laid out for burial, Peggy asked Sanders Bryant, who was a budding photographer, to take a photo of him. She also sold Bryant the bullet-marred car.

Donyale stayed in New York

Donyale, who was in New York, did not come home for the funeral, something for which she still catches flak on the Net.

harper's bazaar cover

The world meets Donyale Luna. This is the March 1965 Harper’s Bazaar cover that launched her career. The magazine had never run a Negro on the cover before, and the editors made sure Donyale was more vanilla than chocolate.

Did I mention that the shooting happened in March, 1965? That was the very month her groundbreaking Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared. And—not to get ahead of our story, but she also got married that March. What an incredible three-way convergence of psyche-bending experiences for an ultra-sensitive 18-year-old girl to undergo!

That ultra-sensitive girl had spent 18 years soaking in all the family dynamics, although her understanding of them was probably suppressed, causing little-understood emotional energies to careen wildly through her psyche and body.

Did Nate’s eldest daughter pay her respects in her own way, with some sort of spiritual ceremony? Or did the let’s-be happy mind of Donyale Luna simply give the incident its walking papers?

But go home? To a funeral? Go home to drench herself once again in the woes of that tragic war-torn couple whom she claimed didn’t even spawn her? Hell no, she didn’t go back.

She got married instead.
__________________

Would you go back? Let us all know. Send a comment!

Sources:

Sanders Bryant III, conversations Sept.-Oct. 2009

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

Metamorphosis Part II

20 Sep

As a young teen Peggy Ann Freeman was “crazy” about Johnny Mathis. “She was in love with him,” says her sister Lillian. “He was so handsome—a good-looking black person.” She also liked Motown and loved the movie West Side Story.

But this was the Beatnik era, and Peggy Ann, as she stepped into the role of Donyale Luna, acquired more subterranean tastes. Jazz. Folk music, especially Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Poetry. And of course theatre. She hung out with beau/friend Sanders Bryant at a coffeehouse called the Chessmate. They took in stage productions of Porgy and Bess.

Some pop stars made the cut through her evolving preferences: Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., the entire Rat Pack. She enjoyed Dr. Zhivago and the original cast production of The Music Man.

And Elizabeth Taylor—although when I took her to see Ms. Taylor’s Cleopatra, what enthralled her most was the character of Cleopatra.

Young Donyale star-struck

The newly-minted Donyale Luna was star-struck. She dreamed of being a movie star herself. “Continuously. That’s all you would see, hear or smell from Donyale,” says sister Lillian.  “‘Oh, I’ve got to go to practice. I’ve got to go to rehearsal. I’ve got to go to this place over here; we’re having practice. We’re having cast party.’ She was totally into it.”

“She was always busy, involved,” Sanders Bryant concurs. “She wasn’t at home in front of the TV set; she stayed out a lot.” She didn’t hang out with friends often because “she was involved in plays after school, singing, other activities.”

Donyale’s constant whirl was painful to Lillian. “I wanted to go too,” she says, “ but she never invited me and I didn’t want to just bust in and be rude. I was so jealous I didn’t know what to do. She was always going somewhere and I couldn’t go anywhere.”

Donyale was nothing if not sensitive, and she must have felt Lillian’s unhappiness. Some big sisters might try to include her. Others, especially anyone on as fast a track as Donyale Luna, spinning by her younger sister as she danced into her dreams, might not.

As Chastity in Anything Goes

Donyale opposite Bob Moldowan in Detroit Civic Theatre production of Anything Goes. Donyale played Chastity

At age 16 and 17, Donyale was performing onstage at the Civic Center Theatre in Detroit, appearing as Cherry in Paint Your Wagon, Ariel in The Tempest, Chastity in Anything Goes and Terry (the lead) in Stage Door.

Donyale’s first flirtation with fame may have come not under the limelight, however, but in another arena. She loved singing and joined the Commerce High chorus, another small chorus at school and a large choir in Glee Club as well. And she was talented enough to be accepted into the Honors Choir.

At that time Diana Ross was attending high school at Cass Tech, next door to Commerce. Sanders Bryant was driving Donyale somewhere when the Supremes’ first song came on the radio. “Imagine when she told me she was singing backup when that was recorded! It almost caused me to have an accident!” He recalled dropping her off at the Motown door some months before. “That door led directly down to Studio A.,” he says. “There was no lobby, nowhere else to go.”

Sang with Supremes?

Lillian is skeptical that it happened. “That was something big; she would have told me about that.”

The Supremes

Did Donyale sing with the Supremes? Diana Ross graduated from Cass Tech 1½ years before Donyale did from sister school Commerce High. Ms. Ross co-produced and starred in the movie Mahogany, about a black supermodel, which some say is based on the life of Donyale Luna. Maybe Donyale was the starting point, but there are few similarities.

It’s hard to know. Donyale was a master at deception, but her lies were usually more creative than simply claiming she did something that she didn’t.

Bryant, who took journalism classes with her in high school, believes that even more than her well-chronicled ambition to be a great actress (“like Anna Magnani”), she aspired to writing screenplays and stage plays. “She had already written some screenplays,” Bryant says. “Andy Warhol shot Snow White, which she wrote back in high school. She was planning to go to the University of Hawaii—she still lived and talked this Hawaiian persona with me—to pursue a writing career. She always thought in international terms.”

When I was seeing Donyale, whenever I mentioned my writing to her she would tell me she had written eight books. Or four books, or several books: the number kept changing.

“What kind of books?” I asked once.

“Stories. Books of stories.”

I asked her if I could see them, but none were forthcoming. She told me so many other things that weren’t true that I didn’t believe her. One of my many shocks in researching Donyale Luna 45 years later was learning that yes, she had written books in high school. She may have been afraid to show them to me because I wrote theatre reviews. I was young and my critiques were not always kind.

“A natural born dancer”

Teenage Donyale had yet another artistic love: dance. Early on she combined that with her thespian ambitions: three of her four roles with the Civic Center Theatre were primarily dance roles. “She was a natural born dancer,” says Roland Sharette, the theatre’s Managing Director.

What possessed Peggy Ann Freeman to rip up her entire personality and even her inner workings and launch such a sweeping change in who she was? Physically there was the obvious—to enhance her chances of realizing her dreams of writing, acting and dancing.  Underneath that lurked two deeper motivations.

First, she lived inside a female form that daily grew increasingly unlike any other that she, or anyone else, had ever seen. Maybe she was from the moon! She had a choice of slouching over and trying to look invisible or of stepping into it, creating a being that could contain the vehicle and its strange, unearthly beauty.

Yes, she was star-struck, yes she was driven to become famous. But that was only the surface manifestation of an inner knowledge, of which she was most likely only hazily conscious, that she was destined to live a mythic life.

This may have been part of what led her to Catholicism: she was looking for strength to meet her destiny. Her joining the church was the formal beginning of a path of spiritual seeking that would wind through psychedelics, the eclectic smorgasbord of Eastern mysticism that swept through the hippie culture, stones and crystals, and something of her own creation, “Future Visioning,” a pre-New Age version of creating your identity by imagining it.

Did she succeed? Who ruled whom? Which won?

Second, part of becoming Donyale Luna was choosing to always be happy. “She wiped out all the negative and accepted only the positive,” says Lillian. “That was Donyale Luna. Her world, her way.”

This suggests that, for whatever reasons, young Peggy Ann Freeman spent a lot of her time feeling unhappy. Unhappy over what? Two big issues come to mind. We’ll look at one of them next time in “Four Weddings and a Funeral: Donyale’s Parents.”

Did this post hit a chord? Send a comment.

Sources:

Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2008
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April 1966
Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, U. of    Chicago Press, 2008
Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

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