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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 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 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 ( $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.

Sanders Bryant, conversation, Nov. 2009
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. 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


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.

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!


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.


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

Metamorphosis: Peggy Ann Freeman becomes Donyale Luna

9 Sep

(This a long one; I’ve divided it into two parts. Since the only photo extant of Donyale Luna at this time in her life is her high-school graduation photo, I have tried to be creative.)

The child is father of the man
—William Wordsworth

The girl is mother of the woman
—what Wordsworth would have written if she were a woman                                   

During the course of her high-school years, Peggy Ann Freeman undertook one of the most radical personal transformations imaginable. In what her younger sister Lillian still refers to almost 50 years later as “The Great Change,” she shed her childhood as Peggy Ann and bloomed into one of the most unique personae of her time: Donyale Luna. It didn’t happen overnight. Peggy Ann carefully constructed “Donyale Luna” piece by piece. While the metamorphosis was essentially complete by graduation day, the fine-tuning into eccentric diva continued over many years.

Donyle Lun high school graduation pic

Donyale’s high-school graduation photo, published in June 1964 and taken in autumn of 1963. She looks attractive but not extraordinarily beautiful; her height doesn’t show. When I started seeing her a few months after this, she was leagues more stunning, with her hair down and her eyes—the photo only hints at their size. On her face is a subdued version of the perpetual smile that she wore when I knew her. Photo courtesy Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library main branch

The Great Change began as Peggy Ann and Lillian entered their teens. Peggy Ann began distancing herself from Lillian and the family. Except for Church and the outings to museums and movies, they saw her less and less.

For Lillian, part of the separation came because they now attended different schools. Peggy Ann was bright and already ambitious: she applied herself and got into prestigious High School of Commerce, which, along with next-door Cass Tech, were the schools where judges, politicians, professionals—anybody who was anybody—sent their kids. “I wasn’t dumb,” says Lillian; “I just didn’t do my work. I didn’t have the kind of motivation she had.” Lillian attended Central High.

The two sisters also didn’t share the usual gossip about boys. “Donyale withdrew. She had her own way of doing everything. She didn’t need me for anything. I felt hurt about that. Everything changed.”

Donyale wanted “lots of babies”

Donyale did confide in Lillian that she wanted to have lots of babies. “We both did,” says Lillian. “When you’re from a small family, you want to have more family around you.”

Another point of separation, unusual for sisters so close in age: they didn’t share clothes. “That was a big thing with her,” Lillian says.  “‘Wear your own clothes; don’t touch my clothes. My clothes are folded up in my drawer. You leave my clothes alone; you’ve got your own clothes.’”

By childhood’s end Donyale had constructed the barrier between her and the person she was closest to: her sister. Did she ever come back into close contact again?

Donyale Luna in Paco Rabanne dress, by Richard Avedon

“Wear your own clothes; don’t touch my clothes.” This is among the photos Richard Avedon took of Donyale wearing Paco Rabanne outfits.

By the age of 15, Donyale was 5’10” and rail-thin, and on her way to 6’3” by graduation. (Was she really 6’3”? I’ll talk about that in a future blog.) How many items of clothing could she share with Lillian, who topped out at about 5’8”?

Of course, a big part of the metamorphosis was orchestrated by God. Not just any woman can be 6’3,” 110 to 120 pounds, and “so beautiful that people would stop eating if they were in a restaurant and they saw her walking by,” according to her friend in later life, fellow supermodel Pat Cleveland.

From gangly to heartthrob

Peggy Ann Freeman was tall and gangly; “some students made fun of her because of her height and unusual looks,” recalls fellow Condon Jr. High student Kenneth Collier, who nonetheless “had a teen crush on her because she was so beautiful.” By high school, Donyale Luna was unarguably gorgeous. “She was tall and lean, and a very imposing figure,” says ex-beau Sanders Bryant. “The guys were intimidated. Even the girls. People would just back up.”

Donyale wore only the lightest of makeup when I met her; with those features she didn’t need much. Her looks were, besides spectacular, picture-perfect. I don’t remember any jewelry either, though Bryant says she wore her mother’s bracelets up above her elbows.

Earlier on Donyale had one blemish, which she corrected before I met her: a gap in her teeth. “Right in the middle,” says Lillian. “She fixed it herself for awhile, putting some gum or something hard in it and letting it stay there. Then she got her teeth fixed.”

The physical transformation was now complete. Kenneth Collier ran into her at a department store and called out “Peggy.” “But by this time she was Donyale Luna and just smiled at me. She was even more beautiful than before.” She was soon to become the most sought-after, famous and highly paid fashion model in the world.

Donyale Luna from Hawaii

When Sanders Bryant met the unfolding diva at age 15, “she was already radiant and gorgeous.” They were in the Cass Tech high school cafeteria, and our girl was working on a film script. She introduced herself as Donyale Luna, recently arrived from Hawaii. Her parents had been killed in an auto accident and she was adopted. “She continued that story as long as I knew her,” says Bryant, “even after I knew her mother and father and that she was born in Ford Hospital right here in Detroit.”

When I met her at 17, she said she was Polynesian. The car crash and dead parents were still in the story, although a few months later she told me she lived with her mother.

“What’s interesting about the car crash part,” says Lillian,  “is that when Donyale was about 15 or 16, she was practicing driving in the garage. She went forward when she meant to go backward and drove the car right through the garage. It made her afraid to drive. I don’t think she ever drove.”

Besides being the most strangely beautiful woman I had ever seen, Donyale also had the most beautiful voice, a voice like music. Were the vocals part of her makeover?

Donyale’s unique speech

“Some reporters claimed that Donyale made up her accent. It wasn’t an affectation,” claims Sanders Bryant. “It was actually her real self, her true speech. Donyale, her sister and her mother all sounded alike. Often when I called I’d have to ask, ‘Who am I talking to?’ Once I spent 15 minutes talking with her mother when I thought it was Donyale.”

“The way she had of talking, that was made up!” says Lillian. “That was ‘Donyale Luna.’. Lillian does a great imitation: “’My name is Donyale Luna’.

“It was like she was singing. But she never talked that way until she became Donyale. Then her voice changed too. By the time she finished high school, she completely re-made her self. To a T.”

Again, here we have two of the people who were closest to Donyale 180 degrees apart over a basic aspect of her life. Whom to believe? Bryant didn’t meet her until she was 15. I figure she may have completed the vocal component of Donyale Luna before then and had him fooled too.

Donyale stopped going to church with the family. Most teens do. But at about age 16 she also started leaving the house in the wee hours each morning.

“Where you going out every morning with a rag on your head?’” Lillian asked her. (The rag was a scarf.)

Catholic convert

“I’m going to Mass.” Unlike most teens, and certainly unlike most youngsters with a beatnik bent, Donyale converted from the family’s Presbyterian faith to Catholicism. The Catholic church was just behind the Freeman house on Glendale Ave. Sometimes teens will switch churches through the influence of a friend. But as far as anyone knows, Donyale did it on her own.

luna, wrapped

Donyale's youthful conversion to Catholicism inaugurated a lifetime of spiritual exploration. Photo by Luigi Cazzaniga

What could have attracted someone with such avant-garde tastes to Catholicism, which even then was the religion young people left, not joined?  “I think it was mostly the pomp and circumstance,” says Sanders Bryant, who witnessed the conversion— “the formality and the ritual of it.”

The pomp and circumstance and ritual must have appealed to Donyale’s love of theatre. And the formality may have given her a sense of structure that she must have needed sorely as she ventured out alone on her great adventure as a Mythic Being. She never formally left Catholicism, although she eventually “just got too busy” to continue her daily devotions. She continued exploring psychedelic and mystical experiences until her death at 33— the same age as You Know Who when He died.


Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2008

Kenneth Collier, blog comment—rats, lost the blog

High School of Commerce, Detroit, yearbook, 1964

Barbara Summers, Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models,         Amistad Press, 1998

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2008

Before Donyale Luna came Peggy Ann Freeman

22 Aug

We have seen that Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, was not as weird a child as we might have supposed Like Tillie Williams, she was odd and queer, but she was not peculiar. Now a look at her life growing up. We are all indebted to Donyale’s sister Lillian Washington for these first-ever glimpses into Donyale’s childhood.

Donyale Luna dressed as schoolgirl

No photos are extant of Donyale between the ages of 7 months and 17 or 18 years. Is this how she looked as a schoolgirl?

Peggy Ann Freeman was reared on Detroit’s near northeast side. Her father, Nathaniel Freeman, worked for 37 years at Ford Motor Co., mostly in the foundry. Her mother, Peggy Freeman, was the receptionist at the downtown YWCA for 27 years. Although her parents’ relationship was difficult and her father often lived separately, the family was relatively stable and no more dysfunctional than most.

A notable feature of Peggy Ann’s childhood is that the Freemans were always moving: her sister Lillian recalls living in six houses in the space of about six years. “I didn’t understand when I was young why we moved so much,” Lillian says. Later she figured out that her mother was playing real estate. “She bought the houses, then she moved and rented them out, or we’d just swap one for the other. They were nice houses.”

Donyale Luna's Detroit house

This house, on Burlingame St., was Donyale Luna’s last home in Detroit. I took the photo in 2009; you can see a Condemned sign on the door. Childhood photos of Donyale and letters to her family may still remain inside, ready to be destroyed by the wrecking ball

In those days, the combined salaries of a factory worker and a YWCA receptionist allowed for real estate investments. Says Sanders Bryant, who met Donyale at age 15 and remained friends throughout her life: “A factory worker’s earnings were actually more than a lot of professional people’s. Not more than doctors, but more than teachers, definitely. It afforded a lifestyle where, particularly in Detroit, you could own property. So even though it was a working-class family, with both of them employed they did well. Donyale’s mother owned several houses and apartment buildings. She was an astute businesswoman. She wanted to move and become more upscale.”

Scotten Ave. house

Although each house was more upscale than the last, Lillian’s fondest memories are of the first one, on Scotten Ave. “We had a big back yard with two apple trees and a plum and a pear tree. My mother was an excellent cook. She made everything you can make with those apples: apple turnovers, apple fritters, apple pie, applesauce—you name it, she made it.”

In this house, in which she and Peggy Ann were raised until junior high, the two sisters were also closest. They were just a year apart, and they played together at everything.

Donyale Luna chrysalis photo by frank horvat

According to many sources, Frank Horvat shot this famous "Chrysalis" photo in New York in 1960, when Donyale was only 14.

This Frank Horvat photo may precede Avedon's similar shot in Harper's, April 1965

Not so. Horvat's site gives a 1960 date for both of these photos, but the photographer says he erred and the year was likely 1964.

Grade school days were pretty Elm Street. The girls each had their own bedroom. School days they would get up, wash up, get dressed and eat breakfast. “My mother always made us eat breakfast. She cooked everything from scratch. We had oatmeal a lot, sometimes grapefruit, sometimes regular cereal.”

Then they would get their gear together and off they went. They ate lunch at school. “School lunches were good back then,” says Lillian.

The Freemans didn’t take family vacations together, but Peggy Ann and Lillian enjoyed summer vacation at home.  In the afternoons, they would go swimming in the big pool at the Cronx gym, where Tommy Hearns and other pro boxers trained.

They also attended a summer camp program sponsored by the City of Detroit. “We’d go by bus to Belle Isle or River Rouge Park. We’d pack our lunch, and they served hot dogs and soda. We’d walk on adventure trails, eat lunch, then play games.”

Luna by Avedon pic at DIA

This photo by Richard Avedon, of Donyale in a Paco Rabanne dress, couldn’t get published when it was taken. In 2009 it was blown up 15 feet high to advertise the Avedon exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). It brought Donyale back home to DIA, one of her favorite childhood and teen-age haunts.

Donyale consumed more than her share of hot dogs and soda. Amazingly for someone so tall and so thin, she always had a voracious appetite. “She’d eat anything and everything and never gain a pound,” says Lillian.  “She was raised like that. When your mother cooks from scratch, when you have a good cook for a mother…”

The family attended church on Sunday, and afterward they would visit the art museum and the other museums on Woodward, and then eat dinner in a restaurant. The museums were Big Peggy’s idea. “We got our cultural upbringing from my mother,” recalls Lillian.

They also went to the movies a lot. “That was the big thing, that and going to swimming practice,” says Lillian. “My dad was usually living in the house then, and sometimes he’d take us to the show on the bus.”

Dancing with Donyale

Lillian also remembers dancing with Peggy Ann and one of their girlfriends in a talent contest at the church. “We wore white pleated skirts and tap shoes and black leotards and black shirts,” she says. “We didn’t win, but we were so cute.” The memory brings laughter.

Later on, during junior high school, Peggy Ann and Lillian attended dancing lessons together, studying ballet, tap and modern dance. “We used to take our little cases with our tap-dancing shoes and catch the bus,” recalls Lillian.  For Lillian it was just fun: she had no dreams of becoming a dancer. But Peggy was much more serious about it. Even then, “everything she did was exotic and different. That’s why she got noticed so much. She was different.”

Donyale Luna leads the chorus line

Yep, that's our girl in front. In Detroit, Donyale was considered a better dancer than an actress.

Christmas was a big deal for the girls: tree with ornaments, presents, decorations all around the house. Birthdays, on the other hand, were low-key. Mom didn’t allow birthday parties or gifts. “Just Happy Birthday, and that was it,” Lillian recalls. “ I might have had one or two birthday cakes my whole childhood.”

The household usually included pets, more than likely strays that Peggy Ann brought home.  Sanders Bryant remembers her making him stop his car so she could “rescue” some kittens from under a car at 3am.

Lots of pets

“She loved little animals,” says Lillian. “If my mother and father allowed it, she’d have it.” Dogs, mostly, and they each had a rabbit. A cat once, but not when Nate lived at home: he didn’t like cats.

Donyale Luna with her terrier

Donyale never lost her love of animals. She was often photographed with her little white terrier, and once made a scene when a restaurant wouldn’t let it dine with her. Does anyone out there know her dog's name? Photo: still from "Tonight Let's All Make Love in London" by Peter Whitehead

While she lived at home, Peggy Ann Freeman never had to hold a job. “Her job was acting and being in plays and the arts,” says Lillian.

“Overall,” says ex-beau Sanders Bryant, “Donyale lived a fairly comfortable life growing up. It was a nice neighborhood, she went to a good school, she had clothes—the family was fairly affluent; she wasn’t deprived.”

Mom was pretty stern though. She didn’t allow her daughters to associate with their uncles on dad’s side. In fact, she didn’t allow Nate’s brothers in the house. “They drank, and she didn’t like alcohol in the house,” says Lillian. “You could barely smoke a cigarette, even though she smoked.”

Sanders Bryant says that Lillian told him Big Peggy was “quite harsh and physically abusive” to Donyale and her elder half-sister Josephine. Lillian concurs about Josephine: “She was treated like a princess in Georgia. And then she came home and the walls came tumbling down. My mother treated her very harshly.” But, she says, if anything, Peggy Ann got preferential treatment. “She wasn’t tough on Donyale at all. Donyale got better everything.”

A high-energy girl

Maybe big sister had mom wrapped the same way she had whomever else she chose to. The most signal quality of young Peggy Ann Freeman was her energy level. “She didn’t have an off-switch,” says Bryant. “She was always upbeat. She ran at such a high-octane level that it was almost draining.”

This extraordinary effervescence gave Peggy Ann a hypnotic effect on people even before she made the transition from gangly to beautiful. An example: Although she was “terrible” with money (a trait that didn’t change when she became Donyale), she had, according to Lillian, a talent for getting money out of other people.

“She’d think of something and get a container and collect money for a project. She’d say, ‘Oh, this is for this fund.’ ‘Oh, I need bus fare.’ Or, ‘Would you like to contribute to…?’ yata yata. She would keep the money. I’d say, ‘How are you doing it? You’re swindling these people.’ Whoever she was talking to would be hypnotized; they would give her anything she asked for.

“She could be overwhelming at times. Convincing, and overwhelming too.” But not with everyone. “She’d pick her people. She’d check them out, and if she figured she couldn’t get away with anything, or if things weren’t going the way she wanted them to go, she didn’t turn on her wiles.”

Bryant also remembers Peggy Ann “double-dipping” allowances, collecting from both parents when father was living apart.

Although I never saw it, Peggy Ann apparently had a temper. “She had a long fuse,” says Lillian, “but don’t get her mad.” When the girls were teenagers, Peggy Ann threw a garbage can at Lillian—“one of those little decorative tin garbage cans. She hit me right in the eye. I had to walk around with sunglasses to cover up my black eye.”

But temperamental con artist or no, the two agree that Peggy Ann was also an extremely kind-hearted person. She was “very conscious and feeling,” according to Bryant. “She was always happy and smiling,” says Lillian, “and she’d make you smile and be happy.”

So, what thoughts do you have about Donyale’s childhood?  Click the Comment button and let your fingers do the talking. (WordPress is at it again. If you can’t access the Comments by clicking the button below, look to the right and click the microscopic Comment button there.)

Next: Metamorphosis: Peggy Ann becomes Donyale Luna

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

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009 (Frank Horvat photos),
Frank Horvat, email, June 19, 2010

“She was a very weird child, even from birth”

2 Aug
Donyale Luna and surgeons

"What, me weird?"

If you have read anything on the Net about Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, you have most likely encountered the quote in the headline, attributed to “a relative,” perhaps many times. Since that’s all the information the Net has to offer on Donyale’s childhood, it’s easy to conclude that she was a weird child.

Here’s the full quotation:

She was a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream. We’d say, “Peggy, these things aren’t true.” Maybe that’s why she was so good in drama class.

The quote was given to the New York Times by Donyale’s elder half-sister Josephine, who was several years Donyale’s senior. Josephine was sent back to Georgia to live with her aunt when Donyale was four or five and didn’t return for 10 years, at which time she was in her 20’s and Donyale was about 15. Josephine’s evaluation covers Donyale’s very earliest years, before her personality was formed, an age when almost anyone can seem weird.

“Donyale was real”

The quote makes Donyale sound like Laura in The Glass Menagerie rather than a little girl with a wonderful imagination who often preferred her creations to conventional reality, and who expressed them more with enthusiasm than confusion over their veracity. I’ve known lots of little girls like that, and some not so little. Boys create different realities, but they do it too. “Donyale was real,” says her full sister Lillian, “all through her childhood.”

Does that single sentence even reflect Josephine’s opinion of Donyale, or has it been pulled out of context and assigned much more weight than it deserves? Soon after Josephine returned to Detroit, she married and left the nest. Did she still think her half-sister was weird? Not too weird to entrust with her kids: Donyale baby-sat for her regularly.

If you read the only biography of Donyale Luna to date, The Imperfect Dream, by Dorothy Marie Wingo, a self-published (Vantage Press) offering with a limited run published in 1998, you learn that Donyale’s mother shot her father in 1950 while Little Peggy (Donyale) and her sister Deborah (now Lillian Washington), aged 5 and 4, looked on in horror:

Late into the night, they (the two girls) were suddenly awakened from their sleep by the sound of loud voices coming from the kitchen. The harsh voices grew louder and louder. They heard thuds and screams. Quick sharp sounds similar to those coming from firecrackers brought the girls hastily to their feet. They raced through the darkened hallway toward the kitchen. Beyond the dim light of the kitchen, the girls could see their father lying on the floor and their mother standing over him, continuing to empty the chamber of the gun into his body.

When the police arrived:

Little Peggy seemed to be in a state of shock.

An experience that traumatic is enough to make anyone weird, right?

Off by 15 years

Only thing is, it didn’t happen like that. According to everyone else who would know, including kid sister Lillian and the Detroit Police Dept. Homicide Bureau, the shooting occurred not in 1950 but in March of 1965, after Donyale was grown and living in New York—in fact, the very month of her groundbreaking first magazine cover, for Harper’s Bazaar. And, as we shall see in a later blog, it didn’t happen that way at all.

3 little girls, none of them Donyale Luna

This photo in The Imperfect Dream identifies the tall girl with the flower in her hair as Donyale. But according to Donyale’s sister Lillian, who gave Ms. Wingo the photo, it’s a neighborhood girl.

As I said earlier, reconstructing Donyale Luna’s life is like chasing a ghost through a house of mirrors.

How did Ms. Wingo get such a seminal event so wrong? From her source: Josephine. Josephine married Ms. Wingo’s brother, Gerald.  She was reluctant to talk with Ms. Wingo about Donyale (she wouldn’t talk to me at all), so all the information was relayed through Gerald.

Ms. Wingo, a lovely-looking woman of 85 who taught English all her life, lives with her son in a well-to-do neighborhood in Troy, just north of Detroit. “How could Josephine be off by 15 years?” I asked her.

“She blocked it out of her mind.”

If The Imperfect Dream is any indication, I’m afraid Josephine blocked a lot of memories out of her mind. Donyale wasn’t the only one in the family who created her own reality. Anything Josephine says about her must be taken with a grain of salt. Make that a gram of salt.

Donyale was “normal”

The standard Internet perception of Donyale’s childhood is of one filled with pain, with a “brutal,” “abusive” father—a dreadful reality from which she retreated into a fantasy world to escape. Donyale’s sister Lillian, who grew up with her, paints quite a different portrait of her early years: “She was carefree and a typical young child and teen-age girl. She was normal.”

Donyale Luna high school graduation photo

Donyale, still “P Freeman” in her yearbook photo, was popular in high school. Photo courtesy Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library main branch

She also had a sharp mind. Getting into High School of Commerce, where Donyale attended, wasn’t automatic: you needed good grades in Condon Jr. High. (Lillian didn’t have them; Donyale did.)

“She had a lot of friends,” says Lillian. “She knew a lot of people and she was a happy person. Her yearbook was filled with signatures on the outside and the inside. You fold it open like this—all this was filled up, all that was filled up, and the other sheet on top, and the same way at the end of the book. She had plenty of friends. She got along well with people.”

“But,” she admits, “Donyale was sometimes off in the clouds. Because she wanted to be. You couldn’t get deep with her. She had a shield up.”

Donyale Luna as Chastity in Anything Goes

Donyale Luna at age 18 in Oct. 1964, made up as Chastity for the Detroit Civic Theatre production of Stage Door. Barely visible is the star-shaped beauty mark she pasted on her cheek for the role.

“Kind of a kook”

Roland Sharette, who directed Donyale in Detroit’s Civic Center Theatre productions in 1963 and ‘64, remembering Donyale walking barefoot and feeding popcorn to the pigeons in the park, calls her “kind of a kook.” “Kook” is a gentler term than “weird,” but maybe still too strong. Donayle was 16 or 17 and went barefoot? I’ve gone barefoot most of my life and I’m only marginally kooky. Besides, the unshod nethers are overplayed; just a part of Donyale’s mythology. Look at her non-modeling photos: she’s usually wearing shoes. She did when I knew her. She apparently didn’t the day photographer David McCabe spotted her walking through the Fisher Theatre—and there a legend was born.

Hey, if you’re female and 6’3” tall, where do you find shoes that fit? Is it kooky to not want to torture your feet?

And she fed the pigeons? If she were poisoning them—yeah, weird. But doesn’t everyone feed the pigeons when they’re a kid?

When ex-beau and lifelong friend Sanders Bryant met Donyale at age 15, she was writing a play. Now that’s pretty unusual, but I wouldn’t call it weird: it’s just…different. Commendably different: how many 15-year-old dramatists do you know?

“She was sharp,” recalls Bryant. “ She was quite observant. And she didn’t have an off-switch. She ran at such a high-octave level that it was almost draining. She was always upbeat, very conscious and very feeling. Her enthusiasm drew you in, made you part of the experience. She had the same effect on everybody.

“But,” he acknowledges, “it was hard to get into her head. You never knew whether she was putting you on. None of us could ever tell her reality. But she always knew her identity.”

When I was dating Donyale, she was generally upbeat, sociable and fun, occasionally moody. And she sometimes did things that were…different.

One night we were driving to Albion College, about 100 miles from Detroit, where I had attended the year before. It was a winter night; a full moon filled the sky and cast a soft luster across the forests and fields. Suddenly Donyale shrieked, “Stop the car!” She had never issued an order before, and even as I slammed on the brakes I heard more excitement than emergency in her voice. She leaped out of the car and started chasing a rabbit through a field—chasing, it seemed, with no intention to catch it, only to share in its wild energy.

To this day, nobody else has ever done anything like that around me. I guess you could call it weird. But I can still see Donyale’s long, long legs pumping through the field, her jeans glinting in the moonlight.  It remains the most Romantic memory in my life—Romantic in the spiritual sense of her feeling her oneness with the rabbit, and with all of Creation.

John Sinclair poster

Detroit Poet John Sinclair, for whom John Lennon headlined a rally while he was serving a 10-year sentence for possessing two marijuana cigarettes, knew Donyale.

John Sinclair: “She was cuckoo”

Both Donyale and I knew John Sinclair, who later founded the White Panthers and managed the kickass band MC5. John told me she was cuckoo.

He may have remembered a party I brought her to. Donyale immediately plunked a chair down in the middle of the crowded living room floor and spent the evening knitting (or crocheting; she knew both), looking at no one, speaking only when spoken to.

At the time I thought that was strange. I might have even acknowledged it as weird—then. But I was unaware of her driving ambition. Looking back at it with that knowledge—what better, more creative way to get a roomful of theatre people to notice you?

Cuckoo, John? Cuckoo like a fox.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

As usual with our Princess of Paradox, one can go either way. Nobody would ever call Donyale Luna normal. But does that mean she was weird? Or just…different?

What do you think? Send a comment.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *


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

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

Lillian Washington, conversation, Sept.-Oct. 2009

Dorothy Marie Wingo, The Imperfect Dream, Vantage Press, 1998

Dorothy Marie Wingo, conversation, Sept. 2009


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