Intro: Chasing a ghost through a house of mirrors

15 Jul
"Luna Flylabye"

"Luna Flylabye" Of all the photos of Donyale, this one of her soaring over the Los Angeles skyline is my favorite. It was taken by her husband-to-be Luigi Cazzaniga and appeared in a landmark photo essay in Playboy in April 1975. Enhancement by minimodmadness

Six feet three inches tall and slender as an adder, with eyes the size of demitasse saucers, Donyale Luna was not only the first black supermodel and the highest-paid fashion model of her time: she was a unique phenomenon, arguably the most strangely beautiful woman to grace the planet in the 20th century. The fashion world—indeed the world at large—will never see the likes of her again.

Donyale Luna hit New York like a nuke. When she walked into the offices of Harper’s Bazaar in Oct., 1964, the editors’ mouths dropped open. They tore up their cover and ran a hastily-sketched line drawing of her, and signed her to an exclusive one-year contract with their top photographer, a guy named Richard Avedon.

Her career in the US was meteoric but brief: after only two years she left for Europe, where racial prejudice was less daunting. She swept the Continent by storm and basked in the limelight for several years before marrying Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga and choosing a more artistic and somewhat less public life. In 1976 she gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Dream. Donyale died in 1979, at only 33 years of age (give or take a year, as I’ll explain in the next blog).

Donyale Luna on Vogue cover

Here is the famous Vogue UK cover that cracked the color barrier and catapulted Donyale Luna to international stardom. The conventional wisdom says that her skin was lightened and her nose hidden to avoid offending Vogue's white readership. Duke University art historian and DL biographer Richard Powell challenges that theory, pointing to photos inside of models Myora Swan, Peggy Moffit "and the noticeably browner Donyale Luna." The photo became a calling card of sorts: when she raised her fingers into the peekaboo gesture on the Johnny Carson show, the audience burst into applause. Could David Bailey, who took the photo, possibly have known how brilliantly it portrayed Luna's relationship with self-revelation?

Today, 31 years after Donyale’s demise, she boasts an enormous Internet presence: google her name and hundreds of sites pop up. Many blacks love her because she broke racial barriers. Others revile her because she denied her heritage—but did she?

Yet paradoxically (and as we shall see, Luna’s entire life is paradoxical), despite her enduring fame, little is known of this elusive, enigmatic woman who lived her life at once front and center on the world stage and hidden in the dark recesses of her soul. Bloggers must recycle much of their information from source to source, and much of that information is inaccurate. Luna did not help matters during her lifetime, prevaricating almost reflexively with journalists (she ate rats, she was seven feet tall, she came “from the moon, baby!”) and habitually self-mythologizing. I’ve created this blog to help correct the misinformation and uncover the truth about Donyale.

The job isn’t easy, as Donyale was never forthcoming about her life, with the media or even with the people with whom she was closest: like the Luna on the Vogue cover, she gave only glimpses of herself. Researching her is like chasing a ghost through a house of mirrors: now you see her, now she disappears in a puff of smoke. In these posts she will flit across the screen playing peek-a-boo with us through my prose, dazzling us with pinpoint glimpses, much as she did with the world during her magical reign in its spotlight.

New photos!

And yes, there will be photos. I’ve started with three iconic shots that you’ve probably already seen elsewhere on the Net. Next blog I’ll start introducing photos that I think will be new to you—from European magazines, from Detroit before and just after she was discovered, stills and PR shots from her films…

The facts and inner workings of Donyale’s life, from her date of birth to the cause of her death and everything between, are shrouded in mystery. I’ve spent the last year-plus researching her, conducting extensive interviews with her sister Lillian (nee Deborah); with a fellow ex-beau named Sanders Bryant III; and with Dorothy Marie Wingo, who married into Donyale’s family and wrote a book (The Imperfect Dream) about her. Jennifer Poe, a filmmaker doing a documentary on Donyale, has a collection of articles about her in Italian and French newspapers and magazines, which I got translated. I’ve dug out all the clippings about her in the Detroit library and watched all of her films except the early Warhol ones.

After all this I have only scratched the surface of this most complicated woman. One purpose of this blog is to ferret out others who knew her and may be able to contribute some stories, insights or information. I invite your comments. And if you knew her, please post a comment and I’ll contact you. I’m still hunting sources—especially if you knew her during her last decade in Europe.

luna by charlotte march

Yep, the eyes have it for this blog (and the earrings. Did you notice the earring in the Vogue photo?) Charlotte March published this photo in twen, a hip German mag, in 1966. Duke Art Professor Richard J. Powell writes of the photo in Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture: "...Luna both sees March and her camera and, through a controlling, Cyclops-like eye, imagines a world beyond the photographer's studio."

About This Blog

Just about every area of Donyale Luna’s life was a tangle of complexity and contradiction. Almost everything that is said about (or by) her is contradicted by someone else.

Was Luna a tragic diva, as she is usually portrayed? True, she died young, quite likely from a heroin overdose. But what was it like being inside Donyale? A case can be made that she was happy, as well as one that she was not. We’ll weigh the evidence on both sides.

Did Donyale renounce her black heritage? Her views on race, and on her own skin color, were far more aware and nuanced than suggested by her infamous four words, “I could care less,” in the New York Times. As she came into the apotheosis of her fame just as the Civil Rights movement was born, the subject of race is definitive to her life and will undoubtedly spill over into more than one entry. I hope it will elicit comments in you that will take us more deeply into her psyche and the collective psyches of black and white America at the time.

Donyale’s mother shot and killed her father, who is portrayed as abusive, “a brute.” Was he? Can Donyale be explained as the victim of an atrocious family life? Or was she, as her half-sister claimed in an oft-repeated quote, “a weird child, even from birth”? The story of her childhood, like other aspects of her life, is more ambivalent and complicated than that.

In less than a decade, Donyale went through three or four husbands and as many fiances. The identity of Husband #1 has been a secret to this day, although he too became famous. Who was he and how did they hide their nuptial state from the media? What lay behind Donyale’s parade of romantic interests?

Just how beautiful was Luna? How was her beauty perceived in her heyday? What did she think about it?

How was Donyale treated by the media? I have about a dozen accounts of a run-in she and Mia Farrow had with a late-hour London restaurant. It’s fascinating to see which facts each newspaper chose to report, which to cut.

Did Luna in her later career enter the runway stumbling, as Beverly Johnson saw it, or did Ms. Johnson miss what was going on?

“The first black supermodel” is a title bestowed upon a number of women, most notably Naomi Sims, Tyra Banks, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Beverly Johnson and Luna. Let’s examine the support for each claim and see if we can determine whose is best.

Luna aspired to be a great actress and viewed modeling as just a means to that end. Her filmography is the most avant-garde of anyone I know of. I’ll talk about those movies and her roles, and steer you to where you might find copies.

What is Luna’s legacy? Where did she fit into the Sixties? Into the black coming-of-age movement of her time? Into the world of fashion?

–   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –   –

Please stay tuned, comment  and tell anyone you think might be interested.

Photos of Donyale are all over the Net. For the best collection, go to the bottom of Wikipedia’s Donyale Luna entry and click on the “Official Donyale Luna fansite” or “Donyale Luna tribute site.”


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14 Responses to “Intro: Chasing a ghost through a house of mirrors”

  1. Kat Fegley July 9, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    Very well written…I can’t wait to learn more about this mysterious, beautiful woman. Clearly, your research on this supernova supermodel was taken very seriously. Nice work and thank you for your efforts.

  2. Jennifer July 9, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

    Amazing work! Can’t wait to see all the great things that are sure to come to this blog!

  3. Lexy July 11, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    What an extraordinary endeavor! Thank you for sharing the result of an evident labor of love. What a fabulous creature. Mystery is beauty in itself. Can’t help but think of Phyliss Hyman right now…..

    • donstrachan July 12, 2010 at 6:08 am #

      Hi Lexy—yeah, there’s some physical resemblance between Phyliss Hyman and Donyale too. —don

  4. Gwen Joy July 11, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    Love this blog. Well done!

  5. tina July 18, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    Hi Don! Wow, even though I have heard you talk quite a bit about your project, and I just opened your blog to take a quick peek, I ended up reading the whole thing and wanting more of the story. You can add a question for me, was she lovers with Mia Farrow???

    • donstrachan July 18, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

      Hi Tina,
      Thanks for your kind words. As far as I know, Donyale was never sexually interested in women,
      and I believe Mia Farrow went straight (no pun intended) from Frank Sinatra to Andre Previn around
      that time. The night she and Donyale made the newspapers, it was because Donyale’s male date
      punched a cop.

  6. Debra M. July 19, 2010 at 4:51 am #

    Enjoyed this first installment and look forward to further installments!

  7. sassncurlz July 19, 2010 at 11:25 pm #

    this is a fab blog about a fab woman! funny i did a post about her today as well..check it out if you like….keep up the good work!

  8. Joe August 4, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    Do you have the photos from the inside of the Vogue magazine? I always see the iconic Vogue magazine cover but never the photo spread inside. Reading your blurb I think I may have seen one photo from the spread of Donyale posing with her hand over Peggy Moffitt’s mouth (another fabulously fabulous model from that time) but I would love to see all of the pics. If you have them PLEASE post.

    And thanks so much for this blog.

  9. donstrachan August 4, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    Sorry Joe, I don’t have them. I don’t even know if there was a spread inside. Does anyone reading this know of the spread or where to find the photos? I’l definitely run them if someone turns them up.

    • Joe November 21, 2010 at 2:04 am #

      Hi Don,

      I’ve finally found pics from the British Vogue online and there is in fact a photospread and the photo I saw is from this spread on page with all the thumbnails. Althoug it got cut off. It was the first pic on the left hand side page.

      You can view the photospread here: http://www.ciaovogue.com/2010/07/1st-march-1966-uk-vogue.html

      It’s a website called Youthquakers 1965-1969 that posts pages from US and UK Vogue magazines.

      The photoshoot is very cool. I love how Donyale plays off Peggy Moffitt.

      • donstrachan November 21, 2010 at 4:19 am #

        Wow! Those are really great shots, Joe. Thanks for the link! Everybody, check it out. I haven’t seen most of those shots before.

  10. IP camera August 11, 2010 at 4:27 am #

    Hi guy, It sounds really good!

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