Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, was, for two years in the U.S. and for a dozen years afterward in Europe, famous beyond her wildest dreams. (And she dreamed wildly!) Time magazine proclaimed 1966 “The Year of Luna.” Andy Warhol used her in five movies. She was Salvador Dali’s compadre and favorite model. Her lovers were film and rock stars—even a real prince.
The spotlight was ubiquitous and intense. Yet it captured no more than her silhouette. Her inner life, and even large chunks of what was knowable, remained wrapped in mystery.
This is as Donyale wanted it. Once past her first few interviews in her native Detroit, she hit her stride as an enigma, seldom giving two reporters the same answer to the same question. When I encountered this trait in her at age 17 or 18 (Which was it? More about that later), I concluded that she had a hard time separating reality from fantasy. While I still think that was partly so, her later interviews show that she clearly liked to play with the media.
At any rate, here and now in 2010 a host of Internet sites about her are issuing contradictory facts or information that just ain’t so. Donyale’s ghost rises from her grave, gives us that Giocanda smile and says, “I’m seven feet tall, I can see out of my third eye and I eat rats.”
The intrigue starts with her birth: when was it? and continues right up to her death: what was the cause? This post examines just the beginnings. And only the basics, the kind of questions to which we more prosaic mortals give the same monotonous answers every day: name, birthdate, place of birth.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s Henry Ford, already one of America’s most innovative geniuses, came up with perhaps his most novel idea: pay Negroes as much as whites to work in his auto factory. This altered America’s sociological landscape as radically as his Model T and other vehicles altered the physical landscape. Negroes poured into Detroit from the South. Along with them came a man named Hertzog, who was not Negro but German. But he lived with a tall, dark and beautiful woman named Peggy. Peggy was mulatto, but at that time in America anyone with one drop of Negro blood was considered Negro. The Hertzogs had a daughter, Josephine, born sometime around 1936. Their relationship went on the rocks, and soon after their arrival in Detroit Peggy was on her own. She shipped Josephine back to Georgia to be raised by her sister.
The tragic circumstances that led to the star-crossed union of Peggy with Nathaniel Freeman are lost in the mists of time. We know only that Nate’s family also arrived from Georgia to cash in on Henry Ford’s magnanimity, and he and Peggy met and eventually married.
Nate, like Peggy, may not have been a full-blooded Negro. His youngest daughter Lillian identifies him as “a black man from Georgia.” But his eldest daughter Peggy Ann (aka Donyale Luna) claimed he was, among other things, Mexican and “Quechuan, from the Islands.” Now, Quechuan is not an ethnicity but a family of languages, spoken originally by the Incas. It’s still spread among the indigenous tribes of northwestern South America.
Donyale is a most unreliable source. But the photo below shows a man whose high cheekbones and narrow nose look more Incan than Negro: might Donyale have known something about her father that Lillian did not? Quechuan is not spoken in the Caribbean. But Nate or his forbears could have moved. Negro or Native American, he must have descended from slaves to carry the surname “Freeman.”
What was her name?
Nate and Peggy conceived two daughters—and here, at its start, we enter the maze of conundrums that made up the life of Donyale Luna. The first daughter, Peggy Ann, re-named herself Donyale Luna in high school and insisted thereafter that Luna was her “real” father’s last name. ‘Donyale Luna’ was the short version: the full name was “Peggy Anne Donyale Aragonea Peugot Luna.” She frequently gave the whole mouthful to the media, who duly reported it as her birth name. At least one top current website, fashion insider, still repeats it.
Donyale’s parents named her after her mother, Peggy Freeman, adding a middle ‘Ann’ to keep the two from becoming confused with each other on documents, forms, mail etc. At home they were simply Big Peggy and Little Peggy. Duke University art historian Richard Powell, Donyale’s most accurate biographer, inexplicably tacks an ‘a’ onto her middle name: Anna. But according to younger sister Lillian, and to various newspaper articles in Detroit, she was born Peggy Ann Freeman, no ‘a’ after Ann and no ‘e’ either.
Where was Donyale Luna born? When ex-beau and lifelong friend Sanders Bryant met her at age 15, she told him she was from Hawaii. When I met her a couple years later, she was Polynesian. During her final decade, in Italy, she often told the media that she came from Boston. She also told them she ate three kilos of meat every day and had three brothers who played in a band, but they still duly printed Boston without checking.
Donyale continued the Hawaiian charade with Bryant all her life, even though he was a close friend of the whole family and knew she was born right there in grimy old Detroit. “In Henry Ford Hospital,” he says.
Eventually, when asked where she was born, the diva came up with the last word: “I’m from the moon, baby!”
Finally, when did this mystery woman arrive on the planet? Four dates are in contention: Aug. 31, 1945 and 1946, and Jan. 1, 1945 and 1946.
Richard Powell claims it was Aug 31, 1946. His source, who ought to know, is Donyale’s mother, quoted in The Detroit News. Judith Stone of the New York Times, who claims Donyale’s birth certificate as authority for her name, pegs her as 18 years old when her landmark Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared in Jan. 1965, which also jibes with the 1946 date.
I too subscribe to Aug. 1946. When I met Donyale in Dec. 1963 or Jan. 1964, she told me she was 17. I know better than to take Donyale’s word for anything. But what high-school girl lies about her age backwards, especially to an older boyfriend and his cohorts?
However, sister Lillian, who also ought to know, claims she was born in August, 1946, when Donyale was already a year old. Ex-beau Sanders Bryant, born Aug. 27, 1945, insists that he and Donyale were only a few days apart in age.
What can we learn from Donyale’s high-school yearbook? “P Freeman” graduated in Jan. 1964. Most kids enter kindergarten at age 5, turn 6 during the school year and graduate 12+ years later in June at age 18. Those born in summer, like Donyale, enter school so soon after their fifth birthday that they’re still 5 when kindergarten ends in June and therefore still only 17 when they graduate in June 12 years later.
Those in the January class either take an extra load and graduate early or fail some classes and graduate late. Donyale was a bright student; she conceivably could have finished school early. If she were scheduled to graduate in June of 1964, she would have been in kindergarten from Sept. 1951 to June 1952, placing her birthdate in 1946.
But Lillian believes Donyale had to make up some classes (probably because she took too many artistic electives). That means she should have graduated in June 1963, at age 17, and sets her birthday in Aug. 1945. That also jibes with the birthdate Lillian ascribes to her.
The Jan. 1 dates appear on various Internet sites. Most of them stem from Wikipedia, which says Jan. 1, 1945. Where did Wikipedia get the date from? If Donyale Luna were to make up her birthday, what better one to choose than Jan. 1? Not that our girl would ever do a thing like that!
(Note to Djellabah, who wrote the Wikipedia entry: If you read this, will you please send a comment? I’d like to compare notes with you.)
Did Judith Stone of the New York Times actually see Donyale’s birth certificate? For some reason birth records are confidential to anyone but immediate family—even records of celebrities who have been dead for 31 years. The mystery could be solved in a moment if the Michigan Dept. of Vital Statistics would simply make the document available.
So there you have it: three solid sources, including (indirectly) Donyale’s mother, assert that she was born Aug. 31, 1946. Two probably even better sources say Aug. 31, 1945. Which date is more persuasive to you?
NEXT BLOG: “She was always a weird child”…but was she?
Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2009
High School of Commerce, Detroit, yearbook, 1964, in Detroit Public Library, main branch, Burton Collection
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April ?, 1966
Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black portraiture, U. of Chicago Press, 2008
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, May 19, 1968.
Lillian Washington, conversations, Oct. 2009 & July 2010