“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.

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

Sources

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

  1. Jennifer August 2, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    I agree! Donyale just viewed the world differently. Unfortunately In this world that means your weird.

  2. Kat August 6, 2010 at 2:47 am #

    Donyale was most likely highly creative and bright. Maybe a little off, by normal standards, but sounds like an interesting individual. Love the bunny story…!

  3. miguel stuckey November 23, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    I know that the book is fiction but do you know where I can buy it? Did you also say there’s another biography written about her? thanks so much

    • donstrachan November 24, 2010 at 6:49 am #

      I got my copy of “The Imperfect Dream” online some time ago, after vigilantly re-checking sites waiting for one to pop up. From Amazon? Don’t think so. Good luck!
      Meanwhile, Richard Powell’s Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (U of Chicago, 2008) is the closest thing to a bio you’ll find. The second chapter, maybe 50 pages long, is all about her.

  4. miguel stuckey November 29, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    ok thanks!

  5. Rememberme Nina B July 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    wow i love this post

    i know i am eons late but donyale is like my latest fascination i wanted to learn more of her yo no avail i was dissapointed with what i found how her story ends

    i do appreciate your thoughtful sentiments
    thank you

    NINA B

    • donstrachan July 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

      hinina,
      doyale’s demise, was tragic but her last years are perhaps not the depressing
      version that comes across in the internet repeats. stay tuned.

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