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


2 Responses to “Before Donyale Luna came Peggy Ann Freeman”

  1. miguel stuckey August 24, 2010 at 6:12 am #

    LOVED IT!! once again, I learned sooo much. thank sooo much 😉

  2. online book September 19, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    Wow, this was a really quality post. In theory I’ d like to write like this too – taking time and actual effort to make a great article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and in no way appear to get something done.

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