As a stagestruck teen, Donyale Luna, the world’s first black supermodel, used to wander through the landmark Fisher Theater in Detroit, hoping to spy someone famous.
As she strolled through those hallowed halls in Sept. 1964, barefoot as she often was, little did she know that the gods of fame had set her in their crosshairs. New York photographer David McCabe, on corporate assignment in Detroit but also well-connected in the Big Apple fashion scene, took one look at her lissome lankiness and invited her to New York to display it to people he knew at Harper’s Bazaar.
Donyale’s friend Karen Miller remembers the last time she saw her in Detroit, sitting at the piano in Verne’s Bar, leaning forward with her head on her hands and listening to Johnny Mathis singing, “When Sunny Gets Blue.” “She looked sort of blue herself,” says Miller.
As usual with Donyale Luna, several versions exist of the actual whereabouts of the encounter with McCabe, including while leaving a rehearsal at a number of playhouses, most of which she never performed at (including the Fisher itself) and one where Luna vaguely told a reporter it “might have been outside radio station WWJ.” McCabe has declined to talk with me, leaving the matter enshrouded in mystery to this day. But counting up the references, The Fisher comes out on top.
Several versions also exist of exactly what McCabe offered the not-yet model. Donyale’s friends told Yvonne Petrie of the Detroit News that he gave her a plane ticket. But ex-beau Sanders Bryant dispels that: “I drove her to the bus.”
Donyale didn’t even go straight to the Apple. Her mom was not happy about the move: “I tried to discourage her from going to New York because I had heard so much that was bad about it.” But Donyale kept insisting she was 18. They reached a compromise: Donyale could go live with her aunt in New Jersey and get a job while pursuing modeling in her free time.
It didn’t take our girl long to wheedle her way across the river, however. She became a junior secretary (i.e., typist) with Alpha Wire Corp., which outfitted her with a special chair to accommodate her lengthy legs and torso. “I don’t like it” she wrote to Karen Miller on Nov. 23. “It was the only way my aunt would let me live in New York.”
Donyale described her Manhattan apartment (417 W. 57th St, Apt 4E), with its large living room and cozy fireplace, which Miller thinks may have been a fantasy. She had apparently already been discovered: she was working with “Stuart” (Eileen Stewart, the top modeling agency in the city) and had done a gig for Harper’s Bazaar for $100/day, with another shoot slated for February. “All of New York wants to take my picture,” she wrote.
But she was poised to toss it all to become “the greatest actress that ever was.” She was joining Actors Equity and SAG and would give up modeling after her Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared in March. “I hope and pray that my acting career will be just as successful.” If acting wasn’t the same rocket ride as modeling, she had enough money to see her through the next year.
Like many a young woman off on her own in a strange city for the first time, Donyale was lonely living by herself. She was going to put up signs looking for a roommate.
The letter was typed, and signed “Donyale George Tyger Luna.”(George, she explained in a subsequent letter, was a new middle name.)
A month later (12/21/64) came a shorter, handwritten letter. “I receive 6 stars/hour for modeling she wrote. ($60?) Avedon was photographing her.
“Look for me in Harper’s Bazaar.”
“I’m living a beautiful dream.”
“I shall receive my Emmy.”
She alluded to “men problems” and repeated a refrain: “Don’t worry about me.” (Karen was concerned: she knew Donyale’s imagination and thought her stories were too good to be true.)
Karen also received a phone call about that time. Donyale was still lonely and wanted her to move to New York with her.
Fashion modeling is not a profession for the fainthearted. For every beautiful young hopeful who arrives in Bigtown, gets an agent, puts together a “book” and hits the agencies hoping for a contract, maybe one in 1,000 ever makes enough money at it to consider it a “living.”
The former Peggy Ann Freeman hit New York at age 18 with no agent, no publicist, no manager and no “book.” Beside her looks, she had only one asset: an introduction to Harper’s Bazaar by photographer David McCabe. She parlayed that into a rocket ride like no other model in history.
The fashion world was brimming to capture the revolutionary fervor of the times, just waiting for a spectacular Negro woman to appear. Look out everyone, here comes Donyale Luna! All 6’ 3” and 110 pounds of her.
When McCabe introduced her to Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Nancy White, art directors Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler and senior fashion editor China Machado, an ex-model herself, “they just went crazy,” Donyale said later. They tore up their January cover and hired an outside artist, ex-model Katharina Denzinger, to make the breakthrough line drawing of Donyale that replaced it. Denzinger also drew six full-color sketches of her for the inside pages. “The Bazaar editors came (to the one-room studio apartment where I did the work) with the clothes, and uniformed cops watched while Donyale modeled and I drew her,” Denzinger told Richard Powell.
Harper’s also signed Donyale to an exclusive one-year contract with their top photographer, a guy named Richard Avedon, at the highest wage in modeling history to that time: $60/hour. Did Luna negotiate this, or was it their initial offer? Either way, for a girl with no one to represent her, she did all right!
Next: The Big Apple has some worms in it.
Sanders Bryant III, conversation, Sept.-Oct. 2009
Karen Miller, conversation, March 2011
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April 1966Lillian Washington, conversation, Sept.-Oct. 2009
Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, University of Chicago Press, 2008