Tag Archives: Donyale Luna biography

Supernova Luna Strikes New York!

2 Aug

(Note: I’ve truncated the last post and tacked it onto the end of this one. Why? To celebrate! Donyale burst onto the New York fashion scene like a supernova, and that glory deserves capturing and retelling.)

Three months after Donyale Luna became the first woman of color to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Richard Avedon also pulled off a first there: he became the first Guest Editor in Harper’s history.

He asked for, and received, carte blanche. And he put together probably the most amazing magazine issue in fashion history. The Sixties were about to explode, and Avedon was on top of the times, with photos of everyone from Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Roy Lichtenstein, artwork by Stan Vanderbeek and writing by Tom Wolfe and Renata Adler to  Jean Shrimpton as Galactic Girl in a designer astronaut jumpsuit.

Donyale got star status, appearing in 11 full-page photos in outfits by Rudi Gernreich, Paco Rabanne and James Galanos.

Crabwalking in Galanos dress, head intact. This photo by Richard Avedon appeared in the landmark April 1965 Harper's Bazaar. For excellent photos from that issue, including the three others of Luna in Galanos, see devo.com website (use link in paragraph below)

Apparently Donyale’s appearance stirred up some racial tension, though just how much is—naturally—a mystery. In 2009 Vanity Fair reported that a Galanos studio dress designer, herself a black woman, threatened to quit if Donyale appeared in her clothes. She and Avedon compromised, according to the story, and the magazine ran three headless shots.

However, as the devo.com website shows, Harper’s published four “Luna in Galanos” photos and the headless shots show another model, one with fleshier arms, wearing couturier Norman Norell’s designs.

Also according to Vanity Fair, “advertisers with Southern accents pulled their ads,” hundreds of readers canceled their subscriptions and publisher William Randolph Hearst, Jr. expressed his unhappiness to editor Nancy White.

While our source struck out on the headless shots, the rest could be all or partially true: the year was 1965, remember; the Civil Rights movement was starting to smoke and the fires of backlash burned everywhere. Until now, Donyale had appeared before only in line drawings, cast in a whiter shade of pale. Now here she was, the first woman of color in a major fashion magazine. It would be more surprising if no readers or advertisers quit. And it would not be the first racial storm that Donyale inadvertantly stirred up in her brief U.S. career.

Luna in Rabanne. Photo by Richard Avedon

How much the special issue had to do with Avedon leaving Harper’s after 20 years in 1966 to join ex-Harper’s editor Diana Vreeland at Vogue, we’ll never know. We do know that Vogue was still not using models of color, and Donyale never appeared in Vogue US. As Avedon was to later lament, “For reasons of racial prejudice, and the economics of the fashion business, I was never permitted to photograph her for publication again.”

(Ironically enough, less than a year later Donyale became the first black woman to grace the cover of Vogue U.K.)

More from Avedon, Harpers Bazaar 4/65

Luna/Avedon/Rabanne, Harper's Bazaar 4/65

When Karen Miller did not take up Donyale’s invitation to join her, la Luna attempted to solve her loneliness problem by other means: she got married!

And this marriage, even more than any of Luna’s other adventures, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. First, whom did she marry? Well, according to the invitation Karen Miller received, it was Phillip Clark Jackson, a struggling local actor. See the invite below: it’s hard to ignore physical evidence.

Invitation to Donyale's reception following her marriage to Phillip Clark Jackson. Courtesy of Karen Miller

On Feb. 28, 1965, Donyale married Phillip Clark Jackson. The reception was held at the home of “Mr. and Mrs. Miles Davis.”

Yet both Donyale’s sister Lillian and long-time friend Sanders Bryant insist the groom was none other than Ron O’Neal, later of Superfly fame but then an unknown young actor himself. Bryant says the reception was at the home of May Britt, who was soon to creaate an uproar herself by becoming Sammy Davis Jr’s bride. The invitation puts it at the home of Miles Davis.

Bryant even describes at length visiting the newlyweds in New York a few months later and feeling inappropriate for becoming so engaged with Donyale that O’Neal left to buy a newspaper and still hadn’t returned at 3am.

Lillian remembers Donyale bringing O’Neal to Detroit and being impressed with how handsome he was.

Might things be less mysterious if Miller, Bryant and Lillian had attended the nuptials as planned? Unfortunately, on Feb. 28, the wedding day, Detroit was hit with one of the worst blizzards in its history. “I was snowed in,” says Bryant; “I couldn’t get off the block, let alone to New York City.”

O’Neal’s lifelong friend David Walker, who helped him with his unfinished autobiography, knew nothing of the marriage and says O’Neal never mentioned Donyale’s name to him.

In subsequent times Donyale told reporters she had been married to an “actor” (or occasionally a “gigolo”), but never divulged who the groom was (no easy feat, with the media sniffing around her like bloodthirsty hounds). The names of bride and groom never surfaced in connection with each other again.

The marriage was a disaster, lasting by most accounts 10 months. (Donyale told me in 1967 that she was “married to a sailor for two weeks.”)

If marriage failed to solve Donyale’s loneliness issue, she could always fall back on her mainstay: night life. Everyone who glittered in Manhattan wanted to know her, and in short order she knew them all. She hung with the Rat Pack, especially Sammy Davis Jr.; Miles Davis; psychedelic artist Mati Klarwein, Andy Warhol…

David McCabe, who published a book called A Year in the Life of Andy Warhol, covering parts of 1964 and 1965, also undoubtedly introduced Donyale to Warhol and the Factory. This was a mixed blessing: Donyale made four “Screen Tests” and a feature with Warhol and in a roundabout way through him connected with Otto Preminger and her only U.S. film role (see Skidoo review 10/26 on this blog).

FLASH NOTICE! SKIDOO release, which didn’t happen last autumn when I said it would, happened July 19 through Olive Films (olivefilms.com). $18.72. Critic’s Choice also offers it for $21.21.

But what was Warhol’s influence on Luna? According to art historian Richard Powell in Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture,
“Tales of Luna’s drug use and physical abuse at the hands of boyfriends littered Andy Warhol’s reminiscences of the late 1960’s.”

This is an inexplicable untruth and character assassination in an otherwise excellently-researched chapter on Luna. In fact there is but a single reference to Luna in the single reminiscence Powell refers to, Popism: the Warhol Sixties. The bashing boyfriend is there, but Donyale is outspoken against drugs:

“And Donyale has this crazy boyfriend who came in last night and smashed her over the head with a beer bottle”—Geraldine laughed—“right after she was giving us this big lecture about how disgraceful it was that we were smoking pot and taking LSD.”

Pot and LSD were like milk and cookies at the Factory, where mainlining and buggering were standard fare. Donyale, who didn’t even drink or smoke when I knew her several months earlier, had to be repulsed.

Ubnderneath its shine, The Apple was proving to be rotten at its core.

Before finally escaping New York, Donyale suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in Bellevue Hospital. “She wasn’t there for very long,” says Sanders Bryant. “I think it had something to do with her marriage. That’s all I know.”

Two years later she told the New York Times that she fled from New York when she found “they said beautiful things on one side and turned around and stabbed you in the back.”

But more than mere betrayal drove her away. In the space of a few short months, everything happened at once to Donyale— rocketship to the top of the world—father shot dead by mother (see “Four Weddings and a Funeral” post 10/15 on this blog)—loneliness in a new city—the unspeakable decadence of the Factory—failed marriage. No wonder our already-delicate diva wound up in the funny farm.

When she stepped out the doors, it was time for a change of country. Next stop: London.

SOURCES
Sanders Bryant, conversation, Nov. 2009
devo.com
Richard Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (U of Chicago Press, 2008)
Karen Miller, conversation and emails, March-July 2011
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, May 19, 1968
David Walker, email correspondence, 2010
Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: the Warhol Sixties (New York: Harper & Row, 1980)
Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

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Racism III: A Night on the Town, a Day in Court

1 Feb

Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, left the US for London in December, 1966 largely because Negroes were less discriminated against there. But in November 1968 racism raised its ugly head in the posh Cavendish Hotel.

Donyale with Ian Quarrier (back), Mia Farrow, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate at the Paris premiere of "Rosemary's Baby." Photo from Sharon Tate blog

In a row that received sensational international media coverage, Donyale, Mia Farrow and three male companions were asked to leave the hotel restaurant at 4 am, ostensibly because the men weren’t wearing ties. When they pointed out that men at the other tables were tieless, management called the police. A fracas ensued and Donyale’s date, Canadian photographer Iain Quarrier, was arrested and charged with assaulting a bobby.

A few days later, in a courtroom scene in which Mia and Donyale stole the show, Quarrier was found guilty and fined $24.

This post examines how the media handled the event.

AP/UPI VERSIONS

In those days, most newspapers rewrote the releases coming from the two major wire services: AP (The Associated Press) and UPI (United Press International). The way that the two handled the story shows the dominant white culture of the time schizophrenically caught in the middle of an attitude shift toward Negroes.

Here’s the AP version, apparently in its entirety, as these words were printed verbatim in every newspaper I read with the AP credit (the Tucson Daily Sun, the Yuma Globe, the Elyria (OH) Chronicle and the Ironwood (MI) Daily Globe).

LONDON (AP) — Actress

La Luna and Ian Quarrier arrive at Bow St. court

Mia Farrow, 23. and four com-
panions were thrown out of a

fashionable West End hotel Sun-

day.

Donyale Luna. 21, a 6-foot-taIl

American Negro fashion model

said the Cavendish Hotel “re-

fused to tell us why we were

being thrown out.”

The management said it was

because the group created a dis-

turbance at their predawn

breakfast in the hotel’s restau-

rant.

Canadian-born actor Ian

Quarrier was charged with ob-

structing police who had been

called to escort them out.

Besides Miss Farrow, the for-

mer wife of Frank Sinatra, the

group included Steve Brant, an

American magazine writer, and

film director Donald Cammell.

Reading this, how do you feel about Luna et al? Obnoxious, spoiled celebrities, drinking and partying too hard, disturbing the peace? Read on.

NEWSPAPER VERSIONS

In Fresno (CA), the Bee-Republican included something that AP—oops!— left out: Donyale’s second sentence. Management didn’t give them a reason for the heave-ho, but “It was obvious (sic) because I was colored.”

As we look at more newspapers across the country, our story continues to unfold: the more balanced UPI account says Mia also made a statement, in support of Donyale.

However, only the Des Moines Register ran Mia’s statement in full: she called the incident a cruel act of intolerance. We must fight prejudice and intolerance whenever possible. We are fighting the battle for a better world. We have inherited a mess. We cannot be passive while the future still holds promise.

How much promise did the future hold in Tucson or Yuma AZ, Elyria OH or Ironwood MI? The AP, like many of its mainstream media clients, chose not to ruffle any white feathers with distasteful and unsettling talk of racial discrimination. You didn’t have the information to even suspect the hotel of provoking the incident by publicly humiliating Donyale about her skin color. Chances are you didn’t even want to: she was another “American Negro” (one of them) acting up again.

Donyale was even skewered in her home town. The Detroit Free Press opened by recounting a previous run-in our girl had with a Detroit hotel. There was the mandatory description of Donyale’s couture: “She wore a short yellow Mongolian lamb coat over black velvet trousers, a red skirt and hip-length blue suede boots.”

Leaving the court with Quarrier. Pity we can't see the red skirt and blue suede boots in color!

The story did mention Farrow’s statement charging the hotel with racial discrimination (without the circumstances), followed by the hotel’s counterclaim that the five were evicted for “disturbing other customers.”

Donyale “has not commented upon Mia’s discrimination charge,” it reported, “but she did say once: “I never think of color. I went to a mixed high school. No one ever hurt me by prejudice.”

UPI STORIES

Readers of newspapers citing the UPI version got more balanced accounts.

The Long Beach Independent/Press-Telegram, for example, concluded: Cause of the disturbance was not clear. Miss Farrow accused the hotel management of an immoral and cruel act of intolerance. Miss Luna said it was pretty obvious they were thrown out “because I am colored.”

The hotel said they were rowdy.

Brandt said the hotel told them to leave because they were not wearing lies— although other men there weren’t either. “The hotel refused to give another reason and called the police,” Brandt said. “That’s when the fighting started.”

The Salt Lake City Tribune, bless their Mormon hearts, made Mia’s accusations the lead. And the Canandaigua (NY) Daily Messenger ran only a paragraph from UPI, but concluded with Donyale’s full statement (attributed to both her and Mia), that the hotel wouldn’t give a reason for the ouster but it was obviously because of her skin color.

Another balanced account, from the Morgantown, West Virginia Dominion-News, citing the London Daily Mirror as its source, unfortunately described Farrow (who was a top property, having just starred starred in the year’s most talked-about film, Rosemary’s Baby) only as “recently divorced from Frank Sinatra.” But it repeated her accusation that the group was refused service because Donyale was Negro.

It gave the hotel equal time, quoting a spokesman: “The Cavendish Hotel does not, never had, and will never operate any kind of a color bar….they were disturbing other guests by their behavior.”

Jet, a Black magazine, zeroed in on the racial issue. Nothing happened when the white members of the party entered, but when Miss Luna, who was trailing behind, came in, the group was told to get out. Brandt said the group was told to get out because the men were not wearing ties, even though they pointed out that men at three other tables were not wearing ties. The hotel refused to give another reason and called the police. That’s when the fighting started.

Luna said they were thrown out ‘because I am colored. It was a nightmare. The Hotel staff and police were pushing me around. The Hotel refused to tell us why we were being thrown out.’

And finally, we have a first-hand account of the incident. Photoplay magazine journalist Steve Brandt was in Donyale’s party. Noting that false versions of the incident abounded, he wrote the following for the Feb. 1969 issue (lightly edited from where it appears online at a blogsite for slain actress Sharon Tate):

PARTICIPANT VERSION

Mia Farrow, myself, Donyale Luna (a beautiful six foot Negro model who soon makes her film debut in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo), Luna’s beau, producer Iain Quarrier and Donald Cammell (he just directed the new Mick Jagger film Performance) decided to top off our evening of disco dancing with a late breakfast. Having been there before, Iain suggested The Cavendish, a hotel that had an all-night restaurant.

We arrived and entered, everyone was seated at the table, and then Donyale (who’d been primping in the ladies’ room) made her entrance. At this point, one of the staff approached our table and advised us we couldn’t be served.

“Why not?” we queried.

We were told it was because none of the men were wearing ties. At least two of the four occupied tables were comprised of men not wearing ties. We pointed this out to a grumpy middle-aged manageress who then said, “No reason, I just want you out of here!”

It was obvious to all of us that we were being asked to leave because a Negro woman was seated with us. Even a very self-conscious Miss Luna blurted out, “Why, is it because I am colored?”

The manageress walked away. Within 10 minutes, four policemen came running in and advised us we had to leave. Right or wrong, they added, it was the hotel’s prerogative to refuse service to whomever they wished.

“But we just want to know why,” Mia chimed in.

The police admitted that no reason was given.

“Well, then, we’ll sit here until we get an explanation.” I figured I might as well get in on the issue.

A few seconds later two waiters grabbed Iain and started pulling him out of his seat. Iain fought back and then the police joined in. Before we knew it, six men were on top of Quarrier, with Mia and Donyale screaming, “Leave him alone!” as they tried to help him out. Both slender ladies were pushed clear across the room!

Next we learned Iain was being arrested for “obstructing justice.”  Mia announced, If you’re taking him, we’re coming too!” and we all traipsed down to the police station. After waiting an hour, Quarrier was released.

Both Mia and I stayed on in London, just to give testimony at his hearing.

Despite our protests, Iain was found guilty. Although he was fined only $20 (after all the headlines), the principle of the incident still bothered all of us. As we left the court, people ran up and said, ‘We believe you…we’re on your side…take it to a higher court.’ We decided not to; instead, La Luna reported the incident to the Racial Discrimination Board.

Reading this, one can certainly question Brandt’s decision to “sit here until we get an explanation.” Right or wrong, you’re asking for trouble if you don’t do what a cop tells you to—even in England. But considering the group’s moral rightness and the enormity of the issue, and possibly a little nudge from the alcohol, it’s understandable.

What was Donyale feeling before the fracas erupted? I’ll bet part of her wanted more than anything to just creep away and not spend another minute at the center of the rapidly escalating tension. Another part felt righteous indignation: “At last! Someone gets to see what I live in constant fear of being subjected to!” and finally she must have felt warm all over to be with white friends who stood by her side in such a humiliating situation.

No wonder she didn’t like to discuss her heritage!

 

Would you kick this woman out of...your hotel? Donyale graced this Minolata camera ad

IN COURT

Five days later Quarrier and Mia appeared in Bow Street Court, with Luna, Brandt and Cammell there to support them. Quarrier faced a reduced charge of  obstructing an officer and Mia of saying the F word. Reportage of the hearing reached a new low.

On the stand Mia repeated the expletive, to the consternation of The El Paso Herald Post’s man on the London beat. Arnold Latcham’s entire story was about the dastardly obscenity and included this astonishing paragraph:

As the word was uttered spectators gasped and the monocle fell from the eye of a friend she had come to court with, long-haired velvet-suited American journalist Steven Brandt. Magistrate Kenneth Harington remained stoic, and the lawyers in court blushed.


Anderson (IN) readers received a long account from UPI, but if UPI maintained its earlier standard of reporting both sides, the defense charges were edited out.

AP’s man on the scene, Geoffrey Anderson,  filed a balanced story that added some missing details: The case lasted all day long. Mia, feeling poorly, went to the doctor  and didn’t show up until near the end.  The prosecution’s case was that they were drinking, they were dressed in “fantastic, way-out clothes and the men wore no ties.” Not a word of disturbing others.

Police said that when they dragged Quarrier out of an elevator and through the hotel lobby, Miss Farrow and Miss Luna were clawing at them and trying to get them free, and that Miss Luna was screaming,”Let him go!”

Good for the girls! Donyale’s testimony basically agreed: According to Miss Luna, Quarrier was brutally and forcibly dragged from the hotel restaurant.

“He was in no physical condition to resist,” she said. I started screaming, “Let him walk. He’s not an animal.”

When Mia finished testifying, she squatted cross-legged on the floor of the crowded court—something which probably has never been done before in an English court of law. (She was temporarily removed and sat properly when she returned.)

Unfortunately, the only newspaper I could find that carried Anderson’s account was the Lowell (MA) Sun.

The Detroit Free Press focused on Donyale and Mia’s courtroom appearance and behavior.

“Perjurors!” shouted Detroit model Donyale Luna as she and Mia Farrow were led from the London courtroom.“It’s a lie!” shouted Mia.

Then Donyale’s clothes: Donyale wore a black satin catsuit with high-heel suede boots. There was a turquoise stone set in the center of her forehead Indian-style, and she wore four large rings on her fingers.

It had been a bad day for Donyale, the story continued. First, she was handed a writ as she stepped from a maroon Rolls-Royce outside the court. It was from a London hotel involving what Donyale called “a personal matter.” Then, while she lighted a cigaret while waiting in the wrong court for the case to begin, she was rebuked by an usher for smoking in court.

Mia’s antics came next: Her first words, on entering the court late, were: “Can I take my clothes off?”

Another shot from "Rosemary's Baby" premiere, showing off Mia's garb. That's Peter Sellers on the right

“What is bad?” she asked (on the stand) of an obscene language report. “I don’t think I said anything cruel. Oh, yes I did. I said “Heil Hitler” because there were a lot of Germans attacking us.”

She then used a four-letter word and asked: “Would you call that bad? It’s the nicest thing you can say to anyone.”

After her testimony, Mia tried to enter the prisoner’s dock with Quarrier, but was removed by police. She sat cross-legged on the floor of the crowded court for a while, then crossed the room and sat on the lap of the fourth co-defendant, Donald Cammell, an American movie director.

End of story. No mention of racism from start to finish.

The Detroit News ran only a paragraph with a photo. They devoted one sentence to the event: The group was tossed out of the eatery after the incident in which Miss Farrow used a four-letter word which she repeated yesterday in coming to Quarrier’s defense in court.

Elsewhere, The Charleston Daily Mail focused on the prosecution statements:

“I had the impression they (Mia and Donyale) had both been drinking heavily,’ the Inspector testified. ‘They were very confused and swore.”

“The party was ‘dressed in fantastic, way-out clothes, drinking, making a lot of noise, the men wore no ties.”

Further down the page, Apparently Mia Farrow swore at and clawed one of the cops. Farrow said a four-letter word in court and put on a show.

You could read all of these stories and never have a clue that the party got the heave-ho because of Donyale’s skin color.

With hindsight, we can question the ladies’ decision to put on a show rather than stress the discrimination. But they got what they wanted: publicity, in an era when so many newspapers (and even the wire services) routinely edited out any references to racism. If you think Donyale was in denial of her heritage or chose to remain above the fray, this might be grist for your mill. But read on.

Piecing all these stories together to learn what really happened is like watching the movie Rashomon.  (Could we expect a clear understanding if Donyale was involved?) Racism was so prevalent at the time that, although it was at the core of the fracas, some publications don’t even mention it.

Was the party indeed drunk and disorderly? Did the hotel’s charge that they were disturbing the other customers have merit?

Several tell-tale clues suggest not.

First, the hotel couldn’t get its story straight. It claimed the party was rowdy only after saying the men weren’t wearing ties (a common pretext then for denying admission to people of color).

Second, in Steve Brandt’s account the manageress says, “No reason, I just want you out of here.” This echoes the waitress in the restaurant I took Donyale to and my apartment manager: “We don’t want them in here.” It’s an accurate reflection of how many white people felt about Negroes.

Third is the amount of Quarrier’s fine: $24? Plus $15 court costs for a case that lasted all day? Judge Harington couldn’t really dismiss the charge if Quarrier actually laid a hand on the bobby, even in defense, but he clearly was not going for the hotel’s story.

And finally: Donyale Luna, so-called traitor to her race, she who chose to live her life above the fray, filed a charge with the Racial Discrimination Board.

Go Donyale!

Sources:

“Producer Fined after London Bobby Struck,” Anderson (IN) Herald, 11/17/68
“Hotel Ousts Actress,” Canandaigua (NY) Daily Messenger, 11/11/68
Charleston Daily Mail, 11/15/68
Des Moines Register, 11/11/68
“Mia’s Pal, Hotel Here Also Clashed,” Detroit Free Press, 11/12/68
“Irked by the Verdict, Mia, Donyale Disrupt Court,” Detroit Free Press, 11/29/68
“Mia Stars in Court,” Detroit News, 11/16/68
Arnold Latcham, “Mia Farrow Startles London Court with Obscene Word,” El Paso Herald Post, 11/20/68
untitled, Elyria (OH) Chronicle-Telegram, 11/11/68
untitled, Fresno Bee Republican, 11/12/68
untitled, Ironwood (MI) Daily Globe, 11/11/68
“Bias Charged Against Hotel That Threw Out Mia, Luna,” Jet, 11/28/68
“Hotel Ousts Mia Farrow and Friends,” Long Beach Independent/Press-Telegram, 11/11/68
Geoffrey Anderson, “Mia Farrow Has Real-Life Role in London Brawl,”  Lowell (MA) Sun, 11/15/68
Morgantown (WV) Dominion News, 11/12/68
Steve Brandt, “4:00 am Breakfast Incident,” Photoplay, Feb. 1969
“Fray in Hotel Prompts Racist Charges by Mia,” Salt Lake City Tribune, 11/12/68
Sharon Tate blog
“Companions Tossed Out,” Tucson Daily Citizen, 11/11/68
“Mia and Friends Ejected from Hotel Room,” Yuma Sun, 11/11/68

Donyale and race, part I: an outcast in her white boyfriend’s world

10 Nov

OK, we’ve looked at the volatile relationship between her parents as one factor in Peggy Ann Freeman’s teen decision to mold herself into “Donyale Luna.” Today we’ll look at the other: racism.

Full disclosure first: I’m a honky. My mind and capacity for empathy allow me a degree of understanding, but I was on the other side of the Black experience of the 1950’s and 60’s.

That said–racism is a huge topic in Donyale’s life and we’re opening a potential Pandora’s Box here. This inaugural post is up close and personal:  four stories from my time with her in 1964. Remember, although Donyale and I informally “went together” for four or five months, I learned only last year that she was “colored.”

The many shades of Donyale Luna: Here she's lily-white on her groundbreaking Harper's Bazaar cover

Here she's dark chocolate with Brian Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First story: I took Donyale to dinner at The Famous Italian Cafe, where I worked part-time delivering pizzas. The next night when I showed up for work, feeling proud, I asked one of the waitresses what she thought of Donyale.

“We don’t like ‘them’ in here,” she sniffed.

I was taken aback. “She’s not Negro, Kay. She’s Polynesian.”

“We still don’t like ‘them’ in here,” Kay repeated.

Second story: I lived in a seedy apartment building off-campus with a lot of sad tales. It was a tough neighborhood and Jimmy, the manager, locked the door each night about midnight. One night after Donyale and I left Verne’s Bar, I brought her over to my place. I knocked until Jimmy let us in.

The next morning Jimmy told me, “We don’t allow ‘them’ in the building.” Yep, same word. Same inflection.

Same reaction from me: “Jimmy, she’s not Negro. She’s Polynesian.”

“So she says. We still don’t let ‘them’ in here.”

A few mornings later, Jimmy told me, “That colored girl came over to see you again last night. I didn’t let her in.”

Of course Donyale never mentioned it. What, did she want me to suspect she was Negro? And I didn’t mention it to her: I felt embarrassed, bad that I missed her, but basically I was clueless.

Blue-eyed and pale-skinned on the cover of Queen

A pale bindi and white canine accessory darken Donyale's skin

Third story: Donyale never said no when I suggested going anywhere or doing anything. The only time she even hesitated was when I invited her to an overnight visit to Albion College (all-white, I realized only when I re-examined this last year), where I had attended the year before. “Where will I sleep?” she asked me. I figured she was afraid I was trying to trick her into bed. “I’ll call my friend Ann. Somebody in the dorm is always away, and you can stay in their bed.”

Ann said sure, no problem. There never was.

We arrived later than planned, just before the girls’ 9pm curfew. Ann was less overjoyed to see us than I expected: I figured because we were late. She said she thought she could find a bed. (What, she didn’t have one lined up?) I couldn’t stay to make sure; boys had to be off the premises at 9pm. I told Donyale to call me at the frat house if there was any problem.

The next morning I asked her how it went.

“OK, I guess,” she said. “Ann brought me a blanket and pillow and I slept in the lobby.” Again, clueless, I heard her “OK” and figured the dorm was uncharacteristically full.

We were going to stay the day. But a few minutes later Donyale said, “Let’s go home now.” My plan hadn’t been very well-conceived; I had nothing specific in mind for the day anyway.

“Let’s  have breakfast first.” We ate and drove home.

Only last year did I put myself in Donyale’s shoes (she did wear them, mostly) and feel the heart-stabbing grief that must have gnawed at her heart–the rage at being turned away from the door of the guy she was sweet on because someone thought she wasn’t fit to enter; the shame of having to sleep in the lobby because no white girl would share a room with her.

I can only guess at the awful patterns created in her mind and heart, the same self-deprecating–even self-loathing– patterns that governed Negroes everywhere at that time. I can begin to understand the black man who told me recently that he watched Leave it to Beaver and wanted his mother to look like Louise Cleaver. “I know white supremacy is real,” he said, ” because I’ve been a white supremacist, although I’m in black skin.”

And only now do I see the culturebound racism inherent in my response to Kay and Jimmy. True, I thought Donyale was Polynesian. Nonetheless,  today I’d jump all over their racism. Back then, although I knew their attitude was wrong, the idea of challenging it just didn’t exist in the white world–in my clueless world, at least. I had heard about Malcolm X and his murderous Black Muslims out in California (I didn’t even know he was from Detroit). Even while Abbie Hoffman and other prescient white youth were getting their bones broken by Jim Crow lawmen in the South, I watched a Negro rally march along Woodward Avenue past the Famous Italian Cafe (along with the rest of the crew, including Kay) and didn’t know what I felt about that: the idea of Negroes marching was a new neuronal implant to me.

For the era, I was relatively unprejudiced: my parents fought for Negroes in the unions, and I went to a well-mixed high school. I dwell on myself here to illustrate the pre-civil rights white mindset –even the liberal white mindset–to balance what I’ve  imagined of the Negro mindset.

Now for the final story.

Jimmy’s three little words: “So she says,” got a little toehold in the back of my mind: was Donyale a Negro?

One day we were sitting on a bed in a friend’s house. Donyale was knitting, smiling her perpetual smile.  I felt I had a right to know. “Are you Negro?”

The needles clacked;  behind the smile was an almost imperceptible tightening. It was the only time I ever felt tension between us. “I’m Polynesian,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter to me if you are Negro,” I said. Was that true? Yes: what prejudice I held was all unconscious. It would make her slightly less exotic to me, but she’d still be the most exotic woman I’d ever met.

“I’m Polynesian,” she repeated.

About a month after I stopped seeing her, I saw her with three Negro men at the Little Theatre at Wayne State.

What got into me? I greeted her and said, “You said you’re not Negro, but I see you hanging out with Negroes. Are you sure?”

Graceful as always, she replied: “I seem to get along with them. I like them and they like me.”

Last year her sister told me Donyale was heartbroken over a white boyfriend who accused her of being black. “She cried and cried,” she said.

I cried too–45 years too late.

Four weddings and a funeral

5 Oct

donyale luna underwater

Donyale Luna: off in another world?

It’s a given on Internet lore that Donyale Luna created a fantasy world to escape the terrors of growing up with a father who worked sporadically and was an abusive brute.

What is the source for this? Is it true, or has Nathaniel Freeman been given a bum rap?

Whatever his nature, he and Donyale’s mother Peggy had a really wild ride: they were married and divorced four times!

A powerful chemistry must have bound them together, because as life partners they were like oil and water. Or better, oil and fire.

Nate came to Detroit from Alabama as part of the great Black migration to the auto factories. Contrary to reports of his lackadaisical approach to work, he was employed by Ford Motor Co. nonstop for 37 years. He worked most of those years in the foundry, shoveling metal into hot furnaces. “At one point he was going to quit,” says his daughter, Donyale’s sister Lillian,  “because he was getting older and the work was so hard.  He went in and talked to the bosses, told them he was tired of getting burned. They gave him a promotion to an easier job in a different division.”

The foundry was hard work, but the pay was much better than what Nate could earn down South. He was not qualified for office work, and he was content to muscle down for eight hours, then kick back with his family.

His wife Peggy was beautiful, but she was a woman and a Negro. (She was only half-Negro, but in those days mulattos were Negroes.) As such, her job as a receptionist at the downtown YWCA might be as much as she could reasonably aspire to. But she had drive, the same drive that she imparted to her eldest daughter. Seeking to climb the social mobility ladder, she played real estate. This undoubtedly created friction between her and Nate, who after eight hours of shoveling was content to read the paper, have a beer and watch TV.

No alcohol in the house

That was another source of friction. Peggy didn’t allow alcohol in the house—which also meant no visits from his brothers, who drank.

“Our mother wouldn’t allow us to associate with my father’s brothers,” says Donyale’s sister Lillian. “You can’t do that to a grown man, tell him he can’t have company in his own house, when he’s bringing money home, working every week. He has to have his way sometimes.

“She was strong-willed and what she said went. There was no argument; that’s the way it was. She was strong; almost the head of the household. But the man has to be the head of the household. When you have a 100% man like my dad, you can’t have a second head of the household.

“So they clashed. My dad was high-spirited and my mother was even more high-spirited. They clashed on a lot of things.”

If anyone, it was Donyale’s mother who was abusive to the children. Sanders Bryant remembers Lillian telling him that Peggy was physically abusive to both Josephine and Donyale, hitting them at times. Lillian concurs that Josephine had a rough time:. “My mother treated her very harshly.” But Donyale, she says, got preferential treatment.

Where did Peggy get her aversion to demon rum? Was she traumatized early in life by an alcoholic parent? Or did Nate have a drinking problem?

“My favorite was my daddy,” says Lillian. “I was closer to him.” Donyale loved him too, and visited him whenever he and Peggy were between marriages. This suggests that Nate Freeman was not a rummy.

However, everyone agrees that he did get drunk and beat Peggy on occasion.

By AA definition, if your consumption of alcohol negatively affects your life, you’re a candidate for the 12 Steps. Beating your wife is a felony. So Nate had a problem, yes.

Peggy had a problem too: she was rigid, a control freak. And she was smart and sophisticated—hell, she was even half white—and she could talk rings around Nate. Both of their problems, really, were each other. They loved each other and they hated each other.

Donyale loved both parents

Donyale loved her dad and she loved her mom. Her dad must have also brought fear into her heart. Not that he would ever do anything to harm her, but if he came home with liquor on his breath, he and her mom would shout. It scared her a lot when they shouted, because shouts could come to blows, and that made her sick and took her right out of reality into dissociative denial. It was the most horrible of all the bad memories Donyale Luna was learning to banish from her psyche—out, where they could do her no harm.

Or so she thought. “She tried to keep it all out,” says Sanders Bryant, “but you could see some things got in.”

One day in March, 1965, about six months after Donyale had left for New York, Bryant visited the family. He found Peggy sitting on Nate’s lap. They were considering yet another spin on their marriage-go-round. “I had never seen them so close,” he said.

Sometime after he left, somebody pushed somebody’s button and the koochie-koochie stopped—we’ll never know how the argument started. Nate left and headed for the bar.

She makes me so mad, I’m gonna punch out her lights. I’ve done it before. True,  but it made him feel so bad when he sobered up, he swore he’d never do it again.

But after he got mad he started getting scared, and another drink and the anger returned, only without the shame this time, and he felt pretty righteous, and finally he figured it out: she’s taking away my manhood, trying to wear the pants in the family. Even my daughters can see that I’m not half a man around her. If I don’t show them what a man is, they could turn out like her. And I’ll show her too, bitch! Just a few more drinks while I plan out what I’m gonna say to her. She won’t be talkin’ back to me if she’s afraid I’m gonna hit her; she’ll listen to my side all right.

And finally Nate had enough to drink, and he had his words figured out, and off he went.

Peggy heard him pull into the driveway. There he is, steaming drunk again, thinks he’s gonna hit me around and hurt me, hurt me real bad and put bruises on my skin that makes me feel shame whenever anyone looks at me. But hey, I’m not gonna be freezing up in fear this time. No more! She opened her purse and got out the gun she had bought for the next time. And I’m not afraid to use it! Not to kill him: I’ll shoot him in the leg.

Oh God, my heart’s pounding, I can hardly breathe, I can’t do it—yes! Yes I can! She holds out the gun and walks in a dream world to the door: “You go away Nate. Do you hear? I got a gun and I ain’t afraid to use it.”

Listen to her, out on the porch, still yelling! Nate got out of the car and headed toward her.

A gun! He never figured on that.

But when she tried to aim it at him, Nate saw that she was too riled up to hold her hand steady. It just pissed him off more. He walked straight at her, didn’t even break his stride.

Peggy empties the gun

That was the final frustration for Peggy: didn’t he even see the gun? A strange energy moved through her body and she could barely hold it in her hand, which was shaking like she had the palsy. Suddenly something else took control and the weapon exploded in her hand, and kept exploding, six shots in wild succession, firing off in all directions.

House where shooting occurred. Bullet remains in tree.

The house where the shooting occurred. 45 years later, a bullet remains lodged in the tree on the right

Two bullets landed somewhere in distant corners of the neighborhood. Two more drilled holes in the car that Nate was driving. One burrowed into the trunk of the tree in the front yard, where it remains to this day. The other—by chance or in a moment of life-changing clarity?—sped straight into Nathaniel Freeman’s heart.

Was it the first bullet or the last? Even for this, there are two stories. Sanders Bryant says the last. Lillian, who at age 18 witnessed the shooting, says it was the first.

“My mother didn’t want to kill him,” she says. “She just wanted to shoot him and knock him down or something.”

Bryant concurs: “It wasn’t a murder; it was almost a fluke. She wasn’t angry; she was afraid, and he kept coming at her. She told him to leave. He was coming toward the porch when he was shot. She was on the porch and he was in the driveway. The distance between them was no more than here to there. She missed five times.”

Lillian called the ambulance. “The hospital was half a block away and nobody tried to get him there. Nobody tried to revive him or keep him awake or anything. They didn’t do anything for him. I don’t want to talk about that any more.”

The police arrested Peggy. Lillian, in shock, called Sanders Bryant, who came and stayed in the house with her. The next day, after interrogating Peggy Freeman for 24 hours, the police called it self-defense and released her. When Nate was laid out for burial, Peggy asked Sanders Bryant, who was a budding photographer, to take a photo of him. She also sold Bryant the bullet-marred car.

Donyale stayed in New York

Donyale, who was in New York, did not come home for the funeral, something for which she still catches flak on the Net.

harper's bazaar cover

The world meets Donyale Luna. This is the March 1965 Harper’s Bazaar cover that launched her career. The magazine had never run a Negro on the cover before, and the editors made sure Donyale was more vanilla than chocolate.

Did I mention that the shooting happened in March, 1965? That was the very month her groundbreaking Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared. And—not to get ahead of our story, but she also got married that March. What an incredible three-way convergence of psyche-bending experiences for an ultra-sensitive 18-year-old girl to undergo!

That ultra-sensitive girl had spent 18 years soaking in all the family dynamics, although her understanding of them was probably suppressed, causing little-understood emotional energies to careen wildly through her psyche and body.

Did Nate’s eldest daughter pay her respects in her own way, with some sort of spiritual ceremony? Or did the let’s-be happy mind of Donyale Luna simply give the incident its walking papers?

But go home? To a funeral? Go home to drench herself once again in the woes of that tragic war-torn couple whom she claimed didn’t even spawn her? Hell no, she didn’t go back.

She got married instead.
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Would you go back? Let us all know. Send a comment!

Sources:

Sanders Bryant III, conversations Sept.-Oct. 2009

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009