Tag Archives: Donyale Luna

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.


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-


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-


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.


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.”


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):


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


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!


“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


Race Part II Four Fateful Words: Donyale Puts her Foot in her Mouth

9 Jan

Sorry for the long delay, folks; I’ve been traveling. Here’s the next installation about Luna and race.

I’ve also added photos to the last post.

Enjoy! —Don

If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.
—Donyale Luna, New York Times, May 19,1968

This wonderful photo by Michael Alexander accompanied the New York Times article. The caption read: Luna, 6-foot-2-inch model, will act Groucho Marx's mistress in "Skidoo." Will her job open up movie roles for Negro women? "I couldn't care less."

If you’ve ever googled Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, you’ve read those words. She uttered them in response to interviewer Judith Stone when Stone asked her if she thought that being cast in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo would open up more movie roles for “Negro women.”

Donyale’s answer kindles passions in Blacks to this day. A future post will run some of the fiery comments on Luna blogs more than 40 years later.

She initially responded to Stone’s question with an icy, “I don’t think about that.” How long had she been telling the media she was of mixed heritage? Wasn’t Stone listening to her?

Then Donyale’s fiancé, German actor Georg Willing, piped up, “She’s white, didn’t you know?” I’ve disliked Willing ever since I read that remark: what a sarcastic clod! And I can see I’m doing the same thing as people who castigate Luna for her reply to Stone. Willing may have been merely showing support and it came out wrong.

“But then,” writes Stone, “Luna reconsidered for a moment. ‘If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less’.”

Read the first sentence. Donyale, living the role of “Donyale Luna,” probably, as she said, “didn’t think about that.” Now she thought about it and it sounded good. Had she stopped there, she had said the right thing and also made her point that her blood was not pure Negro but mixed.

But would her landing the role actually bring down the barriers? Offhand, she didn’t know: “It could be good, it could be bad.”

Then out tumbled the Four Fateful Words: “I couldn’t care less.”

Why on earth did she add them? The more I ponder it, the more I think they were an unfortunate rhetorical fillip, words to fit the rhythm of a conclusion, spoken in haste by an uncertain woman all of 21 or 22 years old, beating a hasty retreat from a subject that could trigger a lot of pain and confusion inside her back into the role of diva.

This was before Donyale and Salvador Dali had become buddies, when she would take a page from his book of tricks and make up an outlandish response for the press, not a lie so much as an imaginative creation to further her public image. At this point she didn’t have the tools to handle a savvy journalist like Stone.

Salvador Dali claimed Luna was the reincarnation of Nefertiti

Stone’s portrait of Donyale is actually the most sympathetic and perceptive I’ve read. An unkind editor ignored Luna’s first two sentences and wrote the photo caption: “Will her job open up movie roles for Negro women? ‘I couldn’t care less’.” Later, Wikipedia’s account also accentuated the Four Fateful Words and suggested that Donyale renounced her race. A hefty percentage of Net profiles copied Wikipedia.

But it simply wasn’t true that Donyale couldn’t care less.

Ex-beau Sanders Bryant tells of a time Donyale and he visited a museum of slavery artifacts in Dresden, Canada one day when she still lived in Detroit. “When Donyale saw those artifacts and the slave conditions,” recalls Bryant, “she broke down in tears.”

Remember, this was “Donyale Luna,” who was going to be happy only, who had banished tears from her life.

Early articles about Luna portrayed her as the new top Negro model. “She never denied that,” says Bryant. “But she had that other side….To Donyale, denying any part of that was like denying herself.”

Donyale’s remarks to Detroit Free Press reporter Colleen O’Brien in 1966 show careful wording about her ethnicity: “Most of my publicity has been because I’m dark-skinned. But I think the reaction would have been the same if I were white because of my features.” Note two things here:

1. She said she wasn’t white.
2. She described herself as “dark-skinned” as opposed to “Negro” or even “colored.” (And she wasn’t even that dark-skinned.)

When asked whether she thought her success was due to her color, she also told O’Brien, “I never think of myself as a brown-skinned girl.”

While Donyale was tuned into the racial struggle, Bryant says, “she felt that she should be above the fray.” She was a seeker. She adorned her third eye with bindis. She took psychedelics. She saw the Big Picture, where racism was resolved. There she dwelt—by herself, if necessary, until the struggle and fighting was over.

Not a position that gains you points in history, but understandable for an artist who chose to live her life at the mythic level. Three years later, sounding weary of the subject, she told Free Press reporter George Kirvay, “I honestly don’t know what I am. I’ve been described as being both a white person and a Negro. Whatever people want to think…they can.”

I’m not exonerating Donyale from the charge that she denied her heritage. At age 15 she told Sanders Bryant she was Hawaiian. At age 17 or 18 she told me she was Polynesian. She was honing a story that eventually included a Mexican father and a veritable but unverifiable smorgasbord of colorful ancestors.

But as was usually the case with Donyale’s fabrications, this one had some truth mixed in: her mother was half Irish and that entire side of her family, according to Sanders Bryant, “could have been more ‘Hawaiian’ than she was.”

Donyale was a scared little girl playing diva, the only role in life large enough for her to make her qualities virtues, not flaws. As such, she wasn’t tapped into the world of ordinary reality so much as a deeper, more powerful truth. She was descended from Nefertiti, from goddesses and mermaids. Her ancestry was part of her mythic life.

Many if not most of us, black and white alike, while being primarily of one ethnicity, have mixed heritage. Negroes were much more second-class citizens 45 years ago than now, and it was common for those who could pass for white or mixed to do so.

The mythic part of Donyale loved her skin. She was proud of it. The little girl part felt ashamed of it and afraid in the world. She passed; or at least she tried to. What a heady game to play when you’re front and center on the world stage!

From that location, every foible, every shortcoming becomes magnified in people’s minds. Donyale was no trailblazer, no Muhammad Ali. Neither are most of us, but we live with our other pedestrian fellows quietly and no one thinks badly of us.

Sometimes the times turn some of us into trailblazers. Donyale lived in one of those times, an extraordinary time. If she failed to pick up the machete, how does that make her worthy of anyone’s derision? It merely shows that in this arena she was ordinary. Rather than anger or blame, we might choose to feel compassion for her. What would you or I have done for our primary race in her shoes (when she wore them)?

How many of us can handle the limelight? Especially a limelight so dazzling, so sudden, so early in life, with no one to guide us through its blinding brilliance? When I first learned of Donyale’s rise to glory in 1966, after I had moved to California., I thought: “Of all the people I knew in Detroit, Donyale is the last one I would have wished fame upon.” (Incredibly, when I was seeing her, I didn’t even know she was seeking it.)

Be careful of what you wish for, the adage goes, lest your wish comes true. Donyale Luna’s wish came true and she paid the price: this subject of race that so pained and tormented her, this issue that she fled halfway across the globe to escape, was thrust in her face wherever she went.

Sanders Bryant, conversation, Nov. 2009
George Kirvay, Detroit Free Press, 1969
Colleen O’Brien, Detroit Free Press, 1966
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, 5/19/68
wikipedia, Donyale Luna

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.

Skidoo: Donyale Luna’s Only Hollywood Film

26 Oct

Donyale looking her most beautiful in this still from Skidoo

Great news! We’re taking time out from the chronicle of Donyale Luna’s childhood for an exciting event! Luna’s only Hollywood movie, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo—which Paramount Studios yanked and stuffed in its vaults after it flopped in 1968—will soon be available through Olive Films (olivefilms.com, click on Coming Soon on the far left). (It’s not there yet, but they promised soon.)

Skidoo—as befits Donyale—is… different. Maybe even weird. It’s one of the strangest films ever made by a major Hollywood studio and director: as one reviewer put it, “There’s no movie remotely like it.” And its making is filled with fascinating side stories.

Donyale is a bride

The bride looks pure and innocent, right down to the camera sundog on her heart. A moment later she kisses Cesar Romero (who isn't her groom)

Just about everyone who was anyone in Hollywood appeared in Skidoo: Jackie Gleason is retired gangster Tony Banks (likely a model for Tony
Soprano). Carol Channing (who hid her own racial mixture until 2002 and was never criticized for it) is his wife, Flo. Groucho Marx is his boss, “God.” Donyale Luna is God’s sex-crazed mistress. (Now there’s a screen credit! Groucho was 77 at the time; Donyale was 21 or 22, and of a different racial hue. But, as Preminger said, “Call a character God and everything becomes a little unreal.”) John Phillip Law, Arnold Stang, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, Alexandra Hay, George Raft, Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford, Slim Pickens, Frank Gorshin, Austin Pendleton…such awesome star power as was seldom gathered into one movie before or since. Rudi Gernreich designed Donyale’s shift, and Harry Nilsson wrote the music and sang the closing credits.

The film is also distinguished by who’s not in it. Faye Dunaway, atop the heap after Bonnie & Clyde, was originally cast in Donyale’s role but she refused, even though she was under contact and a resultant lawsuit by Preminger cost her dearly. Groucho was a last-minute replacement: Donyale might have wound up the mistress to Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger, Zero Mostel, Anthony Quinn, Alfred Hitchcock or Senator Everett Dirksen!

Skidoo was Groucho’s last film; for three of the stars— Pendleton, Hay and Luna—it was their first. Hay was recruited from the Warner Playhouse, where she was starring in Michael McClure’s The Beard, appearing nude and getting arrested nightly. Like Donyale, she died young—of heart failure at 46.

The story of how Donyale got the role is worth telling. Preminger “discovered” her at a party for Twiggy, where she invited him to a screening of Andy Warhol’s Snow White—written and starring Luna. At the screening, in Preminger’s office the next day, Warhol was silent until the director offered him a drink. Warhol asked if he had any amphetamines. Preminger proffered a box of diet pills. “He emptied the pill box,” recalled Preminger, “ate them all and still didn’t say anything.” Inside Warhol’s placid exterior, things must have been lighting up and shooting around like pinballs cascading in a machine. It’s a tribute to his nervous system that he could gulp gobs of speed down his craw and still sit there, outwardly as meditative as a monk.

The next day Donyale invited Preminger to lunch to ask if he wanted to finance Snow White. “I said I didn’t finance films,” recalled Preminger; “I directed them.”

“Oh, you direct too,” she said. Soon after, Dunaway bought out and Preminger, enthralled by Luna, signed her.

Donyale was ecstatic about her role: “…For the first time I can be someone I’ve always wanted to play, a sexy, seductive type of gangster girl. Now it’s even better. God’s girl.”

Donyale and Groucho

God and his mistress enjoy a game of bumper pool. How long is Luna's neck?!!

Her opening scene, standing beside Groucho at a pool table, accentuates her height. Thereafter she appears mostly beside 6’3” Cesar Romero or 6’5” John Phillip Law and appears less tall than she was.

How was her acting? Both she and Groucho gave the director fits with their opening pool table scene. “Luna’s inability to stand still while standing behind Marx’s chair drove Preminger to a fury,” reported a film student covering the set for his Ph.D. But the big problem was Groucho’s “inability, even with a teleprompter, to get through his lines.” This cost Donyale some screen exposure, as Preminger kept deleting lines, reducing the scene “down to the barest essentials.” It still required 14 takes.

She delivered her remaining lines  better than on the Detroit stage, although her laugh sounds forced at times. She adopted one of her patented made-up accents for the role—just a slight bend in the way she normally talked.

Donyale and John Phillip Law

"What's wrong with my body? Don't you like my body?" Twice she spoke these lines, which must have been liberating for her

But—as befits a model—Donyale did her real acting with her body. Clad in a lime-colored Gernreich shift, she undulates around God’s yacht like a snake. The reviews focused on her exposed derrierre cleavage, but the real attention-getter is her sweeping, sinewy bronzed back. Her fingers, long and spindly as daddy longlegs, are usually in motion and seem to occupy half the screen. Although they diminish her most spectacular feature, her blue contact lenses are startling.

Here’s a synopsis of Skidoo: From his yacht (it actually belonged to John Wayne), God (Groucho), orders retired mobster Tony (Gleason), living a suburban life with wife Carol Channing, to sneak into prison to off a squealer (Rooney). While Tony’s locked up, Flo and their daughter (Hay) open their house to a tribe of hippies led by Stash (Law). Behind bars, Tony accidentally ingests some LSD smuggled in by his cellmate (“the Professor,” Pendleton) and realizes he can’t kill anyone. He and the Professor dump the rest of the contraband into the prison lunch and pretty soon everyone in the joint is ripped. While the guards trip, Tony and the Professor escape in a jerry-rigged hot air balloon. They arrive on God’s yacht at the same time as Flo and the hippies. A new Tony approves his daughter’s marriage to Stash, while God and the Professor sail off into the sunset in a cannabis haze.

Donyale's fingers

"Her fingers, long and spindly as daddy longlegs, are usually in motion and seem to occupy half the screen"

After Skidoo landed with a huge belly-flop—some theaters yanked it within a week of opening—Paramount quietly stuffed it into the studio vaults, where it has remained until this autumn. Internet reviewers who call Skidoo the worst movie ever made suggest that Preminger’s children prevailed on Paramount to lock it up to save their father’s reputation. According to several IMDb reviewers, Preminger’s kids do claim Skidoo is “not their father’s best work.” But they may be less concerned about Skidoo’s quality than its politics. While it pokes fun equally at hippie culture and the Establishment (represented by the mobsters), it lands squarely in the corner of LSD: once Tony imbibes it, his violent instincts turn to mush.

In 1968, everyone in Hollywood was looking to capture the hippie mystique, but, except for Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), they were clueless. Preminger gave it the old college try: he dropped acid under Timothy Leary’s tutelage and even got Leary to star in the trailer. The Professor’s words of guidance as Tony comes on to the experience sound like Leary himself could have spoken them.

But the acid imagery is ludicrous (what did Preminger see on his journey? Certainly not screws with Groucho’s head on top!) and the actors, few of whom had any psychedelic experience, mostly played drunk. One could also argue that Preminger’s view of acid appears naïve in light of later revelations about CIA hanky-panky under the influence. But he may have been making fun of the hippie peace-and-love message.

Besides Preminger, Groucho also famously underwent a maiden voyage—at the age of 77!—with counterculture clown and Yippee! co-founder Paul Krassner, “to prepare for his role.” (Read Krassner’s account here.)

At least one other cast member was familiar with LSD. On May 19, 1968—during the shooting of Skidoo and 11 years to the day before her death—Donyale Luna extolled its virtues in the New York Times.

Donyale and Frankie Avalon

Oops! We wouldn't want to leave Frankie Avalon out of the harem

Donyale in Rudy Gernreich shift

The garb. The back. The behind. Luna by Gernreich

In September 1967, according to Andy Warhol in POPism, she castigated her roommates in New York for taking acid. Some time in between, she dropped for the first time. Was it also to prepare for her role? It’s doubtful she scored it from Preminger, who got his from Leary and tried it just once. Did she get turned on by the Beatles, with whom she was hanging out at the time? Or by someone in Rome, from where she flew to California for the film? If anyone reading has a clue as to who turned Donyale on—it’s another major unanswered question about her life.

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times liked Skidoo, but he was a lone voice in the wilderness: it was skewered by the critics, who understood acid and hippies even less than Preminger. With some exceptions, blogger critics have been harsh as well. Many of their points are well-taken: Skidoo is far from a comic masterpiece and it doesn’t always succeed even on its own terms. Had I seen it in 1968, I would have detested it for its shallowness and misunderstanding of hippie culture.

But having viewed it several times in 2009 and 2010, I like it for its goofiness and for the gentleness behind its jabs at both hippies and the Establishment. I come away feeling good. Preminger was known as a German autocrat whose sense of humor was lugubrious when it existed at all. But in Skidoo, with all its missed opportunities, embarrassing dialog and flat Hey-Look-at-Me sight gags, I think, for just one film, he tapped into a higher comic vein, one that blends compassion with slapstick and satire: he flashed us an Olympian smile at humanity’s foibles.

I think of Skidoo as a very ambitious film that failed nobly: besides American culture and the Sixties subculture, Preminger took on all of technology and seemed to be jousting at organized religion. He overreached and simply fell short, partly because he was too much in the Hollywood box to capture the social revolution in the streets and partly because his sense of humor was puerile and heavy-handed.

The seductress strikes again

Can Stash (John Phillip Law) resist these seductive charms?

Three things about the movie that I really love: 1. The production number at the end with Carol Channing singing “Skidoo” as the hippies invade God’s yacht 2. The entire prison population on LSD. Shockingly inaccurate, but what a concept! The screenplay wisely intersperses story development so it doesn’t grow tiring. 3. Our girl Donyale Luna, gliding gracefully around God’s yacht in her lime-green Gernreich shift, seducing every man she sees.

Chris Fujiwara, The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008, pp360-366
Pierre Greenfield, “Out of the Past: Skidoo,” parallax-view.org
Skidoo reviews, imdb.com
Paul Krassner, “I Took LSD with Groucho Marx”
Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed of Being Snow White, New York Times, 5/19/68.
Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, POPism: the Warhol ‘60s, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980, p237
wikipedia.com, Carol Channing

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.

Would you go back? Let us all know. Send a comment!


Sanders Bryant III, conversations Sept.-Oct. 2009

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

Metamorphosis Part II

20 Sep

As a young teen Peggy Ann Freeman was “crazy” about Johnny Mathis. “She was in love with him,” says her sister Lillian. “He was so handsome—a good-looking black person.” She also liked Motown and loved the movie West Side Story.

But this was the Beatnik era, and Peggy Ann, as she stepped into the role of Donyale Luna, acquired more subterranean tastes. Jazz. Folk music, especially Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Poetry. And of course theatre. She hung out with beau/friend Sanders Bryant at a coffeehouse called the Chessmate. They took in stage productions of Porgy and Bess.

Some pop stars made the cut through her evolving preferences: Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., the entire Rat Pack. She enjoyed Dr. Zhivago and the original cast production of The Music Man.

And Elizabeth Taylor—although when I took her to see Ms. Taylor’s Cleopatra, what enthralled her most was the character of Cleopatra.

Young Donyale star-struck

The newly-minted Donyale Luna was star-struck. She dreamed of being a movie star herself. “Continuously. That’s all you would see, hear or smell from Donyale,” says sister Lillian.  “‘Oh, I’ve got to go to practice. I’ve got to go to rehearsal. I’ve got to go to this place over here; we’re having practice. We’re having cast party.’ She was totally into it.”

“She was always busy, involved,” Sanders Bryant concurs. “She wasn’t at home in front of the TV set; she stayed out a lot.” She didn’t hang out with friends often because “she was involved in plays after school, singing, other activities.”

Donyale’s constant whirl was painful to Lillian. “I wanted to go too,” she says, “ but she never invited me and I didn’t want to just bust in and be rude. I was so jealous I didn’t know what to do. She was always going somewhere and I couldn’t go anywhere.”

Donyale was nothing if not sensitive, and she must have felt Lillian’s unhappiness. Some big sisters might try to include her. Others, especially anyone on as fast a track as Donyale Luna, spinning by her younger sister as she danced into her dreams, might not.

As Chastity in Anything Goes

Donyale opposite Bob Moldowan in Detroit Civic Theatre production of Anything Goes. Donyale played Chastity

At age 16 and 17, Donyale was performing onstage at the Civic Center Theatre in Detroit, appearing as Cherry in Paint Your Wagon, Ariel in The Tempest, Chastity in Anything Goes and Terry (the lead) in Stage Door.

Donyale’s first flirtation with fame may have come not under the limelight, however, but in another arena. She loved singing and joined the Commerce High chorus, another small chorus at school and a large choir in Glee Club as well. And she was talented enough to be accepted into the Honors Choir.

At that time Diana Ross was attending high school at Cass Tech, next door to Commerce. Sanders Bryant was driving Donyale somewhere when the Supremes’ first song came on the radio. “Imagine when she told me she was singing backup when that was recorded! It almost caused me to have an accident!” He recalled dropping her off at the Motown door some months before. “That door led directly down to Studio A.,” he says. “There was no lobby, nowhere else to go.”

Sang with Supremes?

Lillian is skeptical that it happened. “That was something big; she would have told me about that.”

The Supremes

Did Donyale sing with the Supremes? Diana Ross graduated from Cass Tech 1½ years before Donyale did from sister school Commerce High. Ms. Ross co-produced and starred in the movie Mahogany, about a black supermodel, which some say is based on the life of Donyale Luna. Maybe Donyale was the starting point, but there are few similarities.

It’s hard to know. Donyale was a master at deception, but her lies were usually more creative than simply claiming she did something that she didn’t.

Bryant, who took journalism classes with her in high school, believes that even more than her well-chronicled ambition to be a great actress (“like Anna Magnani”), she aspired to writing screenplays and stage plays. “She had already written some screenplays,” Bryant says. “Andy Warhol shot Snow White, which she wrote back in high school. She was planning to go to the University of Hawaii—she still lived and talked this Hawaiian persona with me—to pursue a writing career. She always thought in international terms.”

When I was seeing Donyale, whenever I mentioned my writing to her she would tell me she had written eight books. Or four books, or several books: the number kept changing.

“What kind of books?” I asked once.

“Stories. Books of stories.”

I asked her if I could see them, but none were forthcoming. She told me so many other things that weren’t true that I didn’t believe her. One of my many shocks in researching Donyale Luna 45 years later was learning that yes, she had written books in high school. She may have been afraid to show them to me because I wrote theatre reviews. I was young and my critiques were not always kind.

“A natural born dancer”

Teenage Donyale had yet another artistic love: dance. Early on she combined that with her thespian ambitions: three of her four roles with the Civic Center Theatre were primarily dance roles. “She was a natural born dancer,” says Roland Sharette, the theatre’s Managing Director.

What possessed Peggy Ann Freeman to rip up her entire personality and even her inner workings and launch such a sweeping change in who she was? Physically there was the obvious—to enhance her chances of realizing her dreams of writing, acting and dancing.  Underneath that lurked two deeper motivations.

First, she lived inside a female form that daily grew increasingly unlike any other that she, or anyone else, had ever seen. Maybe she was from the moon! She had a choice of slouching over and trying to look invisible or of stepping into it, creating a being that could contain the vehicle and its strange, unearthly beauty.

Yes, she was star-struck, yes she was driven to become famous. But that was only the surface manifestation of an inner knowledge, of which she was most likely only hazily conscious, that she was destined to live a mythic life.

This may have been part of what led her to Catholicism: she was looking for strength to meet her destiny. Her joining the church was the formal beginning of a path of spiritual seeking that would wind through psychedelics, the eclectic smorgasbord of Eastern mysticism that swept through the hippie culture, stones and crystals, and something of her own creation, “Future Visioning,” a pre-New Age version of creating your identity by imagining it.

Did she succeed? Who ruled whom? Which won?

Second, part of becoming Donyale Luna was choosing to always be happy. “She wiped out all the negative and accepted only the positive,” says Lillian. “That was Donyale Luna. Her world, her way.”

This suggests that, for whatever reasons, young Peggy Ann Freeman spent a lot of her time feeling unhappy. Unhappy over what? Two big issues come to mind. We’ll look at one of them next time in “Four Weddings and a Funeral: Donyale’s Parents.”

Did this post hit a chord? Send a comment.


Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2008
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April 1966
Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, U. of    Chicago Press, 2008
Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

Metamorphosis: Peggy Ann Freeman becomes Donyale Luna

9 Sep

(This a long one; I’ve divided it into two parts. Since the only photo extant of Donyale Luna at this time in her life is her high-school graduation photo, I have tried to be creative.)

The child is father of the man
—William Wordsworth

The girl is mother of the woman
—what Wordsworth would have written if she were a woman                                   

During the course of her high-school years, Peggy Ann Freeman undertook one of the most radical personal transformations imaginable. In what her younger sister Lillian still refers to almost 50 years later as “The Great Change,” she shed her childhood as Peggy Ann and bloomed into one of the most unique personae of her time: Donyale Luna. It didn’t happen overnight. Peggy Ann carefully constructed “Donyale Luna” piece by piece. While the metamorphosis was essentially complete by graduation day, the fine-tuning into eccentric diva continued over many years.

Donyle Lun high school graduation pic

Donyale’s high-school graduation photo, published in June 1964 and taken in autumn of 1963. She looks attractive but not extraordinarily beautiful; her height doesn’t show. When I started seeing her a few months after this, she was leagues more stunning, with her hair down and her eyes—the photo only hints at their size. On her face is a subdued version of the perpetual smile that she wore when I knew her. Photo courtesy Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library main branch

The Great Change began as Peggy Ann and Lillian entered their teens. Peggy Ann began distancing herself from Lillian and the family. Except for Church and the outings to museums and movies, they saw her less and less.

For Lillian, part of the separation came because they now attended different schools. Peggy Ann was bright and already ambitious: she applied herself and got into prestigious High School of Commerce, which, along with next-door Cass Tech, were the schools where judges, politicians, professionals—anybody who was anybody—sent their kids. “I wasn’t dumb,” says Lillian; “I just didn’t do my work. I didn’t have the kind of motivation she had.” Lillian attended Central High.

The two sisters also didn’t share the usual gossip about boys. “Donyale withdrew. She had her own way of doing everything. She didn’t need me for anything. I felt hurt about that. Everything changed.”

Donyale wanted “lots of babies”

Donyale did confide in Lillian that she wanted to have lots of babies. “We both did,” says Lillian. “When you’re from a small family, you want to have more family around you.”

Another point of separation, unusual for sisters so close in age: they didn’t share clothes. “That was a big thing with her,” Lillian says.  “‘Wear your own clothes; don’t touch my clothes. My clothes are folded up in my drawer. You leave my clothes alone; you’ve got your own clothes.’”

By childhood’s end Donyale had constructed the barrier between her and the person she was closest to: her sister. Did she ever come back into close contact again?

Donyale Luna in Paco Rabanne dress, by Richard Avedon

“Wear your own clothes; don’t touch my clothes.” This is among the photos Richard Avedon took of Donyale wearing Paco Rabanne outfits.

By the age of 15, Donyale was 5’10” and rail-thin, and on her way to 6’3” by graduation. (Was she really 6’3”? I’ll talk about that in a future blog.) How many items of clothing could she share with Lillian, who topped out at about 5’8”?

Of course, a big part of the metamorphosis was orchestrated by God. Not just any woman can be 6’3,” 110 to 120 pounds, and “so beautiful that people would stop eating if they were in a restaurant and they saw her walking by,” according to her friend in later life, fellow supermodel Pat Cleveland.

From gangly to heartthrob

Peggy Ann Freeman was tall and gangly; “some students made fun of her because of her height and unusual looks,” recalls fellow Condon Jr. High student Kenneth Collier, who nonetheless “had a teen crush on her because she was so beautiful.” By high school, Donyale Luna was unarguably gorgeous. “She was tall and lean, and a very imposing figure,” says ex-beau Sanders Bryant. “The guys were intimidated. Even the girls. People would just back up.”

Donyale wore only the lightest of makeup when I met her; with those features she didn’t need much. Her looks were, besides spectacular, picture-perfect. I don’t remember any jewelry either, though Bryant says she wore her mother’s bracelets up above her elbows.

Earlier on Donyale had one blemish, which she corrected before I met her: a gap in her teeth. “Right in the middle,” says Lillian. “She fixed it herself for awhile, putting some gum or something hard in it and letting it stay there. Then she got her teeth fixed.”

The physical transformation was now complete. Kenneth Collier ran into her at a department store and called out “Peggy.” “But by this time she was Donyale Luna and just smiled at me. She was even more beautiful than before.” She was soon to become the most sought-after, famous and highly paid fashion model in the world.

Donyale Luna from Hawaii

When Sanders Bryant met the unfolding diva at age 15, “she was already radiant and gorgeous.” They were in the Cass Tech high school cafeteria, and our girl was working on a film script. She introduced herself as Donyale Luna, recently arrived from Hawaii. Her parents had been killed in an auto accident and she was adopted. “She continued that story as long as I knew her,” says Bryant, “even after I knew her mother and father and that she was born in Ford Hospital right here in Detroit.”

When I met her at 17, she said she was Polynesian. The car crash and dead parents were still in the story, although a few months later she told me she lived with her mother.

“What’s interesting about the car crash part,” says Lillian,  “is that when Donyale was about 15 or 16, she was practicing driving in the garage. She went forward when she meant to go backward and drove the car right through the garage. It made her afraid to drive. I don’t think she ever drove.”

Besides being the most strangely beautiful woman I had ever seen, Donyale also had the most beautiful voice, a voice like music. Were the vocals part of her makeover?

Donyale’s unique speech

“Some reporters claimed that Donyale made up her accent. It wasn’t an affectation,” claims Sanders Bryant. “It was actually her real self, her true speech. Donyale, her sister and her mother all sounded alike. Often when I called I’d have to ask, ‘Who am I talking to?’ Once I spent 15 minutes talking with her mother when I thought it was Donyale.”

“The way she had of talking, that was made up!” says Lillian. “That was ‘Donyale Luna.’. Lillian does a great imitation: “’My name is Donyale Luna’.

“It was like she was singing. But she never talked that way until she became Donyale. Then her voice changed too. By the time she finished high school, she completely re-made her self. To a T.”

Again, here we have two of the people who were closest to Donyale 180 degrees apart over a basic aspect of her life. Whom to believe? Bryant didn’t meet her until she was 15. I figure she may have completed the vocal component of Donyale Luna before then and had him fooled too.

Donyale stopped going to church with the family. Most teens do. But at about age 16 she also started leaving the house in the wee hours each morning.

“Where you going out every morning with a rag on your head?’” Lillian asked her. (The rag was a scarf.)

Catholic convert

“I’m going to Mass.” Unlike most teens, and certainly unlike most youngsters with a beatnik bent, Donyale converted from the family’s Presbyterian faith to Catholicism. The Catholic church was just behind the Freeman house on Glendale Ave. Sometimes teens will switch churches through the influence of a friend. But as far as anyone knows, Donyale did it on her own.

luna, wrapped

Donyale's youthful conversion to Catholicism inaugurated a lifetime of spiritual exploration. Photo by Luigi Cazzaniga

What could have attracted someone with such avant-garde tastes to Catholicism, which even then was the religion young people left, not joined?  “I think it was mostly the pomp and circumstance,” says Sanders Bryant, who witnessed the conversion— “the formality and the ritual of it.”

The pomp and circumstance and ritual must have appealed to Donyale’s love of theatre. And the formality may have given her a sense of structure that she must have needed sorely as she ventured out alone on her great adventure as a Mythic Being. She never formally left Catholicism, although she eventually “just got too busy” to continue her daily devotions. She continued exploring psychedelic and mystical experiences until her death at 33— the same age as You Know Who when He died.


Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2008

Kenneth Collier, blog comment—rats, lost the blog

High School of Commerce, Detroit, yearbook, 1964

Barbara Summers, Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models,         Amistad Press, 1998

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2008