Tag Archives: first black cover girl

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.

Sanders Bryant, conversation, Nov. 2009
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


Donyale Luna arrives on the planet, somewhere, sometime

20 Jul
Donyale Luna, head shaved, as salome

"I'm from the moon, baby!" Donyale as Salome in Carmelo Bene's 1972 film, head shorn before a blood-red moon

Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, was, for two years in the U.S. and for a dozen years afterward in Europe, famous beyond her wildest dreams. (And she dreamed wildly!) Time magazine proclaimed 1966 “The Year of Luna.” Andy Warhol used her in five movies. She was Salvador Dali’s compadre and favorite model. Her lovers were film and rock stars—even a real prince.

The spotlight was ubiquitous and intense. Yet it captured no more than her silhouette. Her inner life, and even large chunks of what was knowable, remained wrapped in mystery.

This is as Donyale wanted it. Once past her first few interviews in her native Detroit, she hit her stride as an enigma, seldom giving two reporters the same answer to the same question. When I encountered this trait in her at age 17 or 18 (Which was it? More about that later), I concluded that she had a hard time separating reality from fantasy. While I still think that was partly so, her later interviews show that she clearly liked to play with the media.

At any rate, here and now in 2010 a host of Internet sites about her are issuing contradictory facts or information that just ain’t so. Donyale’s ghost rises from her grave, gives us that Giocanda smile and says, “I’m seven feet tall,  I can see out of my third eye and I eat rats.”

The intrigue starts with her birth: when was it? and continues right up to her death: what was the cause? This post examines just the beginnings. And only the basics, the kind of questions to which we more prosaic mortals give the same monotonous answers every day: name, birthdate, place of birth.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s Henry Ford, already one of America’s most innovative geniuses, came up with perhaps his most novel idea: pay Negroes as much as whites to work in his auto factory. This altered America’s sociological landscape as radically as his Model T and other vehicles altered the physical landscape. Negroes poured into Detroit from the South. Along with them came a man named Hertzog, who was not Negro but German. But he lived with a tall, dark and beautiful woman named Peggy. Peggy was mulatto, but at that time in America anyone with one drop of Negro blood was considered Negro. The Hertzogs had a daughter, Josephine, born sometime around 1936. Their relationship went on the rocks, and soon after their arrival in Detroit Peggy was on her own. She shipped Josephine back to Georgia to be raised by her sister.

The tragic circumstances that led to the star-crossed union of Peggy with Nathaniel Freeman are lost in the mists of time. We know only that Nate’s family also arrived from Georgia to cash in on Henry Ford’s magnanimity, and he and Peggy met and eventually married.

Nate, like Peggy, may not have been a full-blooded Negro. His youngest daughter Lillian identifies him as “a black man from Georgia.” But his eldest daughter Peggy Ann (aka Donyale Luna) claimed he  was, among other things, Mexican and “Quechuan, from the Islands.” Now, Quechuan is not an ethnicity but a family of languages, spoken originally by the Incas. It’s still spread among the indigenous tribes of northwestern South America.

Donyale is a most unreliable source. But the photo below shows a man whose high cheekbones and narrow nose look more Incan than Negro: might Donyale have known something about her father that Lillian did not? Quechuan is not spoken in the Caribbean. But Nate or his forbears could have moved. Negro or Native American, he must have descended from slaves to carry the surname “Freeman.”

Donyale Luna age 7 months with dad

Dad and Peggy Ann, age 7 months, from The Imperfect Dream, a fictionalized biography of Donyale by Dorothy Maria Wingo. This is the only known extant photo of Nathaniel Freeman and the only known extant photo of Donyale before she was 17.

What was her name?

Nate and Peggy conceived two daughters—and here, at its start, we enter the maze of conundrums that made up the life of Donyale Luna.  The first daughter, Peggy Ann, re-named herself Donyale Luna in high school and insisted thereafter that Luna was her “real” father’s last name. ‘Donyale Luna’ was the short version: the full name was “Peggy Anne Donyale Aragonea Peugot Luna.” She  frequently gave the whole mouthful to the media, who duly reported it as her birth name.  At least one top current website, fashion insider, still repeats it.

Donyale’s parents named her after her mother, Peggy Freeman, adding a middle ‘Ann’ to keep the two from becoming confused with each other on documents, forms, mail etc. At home they were simply Big Peggy and Little Peggy. Duke University art historian Richard Powell, Donyale’s most accurate biographer, inexplicably tacks an ‘a’ onto her middle name: Anna. But according to younger sister Lillian, and to various newspaper articles in Detroit, she was born Peggy Ann Freeman, no ‘a’ after Ann and no ‘e’ either.


Where was Donyale Luna born? When ex-beau and lifelong friend Sanders Bryant met her at age 15, she told him she was from Hawaii. When I met her a couple years later, she was Polynesian. During her final decade, in Italy, she often told the media that she came from Boston. She also told them she ate three kilos of meat every day and had three brothers who played in a band, but they still duly printed Boston without checking.

Donyale continued the Hawaiian charade with Bryant all her life, even though he was a close friend of the whole family and knew she was born right there in grimy old Detroit. “In Henry Ford Hospital,” he says.

Eventually, when asked where she was born, the diva came up with the last word: “I’m from the moon, baby!”


Finally, when did this mystery woman arrive on the planet? Four dates are in contention: Aug. 31, 1945 and 1946, and Jan. 1, 1945 and 1946.

Richard Powell claims it was Aug 31, 1946. His source, who ought to know, is Donyale’s mother, quoted in The Detroit News. Judith Stone of the New York Times, who claims Donyale’s birth certificate as authority for her name, pegs her as 18 years old when her landmark Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared in Jan. 1965, which also jibes with the 1946 date.

I too subscribe to Aug. 1946. When I met Donyale in Dec. 1963 or Jan. 1964, she told me she was 17. I know better than to take Donyale’s word for anything. But what high-school girl lies about her age backwards, especially to an older boyfriend and his cohorts?

However, sister Lillian, who also ought to know, claims she was born in August, 1946, when Donyale was already a year old. Ex-beau Sanders Bryant, born Aug. 27, 1945, insists that he and Donyale were only a few days apart in age.

Donyale Luna high school graduation photo

“P Freeman” graduated from Detroit’s High School of Commerce in Jan. 1964. Photo courtesy of Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library, main branch

What can we learn from Donyale’s high-school yearbook?  “P Freeman” graduated in Jan. 1964. Most kids enter kindergarten at age 5, turn 6 during the school year and graduate 12+ years later in June at age 18. Those born in summer, like Donyale, enter school so soon after their fifth birthday that they’re still 5 when kindergarten ends in June and therefore still only 17 when they graduate in June 12 years later.

Those in the January class either take an extra load and graduate early or fail some classes and graduate late. Donyale was a bright student; she conceivably could have finished school early. If she were scheduled to graduate in June of 1964, she would have been in kindergarten from Sept. 1951 to June 1952, placing her birthdate in 1946.

But Lillian believes Donyale had to make up some classes (probably because she took too many artistic electives). That means she should have graduated in June 1963, at age 17, and sets her birthday in Aug. 1945. That also jibes with the birthdate Lillian ascribes to her.

The Jan. 1 dates appear on various Internet sites. Most of them stem from Wikipedia, which says Jan. 1, 1945. Where did Wikipedia get the date from? If Donyale Luna were to make up her birthday, what better one to choose than Jan. 1? Not that our girl would ever do a thing like that!

(Note to Djellabah, who wrote the Wikipedia entry: If you read this, will you please send a comment? I’d like to compare notes with you.)

uncredited detroit news photo of Donyale Luna

This uncredited photo from Richard Avedon’s spread in the April, 1965 Harper’s Bazaar accompanied the article “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” by Detroit News Fashion Editor Yvonne Petrie, a year later. Petrie reported that Donyale was 19 when the article appeared, which would set her birthday in Aug. 1946.

Did Judith Stone of the New York Times actually see Donyale’s birth certificate? For some reason birth records are confidential to anyone but immediate family—even records of celebrities who have been dead for 31 years. The mystery could be solved in a moment if the Michigan Dept. of Vital Statistics would simply make the document available.

So there you have it: three solid sources, including (indirectly) Donyale’s mother, assert that she was born Aug. 31, 1946. Two probably even better sources say Aug. 31, 1945. Which date is more persuasive to you?

NEXT BLOG: “She was always a weird child”…but was she?


Sanders Bryant III, conversations, Sept.-Oct. 2009

High School of Commerce, Detroit, yearbook, 1964, in Detroit Public Library, main branch, Burton Collection

Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April ?, 1966

Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black portraiture, U. of Chicago Press, 2008

Judith Stone, “Luna, Who Dreamed She was Snow White,” New York Times, May 19, 1968.

Lillian Washington, conversations, Oct. 2009 & July 2010

wikipedia: donyale luna