Tag Archives: first black supermodel

Farewell Motor City; Welcome to the Big Apple!

4 Jul

Donyale Luna in her last role in Detroit, as Chastity in the Detroit Civic Center production of Anything Goes, Aug. 1964. Photo by Karen Roscup

As a stagestruck teen, Donyale Luna, the world’s first black supermodel, used to wander through the landmark Fisher Theater in Detroit, hoping to spy someone famous.

As she strolled through those hallowed halls in Sept. 1964, barefoot as she often was, little did she know that the gods of fame had set her in their crosshairs. New York photographer David McCabe, on corporate assignment in Detroit but also well-connected in the Big Apple fashion scene, took one look at her lissome lankiness and invited her to New York to display it to people he knew at Harper’s Bazaar.

Donyale’s friend Karen Miller remembers the last time she saw her in Detroit, sitting at the piano in Verne’s Bar, leaning forward with her head on her hands and listening to Johnny Mathis singing, “When Sunny Gets Blue.” “She looked sort of blue herself,” says Miller.

As usual with Donyale Luna, several versions exist of the actual whereabouts of the encounter with McCabe, including while leaving a rehearsal at a number of playhouses, most of which she never performed at (including the Fisher itself) and one where Luna vaguely told a reporter it “might have been outside radio station WWJ.” McCabe has declined to talk with me, leaving the matter enshrouded in mystery to this day. But counting up the references, The Fisher comes out on top.

Several versions also exist of exactly what McCabe offered the not-yet model. Donyale’s friends told Yvonne Petrie of the Detroit News that he gave her a plane ticket. But ex-beau Sanders Bryant dispels that: “I drove her to the bus.”

Donyale didn’t even go straight to the Apple. Her mom was not happy about the move: “I tried to discourage her from going to New York because I had heard so much that was bad about it.” But Donyale kept insisting she was 18. They reached a compromise: Donyale could go live with her aunt in New Jersey and get a job while pursuing modeling in her free time.

It didn’t take our girl long to wheedle her way across the river, however. She became a junior secretary (i.e., typist) with Alpha Wire Corp., which outfitted her with a special chair to accommodate her lengthy legs and torso. “I don’t like it” she wrote to Karen Miller on Nov. 23. “It was the only way my aunt would let me live in New York.”

From the desk of Donyale Luna of Alpha Wire: letter home to Karen Miller ("Tyger Roscup")

Donyale described her Manhattan apartment (417 W. 57th St, Apt 4E), with its large living room and cozy fireplace, which Miller thinks may have been a fantasy. She had apparently already been discovered: she was working with “Stuart” (Eileen Stewart, the top modeling agency in the city) and had done a gig for Harper’s Bazaar for $100/day, with another shoot slated for February. “All of New York wants to take my picture,” she wrote.

But she was poised to toss it all to become “the greatest actress that ever was.” She was joining Actors Equity and SAG and would give up modeling after her Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared in March. “I hope and pray that my acting career will be just as successful.” If acting wasn’t the same rocket ride as modeling, she had enough money to see her through the next year.

Like many a young woman off on her own in a strange city for the first time, Donyale was lonely living by herself. She was going to put up signs looking for a roommate.

The letter was typed, and signed “Donyale George Tyger Luna.”(George, she explained in a subsequent letter, was a new middle name.)

A month later (12/21/64) came a shorter, handwritten letter. “I receive 6 stars/hour for modeling she wrote. ($60?) Avedon was photographing her.

“Look for me in Harper’s Bazaar.”

“I’m living a beautiful dream.”

“I shall receive my Emmy.”

She alluded to “men problems” and repeated a refrain: “Don’t worry about me.” (Karen was concerned: she knew Donyale’s imagination and thought her stories were too good to be true.)

Christmas letter to "Tyger" in Donyale's handwriting

Donyale accumulated names like some people collect stamps. Note her new name here.

Karen also received a phone call about that time. Donyale was still lonely and wanted her to move to New York with her.

Fashion modeling is not a profession for the fainthearted. For every beautiful young hopeful who arrives in Bigtown, gets an agent, puts together a “book” and hits the agencies hoping for a contract, maybe one in 1,000 ever makes enough money at it to consider it a “living.”

The former Peggy Ann Freeman hit New York at age 18 with no agent, no publicist, no manager and no “book.” Beside her looks, she had only one asset: an introduction to Harper’s Bazaar by photographer David McCabe. She parlayed that into a rocket ride like no other model in history.

The fashion world was brimming to capture the revolutionary fervor of the times, just waiting for a spectacular Negro woman to appear. Look out everyone, here comes Donyale Luna! All 6’ 3” and 110 pounds of her.

When McCabe introduced her to Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Nancy White, art directors Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler and senior fashion editor China Machado, an ex-model herself, “they just went crazy,” Donyale said later. They tore up their January cover and hired an outside artist, ex-model Katharina Denzinger, to make the breakthrough line drawing of Donyale that replaced it. Denzinger also drew six full-color sketches of her for the inside pages. “The Bazaar editors came (to the one-room studio apartment where I did the work) with the clothes, and uniformed cops watched while Donyale modeled and I drew her,” Denzinger told Richard Powell.

Harper’s also signed Donyale to an exclusive one-year contract with their top photographer, a guy named Richard Avedon, at the highest wage in modeling history to that time: $60/hour. Did Luna negotiate this, or was it their initial offer? Either way, for a girl with no one to represent her, she did all right!

The cover that launched a fashion revolution: Donyale Luna, line drawing, Harper's Bazaar, Jan. 1965

Next: The Big Apple has some worms in it.

References:

Sanders Bryant III, conversation, Sept.-Oct. 2009
Karen Miller, conversation, March 2011
Yvonne Petrie, “Barefoot Girl with Chic,” Detroit News, April 1966Lillian Washington, conversation, Sept.-Oct. 2009
Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, University of Chicago Press, 2008

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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

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.

Sources:
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.

Before Donyale Luna came Peggy Ann Freeman

22 Aug

We have seen that Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, was not as weird a child as we might have supposed Like Tillie Williams, she was odd and queer, but she was not peculiar. Now a look at her life growing up. We are all indebted to Donyale’s sister Lillian Washington for these first-ever glimpses into Donyale’s childhood.

Donyale Luna dressed as schoolgirl

No photos are extant of Donyale between the ages of 7 months and 17 or 18 years. Is this how she looked as a schoolgirl?

Peggy Ann Freeman was reared on Detroit’s near northeast side. Her father, Nathaniel Freeman, worked for 37 years at Ford Motor Co., mostly in the foundry. Her mother, Peggy Freeman, was the receptionist at the downtown YWCA for 27 years. Although her parents’ relationship was difficult and her father often lived separately, the family was relatively stable and no more dysfunctional than most.

A notable feature of Peggy Ann’s childhood is that the Freemans were always moving: her sister Lillian recalls living in six houses in the space of about six years. “I didn’t understand when I was young why we moved so much,” Lillian says. Later she figured out that her mother was playing real estate. “She bought the houses, then she moved and rented them out, or we’d just swap one for the other. They were nice houses.”

Donyale Luna's Detroit house

This house, on Burlingame St., was Donyale Luna’s last home in Detroit. I took the photo in 2009; you can see a Condemned sign on the door. Childhood photos of Donyale and letters to her family may still remain inside, ready to be destroyed by the wrecking ball

In those days, the combined salaries of a factory worker and a YWCA receptionist allowed for real estate investments. Says Sanders Bryant, who met Donyale at age 15 and remained friends throughout her life: “A factory worker’s earnings were actually more than a lot of professional people’s. Not more than doctors, but more than teachers, definitely. It afforded a lifestyle where, particularly in Detroit, you could own property. So even though it was a working-class family, with both of them employed they did well. Donyale’s mother owned several houses and apartment buildings. She was an astute businesswoman. She wanted to move and become more upscale.”

Scotten Ave. house

Although each house was more upscale than the last, Lillian’s fondest memories are of the first one, on Scotten Ave. “We had a big back yard with two apple trees and a plum and a pear tree. My mother was an excellent cook. She made everything you can make with those apples: apple turnovers, apple fritters, apple pie, applesauce—you name it, she made it.”

In this house, in which she and Peggy Ann were raised until junior high, the two sisters were also closest. They were just a year apart, and they played together at everything.

Donyale Luna chrysalis photo by frank horvat

According to many sources, Frank Horvat shot this famous "Chrysalis" photo in New York in 1960, when Donyale was only 14.

This Frank Horvat photo may precede Avedon's similar shot in Harper's, April 1965

Not so. Horvat's site gives a 1960 date for both of these photos, but the photographer says he erred and the year was likely 1964.

Grade school days were pretty Elm Street. The girls each had their own bedroom. School days they would get up, wash up, get dressed and eat breakfast. “My mother always made us eat breakfast. She cooked everything from scratch. We had oatmeal a lot, sometimes grapefruit, sometimes regular cereal.”

Then they would get their gear together and off they went. They ate lunch at school. “School lunches were good back then,” says Lillian.

The Freemans didn’t take family vacations together, but Peggy Ann and Lillian enjoyed summer vacation at home.  In the afternoons, they would go swimming in the big pool at the Cronx gym, where Tommy Hearns and other pro boxers trained.

They also attended a summer camp program sponsored by the City of Detroit. “We’d go by bus to Belle Isle or River Rouge Park. We’d pack our lunch, and they served hot dogs and soda. We’d walk on adventure trails, eat lunch, then play games.”

Luna by Avedon pic at DIA

This photo by Richard Avedon, of Donyale in a Paco Rabanne dress, couldn’t get published when it was taken. In 2009 it was blown up 15 feet high to advertise the Avedon exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). It brought Donyale back home to DIA, one of her favorite childhood and teen-age haunts.

Donyale consumed more than her share of hot dogs and soda. Amazingly for someone so tall and so thin, she always had a voracious appetite. “She’d eat anything and everything and never gain a pound,” says Lillian.  “She was raised like that. When your mother cooks from scratch, when you have a good cook for a mother…”

The family attended church on Sunday, and afterward they would visit the art museum and the other museums on Woodward, and then eat dinner in a restaurant. The museums were Big Peggy’s idea. “We got our cultural upbringing from my mother,” recalls Lillian.

They also went to the movies a lot. “That was the big thing, that and going to swimming practice,” says Lillian. “My dad was usually living in the house then, and sometimes he’d take us to the show on the bus.”

Dancing with Donyale

Lillian also remembers dancing with Peggy Ann and one of their girlfriends in a talent contest at the church. “We wore white pleated skirts and tap shoes and black leotards and black shirts,” she says. “We didn’t win, but we were so cute.” The memory brings laughter.

Later on, during junior high school, Peggy Ann and Lillian attended dancing lessons together, studying ballet, tap and modern dance. “We used to take our little cases with our tap-dancing shoes and catch the bus,” recalls Lillian.  For Lillian it was just fun: she had no dreams of becoming a dancer. But Peggy was much more serious about it. Even then, “everything she did was exotic and different. That’s why she got noticed so much. She was different.”

Donyale Luna leads the chorus line

Yep, that's our girl in front. In Detroit, Donyale was considered a better dancer than an actress.

Christmas was a big deal for the girls: tree with ornaments, presents, decorations all around the house. Birthdays, on the other hand, were low-key. Mom didn’t allow birthday parties or gifts. “Just Happy Birthday, and that was it,” Lillian recalls. “ I might have had one or two birthday cakes my whole childhood.”

The household usually included pets, more than likely strays that Peggy Ann brought home.  Sanders Bryant remembers her making him stop his car so she could “rescue” some kittens from under a car at 3am.

Lots of pets

“She loved little animals,” says Lillian. “If my mother and father allowed it, she’d have it.” Dogs, mostly, and they each had a rabbit. A cat once, but not when Nate lived at home: he didn’t like cats.

Donyale Luna with her terrier

Donyale never lost her love of animals. She was often photographed with her little white terrier, and once made a scene when a restaurant wouldn’t let it dine with her. Does anyone out there know her dog's name? Photo: still from "Tonight Let's All Make Love in London" by Peter Whitehead

While she lived at home, Peggy Ann Freeman never had to hold a job. “Her job was acting and being in plays and the arts,” says Lillian.

“Overall,” says ex-beau Sanders Bryant, “Donyale lived a fairly comfortable life growing up. It was a nice neighborhood, she went to a good school, she had clothes—the family was fairly affluent; she wasn’t deprived.”

Mom was pretty stern though. She didn’t allow her daughters to associate with their uncles on dad’s side. In fact, she didn’t allow Nate’s brothers in the house. “They drank, and she didn’t like alcohol in the house,” says Lillian. “You could barely smoke a cigarette, even though she smoked.”

Sanders Bryant says that Lillian told him Big Peggy was “quite harsh and physically abusive” to Donyale and her elder half-sister Josephine. Lillian concurs about Josephine: “She was treated like a princess in Georgia. And then she came home and the walls came tumbling down. My mother treated her very harshly.” But, she says, if anything, Peggy Ann got preferential treatment. “She wasn’t tough on Donyale at all. Donyale got better everything.”

A high-energy girl

Maybe big sister had mom wrapped the same way she had whomever else she chose to. The most signal quality of young Peggy Ann Freeman was her energy level. “She didn’t have an off-switch,” says Bryant. “She was always upbeat. She ran at such a high-octane level that it was almost draining.”

This extraordinary effervescence gave Peggy Ann a hypnotic effect on people even before she made the transition from gangly to beautiful. An example: Although she was “terrible” with money (a trait that didn’t change when she became Donyale), she had, according to Lillian, a talent for getting money out of other people.

“She’d think of something and get a container and collect money for a project. She’d say, ‘Oh, this is for this fund.’ ‘Oh, I need bus fare.’ Or, ‘Would you like to contribute to…?’ yata yata. She would keep the money. I’d say, ‘How are you doing it? You’re swindling these people.’ Whoever she was talking to would be hypnotized; they would give her anything she asked for.

“She could be overwhelming at times. Convincing, and overwhelming too.” But not with everyone. “She’d pick her people. She’d check them out, and if she figured she couldn’t get away with anything, or if things weren’t going the way she wanted them to go, she didn’t turn on her wiles.”

Bryant also remembers Peggy Ann “double-dipping” allowances, collecting from both parents when father was living apart.

Although I never saw it, Peggy Ann apparently had a temper. “She had a long fuse,” says Lillian, “but don’t get her mad.” When the girls were teenagers, Peggy Ann threw a garbage can at Lillian—“one of those little decorative tin garbage cans. She hit me right in the eye. I had to walk around with sunglasses to cover up my black eye.”

But temperamental con artist or no, the two agree that Peggy Ann was also an extremely kind-hearted person. She was “very conscious and feeling,” according to Bryant. “She was always happy and smiling,” says Lillian, “and she’d make you smile and be happy.”

So, what thoughts do you have about Donyale’s childhood?  Click the Comment button and let your fingers do the talking. (WordPress is at it again. If you can’t access the Comments by clicking the button below, look to the right and click the microscopic Comment button there.)
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Next: Metamorphosis: Peggy Ann becomes Donyale Luna

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

Lillian Washington, conversation, Oct. 2009

horvatland.com (Frank Horvat photos),
Frank Horvat, email, June 19, 2010

“She was a very weird child, even from birth”

2 Aug
Donyale Luna and surgeons

"What, me weird?"

If you have read anything on the Net about Donyale Luna, the first black supermodel, you have most likely encountered the quote in the headline, attributed to “a relative,” perhaps many times. Since that’s all the information the Net has to offer on Donyale’s childhood, it’s easy to conclude that she was a weird child.

Here’s the full quotation:

She was a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream. We’d say, “Peggy, these things aren’t true.” Maybe that’s why she was so good in drama class.

The quote was given to the New York Times by Donyale’s elder half-sister Josephine, who was several years Donyale’s senior. Josephine was sent back to Georgia to live with her aunt when Donyale was four or five and didn’t return for 10 years, at which time she was in her 20’s and Donyale was about 15. Josephine’s evaluation covers Donyale’s very earliest years, before her personality was formed, an age when almost anyone can seem weird.

“Donyale was real”

The quote makes Donyale sound like Laura in The Glass Menagerie rather than a little girl with a wonderful imagination who often preferred her creations to conventional reality, and who expressed them more with enthusiasm than confusion over their veracity. I’ve known lots of little girls like that, and some not so little. Boys create different realities, but they do it too. “Donyale was real,” says her full sister Lillian, “all through her childhood.”

Does that single sentence even reflect Josephine’s opinion of Donyale, or has it been pulled out of context and assigned much more weight than it deserves? Soon after Josephine returned to Detroit, she married and left the nest. Did she still think her half-sister was weird? Not too weird to entrust with her kids: Donyale baby-sat for her regularly.

If you read the only biography of Donyale Luna to date, The Imperfect Dream, by Dorothy Marie Wingo, a self-published (Vantage Press) offering with a limited run published in 1998, you learn that Donyale’s mother shot her father in 1950 while Little Peggy (Donyale) and her sister Deborah (now Lillian Washington), aged 5 and 4, looked on in horror:

Late into the night, they (the two girls) were suddenly awakened from their sleep by the sound of loud voices coming from the kitchen. The harsh voices grew louder and louder. They heard thuds and screams. Quick sharp sounds similar to those coming from firecrackers brought the girls hastily to their feet. They raced through the darkened hallway toward the kitchen. Beyond the dim light of the kitchen, the girls could see their father lying on the floor and their mother standing over him, continuing to empty the chamber of the gun into his body.

When the police arrived:

Little Peggy seemed to be in a state of shock.

An experience that traumatic is enough to make anyone weird, right?

Off by 15 years

Only thing is, it didn’t happen like that. According to everyone else who would know, including kid sister Lillian and the Detroit Police Dept. Homicide Bureau, the shooting occurred not in 1950 but in March of 1965, after Donyale was grown and living in New York—in fact, the very month of her groundbreaking first magazine cover, for Harper’s Bazaar. And, as we shall see in a later blog, it didn’t happen that way at all.

3 little girls, none of them Donyale Luna

This photo in The Imperfect Dream identifies the tall girl with the flower in her hair as Donyale. But according to Donyale’s sister Lillian, who gave Ms. Wingo the photo, it’s a neighborhood girl.

As I said earlier, reconstructing Donyale Luna’s life is like chasing a ghost through a house of mirrors.

How did Ms. Wingo get such a seminal event so wrong? From her source: Josephine. Josephine married Ms. Wingo’s brother, Gerald.  She was reluctant to talk with Ms. Wingo about Donyale (she wouldn’t talk to me at all), so all the information was relayed through Gerald.

Ms. Wingo, a lovely-looking woman of 85 who taught English all her life, lives with her son in a well-to-do neighborhood in Troy, just north of Detroit. “How could Josephine be off by 15 years?” I asked her.

“She blocked it out of her mind.”

If The Imperfect Dream is any indication, I’m afraid Josephine blocked a lot of memories out of her mind. Donyale wasn’t the only one in the family who created her own reality. Anything Josephine says about her must be taken with a grain of salt. Make that a gram of salt.

Donyale was “normal”

The standard Internet perception of Donyale’s childhood is of one filled with pain, with a “brutal,” “abusive” father—a dreadful reality from which she retreated into a fantasy world to escape. Donyale’s sister Lillian, who grew up with her, paints quite a different portrait of her early years: “She was carefree and a typical young child and teen-age girl. She was normal.”

Donyale Luna high school graduation photo

Donyale, still “P Freeman” in her yearbook photo, was popular in high school. Photo courtesy Burton Collection, Detroit Public Library main branch

She also had a sharp mind. Getting into High School of Commerce, where Donyale attended, wasn’t automatic: you needed good grades in Condon Jr. High. (Lillian didn’t have them; Donyale did.)

“She had a lot of friends,” says Lillian. “She knew a lot of people and she was a happy person. Her yearbook was filled with signatures on the outside and the inside. You fold it open like this—all this was filled up, all that was filled up, and the other sheet on top, and the same way at the end of the book. She had plenty of friends. She got along well with people.”

“But,” she admits, “Donyale was sometimes off in the clouds. Because she wanted to be. You couldn’t get deep with her. She had a shield up.”

Donyale Luna as Chastity in Anything Goes

Donyale Luna at age 18 in Oct. 1964, made up as Chastity for the Detroit Civic Theatre production of Stage Door. Barely visible is the star-shaped beauty mark she pasted on her cheek for the role.

“Kind of a kook”

Roland Sharette, who directed Donyale in Detroit’s Civic Center Theatre productions in 1963 and ‘64, remembering Donyale walking barefoot and feeding popcorn to the pigeons in the park, calls her “kind of a kook.” “Kook” is a gentler term than “weird,” but maybe still too strong. Donayle was 16 or 17 and went barefoot? I’ve gone barefoot most of my life and I’m only marginally kooky. Besides, the unshod nethers are overplayed; just a part of Donyale’s mythology. Look at her non-modeling photos: she’s usually wearing shoes. She did when I knew her. She apparently didn’t the day photographer David McCabe spotted her walking through the Fisher Theatre—and there a legend was born.

Hey, if you’re female and 6’3” tall, where do you find shoes that fit? Is it kooky to not want to torture your feet?

And she fed the pigeons? If she were poisoning them—yeah, weird. But doesn’t everyone feed the pigeons when they’re a kid?

When ex-beau and lifelong friend Sanders Bryant met Donyale at age 15, she was writing a play. Now that’s pretty unusual, but I wouldn’t call it weird: it’s just…different. Commendably different: how many 15-year-old dramatists do you know?

“She was sharp,” recalls Bryant. “ She was quite observant. And she didn’t have an off-switch. She ran at such a high-octave level that it was almost draining. She was always upbeat, very conscious and very feeling. Her enthusiasm drew you in, made you part of the experience. She had the same effect on everybody.

“But,” he acknowledges, “it was hard to get into her head. You never knew whether she was putting you on. None of us could ever tell her reality. But she always knew her identity.”

When I was dating Donyale, she was generally upbeat, sociable and fun, occasionally moody. And she sometimes did things that were…different.

One night we were driving to Albion College, about 100 miles from Detroit, where I had attended the year before. It was a winter night; a full moon filled the sky and cast a soft luster across the forests and fields. Suddenly Donyale shrieked, “Stop the car!” She had never issued an order before, and even as I slammed on the brakes I heard more excitement than emergency in her voice. She leaped out of the car and started chasing a rabbit through a field—chasing, it seemed, with no intention to catch it, only to share in its wild energy.

To this day, nobody else has ever done anything like that around me. I guess you could call it weird. But I can still see Donyale’s long, long legs pumping through the field, her jeans glinting in the moonlight.  It remains the most Romantic memory in my life—Romantic in the spiritual sense of her feeling her oneness with the rabbit, and with all of Creation.

John Sinclair poster

Detroit Poet John Sinclair, for whom John Lennon headlined a rally while he was serving a 10-year sentence for possessing two marijuana cigarettes, knew Donyale.

John Sinclair: “She was cuckoo”

Both Donyale and I knew John Sinclair, who later founded the White Panthers and managed the kickass band MC5. John told me she was cuckoo.

He may have remembered a party I brought her to. Donyale immediately plunked a chair down in the middle of the crowded living room floor and spent the evening knitting (or crocheting; she knew both), looking at no one, speaking only when spoken to.

At the time I thought that was strange. I might have even acknowledged it as weird—then. But I was unaware of her driving ambition. Looking back at it with that knowledge—what better, more creative way to get a roomful of theatre people to notice you?

Cuckoo, John? Cuckoo like a fox.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

As usual with our Princess of Paradox, one can go either way. Nobody would ever call Donyale Luna normal. But does that mean she was weird? Or just…different?

What do you think? Send a comment.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Sources

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

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

Lillian Washington, conversation, Sept.-Oct. 2009

Dorothy Marie Wingo, The Imperfect Dream, Vantage Press, 1998

Dorothy Marie Wingo, conversation, Sept. 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.

Birthplace?

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!”

Birthdate?

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?

Sources:

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