Authors: Diahann Carroll
Aging, Acting, Marrying, and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way
To my friend Josephine Premice-Fales. She was my mentor from the beginning. She was there for the entire experience, supportive and loving through it all. Thank you, my friend.
29th Annual NAACP Image Awards. (Photograph by Jim Smeal/WireImage)
IT WAS A CLEAR SPRING EVENING IN NEW YORK NOT
long ago, and I looked absolutely divine. I felt divine, too, as I stepped out of my hotel onto Central Park South. I was in town from my home in Los Angeles, and had just made an appearance on a talk show with my dear old friend Harry Belafonte. Now I was on my way to a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was feeling incredibly pleased with myself. My new coatâblack Armani cut to fit perfectly. And I felt good in it. Well, in New York, your coat is your car, after all, so you have to have one that's just right for all the coming and going.
Although now a Californian, I associate Manhattan with the best of everything. Saks Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Bergdorf Goodman were around the corner from my hotel. Le Cirque's latest incarnation, a resplendent and colorful room, was east of there. And just a stone's throw from me was the steadfast, palatial Plaza, where I had lived with Suzanne, my only child, in the early 1960s. I performed
there in the Persian Room, with a fourteen-piece orchestra. You see, long before I became television's first black actress with her own sitcom, I was a performer in the musical theater and nightclub worlds, with my spiritual center on the stages of Broadway and in the high-end club venues of Manhattan, the Waldorf-Astoria, for example.
Less than a hundred blocks to the north of my hotel stood the brownstone where I grew up, a child of hardworking Harlem parents who made me feel like a princess, even as they struggled to make ends meet. By middle age, I'd soared as far as a girl could possibly soar in a lifetime. I'd surpassed anything anyone in my life could have imagined. Born Carol Diann Johnson, I was a proud graduate of the High School of Music and Art who went on to break more than a few race barriers in her time and more than a few sound barriers while racing around the globe.
Here's the short list: After appearing on Arthur Godfrey's radio show while still in high school, I ended up singing at the Latin Quarter by the time I was eighteen and everywhere else from the Catskills to Las Vegas. At nineteen, I was in my first movie,
with Pearl Bailey and Dorothy Dandridge. Not long after that I was the young lady lip-synching “Summertime” in the movie version of
Porgy and Bess.
That's where I first met Sidney Poitier and started a treacherous nine-year affair. I destroyed my first and most important marriage to Monte Kay, the father of my only child. Other movie roles followed at a young age, including one in
with Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, and Michael Caine, and then
with Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, and Joanne Wood
ward. On Broadway, as early as 1954, Truman Capote and Harold Arlen had cast me as the ingenue in their Broadway show,
House of Flowers
. And in 1962, Richard Rodgers wrote a musical for me called
in which I played a fashion model in the first interracial romance Broadway had ever seen. That got me a Tony. But there was to be more. In 1968, the networks summoned, and I became NBC's
the first sitcom about a black character. I had my own television variety show a few years later. It was called, what else?
The Diahann Carroll Show
. I appeared in every television special imaginable during the years when such things existed, including one in which Sammy Davis Jr. and I sang together in a tribute to Richard Rodgers that felt like a racial milestone to me. I starred opposite James Earl Jones as a poor Harlem single mother in a movie called
and played a well-intentioned stepmother in
Roots: The Next Generations
. I even found my way back to Broadway as a psychiatrist in
Agnes of God
. And all the while, even when others might have allowed themselves to slow down, I kept touring with my nightclub act, keeping my name out there even long into middle age. Then, in 1985, something surprising happened. Aaron Spelling cast me as Dominique Deveraux, the black bitch on
. Not bad at all!
All of the above and much more happened in my first half century. I mean, I once had armed bodyguards in Havana escorting me to perform after Fidel Castro had taken over the government! So I'd say I packed it in. And for each and every performance (and each and every wedding, for that matter), I was always on time, always prepared, and always,
coiffed and dressed.
So that spring night not long ago in Manhattan, when I was stepping out of my hotel on Central Park South, belonged as much to me as to anyone in the city. My pants were creamy white and flowingâwith flares that were so outrageously wide they flapped as I strode down the steps. I may be a senior, but when it comes to fashion, I try to stay in touch with what's current, as I have done my whole life, ever since my mother took me shopping at Best & Company department store for versions of the clothes showing on the runways. And what good were my superb clothes that night without the right shoes? Mine were something. Aubergine leather bootsâwith very high heels, as au courant as they were uncomfortable. And also my downfall, literally. As I negotiated the last steps to the sidewalk and town car that would take me on my way, my pointy-toe boot caught in my voluminous flare, and I tripped and went down to the ground.
Brian Panella, my manager, yelled, “Are you all right?” I told him, “Of course I am,” and I stood up and kept going. Still, it was an unsettling moment. About to turn seventy, I, a woman who has been wearing heels her whole life, had unceremoniously gone down in them in public.
Did I now have to give up high heels or risk more serious falls in years to come?
You cannot be a legitimate nightclub performer, as far as I'm concerned, in sensible shoes. To me, high heels have always been symbols of sensuality. It's not just about attracting the opposite sex (although I'm never one to say that isn't important). I just know most women look better in high heels. The posture is better, the line of the leg is enhanced. It's more
attractive. Even when I have small dinner parties at home, I prefer to wear my heels. I like the way I feel in them. And when you become a senior citizen, there's great pleasure to be had in the fact that even when the tummy isn't as taut as it used to be, the legs are still shapely and slender. They really are the last things to go, you know.
I'm told I look pretty good for my age, with, I am un-ashamed to admit, a little help from my plastic surgeon. When you get to be seventy-three (and by the way, I never lie about my age, but that doesn't mean you're allowed to ask, either!), you know so much more about your life than you did when you're in the thick of things, running the hamster wheel and gathering every damn nut you can. Yes, I'm ambitious, a rampant careerist who is as dedicated and vain as any performer in the business. I don't know if that will ever change. But I do feel a shift in myself these days. And even as the legs hang on, the memories fade. So it's nice to have a chance here to look back as a wiser (but not too wizened) person.
That's why I'm writing this book. It isn't the definitive autobiography. I published one of those in 1986, when I was on national television on
. I was having a big moment then, recognized everywhere I went, just like the days when I was
. But did I ever take a moment to breathe and sit back and enjoy the gift of
giving me a leading role in a successful television show in my middle age, something no actress should take for granted? No. I was too involved in the business of being and promoting Diahann Carroll to step back and admit I wasn't likely to enjoy anything as major as that again.
Let's not be coy. My first fifty years were a dazzling, dizzying ride that included moments with everyone from Miles Davis, Richard Rodgers, and Barbra Streisand to JFK, LBJ, and Jackie O. There was even a lovely proposal of marriage from David Frost. Nothing came easily in my workâI doubt it does to any entertainer, especially an African-American woman from Harlem. But things did come to me, extraordinary opportunities in my first half century. The past twenty years haven't been uneventful, either. Since
and my last book, wonderful things have continued to come. Some have been on stage and screen. How could I not be thrilled with the chance to be the first black Norma Desmond in the musical
(at age sixty) or to have a great recurring role for a season of
ten years later? Getting a rave review in the
New York Times
for my one-woman show a few years back at Feinstein's, a premier cabaret venue in Manhattan, was no small feat, either. But, when all is said and done, those aren't, in my mind, the biggest standouts of these last twenty years.
Since turning fifty (that's when the AARP considers you eligible for membership, just so you know), I've been in and out of my fourth and last marriage (Vic Damone), battled breast cancer, and reconciled with both my father and my daughter. (All that devotion to my work took a toll on my family life.) I helped my mother through her final years on this earth, and came to love her in a way I never imagined I would. I downsized my life and my expectations, performing in more intimate venues than I've seen since my early years of performing, and as difficult as it was, I traded in my Rolls-Royce for a normal sedan. I even had an estate sale and moved out of a spacious
Beverly Hills home to a high-rise condominium. And strange as this sounds, it is only in these golden years that I am finally reveling in the pleasures of family and friendship, as well as the benefits of solitude. I finally see that I no longer need a man to feel I am loved. That is the enormous gift of a lesson that the ending of my fourth marriage gave me.
But then, the big gift of aging is that you are finally in a place where you can understand things you never understood. And with this new equanimity comes perspective and a chance to clear the air, reconcile, laugh, and move on. Finally I understand what it means not to take every damn thing so seriously.
Every week I have to face another shift that tests my ability to laugh at myself. Then I tell myself I have to adjust, and I do. At first, I thought I'd call this book
Too Old to Give a Damn: Things I Never Could Have Said While Working in Hollywood.
I'm no pushover, but I do have the kind of manners that have made me hold back frequently in my lifetime. Then I realized that show business isn't the sole preoccupation of my life anymore. Right now it's about the people I loveâhere and nowâin my golden years. The other day I was on the campus of the University of CaliforniaâLos Angeles when a shy student approached and asked if I was the actress who played the mom on
. I told her I was. She told me how much she loved my character, a no-nonsense mother of the doctor played by Isaiah Washington. “You were great, you were right on it,” this student told me. Now I would be a disingenuous fool if I were to say that that kind of recognition means nothing to me, especially this late in my life. And I wouldn't be telling the
whole story if I also didn't admit that quite regularly strangers come up to me to ask, “Who are you?” At times, I'd like to tell them, “Me? I'm not sure!” After all, all my life people have been trying to make me define myself racially, politically, and artistically. Now they are just trying to place my face. Not long ago, I was standing with Dionne Warwick at a party when someone asked her who her friend was. Did it bother me? Well, maybe a little. He returned shortly thereafter and said, “I know who you areâyou're Julia!” But I understand I can't rely on universal recognition anymore for my sense of self-worth. I'm just happy that people in the business still think of me from time to time, and call. I guess that's the payoff for keeping my act together, both figuratively and literally.
Meanwhile, it's the recognition of my grandchildren that really matters to me now. I never thought I'd feel such joy with my family; they have become the world to me. The other day, when I was on the phone with my daughter, she said my granddaughter was waiting to speak to me. She wanted to tell me about her visit to the symphony. I was all ears, hanging on every delicious word. It is wonderful to see my daughter enjoying the relationship I have with her children. It's something I wish I had had with her when she was young. But I was focused, too much so, on my career. Well, it's never too late, I hope.
So do the things that happen late in life really give you the perspective you've been waiting for? Who knows. But the other day, I was attending a benefit when a young black actress asked, “Where have you been?” It made me happy to know she was thinking of me while in the prime of her own career. Well, I'm still here, performing my musical one-woman show at any
venue that makes sense to me. And like all actresses of a certain age, I'm still hoping that someone comes along with a script too wonderful to resist. But I'll be honest with you: if you want to know where I am most of the time these days, I'm often enjoying a good book, or with my daughter's family, or out to dinner with friends. It's nice to finally understand that I've had a good run of a life. Now I just have to hope that what I put out there in my career is something that younger actors can still draw upon today. Whenever I find myself around young actors such as Halle Berry and Angela Bassett, they tell me how inspiring my work is to them. And not long ago, Whoopi Goldberg even told me, “I have to thank you for dressing the way you do because you made it okay for me not to worry about what I wear.” I'll take that as a compliment.
Maybe this book is my way of having
say, just as the Delany sisters had theirs. (In 1999, I played Sadie Delany and the incomparable Ruby Dee played my sister. What a joy it was to work with her. But imagine my shock when I saw what I might look like at age one hundred!) Maybe writing this book is my way of conceding that I'm a little wiser now than I am slim, a little more willing to be amused than I am to be swept off my feet.