Whether you remember her from TV’s Julia, Dynasty or Grey’s Anatomy, or watch her now on USA Network’s White Collar; whether you’ve seen her movies Claudine or Porgy and Bess on DVD, or have seen her Broadway or Vegas performances; whether you saw her many singing appearances on The Tonight Show, The Carol Burnett Show, or The Hollywood Palace on a Saturday night in your jammies, there is one undeniable fact about Diahann Carroll. She is a pioneer.
“I recently heard Shirley Jones say on a TV show that the character she played on The Partridge Family was the first working mom on TV,” says Girlfriendz reader Shelli Shaw. “It compelled me to look up the years that show was on, and sure enough, it was pre-dated by Julia, who was, indeed, the first working mom on TV.”
It’s been said that Diahann Carroll has had a career of firsts. According to Joan Potter in her book African American Firsts, the debut of Julia in 1968 made Carroll the first African American actress to star in her own weekly TV series.
Nominated for an Emmy and awarded a Golden Globe, Carroll’s portrayal of Julia landed the sitcom in the Top Ten despite the fact that it ran opposite the very popular Red Skelton Show. As its popularity grew, so did Carroll’s weariness of the criticism the show attracted. Surprisingly, the disapproval was not just from Southern whites as the producers had predicted, but from African Americans who referred to the character Julia and her son Corey as “white negroes.” Back then, when someone stopped her on the street, Carroll never knew whether she was going to be lauded or berated. It became too much to bear, and she ended the show in 1971.
Even before her breakthrough TV role, Carroll had made a name for herself as a singer and actress. In 1961, she became the first African American woman to win a Tony for her portrayal in “No Strings,” and in 1983 was the first black actress to replace a white actress in Broadway’s “Agnes of God.”
“I like to think I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention,” says Carroll.
She chronicles her experiences on stage and off in her latest autobiography, The Legs are the Last to Go. In it, the 75-year-old explains how she’s maintained the energy level of a woman half her age or younger.
“I think it’s primarily because of exercise and diet,” she says. “I’ve been exercising all my life and when I don’t exercise for a three week period, because of work for instance, I can’t believe what happens to my body.”
She developed her good habits as a child, with her beloved father as her mentor. “At 96 he looked incredible. Even my family members found my father amusing. But he had the last laugh because his quality of life was incredible.”
Both of her autobiographies—Diahann! was her first—dissect her enormously complex yet very loving relationships with her parents and her daughter. In Legs, she details how she came to terms and made peace with each of these relationships, as well as those she had with her husbands, because as successful as her career has been, her personal life is an entirely different story.
Carroll married her first of four husbands, Monte Kay, in 1956. Kay was the casting director for her first Broadway show, House of Flowers. Daughter Suzanne Patricia Ottilie Kay came on the scene in 1960, the pregnancy an attempt to save her marriage. In 1959, Carroll accepted the role of Clara in Porgy and Bess, where she met Sidney Poitier—a meeting that would change her life. Though both were married, they fell hopelessly in love and would spend nine years in an on-again, off-again turbulent romance that included a brief engagement before it ended.
In November 1972, she became engaged to British talk show host David Frost, but broke it off in February 1973. One week later, she surprised her friends and family by marrying Freddie Glusman, only to divorce him a few months later. Next, she married Robert DeLeon, the 24-year-old managing editor of JET magazine. That rocky marriage ended in 1977 when DeLeon, a heavy drinker with many personal demons, died in a car accident. She attempted marriage again in 1985 when she wed fellow singer Vic Damone. Yet even though she suffered from both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Glusman and DeLeon, she still considers her union to Damone her most disastrous.
“When we were married, I never knew what was going to develop each day,” recounts Carroll. “There were many times I didn’t anticipate starting the day or coming home with joy. I was walking into a quagmire, trying to figure out what would be the destructive aspect of that particular day or time. It was very tiring and very depressing.”
Damone’s true nature was revealed in his reaction to a call she made to him after their divorce. Sitting in the dark, all alone in her condo, newly diagnosed with breast cancer, she chose to call him first to share her news. His reply, “Oh, shit! What’s next, Diahann?” And then he hung up.
“Well,” she affirmed, “I think that says a lot about the man.”
Now, Carroll lives happily alone. She has scaled down her home, car and staff, and feels liberated because of it. In Legs, she says, “It is a wonderful feeling to know your life is full just as it is.” She revels in her relationship with friends, and especially in the one she now has with her daughter. Of her young grandson she says, “I am always overwhelmed by the feeling of holding my child’s child!”
She works tirelessly for a number of organizations dedicated to breast cancer awareness and eradication, and has become quite comfortable in her role as spokesperson. In her book, she says, “Women have always related to me as a role model. Now I am looked up to for another reason.”
Diahann Carroll speaks very openly about having had cosmetic surgery, adding “I think what you look like is your responsibly to yourself. If it (what you perceive as flaws in your appearance) doesn’t bother you, don’t bother with it! Leave it alone! If you feel it’s fine, then enjoy it the way it is. In show business, it’s very easy to make that decision (to have cosmetic surgery), particularly because you work in front of the camera.”
A humanitarian and an entrepreneur with her own line of wigs, her career has no end in sight. Yet there is one aspiration that still eludes her—a healthy relationship with a man. “I think it’s a great accomplishment to have a longstanding, happy marriage. That’s a wonderful accomplishment to me. I would have also loved to have done the kind of parenting I’m watching in my daughter. But at the time, I didn’t want to stop taking the family to a different level, not just financially but culturally.”
Her candor doesn’t stop there, as she explains why “Diahann” is spelled so unconventionally. “My mom came up with that and I don’t really know why. She told me one or two stories about why it is a loving spelling, but I’ve been teased a lot because of it. ’Diahann’ means dead chicken in German,” she says wryly. An image that is quite a dichotomy for such a beautiful and elegant icon.