MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered, I'm Melissa Block. For more than 50 years, actress and singer Diahann Carroll has been breaking barriers. There have been Emmy, Oscar and Grammy nominations. She was the first black woman to win a Tony for best actress, and the first black woman to star in her own TV show while not playing a maid. That sitcom was called "Julia." Diahann Carroll has a new memoir out and my co-host Michele Norris had a chance to talk with her. Michele, I gather that title character from 'Julia' became the model for one of the first black Barbie dolls.
BLOCK: Aging, Acting, Marrying and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way." Diahann Carroll's still elegant. She's still headstrong and she's still able to turn heads with those legs.
DIAHANN CARROLL: I'm going to admit I'm very proud of them. They are holding up amazingly well.
: One of the themes in your book is scaling back, scaling back your career, your lifestyle, your act on stage. The cover, on the book, with you sitting in the director's chair with your legs crossed is sort of an example of how you've scaled back and sort of let go. If you wouldn't mind just sharing with us the story of this cover shoot.
CARROLL: I was scheduled to have this shoot so I thought I would prepare and I was trying to use, I think it was a water pill. But it backfired. I was supposed to go to the shoot and I was almost twice the size that I was the day that I took the pill. And being a little anxious about the body, as one is when people have been talking about your body for 50-some-odd years. Everything that I had sent from my darling and Anne Fitzpatrick at Saks Fifth Avenue did not fit. I couldn't zip, I couldn't button anything and so the photographer said, this is my shirt. So we belted it and we pushed and pulled at it and we finally got the body shape that we wanted in spite of the fact that I had about five pounds of water in me. But, I remember the time when that would have been so traumatic for me, that I don't think I would have been able to do it . But stepping away from glamour is not an easy thing to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THE SWEETEST SOUNDS")
CARROLL: (Singing) The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head.
: Diahann Carroll's memoir is exceedingly honest. She writes about love and heartbreak and the racism she faced as a pioneer in show business. In 1962, she was the leading lady in the Richard Rogers musical "No Strings." A fan of the show offered to throw an opening night cast party. Everyone was invited, everyone but the star, Diahann Carroll. The party's hostess did not want Carroll in her home. The woman, who was white, said her children would be confused by such a glamorous sophisticated black woman because she thought "they did not exist."
CARROLL: And the woman that - with whom Richard Rodgers was discussing was this cast party asked that Richard Rodgers tell me that I was not invited and why I was not invited because she knew that I wasn't a real person, that I was something that he created and she did not want to confuse her children with a black person who is really of a white person's making because she had never seen a black person like this. I thought this woman was possibly insane but certainly, let's just, for the sake of what (unintelligible) that she was misinformed.
: When you were working on Broadway, you also write about working with Pearl Bailey, who was incredibly supportive, at first, but then got very worried when you started to get a lot of attention.
CARROLL: I've written in the book about the incident about a song that was in the show...
: A song you were supposed to sing.
CARROLL: Yeah. Only to learn from the producer that Pearl loved the song and wanted to sing it. While we were both on stage, Pearl Bailey in a chair, my sitting on the floor, next to her, as she was to lift my head, sing to me a few phrases then turn- she turned my head upstage as she was supposed to turn it downstage.
: So she was singing the song that was written with you in mind and was making sure that the audience was not able to see your face while she was doing it.
CARROLL: Absolutely. It was really of the highest compliments and one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. Yes, it was a horrible.
: A compliment?
CARROLL: Yes, very much so. Think about it. OK, time's up. Pearl Bailey was one of the biggest stars of our time, and that she felt not only did she want the song for herself, and also, she wasn't anxious for my face to be facing the audience, which she felt that somehow that was a threat to her. So yes, that was a compliment.
: Do you understand why she did what she did?
CARROLL: Yeah. I do. Because I've gotten older now and I understand that very much so, youth could be very, very threatening, and I was very young.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHAT DID I HAVE THAT I DON'T HAVE")
CARROLL: (Singing) What did I have that I don't have? What did he like that I've lost track of?
: You've been married several times. You were engaged to David Frost. You had a long love affair with Sidney Poitier. What lessons did you learn from yourself in each of those relationships?
CARROLL: I'm a terrible romantic. I mean, just ridiculously so. It's immature, my romanticism. It will not sustain a relationship. I know that now. I think I could have been a good wife at some point but obviously I didn't need that as much as I need my work. I love my child.
: Your daughter Suzanne.
CARROLL: My daughter Suzanne, yes. And we've had a very rough time, very, very rough time. But once again, I had to come to terms with what it is that propelled me forward most of my life and that's my work. And I think she's come to terms in some ways with that and some of it, she's forgiven me for, some she may never forgive me for. But I can't change it.
: It sounds like your grandchildren have brought your closer together.
CARROLL: Yes. They're a gift from God, grandchildren.
: Very well dressed, grandchildren.
: Thanks to you.
CARROLL: Well, part of my fluffy part. Yes, she really knows how to tease me. We're going to the theater one day with the children and she arrived, she came to the door, she said "Hello, it's Suzanne and family, with children dressed by Diahann Carroll." I loved every minute of it.
: Thank you for spending time with us today. It's my pleasure.
CARROLL: Really, it's a joy to be with you and to speak with you.
: Diahann Carroll. Her book is called "The Legs are the Last to Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way." You can read an excerpt, see photos and hear music at our website, npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHAT DID I HAVE THAT I DON'T HAVE")
CARROLL: (Singing) What did he like that I'm not like? What was that charm I've run dry of? What would I give if my old know-how still knew how? Oh what did I know? Tell me what did he see that's gotten me?
BLOCK: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.