Remember The Legacy Of Actress And Singer Diahann Carroll : Code Switch On what would have been Diahann Carroll's 85th birthday, we're celebrating the legacy of the actress, model and singer. Reporter Sonari Glinton went to her estate sale and took a tour of some of the objects that represent important moments in Ms. Carroll's life. And because Diahann Carroll achieved so many firsts, the exhibit was more like a civil rights exhibit than an auction.
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Remembering The 'Divine Diahann Carroll'

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Remembering The 'Divine Diahann Carroll'

Remembering The 'Divine Diahann Carroll'

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: July 17, 2020 would've been the 85th birthday of Diahann Carroll. So today on the show, we're celebrating the legacy of the late actress and singer. From the mid-1950s until her death in October, Carroll blazed a trail of firsts - first black woman to win a Tony Award for best actress in a lead role of a musical, first Black woman to have her own TV show not playing a domestic worker. She was one of the first models for Ebony magazine. Diahann Carroll was a star of Broadway, cabaret stage and Vegas but, most impactfully, movies and television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DYNASTY")

DIAHANN CARROLL: (As Dominique Deveraux) I don't sleep in my clothes, nor do I sleep with them. I require one bedroom for my wardrobe and one for myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JULIA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What sort of hospital is it?

CARROLL: (As Julia Baker) Very fine one.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is it Black?

CARROLL: (As Julia Baker) No, it's a lovely, old red brick.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A DIFFERENT WORLD")

TROY BYER: (As Monica Walters) How are you, Marion?

CARROLL: (As Marion Gilbert) Oh, I'm splendid, Monica. You look as scrumptious as a piece of pastry - a tart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: To hear more about Diahann Carroll, we're joined by Sonari Glinton. He covered business for NPR. Now he's a Forbes contributor, among other things. And he's a self-described show tunes nut and Diahann Carroll ride or die. So we are really happy to have him with us today. Welcome to the show, Sonari.

SONARI GLINTON: Hey, Karen. How's it going?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, as well as it can be (laughter), considering we're all doing this out of our closets. Before we all got locked up, though, you had a chance to go to Diahann Carroll's estate sale. I sat next to you for years. So I know how big a fan you are. There's an interesting story about how you stumbled upon her estate sale, yes?

GLINTON: Yes, there is. I was walking down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and walked past the auction house Bonhams. And there was an 8-foot-tall photograph portrait of Diahann Carroll. And, like, literally as I wandered into the showroom, there was another Black man who was a security guard. And he was essentially saying, like, brother you better come in here, like, recruiting me from the street. And it turned out that it was this huge showroom with glass cases displaying all of Diahann Carroll's things - furniture, awards, jewelry. I joked with the security guard that it was like being in Big Momma's closet if Big Momma had style and money.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) There's a lot of big mommas with style, but I don't think there's very many people with Diahann Carroll style.

GLINTON: And Diahann Carroll money.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah.

GLINTON: And that's, like, a really huge thing. And then as we were standing there, a person walks in off the street. They went around the display. And this is a Black person who appeared to be homeless. And after touring around the exhibit, they said, I just want to luxuriate in the extravagance that is Ms. Diahann Carroll. And it was one of those moments where - I swear me and the security guard were, like, yes.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's exactly what we're doing, yes.

GLINTON: Yes. It's like, this is what we're doing. This is what we should be doing. And I realized they were right. And, you know, this was days before the COVID lockdown. And I felt like I wasn't the only one who needed to luxuriate a little. So I literally ran home and got my recorder.

Can you introduce yourself or tell me your name?

MICHELLE WALKER: My name is Michelle Walker (ph) from New York City.

GLINTON: And do you live here?

WALKER: I rearranged my trip, so I could be here today.

CARROLL: Why Diahann Carroll?

WALKER: Wow. Why not? She's an icon.

ZURIN VILLANUEVA: Icon.

WALKER: I grew up watching "Julia."

VILLANUEVA: She's Black Broadway.

GLINTON: And tell me your name.

VILLANUEVA: Oh, Zurin Villanueva.

GLINTON: Now, I literally struck gold, Karen, because that voice you heard, Zurin Villanueva, has been on Broadway in just about every show you can imagine. She was in the original cast of "The Lion King." Is that amazing?

GRIGSBY BATES: She's a colleague, then.

GLINTON: (Laughter) Yes. She was - yes, she had been in "The Book Of Mormon," "Clueless," "Ragtime." So she summed up, essentially, what all the women I met that night were saying about Diahann Carroll.

VILLANUEVA: This is Black history. This is...

WALKER: Yeah.

VILLANUEVA: I really would love to get something with - that touched her skin. I need something that was on her. You know what I mean?

GLINTON: Why is that?

VILLANUEVA: Well, I'm a Broadway actress. And I grew up, you know, idolizing her and her career. And I hope to have some semblance of the career she had. So I would really love having something that she wore as a symbol of that.

GRIGSBY BATES: Hey, me, too. I mean, who wouldn't?

GLINTON: Yeah. That literally was the average response when I talked to Black women about Diahann Carroll. And after talking to a couple of actresses, you realize that Diahann Carroll wasn't just some distant icon. She was actually someone to look up to, like, as a mentor for what to do in your career. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: I wanted to be the first Black bitch on television. I picked up the telephone, and I called my manager, Roy Gerber. And I said, do me a favor. Get the word around. And for heaven's sakes, please call Aaron Spelling.

GLINTON: Now, to me, Bates, that is the most Diahann Carroll story ever, right? For her biggest role, she essentially created it herself. She eventually crashed a party at Aaron Spelling's, the producer of "Dynasty," and convinced him that there should be a Black woman on his lily-white show.

GRIGSBY BATES: Gone girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: I've never played a role quite this unlikable, and I like that. I like that very much because I think very often, particularly minorities are - it's almost required of them that they are nice people. And I don't want to play a nice person.

GLINTON: This is the part that I love the most about this story. When she was hired to play the villain Dominique Deveraux on "Dynasty," she told the writers not to tie themselves in knots. She said, just write the character as if it were a white man, and I'll essentially handle the rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DYNASTY")

CARROLL: (As Dominique Deveraux) It's burned.

JOAN COLLINS: (As Alexis) Is it?

CARROLL: (As Dominique Deveraux) The champagne was obviously frozen in the bottle at some point.

GLINTON: Like, is there any wonder why drag queens from Provincetown to Palm Springs imitate Diahann Carroll?

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

GLINTON: And this auction was a fan's dream. Like I said, it was like standing in Diahann Carroll's closet. There were dozens of Manolo Blahniks. There were Judith Leiber bags, jewelry, real and costume. And I got a tour from someone who knew Ms. Diahann Carroll very well.

SUZANNE KAY: Look. When people walk up to me and they say, I loved your mom, there's usually a moment in their history that's attached to that comment. It's not just, oh, she was a great actress. It's usually (gasping).

GLINTON: Well, Bates, that is Suzanne Kay. She is a writer and documentary filmmaker and Diahann Carroll's daughter.

Tell us what we're looking at. This is - like, looks like what would've been in her closet.

KAY: Well, if there's one thing about my mom - and first of all, this isn't all of her closet. You couldn't get all of her closet in here (laughter). But she only bought the best. She learned somewhere early on that she deserved the best. And I mean, down to the night clothes, the shoes - everything was designer and top of the line, which - that's not how I am. But I love it that I'm - inherited some of this beautiful stuff.

GLINTON: Is this - tell me what we see in front of us. This is - these are some of her...

KAY: That's a Galanos dress that - I don't know - my mother just looked amazing in - big slit up the side, lots of leg. That is, I think, Scaasi - that beige skirt suit. And I believe she married husband No. 4, Vic Damone, in that. I was at the wedding, but I wasn't paying that much attention to what she was wearing. But I've seen it in photographs that - I think the rest of them are - there's a beautiful suit.

GLINTON: Well, this is where the case where the - "No Strings," which - you know, I'm a fan of musical theater. And your mother was the first African American woman to win a Tony award.

KAY: Yes, she was. And "No Strings" was an interracial love story on Broadway, which was a big deal. And Richard Rodgers wrote it for my mother, which was a very big deal. You know, I decided to give things to her fans or give them an opportunity to have a piece of her legacy. It's kind of a weird thing to try to choose what to keep and what not to. But as I said, people walk up to me - they don't just say, oh, I love your mom. They say, oh, she meant a lot to me because we didn't have any images of us back then and all this.

So I feel as if some fans really want to have a little piece of that legacy, and it lifts them. My mother's memory lifts people. It makes them remember a good time, a good thing about us as people of color. And boy, could we use that right now, right?

GLINTON: I probably should say I was nervous about coming to the event. I put on a suit and tie (laughter) just 'cause, like - interview Diahann Carroll's daughter.

GRIGSBY BATES: Because you're going to Diahann Carroll's auction. Yes.

GLINTON: Yeah. Yeah. I was just like, I - like, her - like, the ghost of Diahann Carroll would be like, you're not wearing those dirty sneakers up in here. And so as we stood in this vast showroom that you could fit literally several single-family homes, you could see how big of a career and life that Diahann Carroll had.

Well, that's what's funny - is like, how do you - how are you Diahann Carroll's daughter because, like, how do you get dressed in the morning?

KAY: (Laughter) Any way I darn please.

(LAUGHTER)

KAY: That's what I learned from her (laughter).

GLINTON: Oh, really? - 'cause...

KAY: My style. Yeah.

GLINTON: Oh, 'cause in my mind, I'm like, oh, I better not - there's, like - it's a hard act to follow, right?

KAY: It's a hard act if you try to follow it. Yes. I didn't. I went my own path. And so - and I think that what I learned from my mother is, you know, forge your own path. That was really - and don't let anyone else define you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAY: It was a hard choice what to sell, what to keep. And I made choices that would probably seem counterintuitive to some people because I chose things that meant a lot to me and to my kids personally. So for example, she had a lot of bound scripts - the first "Julia," the first "Dynasty" bound script, you know?

I kept one called "Agnes Of God," which was the first time a Black woman replaced a white woman on Broadway. But more than that, it was a really hard role. Mom had to be onstage all through the play. She was scared. She - I saw her practicing. I was a bit older, so it meant something to me. I was watching her prepare. So for me, it's a memory of Mom practicing something that was really important to her. For other people, they'd probably want that "Julia" script.

GLINTON: Well, what's interesting about Diahann Carroll is if this were Joan Collins, this wouldn't be a civil rights display. Do you know what I mean? Like, this is almost a civil rights exhibit because so many of the things are groundbreaking or - you know, the Tony - the first of. You know, and when you look at these - you know, we're looking - standing in a case with what are - these are - there's her Emmy nominations, and there's another with her Oscar nominations.

KAY: Yes. And I mean, my mom had a lot of awards. And there's a note here from Irving Berlin saying thank you. You know, the way you sang those songs last night on "The Tonight Show" made me feel awfully good with my thanks and best wishes. But because it's to Diahann Carroll, to your point, a lot of these were firsts. A lot of what my mom did was a first. You know, so it makes it feel like you're walking through a museum.

GLINTON: Your mother is the tip of the spear for a lot of things. And it's like that there's a generation of women like your mother who were the first.

KAY: Yes. What shocked America at the time - I will say white America - was that my mother had a kind of elegance and a certain presence. But she didn't - that didn't just happen all of a sudden. That came from her mother. That came from women in her neighborhood that she knew growing up in Harlem. In other words, we as Black people knew women like that. My mother got to represent that on a larger national platform. And I think that's why Black people are so - respond to that and a lot of white people did too at the time who had never seen a Black face period or had only seen one in a kind of subservient role. And they just were, oh, my goodness, this could be people of color. So that's why this kind of resonates with everybody. That's why people are so moved by this. She - it's not as if she made it up. There were other Black women who were like her, but she got to represent it for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAY: The other thing that I found that was really surprising to me was a diary - which I am not selling, by the way. Yeah. And it was - I felt as if my mom left it there for me. And it was very - just really emotional. And I learned a lot of things about her. I'm actually going to be doing a documentary. But, you know, that's the kind of thing that was so valuable to me. I mean, I love her clothes. I love her awards. But that she left this book - And my mother didn't do things by mistake. So she left that book for me, I know she did.

GLINTON: You are a documentary filmmaker, so you must know she gave me the best quote of my life. I was - I called her at her apartment, and it was to do the obit of Lena Horne. And - it's rare - you have to warm people up for, like, obits. And she said, are you ready? (Unintelligible).

KAY: Oh, I hear the voice, yes.

GLINTON: Are you ready? Are you ready? And I'm like, I'm recording. Yes, I am. She said, Lena Horne was angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARROLL: Lena Horne was angry, and unfortunately, so am I.

GLINTON: And then whatever she said afterwards didn't matter. But it was that sort of brutal honesty, especially with Black journalists, which is what made her...

KAY: That is so true. She would sometimes say things with Black journalists. And that anger she understood very well. She knew it fueled her. And she knew it was also sometimes dangerous. She was very aware that a lot of firsts, a lot of the Black people who were on the front lines in the civil rights movement, they had to manage that anger one way or another or it could eat them up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLINTON: Did you get a sense that she understood what her first-ness meant, if that's a question? Or...

KAY: Yes, I did. I think she knew very clearly. You know, she fought for the roles that she got. She often went out - others, even her own representation didn't always understand what she wanted. She had to do it herself. That's the way she got that "Dynasty" role. And she refused certain roles. So why did she pick some roles and not others? Because she was very aware that it was changing the dialogue. She was doing something different. She wrote about that in her diary as well. So yeah, she - I don't think it was always - when she was young, I think she just wanted to work, you know, and just was thrilled to get a job. But very early on, she won a Tony. And I think then it became really clear to her by the reaction that everything she did was going in the history books. And she carried that. She carried that pretty elegantly throughout her life.

GLINTON: That's what they call an end. Suzanne Kaye, thank you so much.

KAY: Thank you. Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: So after spending all this time at this auction, after luxuriating in Ms. Diahann Carroll for several hours and speaking to her daughter, I mean, it was an auction, so did you bid on anything, Sonari? Did you buy anything?

GLINTON: So I bid on a few awards and a chair that I sit in in the evening and drink unburnt champagne occasionally.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIGSBY BATES: I love it. I think Ms. Carroll would approve. Sonari, I know you've gone on to great things elsewhere, but I really miss seeing you and hearing you on the regular here at NPR when we actually had offices. So thanks for allowing us to luxuriate in the memories of the divine Diahann Carroll. And that's our show.

As always, we want to hear from you. You can follow us on Twitter - @nprcodeswitch. You can follow me - @karenbates. Subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter.

This episode was produced by Jess Kung and edited by Leah Donnella. And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby, Kumari Devarajan, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Natalie Escobar, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See you.

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