Code Switch

Remembering The 'Divine Diahann Carroll'

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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You're listening to Code Switch from NPR. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. July 17th, 2020, would have been the eighty fifth birthday of Diane Carroll. So today on the show, we're celebrating the legacy of the late actress and singer. From the mid 1950s till her death in October, Carol 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.
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She was one of the first models for Ebony magazine. Diane Carroll was a star of Broadway, Cabaret Stage and Vegas. But most impact Philly movies and television.
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I don't sleep in my clothes. The quiet one bedroom for my. A fine one, is it? The lovely old red brick house. To hear more about Diane 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 showtunes nut. And Diane Carroll, ride or die. So we are really happy to have him with us today. Welcome to the show, Sonari.
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Hey, Karen. How's it going? Well, as well as it can be, considering we're all doing this out of our closets.
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Before we all got locked up, though, you had a chance to go to Diane 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.
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Yes, there is. I was walking down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and walk past the auction house Bonhams and there was an eight foot tall photograph portrait of Diane Carroll. And literally, as I wandered into the showroom, there was another black man who was the 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 Diane Carroll's things furniture, awards, jewelry.
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I joke with the security guard that it was like being in Big Bahamas closet if Big Momma had style and money.
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There's a lot of big mamas with style, but I don't think there's very many people with Diane Carroll style.
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And Diane Carroll money. Yeah, and that's a really huge thing. And then as we were standing there, a person walks in off the street. They went around the display. And then this is a black person who appear to be homeless. And after touring around the exhibit, they said, I just want to luxuriate in the extravagance that is Miss Diane Carol. And it was one of those moments where I swear at me in the security guard were like, yes, that's exactly what we're doing.
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Yes, yes, 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 covert lockdown. And I felt like I wasn't the only one who needed to luxuriate a little.
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So I literally ran home and got my recorder.
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Can you introduce yourself or tell me your name? My name is Michelle from New York City. And do you live here? I rearranged my my trip so I could be here today. Why am I in, Carol? Wow. Why not? Icon. I grew up watching Julia. She's black Broadway. He said, sit and tell me your name. Oh, Zurin Villanueva.
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Now, I literally struck Gold Keryn because that voice you heard, Zurin Villanueva has been on Broadway in just about every show you can imagine. She was an original cast of The Lion King. Is that amazing?
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She's a colleague then. Yes, she was. Yes, she had been in the Book of Mormon clueless ragtime.
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So she summed up essentially what all the women I met that night were saying about Diahann Carroll.
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This is black history. Yeah. And I really would love to get something with that touched her skin. I need something that was on her. I mean, why is that? 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. OK. Me too. I mean, who wouldn't?
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Yeah. That literally was the average response when I talk 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 as a mentor for what to do in your career. Let's take a listen.
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I wanted to be the first black bitch on television. Hi. Picked up the telephone and I called my manager, Mike, over, and I said, do me a favor, get the word around. And for heaven sakes, please call Aaron Spelling not to meet Bates.
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That is the host Diane 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 Lillywhite show Gone Girl.
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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.
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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 characters if it were a white man and I'll essentially handle the rest.
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Champagne was obviously like, I'm like. Is there any wonder why drag queens from Provincetown, the Palm Springs imitate Diahann Carroll in this auction was a fan's dream? Like I said, it was like standing in Diane Carroll's closet. There were dozens of Manolo Blahnik.
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There were Judith Wieber bags, jewelry, real and costume. And I got a tour from someone who knew Miss Diane Carroll very well.
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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.
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Oh, well, Bates, that is Suzanne Kay. She is a writer and documentary filmmaker. And Diane Carol's daughter.
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Tell us what we're looking at. This is like looks like what we've been in her closet. One thing about my mom and first. Well, this is an of closet. You couldn't get all of her closet in here.
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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 inherited some of this beautiful stuff.
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Is this tell me what we see in front of us. This is these are some of her 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, Scalzi that beige skirt suit. And I believe she married husband number four victims own in that I was at the wedding, but I wasn't paying that much attention what she was wearing. But I've seen it in photographs that I think the rest of them are.
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There's a beautiful suit.
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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.
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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.
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They don't just say, oh, I love you, Mom. They say, oh, she meant a lot to me because we didn't have any images of us back then and all that. 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.
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Right.
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I probably should say I was nervous about coming to the event. I put on a suit and tie. Carol's daughter has you're going to Diane Carroll's auction? Yeah, yeah, I was just like I like her like the ghost. Diahann Carroll would be like, you're not wearing those sneakers.
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I've been 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 Diane Carroll had.
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Well, that's that's what's funny is like how do you how are you, Diane, Carol's daughter? Because, like, how do you get dressed in the morning?
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Anyway, I darn please. That's what I learned from her, my style. Because because in my mind I'm like, oh, I better not. There's like it's it's a hard act to follow. Right.
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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 what I learned from my mother is, you know, forge your own path. That was really. And don't let anyone else define you. 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.
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So, for example, she had a lot of bounce 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 on stage all through the play. She was scared. She I saw her practicing. I was a bit older, so it meant something to me.
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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 probably watched that Julius script.
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Well, what's interesting about Diahann Carroll is if this word Joan Collins. This wouldn't be a civil rights display.
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You know, 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 love.
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You know, when you look at these, you know, we're looking at standing in a case with these are these are there's her Emmy nominations and there's another with her Oscar nominations. Yes.
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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, Latin last night on The Tonight Show made me feel awfully good with my thanks and best wishes. But because it's to Diane, Carol, 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.
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Your mother is the tip of the spear for a lot of things.
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And it's like that there's a generation of women like your mother who were the first.
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Yes.
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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.
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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.
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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 is not as if she made it up.
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There were other black women who were like her, but she got to represent it for us.
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The other thing that I found that was really surprising to me was a diary, which I am not selling. Yeah, 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 words, but that she left this book and my mother didn't do things by mistake.
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So she left that book for me. I know she did.
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You were 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 you. It's rare. You have to warm people up for like, oh, bits.
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And she said, Are you ready? Where can you come out?
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And, you know, are you ready? I hear the voice. Are you ready? And I'm like, I'm recording. Yes, I am to go. She said, Lena Horne.
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Lena Horne. And unfortunately, so am I.
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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 that is so true.
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She would sometimes say things that black journalists and that anger. She understood very well. She knew it fueled her and she knew it was also sometimes dangerous. He's very aware that a lot of firsts, a lot of the black people who were on the front lines and the civil rights movement, they had to manage that anger one way or another or it could eat them up. Did you get a sense that she understood, like, what her first nurse meant?
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If that's the question?
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Yes, I did. I think she knew very clearly. You know, she fought for the roles that she got. She often went out. The others, even her own representation, didn't always understand what she wanted. She had to do it herself. That's where 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.
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She wrote about that in her diary as well. So, yes, 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 wanted 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.
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That's what they call an end. Suzanne Kay, thank you so much. Thank you. So after spending all this time at this auction, after luxuriating in Miss Diane 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?
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So I bid on a few awards and a chair that I sit in in the evening and drink unberth, champagne occasion.
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I love it. I think Miss Carol would approve. Sonari, I know. I know you've gone on to great things elsewhere, but I really miss seeing you. And here you on the regular here at NPR. Well, we actually had offices, so thanks for allowing us to luxuriate in the memories of the divine Diahann Carroll. And that's our show.
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As always, we want to hear from you. You can follow us on Twitter at NPR Code Switch. You can follow me at Karren Bates. Subscribe to our newsletter at NPR dot org slash newsletter. This episode was produced by Just Come and edited by Leah Dinello and a shout out to the rest of the Code Switch band. Shereen Marisol Meraki. Gene Demby, Kumari Devarajan, Alissa Jank Perry, Natalie Escobar, Steve Drummond and L.A. Johnson. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.
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Seeya.