Leading Lady - Diahann Carroll was a trailblazer who always dressed the part. Diahann's daughter gives Tanya Dukes the inside story on an actress who broke the mould

There's a piece of advice that Diahann Carroll lived by and dispensed regularly: "If you're not invited to the party, throw your own." It's the kind of attitude – pragmatic, unsentimental, irrepressible – that sustained her through a seven-decade career in show business that started when she was a prim 1950s teenager in white gloves and led to a place among Hollywood's grandest dames. The lofty highs and trying lows Diahann experienced on the way made her exceptionally skilled at becoming the life of her self-made party, not merely seizing the opportunities that came her way but creating new ones. She navigated Hollywood's treacherous currents to emerge an icon, in the process creating a blueprint for the generations in her wake.

A doting family that instilled the sense that she was special gave Diahann preternatural confidence. Born in the Bronx in 1935 to striving working-class parents, she spent most of her childhood in uptown Manhattan, a self- described "Harlem princess" with handmade dresses and voice lessons at the Metropolitan Opera. When I sit down with Diahann's only child Suzanne Kay – whose father, Monte Kay, was the first of four husbands – she explains that her mother "was groomed to believe the truth about herself, which is that she deserved the very best."

Caption: Silver topped gold, ruby and diamond brooch, 19th century, Estimate: $10,000 - 12,000

This is the reason she looked at big-screen idols like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis and saw a template for her future. Even at a time when black actors were mainly confined to roles as maids and nannies, "it never crossed her mind that she would be anything but a leading lady," said Suzanne.

By the time she finished high school, she was a fledgling model and singer, with a few wins at local talent competitions under her belt – and parents who insisted she enrol in college. The detour into academia did not last. During her freshman year at New York University, in 1954, she won three episodes of the televised talent competition Chance of a Lifetime singing 'The Man I Love' and 'Someone to Watch Over Me'. Her victory came with $3,000 in prize money and a booking to perform at the Latin Quarter, one of New York's most elegant nightclubs. NYU was put on hold, permanently.

Caption: Diahann Carroll's Steinway Baby Grand that took pride of place in her Los Angeles apartment

Not all of Diahann's bookings were so highfalutin. She polished her skills at nightclubs in the villages of the Catskills, the mountain resorts outside New York City, usually accompanied by her mother. On one occasion when she travelled alone to a perform in a Pennsylvania mining town, the club's proprietor locked Diahann in her dressing room because his customers were fighting each other for her attentions. Luckily, days of being barricaded in dressing rooms for her own protection did not last.

The same year she landed a small role in Carmen Jones, the all-black adaptation of Bizet's opera Carmen. She was grateful for the chance to work with Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey, but had definite ideas about the material: in her autobiography The Legs are the Last to Go, she said it made the cast sound "intentionally downmarket". She didn't yet have the clout to do anything about that, but it was an experience that lingered in her memory.

Caption: Diahann Carroll's gold and diamond pendant from Tiffany & Co., showing her zodiac sign, Cancer Estimate: $5,000 - 7,000

Broadway beckoned. When composer Richard Rodgers saw her in the Truman Capote production House of Flowers, he saw she had the makings of a muse, and resolved to cast her in one of his shows. It took seven years, but he eventually created the musical No Strings, the story of romance between an American model and a writer in Paris, just for her. She returned the favour with a captivating performance that won a Tony Award. It was the first time a black woman had received the best actress prize; there would be more milestones to come.

Footage of the actress accepting her Tony shows her in a moment of pure, transcendent joy. At a time when the indignity of segregation persisted in the South and racism – overt and otherwise – knew no geographical bounds, she was a vision of excellence, beauty and grace that no one could deny and black Americans could be proud of.

Caption: Diamond and Cultured Pearl Ring, Estimate: $40,000 - 60,000

Still, she couldn't rest on her laurels. Even having accepted Broadway's highest accolade, performing in nightclubs remained her mainstay. There was an upside to the format, though. "She loved storytelling," said Suzanne. "She could use the stage to communicate a story in a way that she couldn't in a TV show or movie as an actor for hire. Creating her own musical production and taking it on the road, she had a lot of control of her creativity."

In 1968, Diahann found herself making television history in her best-known role. When she starred in Julia as a nurse with a young son, she became the first black woman to star in her own show. It was a hit during its run, but critics thought the character too faultlessly professional and mild-mannered to be representative of the reality of African-American life. No one would have claimed that of her film role in Claudine as a single mother of six children; she was nominated for an Oscar.

Dominique Deveraux, a conniving diva added to the third season of the blockbuster soap opera Dynasty, might never have existed had Diahann not aspired to be "the first black bitch on television". She dispatched her manager to approach series producer Aaron Spelling. When weeks went by without an answer, she took matters into her own hands by going to a Dynasty party uninvited to get his attention. She landed the part that night. "Sometimes you have to break rules to get what you need," she explained. And to ensure the script avoided clichés, "I told them I wanted them to write a character for me as if they were writing for a rich white man," she said. "It was fine with me that race didn't figure into my character."

Where Dominique was brash, Diahann led with charm. But one thing they shared was sartorial flair. For Diahann, closets stocked with Norman Norell couture, Galanos gowns and sequined Scassi numbers served a dual purpose. They were tools to craft her effortlessly elegant image and also, said her daughter, "a sign that she achieved what she wanted to achieve. It was symbolic."

Her exuberant love of fashion was matched by a stoic, on-with-the-show outlook that applied to any challenge, including her breast cancer diagnosis in 1997. "My mother was not a complainer," said Suzanne. Instead she used her experience to help others, using her media clout to get women – especially women of colour and from low-income communities – to get mammograms.

Even when Diahann reached official retirement age, quietly bowing out was never an option. She returned to her roots, touring nightclubs and earned rave reviews in The New York Times for a cabaret act flaunting "her air of casually worn grandeur". In a recurring role as Park Avenue widow June Ellington on White Collar, she was the most elegant septuagenarian on television. And she was pursued by one of television's most successful showrunners, a young black woman who had single- handedly put others in starring roles. Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy, personally called Diahann to offer her the part of Jane Burke, mother of cardiac surgeon Preston Burke. The actress jumped at the opportunity to join a hit show while in her eighth decade – with no audition required.

When asked what her mother would make of the outpouring of affection inspired by the news of her death in October 2019 – the international obituaries; the dimming of lights in Broadway theatres; tributes from Beyoncé and Oprah, Lenny Kravitz and Laurence Fishburne – Suzanne answered, "I think it's what she imagined would happen." Dispensing with false modesty, Diahann put it best herself when she assessed the scope of her influence: "Let's face it – I am historic."

Tanya Dukes is a writer, editor and stylist.


Related auctions