Diahann Carroll is a woman well acquainted with the viewing public; a woman whose talents overcame the discriminatory nature of her times. In an era where people of her hue and genealogy were denied the opportunity to get their shine on, Carroll shined through and through, providing eye candy to men and women alike – men through her beauty and women through her gentility early in her career (think: Porgy and Bess) and her sass later (think: Dominique Deveraux). The first black woman to star in her own television series, Julia, set the course for the power mom mold. The acclaimed roles of Claire Huxtable, Vivian Banks, Harriet Winslow, and Rochelle Rock owe their existence to the groundbreaking and controversial path set by Carroll. She offers yet another confirmation that art transcends any barrier that society attempts to impose. That, suffice it to say, is story enough.
But these days, Diahann has a different story to tell.
Throughout her iconic path, she has undergone the travails and trip-ups not uncommon to many women, and she is going to tell her story. Besieged by countless questions about her personal life, the 73 years young Carroll set off six years ago to offset any specious accounts about her life. Television’s self proclaimed “first black bitch,” she poured her years of love, lessons and heartaches into her book of recollections. The Legs Are The Last To Go: Aging, Acting, Marrying, and Other Things I Learned The Hard Way chronicles, among other things, her tale of a decade-long romance with the legendary Sidney Poitier (Both were married. She left her husband for him, but he did not return the favor. Why did she allow it? “I never questioned it. I was caught up in the romance of it,” she said), admitted shortcomings as a mother and her battles with intimacy (four marriages) and breast cancer, all with remarkable candor.
So why would anyone expect an interview to be any different? Clutch caught up with her just before the release of her book…
Clutch: How are things going for you these days?
Diahann Carroll: I can’t complain…everything is going very nicely. I’m excited about the release of this book, which should be out at the end of this week. I think much of that pleasure comes from the fact that I am doing this book through Harper-Collins Publishing House and I have been working on it for over six years.
Clutch: After the requisite book tours, what’s new on the horizon for you? Doesn’t seem to be any slowing down for you?
Diahann Carroll: I agree with you…I can say lots of things are going on with me, which at my age is an astonishingly good thing. I am proud of that. What I do is rather all encompassing as far as business is concerned. I also do speeches to groups of women all the time about the fear or arrival of cancer. I travel around the country to be of assistance to women who have cancer, which is something that I have been dealing with for 10 years. It’s an interesting life.
Clutch: Since you mentioned it first, let’s talk about that for a second. You explained your ordeal with breast cancer candidly in your book. What was your reaction when you first heard that you had cancer and how have you dealt with it?
Diahann Carroll: I think it is impossible to remember the first time you hear the word “cancer.” I think it sort of throws the body and mind in shock. It is a horrible situation for you to deal with and that is tough for your family to deal with as well. But I later realized that this was a chance for me to give to those people who probably have not had the advice of some of the best people working in the field of cancer, that it would be best to share my information. I ran into a young lady for example who said that her mother had told her that it was best if she didn’t tell her husband that she had cancer. So recommending psychological help to people in that position and talking to them about it and helping their positions…that has been extremely helpful to me. I think when you decide to reach out to others, it is more beneficial to you than it is to them.
Clutch: What are the biggest misconceptions about breast cancer?
Diahann Carroll: The biggest that I encountered are about the radiation machine and the mammogram machines. I’ve heard many women who have never had a mammogram because they felt that the machines would give them breast cancer. I was very surprised to hear that. I knew that they meant that genuinely. Dispelling those concerns is not something that I really know how to do, but I know how to bring someone into the situation who can help them deal with something that is genuinely frightening to them and having them realizing that the fear of knowing if you have cancer is greater than the fear of the machines.
Clutch: How long did it take you to realize that this is something that you can live with and not something that is completely terminal? You spoke about how shocked you were when you first heard the news…how long did it take the shock to wear off?
Diahann Carroll: I don’t know if you ever really say to yourself that you will be OK. I think if you actually give yourself a program to do the best you can… of bringing everyone in the picture to give you the best advice. I think that that’s all that you can really do, make yourself comfortable with that. You just surround yourself with the best advice at your fingertips and move forward…let it go and see what happens.
Clutch: Your new book touches on a few themes. Love, insecurity, parenthood and sickness being the main topics. What was the impetus behind getting your story out there?
Diahann Carroll: I think that actually happened to be 10 years ago when I read a book by Simone Signoret, who is a very wonderful French actress. She had gotten a divorce and said that the purpose of her book was that she wanted to set the record straight. I thought, “That’s a very interesting thing to say. I never thought about that.” Then I later read a book by Ingrid Bergman and I was very much taken with the point of view of setting things straight because I have had many marriages and engagements and I don’t know what my daughter knows exactly about all of them. I also wanted to express the examples of all the foolishness and ignorance that I’ve encountered because of racism in this industry. Those incidents are very important to relate…Ingrid Bergman and Simone Signoret showed me that it is important to leave some sort of record.
I’ve also had some people come up to me and ask me about my relationship with certain men and asking me if that was the father of my child. As you know, women in show business are always subjected to more questions about their personal lives than men. People don’t bother men about their personal lives. So I decided to make some sort of record, not really in great detail but enough to let you know that any profession that puts you in front of the public is difficult to deal with.
Clutch: You wrote, “Some people come of age as a teenager. I came of age as a senior citizen.” Why was that?
Diahann Carroll: Oh I think because I was not paying close attention in my early life, and that’s why the book was so candid. I wanted to grab someone’s attention and make them ask themselves questions.
Clutch: In your book, you talk at length about your insecurities when it came to men over the years. What message are you sending to women in opening up about that?
Diahann Carroll: Each situation is different and what I’m asking is that you pay attention to your situation. I think that there are some mistakes that I made, that I had I paid attention to “who is this man?” I would have avoided them. For example, I am talking about the fact that when I dated Sidney Poitier, I did not concentrate on the fact that we are from two different cultures. He’s a West Indian male, I’m an American woman. I never questioned myself about that then. We have a tendency to deal with the romantic part of it, but forget to ask more profound questions…it’s a good thing to get to know his parents, his home life, his aspirations and why. I don’t think that I am so unusual in the fact that when one begins a romance, it clouds everything. We’ve heard songs about it and books have been written about it and it’s true. The reason that it becomes dangerous is because very often you get married and there are children immediately and suddenly you have other people now involved in something that could have been corrected had you given more time to unveil itself. That’s…what I feel.
Clutch: Sidney Poitier… what made you decide to air out on your affair?
Diahann Carroll: Because I’ve been asked so many questions about it over the last hundred years and it’s just been unbelievable. It’s a double edged sword for me. For one, there was a curiosity about us. We were the only black movie star couple. And yes the community was curious about us and yes there were many questions that were not answered about us. And we know that when one person in show business marrys someone else in show business, that makes it a double-whammy. We have seen the height of it with Brad and Angelina. So I thought that for youngsters who had so much curiosity about Sidney and myself, I would open up a little bit. We were going through some very difficult times and we were very young. And I do believe that we came out with a friendship and also an understanding of what happened to us.
Clutch: Have you talked to him since this book has been written?
Diahann Carroll: Yes.
Clutch: Has he specifically had anything negative to say about what was written (concerning the affair)?
Diahann Carroll: No he has not.
Clutch: You talk about how your daughter paid the price for your fame. Is that something that you regret?
Diahann Carroll: I think most women in my profession who have daughters pay the price for it. It’s a difficult road we walk with a mother who is very emotional and ambitious about her career. Most females with mothers in this situation feel that they have chosen their career over their child. It’s a very difficult thing for a child to understand. But with time, we have come to a place of rest and understanding.
Clutch: How would you describe your relationship now?
Diahann Carroll: I think it’s comfortable. I think she understands more than she’s ever understood but I think it’s comfortable. The decision to work very hard and be away from the home takes a great deal of time for a child to deal with and I don’t know if that hurt ever goes away completely.
Clutch: You are self-admittedly vain and proud of it. How long did it take you to come to grips with that?
Diahann Carroll: I didn’t understand the full terminology of vanity at first. But I came to realize that some vanity is very important and we must hold on to it in order to keep our center. I am saying it in that context.
Clutch: You’ve met presidents, some of the world’s most talented acts, and traveled to the world’s most exquisite countries. Looking back on all that, what is the highlight of your career?
Diahann Carroll: The highlight of my career….I’ve had several and I’m proud to say that I’ve had several. When I was nominated as best actress in the Academy Awards (for Claudine)…that was a highlight for me. To have done a play as difficult as Agnes of God on Broadway starring opposite Geraldine Page, who is one of our greatest actresses…to have done it as well…for as difficult as it was…I am quite proud of that. I’ve had a wonderful ride. I’m very pleased with most of the things in my life and knowing that I gave everything that I had at the time…is what makes me comfortable.
Clutch: What’s your favorite movie?
Diahann Carroll: I can’t pick one movie.
Clutch: Give me a top three then…
Diahann Carroll: Well, there are two movies that I watch more than others. One is Notorious with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. That’s the one I travel with because it’s very good at night and helps me find a more relaxed and more frivolous point of view as opposed to the business things that I have to deal with all day. And I love The Philadelphia Story as well.
Clutch: What is Diahann Carroll’s ultimate goal in life?
Diahann Carroll: (Pausing) To be successful in all the endeavors that I’ve had. And by successful I mean at peace with them…I’m not tormented by the “I should have done this or I should have done that.” At the end of the day I want to feel like I gave my best to whatever I did.
Clutch: Do you feel at peace now?
Diahann Carroll: (Pausing) Yes I do…I’m not thinking I’m going to check out immediately so at this point in my life… I feel peaceful, yes.