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Diahann Carroll on race, Norma Desmond and aging

April 25, 2009 |  5:15 pm


When Diahann Carroll walked in, there was no doubt that she’s never lost that New York girl inside -– a long-cultivated combination of class and sass. The theme throughout this informal chat Saturday at the L.A. Times Festival of Books was perseverance and, as always, never letting anyone get the best of her.

That was never clearer than in the middle of her discussion guided by co-author Bob Morris of the memoir "The Legs Are the Last to Go." He was shifting the conversation toward the topic of race when she stopped mid-sentence to turn her attention to me, as I sat trying to capture the talk for Jacket Copy with my small video camera. “Do you ever put that thing down?” she asked, making sure the taping was for a legitimate news outlet.

She took a brief moment to riff a bit on what many artists have lamented in this democratically digital age – maintaining control of their creative work.

“This is my livelihood.… I’ve seen my entire show on that thing [YouTube]. And I resent it -- I do. Sometimes a show can cost me a quarter of a million dollars to put together, and I see it. Anybody can tape it. They can take the material,” she said. “That’s not fair.”

Her candor and control are clearly wrought of a lifetime of discipline (her mother was insistent on impeccable grooming), daring (being black and bold in an era of institutionalized discrimination) and some disappointments.

Some of the more revealing moments were about relationships: with a racialized society, Andrew Lloyd Webber, her mother, her daughter and her aging self.

Carroll spoke, to the apparent dismay of her manager, candidly about challenges she faced in auditioning for Webber for the role of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Her own parallels with the role are what drew her to it -- relationships with excess and aging in Hollywood. “After the age of 50, you’re very fortunate if you’re called to do anything.” And, she noted, every actress wants to play someone who’s losing her mind.

She was to get a certain amount of time to practice with the pianist ahead of the audition. However, instead of being given the 40 minutes, she said, “Andrew said why don’t you just sing ‘Melancholy Baby’ … and that ticked me off.”

The exchange with Webber left her certain the he had treated her poorly because of preexisitng notions of race.

The theme of how interactions related to race have colored her person was highlighted in a discussion about her mother and grooming. Morris said, “Your mother was obsessed with looks.” (She used to curl her daughter’s hair with strips of brown paper bags at night.).

“That is a product of what our culture force-fed the culture when my mother was a young girl,” Carroll said. “Everything was black and white. Everything was segregated. So her concept of how to be more acceptable [to white society] was to be very well groomed, hygiene was very important to her,” Carroll said. “There was nothing unusual about my mother’s attitudes” in  the black community.

Most poignant were her revelations about motherhood and aging.

Carroll spoke of the notion that women have about tackling everything – career and family – with ease and aplomb. “I have accepted the fact that many of us that do what we do … are not married…. We think we can do everything,” she said. “It’s all a lie!”

With pain behind her eyes, she spoke of the message children get when a parent -- a mother -- travels for work, leaving the child behind for her own stability: “Your child gets those messages, that something was more important than her.”

On aging, she said, “the business of aging requires a great deal of thought, patience, information… I’ve really found that I had to sit down and take myself  through a learning period that I didn’t expect.” 

Among things to be learned was how to deal with fading from memory, when people no longer recognize you as you walk into a room.

Despite any of the hardship, she says she has no regrets.

As she and Morris often noted, her life’s journey is chronicled in a “light examination” (her words) in their book “The Legs Are the Last to Go.” (A slightly comedic title for those of us who watched her walk in on a crutch. She’s recovering from recent foot surgery.)

-- Michelle Maltais

Photo credit: Michelle Maltais