Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Diahann Carroll

Episode Summary

Diahann Carroll (1935-2019) was an actress and singer. She was the first Black woman to star in her own sitcom and to win a Tony Award for best lead actress.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Correction: A previous version of this episode erroneously stated that Diahann Carroll passed away in 2014.

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady was an actress and singer. She was the first Black woman to star in her own sitcom and to win a Tony Award for best lead actress. Let’s talk about Diahann Carroll. 

Diahann was born in 1935 in the Bronx. Her father was a New York City subway conductor and her mother was a nurse. At an early age, Diahann moved with her family to Harlem, where she attended The Music and Art High School. It was there that Diahann began to take singing, dance, and modeling classes. 

At the age of 18, Diahann won the television talent competition “Chance of a Lifetime.” Like Jeopardy, it was a competition where the winner would go on to compete in the next show. Diahann won three shows in a row, taking home three thousand dollars. The fame earned her the chance to perform at New York nightclubs.

Still, Diahann’s parents encouraged her to pursue her education, and Diahann enrolled at New York University. Soon thereafter, she dropped out to go into the entertainment industry full time. 

In 1954, Diahann made her film debut in Carmen Jones—an all-Black screen adaptation of the opera “Carmen”—where she played the close friend of the lead. Diahann initially auditioned for the title role, but later said her nerves got the best of her and she could hardly focus on the scene. 

That same year, Diahann made her Broadway debut in House of Flowers, in which Truman Capote cast her in the leading role of Ottillie, a young sex worker living in the Caribbean. In the show, Diahann famously performed the song “A Sleeping’ Bee”, which was later covered by Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett.  

In 1956, Diahann married record producer Monte Kay, with whom she had one daughter. Diahann’s father boycotted the wedding, rejecting her decision to marry a white man. 

In 1958, Diahann was approached by composer Richard Rodgers, who convinced her to audition for the lead role in the show, Flower Drum Song. She was told she didn’t get the role because it required Diahann to appear Chinese-American, and the makeup artists could not make her up that way. 

In 1959, Diahann began an affair with Sidney Poitier, with whom she starred in Porgy and Bess. Sidney was also married at the time and persuaded Diahann to divorce Monte. 

In 1962, Richard Rogers contacted Diahann again. In her 1986 autobiography, Diahann wrote: “The phone rang and a voice announced, 'Miss Carroll, Richard Rodgers is calling.' 'Of course he is,' I answered.' And this is Greta Garbo.’” 

That year, Diahann was cast as the lead in Rogers’ play, No Strings. She played a fashion model who has an interracial romance with a white man.  No Strings ran for 580 performances and Diahann won the Tony Award for Best Actress, becoming the first Black woman to win for a lead role. Many of the films Diahann appeared in centered on race relations.

Diahann’s biggest break came in 1968 with the premiere of Julia, where she became the first black actor to star in her own sitcom in a non-stereotypical role. This was a milestone specifically in Diahann’s career, and generally for Black entertainers in Hollywood. But the sitcom was criticized for the way it refrained from depicting the reality of racism during the 1960s. 

Julia ran for three seasons, earning Diahann a Golden Globe and an  Emmy nomination. She appeared on mainstream talk shows, like Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan. Diahann was becoming a household name in the entertainment industry.

In 1973, Diahann married Las Vegas boutique owner Fred Glusman, who filed for divorce a few months later.

In 1974, Diahann starred in the romance Claudine opposite James Earl Jones. Diahann was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for her performance. Despite her success, she would not return to feature films for 16 years after that performance. 

 In 1975, Diahann married Robert DeLeon, the managing editor of Jet Magazine, whom she had met on the press tour for Claudine. Two years later, Robert was killed in a car crash and Diahann was left widowed.

In 1984, Diahann decided she wanted to be on the hit soap opera Dynasty. She was cast as fashionista Dominique Deveraux and reportedly told the writers “Don’t try to write for what you think I am. Write for a white man who wants to be wealthy and powerful.” She appeared on Dynasty, and its spin off The Colbys, for three years. Diahann also received an Emmy nomination for her role as Marion Gilbert in the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World. 

In 1987, Diahann married singer Vic Damone. Their relationship was turbulent and they officially divorced ten years later. 

Diahann returned to film in the musical drama The Five Heartbeats. Her television career would continue to thrive, and she landed recurring roles on popular series like Grey’s Anatomy and White Collar. 

In 1997, Diahann was diagnosed with breast cancer. She became an outspoken proponent of early detection and prevention of the disease. She was featured in the documentary 1 a Minute where she discussed her experience. In 2019, Diahann died of cancer. She was 84 years old. 

Diahann Carroll was a pioneering actress who broke gender and racial barriers. She made television history, and opened doors for more Black women in entertainment. 

All month, we’re talking about leading ladies. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!