While preparing to talk to Diahann Carroll about a cabaret appearance at Feinstein’s at the Regency in 2006, I happened upon a very curious fact. Diahann learned how a performer should bow and walk from none other than famed transsexual Christine Jorgenson, who at the time was being channeled on-stage by performance artist Bradford Louryk.
“Yes, I just saw an article about Christine Jorgenson, what’s happening—is it a book, a film, a play?” Carroll asks. “Christine was wonderful to me, just let me say that. I won a television contest called Chance of a Lifetime and the prize was to appear at the Latin Quarter nightclub. I think I did that for somewhere between three and five weeks. It led to many offers around the country, television, it was great exposure, I was immediately catapulted into more that I could handle.
“When I won that contest,” she recalls, “Christine was appearing at the Latin Quarter as a headliner. She said, ‘Why don’t you come down and let me see what you’re wearing!’ We practiced how I should bow in front of a mirror and how I should walk. She was quite elegant on-stage, wore the most beautiful clothes. I came down every evening, she would take my hand and show me how to bend my arm and bend from the waist. I remember her kindness, I remember her as a very kind woman and I loved the fact that she took a liking to me.”
It’s clear that Carroll took Jorgenson’s lessons to heart, becoming known as one of the chicest and best dressed women of her generation. “Learning to dress well is a growing process,” she admits, “and that’s one of the reasons I find it fascinating—figuring what is the most flattering for your figure and your coloring. I’ve been very fortunate, worn the greatest designers in the world. Most of my clothing for my stage has been done by Bob Mackie and many also by Arnold Scaasi. And Nolan Miller of course did beautiful clothes for ‘Dynasty!’ I love to tell this story about Joan and Linda and I in the dressing rooms, running from room to room and comparing our clothes with each other, for about an hour and a half until finally we gasped and remembered ‘Our lines! We’ve got a scene to do!’ But we had done the most important part already of course—makeup and wardrobe!”
Carroll is more than excited to be taking on the challenge of performing in the intimacy of Feinstein’s “Feinstein’s is what they used to call a boite”—that’s French for box—“and I was raised in the boites of New York, I have such memories of the Blue Angel, but I can’t reveal how long ago that was. Let’s just say I’ve been performing in nightclubs for 55 years and leave it at that.”
Of her club act, Diahann says “The working title is ‘The Life and times of Diahann Carroll,’ but that isn’t definite. It’s sort of a retrospective; I started on Broadway many years ago and haven’t performed in New York for about 40 years. I sing from the American Songbook a great deal, because that’s my background. I’m glad when I was working in the era when Richard Rodgers was producing; you know that ‘No Strings’ was the only musical that he wrote alone.” Carroll starred in the original production of “No Strings,” in which she premiered “The Sweetest Sounds” a song that features one of Rodgers’ most beautiful melodies, and has become a standard. “To have worked with Richard Rodgers and Harold Arlen and to have been present at high points with people like Alan Jay Lerner and even Cole Porter, that music is still some of the most important, certainly some of the most beautiful popular music in the world.”
Just to add to all this reflection on things past, Carroll was also working on a memoir. “It’s very interesting,” she says of wring a memoir, “but it’s also very difficult and tedious, and retrospection is not always as pleasant as one would like it to be, but for the most part I think we’re dealing with the truth. At the end of the day very often when I was doing the two things at once, I thought, this is insanity.” She breaks into slightly madcap laughter. “You’re going to lose your mind. How much can you take of Diahann Carroll? This is all quite a challenge to me, I’ve never done anything like this, but it’s very happy-making, it’s like a beginning!”