Outsiders who only half know Berry Gordy, the chairman of the board of Motown Industries, might figure that his first personal statement in film would be titled Success Story and that the promo catch line would go, “Success means never having to say you’re sorry.” Actually he has such a movie, a rag-trade-to-riches romance called Mahogany, and, rather affectingly, the pitch Berry himself penned reads, “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.” In his own case, of course, Berry has been thrice wed and now confesses for the first time that Mahogany star and his longtime protégé Diana Ross was also his sometime love.
Over the dozen years since he discovered the slinky lead singer of Motown’s Supremes (the second hottest-selling group of the ’60s after the Beatles), Gordy evaded talk of marriage while Diana pined for a family of her own. “I’d traveled a lot, was going temporarily insane and became very successful,” she reflects, “but there was no one to take that all home to. I even thought of adopting a child as a single mother.” So she finally cut her Gordyan Knot (emotionally but not professionally) and chose to share her success and love with Bob Silberstein, a born-to-run kid from Jersey, who is, at 30, 15 years junior to Gordy and one year younger than Diana.
Silberstein is today one of Hollywood’s most likable and few trustable young personal managers, though when he met Diana six years ago he was just a jobless newcomer two months in town. “No one introduced us,” Bob recalls, and Ross still kids that she “picked him up.” The scene was a Los Angeles men’s shop where the always dramatically put together Diana (she makes “best-dressed” lists and designed all the flamboyant Mahogany costumes) was shopping for a present for Berry. She asked for Silberstein’s help and discovered “a rare thing, a gentleman who is young, alive and very handsome—all the fantasy things you think of in a husband.” Though they “were never alone together” for a year and a half, they married in 1971 after Bob presented her with red pajamas to match his own—a galvanizing event Diana claims “was the first time we realized we were a couple.”
That didn’t mean, though, that Silberstein was reconciled to becoming Mr. Diana Ross, or to playing Jeff Wald to his wife’s Helen Reddy. Under the name of “Robert Ellis” (he briefly dropped the Silberstein “because I thought everybody here did”), he got into real estate speculation and began taking over top rock acts like Billy Preston and Rufus. “I would never manage Diane”—as intimates call her. Rather, he notes “she’s been in the business a lot longer than I have and I respect her advice.”
And why shouldn’t he? Under Berry Gordy’s management (he is still a close friend of the family), Diana has made a splash in movies at a time when most Hollywood actresses are an extinguishing species. In her only prior role, Diana won an Oscar nomination for playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.
Now Mahogany seems to be one of the first box office clicks of this winter despite what Gordy concedes to be “the worst reviews in the history of the world.” Diana even managed a pop hit from her first nonsinging role. Her voice-over Theme from Mahogany promptly rocketed to the top of the pop record charts, her second No. 1 record (a feat unmatched by her leading rivals, Barbra or Liza).
All the while, the family life of Mrs. Robert Silberstein (as she proudly labels herself on charge accounts) has hardly suffered. In five years, she and Bob have had three daughters—Rhonda, 4, Tracee, 3, and Chudney, 2½ months. They share a sleekly modern mansion Diana bought in Beverly Hills equipped with a cook, an English secretary, a yardman, a housekeeper, a nannie, Diana’s 20-year-old brother, Chico, and her nephew, Tommy, 7. “He’s the son I haven’t had yet. We’re still looking for Robert Jr.”
Despite her wispy 100 pounds and size six (“I don’t get fat,” she grumbles, “I get skinny”), Diana is an all-out jock. In the summer, she and Bob whack around tennis balls on their backyard court three times a week; this winter they’re commuting to Aspen with buddies like Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel. On their last skiing trip, Bob, the good neighbor, sat up all night in the hospital with Cher when Chastity had a 105° fever while Gregg was away on tour.
The Silbersteins’ vigorous professional life makes them party poops at home. They host maybe one blast a year, go out only to a few more, and most nights hit the sack after 6 p.m. dinner with their daughters and a movie. They recently finished Werner Erhard’s est course, which some friends suggest has made “Di” less of a prima donna than in the past. Since Bob and Diana think their kids got too many toys this Christmas, next year they’ll try his Chanukah tradition of opening one present a day for eight days. “But I’m no supermommy,” Diana protests. “I need my career, too.” Bob agrees that “Diana would have missed a lot by not having children, but she’s too talented to be only a mother.”
Diana herself grew up in a family of six in a low-income housing project in Detroit, where her dad worked on an assembly line. “I never felt we were poor,” she reflects. “We just didn’t have money.” She and two teenage friends from Cass Technical High School started singing together as the Primettes, a sister group to the all-male Primes (later the Temptations). But when they auditioned for Gordy, then running Motown from a ramshackle frame house office, he told them to come back after graduation. They did and, as the Supremes, packaged glossy wigs and grabbing rhythms into an astonishingly successful formula. Beginning with 1964’s Where Did Our Love Go?, the Supremes turned Motown into a recording industry giant, once cutting a string of seven successive No. 1 hits.
For Diana, Gordy played Professor Higgins—sending her to classes to learn how to sit, light cigarettes and shake hands. All the while they both denied any romance. But now Gordy finally owns up that “it would have been hard to work with her and not fall in love.” Diana elaborates, “At first he was a dictator, and I really hated him. Then I loved him more than anything. Then I started to hate him again, and now I really like him.”
“We’re still very close, obviously,” Gordy acknowledges. “But our relationship has changed. At first, I taught her a lot. Then we became equal. Now I work for her. But she hasn’t quite become a dictator.” Diana loyally is still friendly enough with the present edition of the Supremes (only Mary Wilson remains from the founding trio) to see them frequently. “I feel happy and strange sitting in the audience,” she muses, “and a little sad too.”
Bob says that any hangups caused by their interracial marriage vanished long ago. “I’ve tried to involve myself in her family and to understand and appreciate the way she grew up,” he points out, “and she’s done that with me.” Bob is from a wealthy family of Jewish garment manufacturers in Elberon, N.J. (“Since Bruce Springsteen, I say Asbury Park,” he cracks.) He graduated from West Virginia University and tried teaching. But after a dispute with his principal he quit and moved to California.
Silberstein recognizes that “there’s still a color line in 1976” and illustrates the point in show-biz lingo. “Diane’s a ‘cross-over’—just like an R&B record going pop or Diana Ross the singer becoming Diana Ross the movie actress.” Diana Ross is not ready to give up any of her cross-overs. She has an ABC-TV special coming up in May that could lead to a series. A new record album is in the can, and unlike most actresses, she notes, “I don’t have to sit around and wait for the next movie to come along, I can go out and sing.” As for dealing with the pitfalls of success, she says, “With the Supremes I made so much money so fast that all I wanted to do was buy clothes and pretty things. Now I’m comfortable with money, and it’s comfortable with me.” According to someone who should know—Gordy—all that Bob and Diana need to do now is to stay cool. “They discuss each other’s business problems some,” Gordy says. “But the way for that to continue as one of Hollywood’s finer marriages is for them not to get involved in each other’s careers.” That’s really taking care of business.