Diahann Carroll is a virtuoso at getting her rep caught in the wringer—though she professes that she couldn’t care less. Many blacks have not forgiven her for the white men in her life: her first marriage to producer Monte Kay, her intergalactic engagement to David Frost and (12 days after that broke up) her next marriage to Vegas clothier Freddé Glusman. Worst of all was her so-called breakthrough black TV sitcom Julia, which was regarded as irrelevant, insulting tokenism. According to Jet, the No. 1 black weekly, Carroll had developed the image of a “white folks’ nigger.”
As it happened, Robert DeLeon, the author of that piece, which was basically sympathetic (title: “I’ve Been Black All the Time”), became Diahann’s third husband last year. But that hasn’t ended the innuendos. DeLeon’s black but, at 25, is 15 years younger than Carroll. And now they’re both on the line. Hotshot print journalist DeLeon (he was Jet managing editor at 20) made himself, overnight, executive producer of her comeback TV variety series, which just premiered on CBS. It’s a four-segment summer substitute, and all four were brought in for $500,000 in five days. That’s about one-third the budget and one-fifth the production time of a standard network variety hour—and it shows.
Carroll says she can handle critiques of her art but, as she contemplates her press over the years, observes, “I begin to think there’s nothing about my work as intriguing as who took me to dinner three years ago.” She continues, defensively: “Why do we not subject someone who is not black and female to such criticism? Does anybody worry about what the ‘community’ thinks of Warren Beatty’s life-style? Why,” she wonders, “is the female always pictured as crying at the altar just because a relationship has ended?” She cites, for example, as “totally untrue” stories that she suffered a breakdown when her 1962 affair with Sidney Poitier fizzled out. Instead, she says, the split “correlated with my therapy, and I see that not as a weakness but a strength.”
Similarly, Diahann denies her marriage to Glusman was a ricochet romance: “Off and on during my relationship with David, we were both free to see other people. I had been seeing Mr. Glusman for over a year.” She is equally formal about its end. “All I can say is that it was a total misjudgment of character on my part.” The marriage lasted only three months. Diahann now says of all these busted loves, “I have always learned from them and then moved on to another relationship because I’m a healthy person.”
That impressed DeLeon, who was also divorced when he assigned himself to a cover story on Diahann pegged to her 1975 Oscar nomination for Claudine. “I respected this person,” he recalls, “for being honest enough not to offer any apologies for her life. She told me, ‘What I have done has not always made people happy, but that’s not my responsibility.’ ” Then a month later, during an updater (after she lost), Robert found, “I felt really attracted to this human being.” Once the story ran he joined her dinner list. The courtship that followed was both quiet—”even Jet didn’t know,” grins DeLeon—and quick. Carroll’s reservation was that she had rarely found “a secure black man that you can deal with on a one-to-one basis and not have him feel threatened that your career might serve to de-ball him. It does for many men,” she adds, “but it’s doubly difficult for a black man.”
After the marriage a year ago May, Diahann moved to Chicago, which was Jet headquarters. But Robert soon quit the magazine because his “creative juices were being used up,” and because, he winks, “you don’t get rich as a journalist.” So they went to his hometown, Oakland, where DeLeon joined a friend’s management consulting firm. Diahann didn’t retire but limited herself to singing club dates. Early this year they came to L.A., where Robert set up a non-showbiz PR firm, and they formed their TV production outfit.
If nothing else, Robert’s proven himself a fast study. An Air Force brat, he entered Morehouse College at 14 and two years later was placed in a summer studies program at Columbia U. open only to the nation’s top minority students. From there, he got an internship on Long Island’s Newsday, then, while still in his teens, joined Gulf Oil as an advertising VP. That’s when Johnson Publishing Co.—which puts out Jet and Ebony—beckoned.
Diahann had been modeling for Johnson magazines two years before Robert was born. Christened Carol Diahann Johnson, she’s a Harlem native whose parents (he was a subway motorman, she a nurse) sent her to New York’s High School of Music and Art and, briefly, to NYU. Soon she won $3,000 on a network talent show, and appeared in such Broadway musicals as House of Flowers (where she met casting director Monte Kay) and her Tony-winning No Strings, about interracial love, which Richard Rodgers wrote especially for her. In the 1960s she survived movies such as Hurry Sundown and then Julia.
She notes, without bitterness, “I came out of a period in which blacks as well as whites wanted black women in showbiz to be fair, and at that time I was a little too dark, my nose not keen enough. Then along came ‘black is beautiful,’ and suddenly I was too light.” She adds, “I wasn’t surprised at the reaction of the black community, but I believe we are slowly recognizing it is not the responsibility of every black actor each time out to do a documentary of black life.” Interestingly, though, in Claudine, Diahann played an unglamorous ghetto mother—to her greatest acclaim.
Today Diahann and Robert live in an airy three-bedroom house commanding the Pacific. This summer her 15-year-old daughter Suzanne (by Kay) is with them (she attends boarding school in San Francisco). So is Monica, his 4½-year-old by his first wife. The DeLeons are thinking about adding their own child to this brood. “We work hard,” says Robert, “not for the big checking account, but for our children and us.”
Diahann is not really sweating the ratings of her mini-series. “I don’t want to be away from my family a great deal,” she says. “I used to be a night-blooming jasmine, but I’ve been out there, and I know I’m not missing anything.” Besides, she frets, “so many of my friends are black actors, and there’s just not enough work.” Robert is more upbeat about Diahann’s career, and what’s more, he admits, “I want her to keep working. People are bored when they’re not working, and when they’re bored, they’re boring.” As he leaves the house to drive to his Sunset Boulevard office, he turns and chides, “Well, goodbye, Diahann—write when you get work.” “That’s my line,” she laughs, “that’s my line! Ah, how quickly they learn show business.”