It goes without saying that Diahann Carroll was the very picture of talent and glamour, elegance and grace. Not only did she epitomize each of those adjectives, she also gave us so much more—on stage, on film, on screen, on records, in literature.
But as she once noted, it was her destiny to be the center of attention. “If I hadn’t become an entertainer, I would have had to make some noise in some other arena. I‘ve always had an enormous need to be seen and heard.”
While she’s often been credited as the first Black actress to lead a primetime network series, the fact remains that her resume was already miles-long before she donned that nurses’ cap in Julia, which premiered on NBC in 1968. She got her professional start as a model, then went on to record albums, sing on stages across the globe, star on Broadway and conquer the worlds of film and television. But before the success and accolades (including a Tony Award for No Strings and a coveted Oscar nod for her role in Claudine), she was just a Harlem girl who had big dreams for herself.
She was born during the summer of 1935 and her parents blessed their “surprise baby” with the name Carol Diann Johnson. Armed with confidence, drive and sense of personal style—all gifts from her mother —she made her big screen debut at 19 in Carmen Jones and later landed a role in the film version of Porgy & Bess. What followed was more stage work, more film and always, television. She remained a welcome presence on the small screen and when she served fashion, face and every angle of attitude as the ever-fabulous Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty. We could not turn away. The world was not ready, neither was her on-screen nemesis, Alexis Carrington, but what that role did was introduce her to yet another audience. The same could be said for her turn as Whitley Gilbert’s scene-stealing mother, Marion, on A Different World, for which she won an Emmy, and later on Soul Food and Grey’s Anatomy.
Throughout her career, she carried herself with a level of sophistication that was all her own. She was a vision. From the outside peering in, she was flawless, but her journey wasn’t always as easy at it looked. She was married four times and wished she’d slowed her pace a bit to have enjoyed more precious time as a mother to her only child, Suzanne. She also battled breast cancer.
But as she noted in her 2008 memoir, The Legs Are the Last to Go, she did her best and she showed up. “For each and every performance (and each and every wedding, for that matter), I was always on time, always prepared, and always, always coiffed and dressed.”
Though her passing marks a sad ending of an era of old Hollywood glam, we will always remember Carroll as a class act…and she wouldn’t have it any other way.