Diahann Carroll: Elegance Personified

Diahann Carroll was a class act. Period.

Carroll died of breast cancer on Oct. 4, 2019, at the age of 84. She was a barrier-breaker, pioneer and trailblazer.

In 1962, she became the first Black female to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for the Richard Rodgers Broadway musical, No Strings. She was the first African American, male or female, to be nominated for an Emmy Award for her role in the groundbreaking television show Julia, for which she won the Golden Globe in 1969. Carroll was also the first Black female to become a Barbie doll.

Carroll, whose real name was Carol Diann Johnson, was born in 1935 in Bronx, N.Y. She left New York University to pursue a career in the arts in 1954. At 19, she was cast in the Otto Preminger film Carmen Jones, an all-Black screen adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen, opposite Dorothy Dandridge, who would become the first African-American woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. That same year, Carroll made her Broadway debut as Violet in House of Flowers, the Truman Capote–Harold Arlen musical set in a West Indies bordello.

Carroll transcended racial barriers as a sitcom pioneer and later as the gorgeously scheming, mixed-race, jet setting Dominique Deveraux on the hit primetime soap, Dynasty. But for many little Black girls, Carroll represented hope. She proved that a woman of color could be poised, well-spoken, drop-dead gorgeous and not just the sassy domestic sidekick. Carroll conquered Broadway (Agnes of God, House of Flowers, No Strings), television, including guest roles on Grey’s Anatomy and A Different World, and film (Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess, The Five Heartbeats, Paris Blues, Eve’s Bayou). She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the 1974 film Claudine, in which she played a single mother of six on government assistance in Harlem who finds love with a sanitation worker (James Earl Jones).

Carroll’s presence in the entertainment industry was awe-inspiring, groundbreaking and incredibly necessary. She represented an image we wanted the world to remember, an image that showed women of color as viable and smart, despite their beauty, an image exuding grace with such ease and honesty without being rude or flippant. It is that image that paved the way for characters in primetime like Olivia Pope of the television show, Scandal, and Annalise Keating of How To Get Away With Murder. She inspired many, including media mogul Tyler Perry, who paid tribute to Carroll by dedicating a soundstage at his new studio in her honor.

During a tribute to Carroll at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York, Carroll’s daughter Suzanne Kay said when she went through her mother’s belongings, shortly after Carroll succumbed to complications from breast cancer last year, she found a piece of paper with her mother’s handwriting on it that read: "The world is better because of me, an American Black woman, and most assuredly because I am woman.”

"Some people might think that’s arrogance," Kay told the celebrity-filled crowd. "I don’t think so. I think she always understood her value, our value, and she carried that with her, and I think that’s why people loved her."

— Carla Renata

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