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Created: April 27, 2003
Latest Update: April 27, 2003
Backup of Can a Smile Bridge the Divide?
By Cathy Horyn
SOURCE: New York Times
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
April 27, 2003
Can a Smile Bridge the Divide?
By CATHY HORYN
SUSAN FALES-HILL'S life is as deceptively glamorous as Ms. Fales-Hill herself is beautiful. Married to a banker, she lives on Park Avenue, gives generously of her time to several worthy causes and has a portrait of a proper Boston ancestor on her wall to prove that she could, if asked, be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
But as Ms. Fales-Hill can attest, life is seldom what it appears, especially American life, with its shadows and prejudices and drawn blinds. She is the daughter of the late black actress Josephine Premice, who believed in primping even for the supermarket, and Timothy Fales, a white banker's son who wasn't about to follow his family's Anglo-Saxon traditions, least of all its opinions about marriage to an ebony-skinned Broadway entertainer.
That was in 1958. Miss Premice, already a star in Europe, where she was known as La Bombe, was appearing in the musical "Jamaica," with Lena Horne and Ossie Davis. And she gave Mr. Fales no time when he turned up swooning at her dressing room. "I'm a bachelor girl," she declared to a newspaper reporter. But after a martini here and there, she relented, and they were married, by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. It took five years for the ice to thaw between Timothy and his father, DeCoursey Fales Sr. (of the Fales Library at New York University), who had the double discomfort of seeing his family's name mixed up in headlines like "Negro Singer Married to Socialite Ship Exec."
Ms. Fales-Hill has made her family the subject of a new memoir, "Always Wear Joy" (HarperCollins). And as in life, the dauntless Miss Premice is the star. As Ms. Fales-Hill told guests at a book party last week at Sardi's, her memoir is about "the glory of growing up as her daughter." Yet the story she tells is hardly "Auntie Mame," or even "Imitation of Life." In its candor and craziness, it is closer to "Haywire," Brooke Hayward's 1977 memoir. Show business people keep popping up in the Faleses' Upper West Side living room, but there are cracks in the marriage. Timothy turns out to be not only an emotionally distant father stuck in his books but also a cheating husband.
And there is this unexpected surprise: by highlighting her parents' racially mixed social life, especially against the liberal idealism of the 1960's and 70's, and by scrutinizing her own feelings about being what she calls a demi-WASP, Ms. Fales-Hill raises questions about how integrated New York society is today. Thirty years after her parents dragged her to parties at the home of Harry Belafonte to hear about the plight of Native Americans and after she proudly pointed out her mother's decorating skills to Jackie Onassis, you have to wonder if the current partygivers are so conscientious about the mix. "While I find there's openness and people are very lovely, white and black, New York is somewhat segregated," Ms. Fales-Hill, 40, said one morning recently in the apartment she shares with her husband, Aaron Hill, and their newborn daughter.
"And a lot of the separation is by choice," she said. "There's a very strong black society group, with some high-powered businesspeople who come from families to be reckoned with. But one could also argue whether there's been a huge outreach on the part of white society toward blacks. No, not really. I think, frankly, people also don't know where to begin."
You don't have to look far to see what she means. At some of the most chic society parties, especially by the younger set for the Frick Collection, the Museum of the City of New York or the New York Botanical Garden a black face is nearly as rare as it was at the Birmingham Country Club in the 50's. And some black philanthropic events like the Associated Black Charities gala and the annual awards dinner for the Support Network, which provides aid for minority scholarships are little more likely to attract white patrons.
"I cannot tell you how depressing it is to go to a cocktail party or a business event and see nothing but white faces," said Pamela Fiori, editor in chief of Town & Country . Ms. Fiori's magazine, more than most, has made an effort to include blacks and other minorities not only in its party and wedding pages, but also in feature articles, according to black society figures like Gayle Atkins, a board member of the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Ms. Fiori said that magazine editors and predominantly white charities shouldn't assume that interested members of the black elite will come to them. "You have to make it happen," she said. "If people feel they're not wanted, they're not going to bang down the door."
As Ms. Fales-Hill suggests, many blacks have chosen to stick with and support their own society events after years of being denied access to white clubs and institutions. In addition, many successful blacks do not attach importance to entering "the so-called gilded WASP circle," said the society bandleader Bobby Short, who, like Miss Premice, crossed color barriers on individual merit. They have established themselves by more potent means, through business and entertainment.
Another factor is money. For blacks and whites alike, it takes a lot of it to play the social game at its liveliest in New York, to cover the $1,000 gala tickets as well as the clothes that help land a person in the magazines and society columns. And at the moment in this economy, said Blaine Trump, who enlisted Ms. Fales-Hill as a co-chairwoman of the American Ballet Theater gala on May 5, competing causes, black or white, are vying for the same wallets.
"They'd welcome anyone," Ms. Trump said.
Because of her own biracial history, and the friendships she formed growing up first at the Lyc้e Fran็ais and later at Harvard Ms. Fales-Hill brings, clearly, a broad perspective to the scene. "She's loose in her skin, and people respond to that," said a friend, Kristina Stewart, the executive editor of Harper's Bazaar. People who have known her longer, like the actress Diahann Carroll, also say they recognize the qualities she inherited from her parents, among them humor and grace. You don't sense she has an agenda or an ax to grind no more than her mother did in 1977 when, after playing Irene in the hit musical "Bubbling Brown Sugar," she found the offers of stage roles tapering off.
"I was living the same disappointments and joys that Josephine was living," recalled Ms. Carroll, who appeared with Miss Premice in the 1954 play "House of Flowers," based on the Truman Capote short story. "The fight to remain sane and committed to your gifts and not feel diminished by a lack of recognition that was every black actor and actress's struggle. We didn't have to explain it to each other."
In her apartment, Ms. Fales-Hill put on one of her mother's records, and Josephine Premice's husky voice floated over the room and the oil portrait of her Boston ancestor Samuel Fales. Miss Premice made four albums, including "Josephine in Paris," on the Verve label. In Paris in the 50's, she met everyone who was anyone including Cecil Beaton and the couturiers Hubert de Givenchy and Jacques Fath, who, with yards of creamy taffeta, helped transform the sparrow singer into La Bombe.
After she married Mr. Fales and they spent a six-year hiatus in Rome, where Ms. Fales-Hill and her brother, Enrico, were born, they returned to New York, where Miss Premice continued to act and they created a salon in their living room.
"My parents were part of an artistic world that was less consumed with, `Where does everybody fit?' " Ms. Fales-Hill said. "People were more passionate then. They drank, they smoked, got smashed. Now we're very rational and analytical about things."
Ms. Fales-Hill's ability to reach across divides isn't limited to her various causes, which include the Studio Museum in Harlem and the East Side House Settlement, or her appearances in the party pages of Vogue and W, or even her efforts on behalf of the Fales Library, where she serves as host of an annual dinner. As her friend Ms. Atkins said, "Susan feels a responsibility toward her past, not only on her mother's side but on her father's." More profoundly, Ms. Fales-Hill writes with understanding of her father, who left her mother in the mid-1980's, and on the list of those to whom she dedicates her book is the woman he lives with in Paris.
All this makes Ms. Fales-Hill sound like a goody-two-shoes, which might be better (or not) than being the Only One. "Why is she the only stylish black woman you see" in the magazines? asked a New York publicist who is herself black.
Ms. Fales-Hill said she doesn't think she is the only black society figure who is photographed for fashion and style magazines, mentioning the art consultant Kim Heirston and Kathryn Chenault, the wife of the chief executive of American Express, among others. But she conceded that there are not enough integrated society events.
For years, said Audrey Smaltz, a black producer of fashion shows for big-name designers, white society has consciously or unconsciously pursued a pattern of tokenism in its partygiving. "They allow one black man in at a time, and he's always gay," she said with a laugh, and some accuracy.
Yet, Ms. Trump and Ms. Atkins say, the ice floe is breaking up more and more, and they cite the mix at galas for the Studio Museum in Harlem and Jazz at Lincoln Center, which will have a concert and dinner with Morgan Freeman as host on June 2. "I think as more people have multiracial, multicultural experiences from a younger age," Ms. Atkins said, "inclusion will happen naturally."
People on all sides black and white, old guard and new see Ms. Fales-Hill as a natural catalyst to move society beyond tokenism. But Ms. Fales-Hill, a former sitcom writer ("The Cosby Show," "A Different World"), may not be ready for such a role, or even interested in it. She said she wants to devote time to her husband and daughter, joking the other night at Sardi's that her daughter's birth has "brought me unimaginable joy and an unimaginable bust line."
By the way, she met her husband on a blind date. Mr. Hill, who seems to favor the William F. Buckley Jr. example of disappearing into the social background behind a highly visible wife, is black himself; he was brought up in New Hampshire, where his father taught drama at Dartmouth.
"Yes, I asked the question, Do I marry a black person or a white person?" Ms. Fales-Hill said. "And ultimately the conclusion that I came to was I just want somebody who understands me. Understanding doesn't come in an ethnic package."
"Josephine Premice with her husband, Timothy Fales, a white banker's son."
Photograph from "Always Wear Joy"
"Josephine Premice, shown singing in a nightclub in the 1950's. Miss Premice is the focus of a new book by her daughter, Susan Fales-Hill."
Photograph from "Always Wear Joy"
"Ms. Fales-Hill, right, with Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos at a New Yorkers for Children gala."
Bill Cunningham/The New York Times
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company.