Diahann Carroll, currently the supremely elegant, bitchy Dominique Deveraux in "Dynasty," is looking back from age 50 in "Diahann!" The life she describes is worthy of a character on a prime-time soap -- or at least a mini-series.
While Carroll's career is the stuff of a Hollywood fairy tale, her private life is fodder for the tabloids. Those who read "Diahann!" for the details of her three marriages and her well-publicized love affairs with Sidney Poitier and David Frost won't be disappointed. The author serves up dates, times, places and what she wore when she was planning to sleep with someone for the first time. In fact, as one might expect from someone on the international best-dressed list ("along with the likes of Jacqueline Onassis and the Begum Aga Khan"), Carroll often describes clothes in more detail than she does some of the men in her life.
But she is also brutally honest about the disturbing self-destructive pattern of her relationships. She rejected the two men -- Monte Kay (Carroll's first husband and the father of her only child, Suzanne) and Frost, who offered her adult love and the possibility of stability. She was drawn instead to men she describes as dishonest, possessive, violent, alcoholic, social climbing or some combination of the above.
Poitier, with whom she had a tempestuous nine-year affair, never delivered on his promise to divorce his wife. Carroll describes being kicked in the face and beaten by a young actor with whom she was briefly involved ("When I beheld Alan and myself in the mirror, I thought we were the two most beautiful Barbie Dolls I had ever seen . . . That's how deeply I examined the relationship"), and knocked to the floor by her second husband, Las Vegas retailer Freddie Glusman. When she was 40, she married the 24-year-old editor of Jet magazine, Robert DeLeon. He used her contacts, spent her money, drank heavily and died when he drove his Ferrari off a Los Angeles cliff.
Carroll also chronicles her professional successes, which came easily from the start. The daughter of loving, overprotective parents, Carol Diann Johnson grew up in middle-class Harlem. She graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City and was groomed as a nightclub chanteuse. She soon was performing on Broadway, winning a Tony for her first show, "House of Flowers." Her movie "Claudine" won her an Oscar nomination. She collected an Emmy for "Julia," NBC's controversial sitcom, in which she starred as a single working mother. She describes having trouble finding another television project after "Julia," but when she wanted to join the cast of "Dynasty," she just picked up the phone and called Aaron Spelling, the show's producer.
Through it all, she sang on the nightclub circuit, using her singing as a way to regain confidence and public exposure whenever she needed it.
With success came the glamorous life. We get some delicious glimpses of show business legends: Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe all make cameo appearances.
Carroll, intentionally or not, portrays herself as sweet and rather naive, as if the events in her life -- professional and personal -- happened in spite of her rather than because of anything she did. Perhaps that naivete prevented her from addressing in any detail that her work signals a leap forward for American culture.
In 1968, with "Julia," Carroll became the first black actor to star in her own television series. By replacing Elizabeth Ashley in "Agnes of God" on Broadway and by gliding into "Dynasty" as a member not only of the cast but -- improbably or not -- as a member of the Carrington clan, Carroll has set the precedent for an era in which black actors are accepted simply as actors. However, social history this book is not. But there have been few dull moments in Carroll's life, and "Diahann!" is a fast-paced, fun read.