Donyale Luna (August 31, 1945 – May 17, 1979) was an American model and actress.
Generally cited as “the first black supermodel”, (although she was preceded by Dolores Francine Rhiney who paraded in 1953 for the italian stylist Vincenzo Ferdinandi), Luna was the first African American model to appear on the cover of the British edition of Vogue, in May 1966.
She also appeared in several underground films by Andy Warhol, and had roles in Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966), and most notably as Enotea in the 1969 Federico Fellini film Fellini Satyricon as well as Otto Preminger's Skidoo, alongside Groucho Marx.
Early life and education
She was born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit, Michigan, to Nathaniel A. and Peggy Freeman (née Hertzog). She was the youngest of three daughters. In January 1965, her mother fatally shot her father in self-defense as he was reportedly abusive.
Despite the parentage stated on her birth certificate, she insisted that her biological father was a man with the surname Luna and that her mother was Indigenous Mexican and of Afro-Egyptian lineage. According to Luna, one of her grandmothers was reportedly a former Irish actress who married a black interior decorator. Whether any of this background is true is uncertain. Luna's sister later described her as being "a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream". She would routinely create fantasies about her background and herself.
As a teen, she attended Cass Technical High School, where she studied journalism and was in the school choir. It was during this time that she began calling herself "Donyale". She was later described by friends and classmates as being "kind of a kook".
After being discovered by the photographer David McCabe, she moved from Detroit to New York City to pursue a modeling career. In January 1965, a sketch of Luna appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. She became the first black model to appear on the cover of a Vogue magazine, the March 1966 British issue, shot by photographer David Bailey.
According to the New York Times, she was under exclusive contract to the photographer Richard Avedon for a year at the beginning of her career.
An article in Time magazine published on April 1, 1966, "The Luna Year", described her as "a new heavenly body who, because of her striking singularity, promises to remain on high for many a season. Donyale Luna, as she calls herself, is unquestionably the hottest model in Europe at the moment. She is only 20, a Negro, hails from Detroit, and is not to be missed if one reads Harper's Bazaar, Paris Match, Britain's Queen, the British, French or American editions of Vogue."
By the 1970s, however, Luna's modeling career began to decline due to her drug use, eccentric behavior and tendency to be difficult. A designer for whom Luna once worked said, "She [Luna] took a lot of drugs and never paid her bills". Fellow model Beverly Johnson later said, "[Luna] doesn't wear shoes winter or summer. Ask her where she's from—Mars? She went up and down the runways on her hands and knees. She didn't show up for bookings. She didn't have a hard time, she made it hard for herself."
Luna appeared in a nude photo layout in the April 1975 issue of Playboy; the photographer was her husband, Luigi Cazzaniga.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Luna appeared in several films.
She appeared in several movies produced by Andy Warhol. These included Screen Test: Donyale Luna(1964), in which critic Wayne Koestenbaum described Luna as "pure diva, presenting a delicious mobile excess of mannerism"; Camp (1965), and Donyale Luna (1967), a 33-minute color film in which the model starred as Snow White.
In the 1969 Federico Fellini film Fellini Satyricon, she portrayed the witch Oenothea, "who", according to one commentator, "in a trade-off with a wizard long ago ended up with fire between her legs. And it's real fire too, because Fellini shows us a scene in which a long line of foolish-looking peasants wait with unlit torches at Oenothea's bed. When their time comes, each devoutly places his torch between her legs to her sex, and, Poof."
Luna also appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, the Otto Preminger comedy Skidoo (in which she was featured as the mistress of crime boss "God", who was portrayed by Groucho Marx), and the documentary Tonite Let's All Make Love in London.
Luna starred as the title character in the 1972 Italian film Salomé by director Carmelo Bene.
Racial identity issues
Throughout her life and career, Luna claimed to be of various, mixed ethnic backgrounds, often playing down her African American ancestry. According to the journalist Judy Stone, who wrote a profile of Luna for The New York Times in 1968, Luna was "secretive, mysterious, contradictory, evasive, mercurial, and insistent upon her multiracial lineage—exotic, chameleon strands of Indigenous-Mexican, Indonesian, Irish, and, last but least escapable, African". In London's Sunday Times Magazine, Harold Carlton hailed her as "the completely New Image of the Negro woman. Fashion finds itself in an instrumental position for changing history, however slightly, for it is about to bring out into the open the veneration, the adoration, the idolization of the Negro".
When Stone asked her about whether her appearances in Hollywood films would benefit the cause of black actresses, Luna answered, "If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn't care less."
After her death, Luna’s widower Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga said that Luna self identified as a “mulatta”.
In the mid-1960s, Luna was married to an actor for ten months. Later she reportedly was engaged to the Austrian-born Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, to an unnamed Danish photographer, and to Georg Willing, a German actor who appeared in European horror films (such as 1970's Necropolis) and with the Living Theatre. Around 1969 Luna was also romantically involved with German actor Klaus Kinski. They posed together in several photographs. The relationship ended when Kinski asked her entourage to leave his house in Rome. He was concerned that their drug use could damage his career.
Luna later married Italian photographer Luigi Cazzaniga. In 1977 they had a daughter, Dream. The couple eventually separated and, while still legally married, were estranged at the time of Luna’s death.
During the early morning hours of May 17, 1979, Donyale Luna died of an accidental heroin overdose in a Rome clinic. She was 33 years old. Luna was survived by her husband, Luigi Cazzaniga, and her 18-month-old daughter, Dream.
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