Almost two months after legendary actress Diahann Carroll died of cancer, hundreds of friends and family gathered for a poignant and joyous remembrance of her life as a pioneering actress, talented singer, doting mother and good friend at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York City.
Lenny Kravitz, Angela Bassett, Dionne Warwick, Cicely Tyson, Laurence Fishburne and others shared moving tributes and read poems at the Nov. 24 memorial, with photo montages of Carroll projected onto a large screen hanging above the stage.
“She was a fascinating woman who lived life to the fullest,” said Carroll’s daughter Suzanne Kay, 59, who organized the intimate tribute as “a way for those who’ve loved her to find closure.”
Carroll, widely known for her trailblazing TV show Julia, as well as her roles on Dynasty and Grey’s Anatomy, died of cancer on Oct. 4. She was 84. In a career that spanned six decades on Broadway, TV and in films, she became the first black star to play a role other than that of a domestic worker on her own TV series, Julia.
The role earned her a Golden Globe for best actress in a television series in 1968 and an Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy in 1969. She was the first black woman to receive the honor (she has since been followed by Nell Carter, Isabel Sanford, Phylicia Rashad and Tracee Ellis Ross).
“She was able to demonstrate what is possible, through hard work and commitment,” said Fishburne, 58, at the memorial. “Not just a passion for her art but a deeper yearning, a yearning to create something meaningful, something truthful, something deeply human, and something timeless.”
“I will miss you,” Fishburne added, “and I will love you always.”
After Carroll died, Kay recalled receiving texts that felt like “big hugs” from Warwick, 78. The singer, who spoke via an audio recording due to a work commitment, recalled first seeing Carroll perform.
“I wanted to do what she did,” Warwick said. “I wanted to be the same thing she was.”
Warwick recalled Carroll’s tremendous sense of elegance, and how one day the always perfectly coiffed and elegant Carroll spotted Warwick in a Los Angeles grocery store without makeup. “She wanted to know, ‘What was I doing in that grocery store without makeup?'” Warwick said to a laughing crowd.
“I miss you, I adore you,” Warwick continued, “and I hope I am making you proud.”
When Kravitz’s mother, the late Roxie Roker, got a part on The Jeffersons in 1977 and moved the family from Manhattan to Los Angeles, Kravitz, then in sixth grade, was worried about leaving home.
“What I didn’t know is that there was a family waiting for us, with open arms,” recalled Kravitz, 55. “And Aunt Diahann was at the center of it, as she was the center of everything.”
Kravitz recalled growing up with Carroll, whom he called “Aunt D,” and other trailblazing black artists of the time. “As a child, I didn’t really understand who all these folks were,” he said. “I didn’t realize the impact they were having on the culture and our history.”
“These were hardworking, disciplined artists, the best of the best, who had to deal with immeasurable obstacles,” Kravitz continued. “Diahann Carroll was a pioneer, forever changing the status quo, especially for women of color. The vision she had for herself set a precedent.”
Tyson, 94, recalled a friendship that began more than 50 years ago when she met Carroll at the opening of the 1962 musical No Strings (and for which Carroll would win the best actress Tony award).
“We became inseparable after that … we did everything — with some exceptions — together,” Tyson said, recalling a surprisingly “incredible” sense of humor in the “elegant, swellegant” Carroll.
As Carroll was approaching her final days, Tyson made a visit to her dear friend, who appeared to her in a dream “several nights in a row.”
“I waited until she was able to be awakened … she could barely talk … I wanted to hug her and say, ‘Please don’t,'” Tyson said. “I am so grateful I had those moments with her. I don’t know what I would have done if I had neglected to see her.”
Tyson then read a moving rendition of the poem “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep.” Bassett, 61, also performed an emotionally evocative poem, Maya Angelou‘s “When the Great Trees Fall.”
Singing performances included “A Sleepin’ Bee,” performed by Denée Benton, a song Carroll performed in the musical House of Flowers.
As the tribute concluded, jazz singer Dianne Reeves performed the Beatles song “Black Bird.”
Carroll wanted it played at her memorial service, as Paul McCartney wrote it in support of black women during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, explained Kay: “My mother was a fighter, she never let anyone define her.”
“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that she isn’t here,” she added.