She was born into a turbulent Detroit household, with an abusive father who was murdered when she was 18. Her mother encouraged her to become a nurse. A relative once described her as being “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream.” Donyale Luna created her own dream. She made up a story to hide her painful upbringing, denied the reality revealed on her birth certificate and claimed that her biological father’s last name was Luna, and her mother was Mexican. Her grandmother became an Irishwoman who married a black interior decorator. And so the stage was set for this extraordinarily beautiful and troubled woman, whose created identity helped to bring her fame and fortune and all of the trappings that come with those things.
She was discovered by photographer David McCabe, and left Detroit behind for the lights of New York City. From all accounts, her rise was meteoric. A sketch of her appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1965, and Richard Avedon signed an exclusive contract to photograph her.
Time Magazine published an article about her, titled The Luna Year. The article already reveals the trouble she was already beginning to encounter: “A month after hitting New York, she married a young actor, divorced him after ten months, and now will not even give his name. “I love New York,” she says. “But there were bad things. People were on drugs or hung up on pot. There was homosexuality and lesbianism and people who liked to hurt.” Unhappy with that world but unwilling to give it all up and head back to Detroit, she fled to London and Paris last December.”
In 1966, she became the first African American model to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine, a photograph in which she covered her whole face with her hand, except for her boldly outlined eye. Reportedly, that shot was chosen so as to not offend the magazine’s regular readership.
Donyale Luna saw her heritage as a thorn in her side. She was known to wear blond wigs and obvious green contact lenses. The journalist Judy Stone wrote a profile for the New York Times in 1968, titled “Luna, Who Dreamed of Being Snow White,” and described her as “secretive, mysterious, contradictory, evasive, mercurial, and insistent upon her multiracial lineage — exotic, chameleon strands of Mexican, American Indian, Chinese, Irish, and, last but least escapable, Negro.”
When pressed about her African American identity and influence, Luna bristled. When interviewed about her groundbreaking roles in popular films, including the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, Fellini’s Satyricon, and Andy Warhol’s Camp, and asked about the fact that she was breaking down doors for her sisters to follow, Luna retorted, “If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes, groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.“
By the swinging sixties, she was living it up in London and hanging with the Rolling Stones. She expressed her love for LSD, saying “I think it’s great. I learned that I like to live, I like to make love, I really do love somebody, I love flowers, I love the sky, I like bright colors, I like animals. [LSD] also showed me unhappy things — that I was stubborn, selfish, unreasonable, mean, that I hurt other people.” Unprofessional behavior proved to unravel her illustrious career. In a New York Times interview, Beverly Johnson complained about Luna’s wacked-out mannerisms, saying “[she] 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.”
She appeared nude in Playboy in April 1975, as photographed by her lover Luigi Cazzaniga. Today, Luna is survived by a daughter, Dream Cazzaniga, who works as a professional dancer in Italy. I was able to find only this photo. She is just as beautiful as her mother.
Hopefully more people will learn about her when Jennifer Poe’s documentary about Luna and Pat Hartley, the only black women to be part of Andy Warhol’s Factory, is finally released. For now, if you want to learn more about the mysterious and tragic beauty, visit this amazing website, which was my source for these beautiful photos. Also, there’s a teeshirt of her Warhol screen test on sale for $43.99 at Rock Rebel.
Donyale Luna died in 1979, of an accidental pill overdose in Rome. She was just 33 years old. Despite her tremendous fame in the Sixties and Seventies, today, Donyale Luna’s groundbreaking legacy is primarily remembered by the African American community, the very community she sought to distance herself from her whole life.