Diana Ross: An Encounter in Three Scenes

Page 3 of 3

3. Diana's Fears

October 1976: A Small private dining room at Le Restaurant, on Melrose Place in West Hollywood. The room has one mirrored wall and a narrow floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on the main dining area. There are flowers on the table and several small cut-glass containers holding assorted brands of cigarettes. Shelly is lighting one of these cigarettes with a gold lighter.

"Diana could play the big halls," he says, snapping the lighter shut. "She could play the Forum. She could do four nights at the Forum and make a hell of a lot more money doing that than doing what she's doing. But she doesn't. Do you know why?"

"Why?" I say.

Shelly exhales a cloud of smoke.

"Because she's not interested in that, that's why," he says. "Take somebody like Sinatra. Sinatra plays the big halls: stadiums, arenas, Madison Square Garden. He doesn't care, the bigger the better. All he's interested in at this point is making as much money as he can, every time he sings. And you know why? Because one morning he wakes up and the voice is gone. Suddenly he can't even sing in the shower. People will pay to see Sinatra now, but there's a limit to what people will pay to see. That's why he has to clean up while he can."

"I hadn't thought of it that way," I say.

"There's a time in every performer's life," Shelly says, "when he starts thinking just that way. When you've got more years in back of you than you've got in front it turns you a little bananas, you know what I mean? It distorts your values."

He flicks the ash on his cigarette.

"Now Diana's got a lot of performing years in front of her," he says. "Thirty years, maybe. Who knows, maybe more. She doesn't have to fuck around making every dollar she can overnight. That's why she doesn't do concerts. What she does is a stage show, a theatrical presentation. It's a whole different thing from an artistic point of view. More sophisticated."

He grinds the cigarette out in an ashtray.

"You can't do sophisticated material in Madison Square Garden," he says. "You can hold a hockey game, yes. But you can't do sophisticated material."

There is a light knock at the door; a waiter in a white shirt and a black bow tie steps into the room.

"Excuse me," he says, "but Miss Ross just called and asked that you be told that she is on her way."

"She called?" Shelly asks him.

"Yes, sir," the waiter says.

"And she said she's on her way?"

"Yes, sir. She mentioned she had gotten lost."

"Lost?" Shelly says. "She said she got lost?"

"Yes, sir," the waiter says. "I believe she said something about having gone to the wrong restaurant. Perhaps you would care for more coffee while you're waiting?"

"No," Shelly says. "Everything's fine."

"Yes sir," the waiter says. He closes the door behind him.

"How about that?" Shelly says. "She went to the wrong restaurant."

He ponders this a moment.

"Wait a minute," he says. "She picked this restaurant. This is where she said she wanted to have lunch. I remember talking to her on the phone and asking where she wanted to eat and she said here. Ha! Jesus, that's funny!"

He shakes his head and takes another cigarette from the table.

"I never come here myself," he says. "The food's too rich."

On the other side of the window, a thin maitre d' with closely cropped hair and a Latin dancer's moustache leads two young ladies to a table. Both girls have long blond hair, and both are wearing jeans tucked into the tops of high-heeled boots. The maitre d' settles them into their seats with the swiftness and grace of a hang glider making a pinpoint landing.

At an adjoining table, a middle-aged man and woman are eating lunch. The woman is heavily made up and wears a diamond ring set with emeralds; gold chains are draped around her neck like tinsel on a Christmas tree. The man she is with stares over her shoulder and watches as one of the blond-haired girls struggles to free herself from a suede blazer. The man smiles to himself and runs his fingers absent-mindedly around the rim of his wine glass.

The waiter with the black bow tie reappears.

"Miss Ross has arrived," he says.

The waiter steps out of the way just in time to avoid colliding with Diana as she rushes into the room.

"I got lost!" she says breathlessly.

"I know," Shelly says to her. "We just got your message."

Diana braces herself against the back of a chair and inhales deeply; she fans her face with her hand.

"I didn't really get lost," she says. "I mean I knew where I was, I was just at the wrong place."

She throws her things down and takes a seat.

"Would you like a cocktail, Miss Ross?" the waiter asks her.

"Definitely, yes," Diana says. "A vodka gimlet, please."

She throws her head back and runs her fingers quickly through her hair; a stack of silver bracelets rattles on each of her wrists.

"I'm a mess," Diana says. "I washed my hair and didn't have time to do anything with it. Look at it. It's just hanging here on my head."

"It looks great," Shelly says.

Diana turns her face to the mirror and examines herself.

"It doesn't look terrible?" she says.

"No," Shelly says. "How could you look terrible?"

"Let me tell you, this is a day for looking terrible for sure," Diana says. "What a day! Six o'clock this morning I wake up and find out that one of my girls has peed all over me."

"She what?" Shelly says.

"She peed on me," Diana says.

"Jesus," he says.

"I know," she says. "Tracee must have crawled into bed with me in the middle of the night, and at some point . . . "

She gestures helplessly.

"Jesus Christ," Shelly says. "You should do something about that."

"Yeah, I should do something," Diana says, "but I don't know what it is I should do. I can't get angry with her when something like this happens, because it's not her fault. This happened once before, and I did that, I got angry. I woke up to this terrible smell, and before I knew what was happening, I was shouting. And Tracee, you know, she wouldn't even look at me for the rest of the day. I felt terrible! I read a book that said you have to be very careful how you handle a situation like this or your child can become emotionally disturbed."

"What did the book say to do about it?" Shelly asks.

"This book just told you what to do after the child wets the bed," Diana says. "I have to find another book that can tell me how to keep the child from wetting the bed."

The waiter brings Diana's drink and sets it in front of her. She picks up the glass and takes a sip.

"Anyway," she says, "that's how the day started, and so far, that's been the best part. Honestly, I don't know how I went to that other restaurant, I don't know what was on my mind. I'm the one that wanted to come here, wasn't I?"

Shelly nods.

"That's exactly what I thought," Diana says. "And when I walked into St. Germain, as soon as I walked in, I knew I was in the wrong place. The maitre d' got all excited. He said, 'Miss Ross, we didn't expect you!' I said, 'I'm sorry, you will excuse me, but I'm supposed to be someplace else,' and I ran right out the door."

She makes a lickety-split motion with her hands.

"Just like that, I ran right out the door. That maitre d' is probably telling everybody how crazy Diana Ross is at this very moment."

"You are crazy," Shelly says.

"I am not crazy," Diana says. "I just look crazy on account of my hair the way it is."

She looks at herself in the mirror again.

"Listen, I have to tell you what happened yesterday," she says. "Now this was crazy. I came home from doing some errands yesterday morning, and there was a film crew outside my house. All set up and everything, equipment and stuff – all in front of my house. I nearly called you, Shelly, because I knew your reaction would be worth hearing."

"What were they doing?" he says to her.

"Well," Diana says, "I talked to them, and they explained what they were all about, and they said that they wanted to take some pictures of the outside of the house. They were making some kind of film about celebrities' houses or something."

"A film about celebrities' houses?" Shelly says.

"Well, something like that," Diana says. "But that isn't all. I told them, okay, take your pictures, just don't ruin the plants – you know – and I went inside. A little while later the doorbell rings and they're asking if I'd mind coming outside and posing for some pictures."

"Pose for pictures!" Shelly says.

"I knew you'd like that part especially," Diana says. "Yeah. Pose for pictures."

"You didn't," he says. "Did you?"

"No," she says. "My housekeeper spoke to them and said that they shouldn't disturb me for such and such a reason and besides I had been kind enough to permit them to do what they asked for in the first place, which I guess they accepted because they packed their things and left. But isn't that something?"

"Jesus," Shelly says. "There's no privacy anymore. There's no sense of decency."

"Well, I tell you, Shelly, it didn't bother me because you know what it made me think of? It made me think of when we were in Rome, and we wanted to shoot something, and we didn't have a permit, and we just went and did it anyway. Remember? Berry saying to me, 'Yeah, just go sign some autographs, that'll cool 'em out.'"

"You did do that, didn't you?" Shelly says, smiling.

"That's right," Diana says. "Next time I'm in Italy they'll probably come for me in the middle of the night and throw me into jail on a two-year-old trespassing charge."

"It would be so like them," Shelly says.

Diana finishes her drink, and the waiter returns to take the order. He writes everything down with great deliberateness on a small pad of paper.

"A salad?" he says to Diana.

"Yes," she says. "A green salad."

"With the house dressing?" he asks.

"Yes," she says."

"Endive?" he says. "Mushrooms? Bean sprouts?"

"Surprise me," Diana tells him.

"Yes, ma'am," the waiter says; he picks up a dirty ashtray and leaves.

Diana pulls a silver bread basket toward her and raises the cloth covering. She selects a piece of melba toast and butters it lightly.

"I've been reading that book," she says to Shelly.

"What book?" he says. "The toilet-training book?"

"No, the one about Roosevelt," she says. "The one you got for me."

"What do you think of it?" he asks.

"I like it," she says. "It's fascinating, his whole life story. It's like a movie. Did you know he had polio as a young man?"

"Yes," Shelly says.

"And he fought it," Diana says. "Can you imagine that? What a strong man he must have been."

"Very strong," Shelly says.

"I didn't know any of that," Diana says. "I didn't know anything at all about Roosevelt. I think the first time I ever heard his name was a couple of months ago when somebody was in my dressing room, and they repeated this saying of his: You have nothing to fear but fear itself. When I heard that I said, that's marvelous! They said, you mean you never heard that before? I said, no, I never have, what's it from? They told me Franklin Roosevelt said that, and I said, well, I don't know anything about him but he must have been a brilliant man to have had such a powerful thought. You have nothing to fear but fear itself! I took an eyebrow pencil and wrote it on my mirror so I'd remember it."

"What else did you find out about him?" Shelly says.

"I found out he died the year after I was born," Diana says. "That's probably why I didn't know anything about him."

"His wife, Eleanor, was a very strong person also," Shelly says.

"That's what the book talks about," Diana says. "But I don't think she could have been near the kind of person he was, what with all the things he accomplished for himself."

"Does he sound like he was a good president?" Shelly says.

"I don't know what that means," Diana says. "I don't know what being a good president is. When I talked to Governor Carter a few weeks ago, I asked him what he thought the presidency should be. Not what it is, but what it should be."

"And what'd he tell you?" Shelly says.

"Well, he had this long involved answer," she says, "but what he finally said, which I felt was the right answer, was that the presidency is like a service job. I thought that was good, even though I didn't like the way he went about saying it. I also asked him if he'd ever seen an organization that worked. He was saying how he wanted to make the government run efficiently, like a business, and I wanted to know if he thought there was such a thing as an organization that worked."

"I bet I know what he said," Shelly says. "I bet he said that the state of Georgia, when he was governor –"

"That's right," Diana says. "That's exactly what he said. I told him that the only organization I've personally been involved in is Motown, and how, when it started, it worked. Because it was a family, and everybody knew everybody else. But when it got bigger, and it wasn't a family anymore, that's when it began to run less efficiently. People would want to get to Berry and he wouldn't be available. There wasn't any more communication. Nobody knew what anybody else was doing. Once something gets past a certain size, you can't manage it anymore. That's why I don't understand Carter when he says he's going to reorganize. I don't see how he's going to do that."

"He'll just say he's done it," Shelly says, "and everybody will think he has. Nobody knows what the hell's going on with the government anyway. All you know about the government is what the government tells you."

"I guess that's so," Diana says.

"Sure," Shelly says. "Lenny Bruce used to have this routine about the bomb. You know, in the Fifties and Sixties everybody was worried about the bomb. Our bomb, their bomb, the whole bit. Lenny Bruce said, 'Hey! There is no bomb. You think there's a bomb? How do you know? They told you, right? Did they show it to you? Of course not! Then how do you know there really is a bomb? You don't. You just have to take their word for it. And imagine taking the word of people who would be insane enough to build a bomb in the first place."'

"Still," Diana says, "I don't think Carter would do something like that. Lie to people, I mean."

"Why not?" Shelly says. "They all do it. That's what politics is all about."

Diana shrugs and turns away. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she raises both arms and holds her hair in a tight knot at the back of her head.

"Maybe I should wear it something like this," she says.

This story is from the August 11th, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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