OPHELIA DEVORE-MITCHELL; REDEFINED BEAUTY
By MARGALIT FOX
MARCH 13, 2014
Her death was announced on March 6 on the floor of the House of Representatives by Sanford D. Bishop Jr., Democrat of Georgia. At her death, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell was the publisher emeritus of The Columbus Times, a black newspaper in Columbus, Ga., which she ran from the 1970s until her retirement about five years ago.
Long before the phrase “Black is beautiful” gained currency in the 1960s, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell was preaching that ethos by example.
In New York in the 1940s — an age when modeling schools, and modeling jobs, were overwhelmingly closed to blacks — she helped start the Grace del Marco Modeling Agency and later founded the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling. The enterprises, which served minorities, endured for six decades.
The success of the agency, and the visibility of the school’s thousands of graduates, helped pave the way for the careers of contemporary black supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks.
As an agent, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell represented members of the first wave of black models to attain wide visibility at midcentury, among them Helen Williams, often described as the first black supermodel. She also represented a young model named Richard Roundtree before he went on to fame as an actor in “Shaft” and other movies.
As a charm-school director, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell taught dress, diction and deportment to thousands of students, including the future actress Diahann Carroll, the future television newswomen Sue Simmons and Melba Tolliver, and the future hip-hop artist Faith Evans.
Besides tending to her pupils outwardly through classes like Wardrobe I, II and III; Social Graces; and Figure Control With Fencing and Ballet, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell designed a curriculum to bolster them inwardly, offering a counterweight to the tradition of internalized self-hatred that was many black Americans’ legacy.
“Black has always been beautiful,” Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell once said. “But you had to hide it to be a model.”
In the late 1930s, when Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell began her career as one of the first black models in the United States, she found work partly by hiding her own heritage. But in her case, the hiding was done entirely through inadvertence.
Emma Ophelia DeVore was born on Aug. 12, 1922, in Edgefield, S.C., one of 10 children of John Walter DeVore, a building contractor, and the former Mary Emma Strother, a schoolteacher.
As a girl, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell, whose family was of African, Cherokee, French and German descent, was educated in segregated Southern schools; she received additional instruction “in dancing, piano and all the other things in the arts that parents gave you to make you a lady,” as she told Ebony magazine in 2012.
At 11, to further her education, she was sent to live with an aunt in New York. She graduated from Hunter College High School in Manhattan and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, with a minor in languages, including French, Latin and German, from New York University.
A beauty with wide-set eyes, Ophelia DeVore had begun modeling casually as a teenager. A few years later, seeking professional training, she enrolled in the Vogue School of Modeling in New York.
“I didn’t know that they didn’t know,” Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell said in the Ebony interview. “I thought they knew what I was.”
Though a few modeling jobs came her way, especially once Ebony began publishing in 1945, she soon realized that the field remained largely closed to her — and utterly closed to darker-skinned models.
In 1946, she and several friends founded the Grace del Marco agency. (The name was a coinage: “Grace” was a natural choice, “Marco” an acronym of the founders’ initials.) Two years later, wanting a training ground for black models, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell established her charm school.
One of the agency’s first great successes, starting in the 1950s, was Ms. Williams. Through a combination of Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell’s indefatigability, her considerable charm and Ms. Williams’s breathtaking luminosity, the agency placed her in campaigns for major advertisers — including Budweiser, Bulova and Johnson & Johnson — which appeared in mainstream publications like The New York Times Life and Redbook, feats without precedent for a black model.
Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell’s most famous protégée, Ms. Carroll, who attended the charm school as a teenager, went on to stardom as a singer, a Broadway actress (she won a Tony Award in 1962 for her performance in the Richard Rodgers musical “No Strings”) and the title character in “Julia,” the NBC series about a young widowed nurse.
Broadcast from 1968 to 1971, “Julia” is widely considered the first television series to star a black woman in a nonstereotyped role.
Among her other accomplishments, Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell wrote a fashion column for The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper; was a host of the ABC-TV program “Spotlight on Harlem” in the 1950s; was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts; and was featured in the 1989 book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” by Brian Lanker. She was a longtime resident of Manhattan.
Her first marriage, to Harold Carter, a New York City firefighter, ended in divorce. In 1968 she married Vernon Mitchell, the publisher of The Columbus Times; on his death in 1972 she took over the paper, dividing her time between New York and Georgia.
Her survivors include five children from her first marriage, Carol Gertjegerdes, James Carter, Marie Moore, Cheryl Parks and Michael Carter; nine grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
Her charm school, which had several names and several locations in New York City over the years, closed its doors — then in the Empire State Building — in 2006, as did the agency.
Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell’s own modeling career lasted just a few years. But her work advancing the careers of other models, she often said, was far more vital.
“I wanted to change the way people of color were seen across the United States,” she told the black-themed news site The Grio last year. “I wanted America to know that beauty isn’t just white.”
DAVID BRENNER, MASTER OF OBSERVATIONAL HUMOR
By PETER KEEPNEWS
MARCH 15, 2014
His longtime publicist, Jeff Abraham, said the cause was cancer.
Early in his career, Mr. Brenner seemed to many like a throwback to an older, safer brand of comedy. Other comedians were gleefully challenging taboos, but his routines were free of profanity and focused not on sex, drugs or race, but on the annoying little details of everyday life — in his words, “the dumb things that we say and do.”
There was the one about the time he sat on a newspaper and a fellow subway passenger asked him if he was reading it: “I said yes, stood up, turned the page and sat down again.” There was his reaction to the news that there was a pill to stop people from gambling: “What are the odds?”
Later, as comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno attained stardom with a similar approach, Mr. Brenner came to be celebrated as much for his influence as for his links to comedy’s past.
Tall and skinny, with a toothy grin and a memorably nasal delivery, Mr. Brenner became a comedian relatively late in life. He was over 30 and a successful writer, producer and director of documentary films when he began working in New York comedy clubs in the late ’60s. Stardom came quickly.
On Jan. 8, 1971, he made his first appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” at the time the goal of every working comic. He went on to become one of the show’s most frequent guests, making more than 150 appearances, about half of them as substitute host.
In an interview in December on “CBS This Morning,” Mr. Brenner recalled that Carson once explained why he was asked so frequently to perform stand-up on the show, as opposed to sitting on the couch for an interview: “He said, ‘Because I like to sit back, smoke a cigarette and laugh for six minutes.’ ”
Mr. Brenner was also a regular guest of David Letterman, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and other television hosts.
He was given his own late-night syndicated talk show, “Nightlife,” in the fall of 1986. “As an interviewer, he is supportive, never confrontational,” the New York Times television critic John J. O’Connor wrote, adding, “He is best with other comedians, genuinely enjoying their routines and clearly eager to give their careers a boost.”
But competing against Carson’s venerable “Tonight Show” on NBC and Joan Rivers’s heavily publicized “Late Show” on the new Fox network, “Nightlife” did not catch on with viewers. It was canceled in the spring of 1987.
The demise of “Nightlife” was Mr. Brenner’s second high-profile failure. In 1976, he shot seven episodes of “Snip,” an NBC sitcom in which he played a hairdresser. The show was on the network’s fall schedule but was pulled at the last minute. No official reason was given, although some reports said that NBC grew nervous about the presence of an openly gay character in the supporting cast.
Those were minor setbacks in an otherwise triumphant career. Mr. Brenner was one of the most successful comedians of his generation, working regularly in Las Vegas and throughout the country in addition to his many television appearances. In his peers’ view, he was also one of the best — and, to many, a mentor.
“He gave me good advice early in my career,” Steve Martin said in a statement on Saturday, praising Mr. Brenner as “a gentleman, and really, really funny.”
David Brenner was born on Feb. 4, 1936, in Philadelphia, the son of Lou and Estelle Brenner. His father was a former vaudevillian who he said had several jobs — not all of them legal — and was one of the funniest people he knew. Mr. Brenner served in the Army and graduated from Temple University with a degree in communications before beginning his career as a documentarian.
In 2000, he married his longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Slater in Las Vegas; the wedding was telecast live as the finale of his HBO special “Back With a Vengeance!” They were divorced in 2001. (Mr. Abraham, his publicist, said Mr. Brenner had suggested they get divorced on Showtime.) He later had an eight-year relationship with the figure skater Tai Babilonia. They were engaged at one time, but despite reports to the contrary, Ms. Babilonia said on Sunday, they never married.
He is survived by his wife, Ruth; three sons, Cole, Wyatt and Slade; and a grandson.
In recent years, Mr. Brenner’s comedy began to focus more on current events. He appeared as a commentator on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.
Mr. Brenner wrote several books. His last, published in 2003, was “I Think There’s a Terrorist in My Soup: How to Survive Personal and World Problems With Laughter — Seriously,” based on a national tour he undertook after the Sept. 11 attacks to help get people laughing again.
He retained his sense of humor to the end. “In David’s final request,” his family said in a statement on Saturday, “he asked that $100 in small bills be placed in his left sock ‘just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.’ ”