Diosa Costello was a pioneering performer of music, film and theater who, in 1939, became the first Latina on Broadway. She recently donated 11 costumes from her personal wardrobe to the National Museum of American History. She spoke with the magazine’s Joseph Stromberg.
What sparked your passion for performance from such an early age? When I was 5 years old, my father had pneumonia. He owned a little box. I remember that it was narrow, long and yellow. Painted on the box were pictures of people dancing, holding hands and singing. I used to try to imitate those pictures. That’s how I entertained my father when he was sick. After he died I kept on singing and dancing and entertaining people in the street. They used to give me pennies. But when I got back home, my mother, she would punish me. In those days, if a young girl wanted to be in show business, it meant that eventually she would be a bad woman.
But that was in Puerto Rico. Then they brought me to the United States. A woman friend of my mother, she used to say: “Why don’t you take your children to America? They go to school, they read, they learn.” And my mother listened to her, and we came to this wonderful country. To me, they call me New Yo-rican, because I was born in Puerto Rico, in a town called Guayama.
How do you feel about your costumes being on display at the Smithsonian? At first, I didn’t want to give them my clothes. Even though I’m not going to perform anymore, those clothes are very special, and I love them. But, after back-and-forth pleas and rejections, I finally said, “Yes, yes, yes.” I’m still numb. I asked the curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, “I’m going in a museum?” And he said, “It’s not just about your clothes, it’s that you’re a legend.” I didn’t know that I was all those things. But instead of an exhibit, what I really want is a special window, where I can charge people to see my clothes!
In your nightclub act, you would dance and sway your back so that you could shake your behind with a glass of water on top of it. At the time, did people think your act was too edgy? Yes, are you kidding? I could dance all over the place, without spilling one drop. That got me a picture in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. I’m very uninhibited. If I think something, I do it, you know? And because I used to sort of ad lib everything.
Who would you want to portray you in a movie? I would want JLo to play me. She’s a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. I lived in the Bronx for a long time (in a Jewish, not Latina neighborhood). She married a skinny musician, I was married to Pupi Campo, who was a skinny musician. She’s got the tuchis ; I have the tuchis—although mine is the original, the cutest. … When I did my show in the Catskills, believe it or not, most of it was just talking for two hours, I’d be leaving and the people would be yelling “more, more, more.”
You were cast in the role of the Polynesian Bloody Mary character in South Pacific , replacing Juanita Hall, who originated the character on Broadway. How did that happen? I had a secretary and she was up on everything that happened on Broadway. She had read James Michener’s story, and she said, “You know, you would be very good for Bloody Mary.” And I said, “What’s that?” I thought it was a drink, I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
So I went to George Abbott, who was my director in Too Many Girls (1939), and we were great friends. George and I were dancing partners, and we used to go out everywhere to dance nightly after I would finish my show at La Conga. I used to call us “Abbot and Costello.” George said, “Well, let me think about it, but I think she’s got something here.” He said, “Let me discuss it with Josh Logan,” (who was the director) and let me see what he thinks. So he discussed it with Josh, and Josh said, “Let’s go to James Michener.” According to what I was told, James Michener said that when he wrote the story, the original Bloody Mary was a wiry kind of woman who was always trying to sell something and cheat the soldiers and all that kind of stuff.
And Josh said to Michener, if you don’t hire Diosa for the part, then I’m not interested in directing the show. And I said, “Oh wow, I’ve got it made.” And I did get the part!
So what was it like? I was so nervous. The orchestra leader was trying to train me and tell me how to sing. I have never had any singing lessons in my life. And he would say, “You’re not breathing right, that’s why you can’t get your notes, because you’re not breathing right.” And I was trying to do what he told me.
Now, general rehearsal is just like if the show went on. No matter what mistake you make, you go on. We were at some kind of theater in Cleveland, because we were going to open there before we came to Broadway. Dick Rodgers [of Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein] was a very quiet man, very proper. But he knew his business. So at dress rehearsal one night while I’m singing “Bali Ha’i,” which is a very difficult song, I hear “Stop!” And I think, “Holy Toledo, what the hell did I do?” I thought it was something I had done wrong. He says to me, “You’re not singing right. You’re not singing like yourself.” So I told him that the musical conductor had been coaching me. So he went over to the musical conductor and said, “Stop coaching her, I don’t care if she can sing right . She stops my show and that’s all that matters.”
What advice do you have for young performers? You gotta be sure of what you’ve got. This is what the old performers had that the new performers don’t. If you go on stage thinking, “I’m Diosa Costello, you’re going to like me,” you’re going do it right. If you go out there a little bit shaky and unsure of what you’re doing, it’s not going to come out right.
Clyfford Still’s Sublime Art
The American painter Clyfford Still (1904-1980) thought he was un-categorizeable, but many experts consider him to be, along with Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, one of the few who painted the “abstract sublime.” The art critic and historian Irving Sandler says, “Jackson Pollock may have been the more important artist, but Still was, in my opinion, the greater innovator.” Still’s reputation is about to get a boost from the $29 million Clyfford Still Museum, designed by the star architect Brad Cloepfil and due to open November 18 in Denver. Its collection comprises more than 800 paintings and some 1,600 works on paper.
Still, who was born in North Dakota, took color by the throat, but his chroma is not French or perfumey, like that associated with Monet or Matisse. It’s stark, harsh, often accompanied by vast areas of black, but not unpleasant. In the roughly 9- by 13-foot canvas titled 1954 – PH 1123 , Still’s handling of shape and paint itself is what makes the bright colors—the waterfall of orange, the semi-hidden tear of blue—register not only as beautiful, but as awesome in the literal, looking-out-at-the-Grand-Canyon sense of the word. The painting can be read from left to right, in a sequence similar to a three-act play. There’s an introduction, with that orange “character” getting your attention; a white-on-gray transition to the black, meat-of-the-matter second act; then a white climax followed by a black denouement.
But Still’s paintings aren’t narratives: They’re supposed to hit the viewer all at once. 1954 – PH 1123 does that, thanks to his control of vertical shapes, with undulating paint within a given color. He used varying amounts of linseed oil to achieve differences in gloss, and worked with a palette knife as much as a brush, lavishing attention on his cascading ragged edges. The effect is a stunning first notice, a rhythmic horizontal read and then a deep plunge into the painting’s inner structure.
My guess is that to stand in a gallery at the Clyfford Still Museum surrounded by the likes of 1954 – PH 1123 will be among the best art-museum experiences anywhere.
Peter Plagens is a painter and critic in New York City.
The Tuskegee Airmen Plane’s Last Flight
Parked on the tarmac at Lincoln, California’s municipal airport, the open-cockpit biplane looked as if it had just rolled off the assembly line, circa 1944. This past July, the World War II-era two-seater’s pilot and owner, Air Force Capt. Matt Quy (pronounced Kwai), took off from Lincoln in the PT-13D U.S. Army Air Corps Stearman, bound for Washington, D.C. and, ultimately, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), whose new home is slated to open in 2015.
The Stearman was standard issue for training fledgling pilots during the war. But what makes this particular plane—with its Air Corps blue, yellow, red and white color scheme—an important addition to the new museum’s holdings is its backstory. It was used to ready America’s first African-American military pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, for aerial combat.
Primary training took place at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, which is where Quy’s Stearman was originally based. The first class of five Tuskegee pilots graduated in March 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor.
The Airmen manned both fighter planes and bombers. Their 332nd Fighter Group was commanded by West Point graduate Lt. Col. Ben Davis Jr., the son of America’s first African-American general. The 332nd was deployed in April 1943 and flew more than 1,500 missions over Italy and the Mediterranean from various bases in North Africa.
Quy’s love affair with the PT-13D seems almost fated. “I grew up in Apple Valley, Minnesota,” Quy recalled as he and I prepared to board the plane for a flight over California farmland. “When I was 7 or 8, my family lived at the end of a grass runway. There was a guy with a Stearman who dragged advertising signs. He’d come right over our house pulling those banners, and I was hooked.” After graduating from Minnesota State University in Mankato, Quy became a pilot for Sun Country Airlines. In 2002, he reversed the typical pilot’s career path and joined the Air Force. He bought the Stearman, which had been wrecked in a crash, in 2005, sight unseen, by telephone.
In Houston, Quy, along with his wife, Tina, a pharmaceutical rep, and an aircraft-mechanic friend, Robbie Vajdos, began a three-year effort to make the plane as good as new. “Luckily for me, after the war many of these planes became crop-dusters,” he said, “so there are still parts available.” And, in Texas, there was ample space available too. “We had three garages for all the stuff,” Tina told me. In 2008, Quy and Vajdos finally got the plane aloft, taking it out for a 40-minute spin. “That first flight,” says Quy, “was pretty emotional.”
Not long after buying the plane, Quy discovered through research that it had been used by the Tuskegee pilots at Moton. Once restoration was complete and the Lycoming engine was back in working order, Quy—who flew a tour of duty in Afghanistan during this period—began taking the plane to air shows and meeting Tuskegee Airmen. Today, the underside of a fuselage compartment door contains the signatures of 45 Airmen. In 2008, an article in the U.S. Air Force Journal brought the story of Quy and his aircraft to the attention of Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum curator Dik Daso; he alerted NMAAHC curator Paul Gardullo.
Gardullo and Daso attended an air show at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California in 2009, where they met Quy, his wife and two Airmen, Lt.Cols. Alexander Jefferson and Bill Holloman. The Quys agreed that their plane belonged at the Smithsonian, where it would symbolize the Tuskegee Airmen’s story for millions of visitors.
On August 2, after a transcontinental journey that included stops at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, air shows in Minnesota and—most significantly—at Moton Field, Quy and his plane touched down on August 5 at Dulles International Airport outside Washington for the official hand over. The landing was timed to coincide with a national convention of Tuskegee Airmen in nearby Oxon Hill, Maryland.
Gardullo witnessed the landings at Moton and at Dulles. “It was a powerful experience seeing that plane brought back to its original home,” he says of the Stearman’s arrival at Moton. And of the plane’s final touchdown, he told me, “When this tiny airplane came in among all the big airliners, for several minutes everything was just quiet. That was when the impact of this story really hit me.”
Owen Edwards is the author of the book Elegant Solutions .