Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Susan Fales-Hill

Author, television writer and producer, Susan Fales-Hill is a New York girl who was born into the Society that many bemoan no longer exists: on her father’s side, she’s descended from the Mayflower settlers who arrived in Plymouth in 1620. On her mother’s side, she’s descended from Haitian stock and the bright lights of Broadway.

Her mother, the late, great Josephine Premice was making a sensation with Lena Horne and Ossie Davis in the Broadway musical “Jamaica,” when Ms. Horne’s friend, the late John Galliher attended the show one night in 1958 with a handsome socialite, Timothy Fales, son of a Wall Street investment banker and scion of a crusty New England heritage. The couple were introduced by Galliher backstage after the show.

Not long after, with Fales in hot pursuit, the ebullient, effervescent Miss Premice finally gave in and agreed to marry. The couple were married by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. It was big tabloid news in those pre-Civil Rights days, Social Register days, with headlines like “Negro Singer Married to Socialite Ship Exec.” It took a few years for the bridegroom’s father to warm to the union also.

Susan and her brother Enrico were born in Rome which their parents moved to after the marriage. Six years later, the family returned to New York to a large apartment on the Upper West Side and created a salon, very avant for New York, of artists, actors, dancers, and socialites. They were chic, with that romantic aura of ex-pats — the gilded white-shoe husband and the glamorous Broadway musical star wife.

Premice, who had a very promising career before she met her husband and appeared in Truman Capote and Harold Arlen’s House of Flowers in 1954, lost professional momentum during her long absence abroad and although she continued performing, she never quite regained her ascendance, although she worked sporadically, on television in A Different World, The Jeffersons, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and starred on Broadway in Bubbling Brown Sugar.

I was a kid in school (at the Neighborhood Playhouse) working a part time job helping Jimmy Molinski, the maitre d’ at Sardis during the dinner hours in 1965 when I first saw Premice, who often dined there. Small and delicate, with a large, warm and very friendly personality, she was a very glamorous woman — bejeweled, shimmering, glittering, often in furs. She had a most democratic way and yet was every inch the star. Whenever she entered the restaurant, and rarely with her husband, everyone was buoyed by her presence. The bubbles in a glass of champagne. Although the marriage lasted more than twenty years, it was, however, hindered by Fales’ roving eye. Nevertheless, Premice carried on like the adored trouper that she was.

Fales-Hill attended Lycee Francaise where she made friendships she has kept all her life. She grew up multi-lingual: “I spoke English with my mother, French with my father, and Italian with my nanny,” she recalled. As a teenager she also learned Spanish, and spoke Creole with her mother. To this day she often picks up European publications to read, reads books in other languages besides English, and listens to books on tape in Spanish, French or Italian.

Life with mama was never dull. She grew up around “grand divas,” she told an interviewer Constance White writing for Essence Magazine, when promoting her memoir Always Wear Joy, (HarperCollins) — women like Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Diana Sands. “Though they didn’t (always) have half-million dollar budgets to buy clothes from a couturier, they had incredible style.”

“You know, ‘Daahhh-ling!’ When I look back now I realize it was very empowering. These women were traveling, they had relationships, they had jewels, they had furs. They bought the things themselves. If a man did buy for them, it was because the women were objects of total adulation.”

She graduated from Harvard with honors in Literature and History in 1985. Right after that she went to work as a writer on The Cosby Show, then in its second season. A year later she was transferred to the staff of A Different World. In 1998 she co-created the series Linc’s with Tim Reid, where she was executive producer and head writer for two years.

She is very active in New York social and philanthropic circles, on the Board of Trustees of the American Ballet Theatre, active with the Studio Museum in Harlem and the East Side House Settlement. She attends many of the major charity galas every year in New York such as The Frick Collection galas, the Museum of the City of New York evenings, the New York Botanical, and hosts an annual dinner for the Fales Library which is part of the Bobst/NYU Library, and was given by her grandfather in memory of his father. She is a member of the International Best Dressed List, and besides her memoir, she is a contributor to several magazines, including Vogue.

She met her husband Aaron, a banker, on a blind date. Mr. Hill, who is African-American, grew up in New Hampshire where his father was on the faculty at Dartmouth. He is one of those society husbands (and there are a number of them) who does not share quite the same enthusiasm for socializing that his wife does. Twice a week, if that, maybe, is his limit, and so she is often seen attending either alone or on the arm of a close male friend. The couple live on Park Avenue and last year Susan gave birth to their first child.

Although her mother had a profound influence on her, many aspects of her life, and her personality reflect her father’s heritage. She is a very gracious woman but with more of that reserve of her New England ancestors than her mother’s Caribbean joie de vivre. A couple of years ago at the Council on Foreign Relations, she spoke about her grandfather Fales’ gift of the Fales Library to NYU, with wit, humor and a sense of her unique ancestry. She opened her speech with a few words about her mother who had passed away (from emphysema at 74) only a week or so before. She said she knew that her mother was looking down from her heavenly place and assessing what her daughter was wearing with her unerring eye for style. Susan then, as if responding to her mother’s critique, replied: “If you think I should be wearing more accessories, then you’ll have to speak to grandfather about that because he’s the one who preferred books to jewels.”

At forty-two, Fales-Hill is one of the upcoming generation of social leaders of New York. Her bi-racial background makes her somewhat unique although not entirely. There are a growing number of men and women of color who making a place for themselves in New York, professionally, socially and culturally. Although, in an interview with Cathy Horyn of the New York Times a couple of years ago, she said that "While I find there's openness and people are very lovely, white and black, New York is somewhat segregated." Although her mother and her generation made great inroads, Susan Fales-Hill will no doubt see it change thoroughly, and most likely have quite a bit to do with it.