Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful


Growing up with a black, Auntie Mame -- like mother who performed with the likes of Lena Horne and Alvin Ailey, and a WASP seafaring father, Susan Fales-Hill thought nothing of watching her mother, Josephine Premice, perform in an acclaimed Broadway musical one moment and fleeing to Faleton, her grandparents' summer estate, the next.

But it was from her mother -- a woman who was dressed by Givenchy and sculpted by Alexander Calder, yet rejected by many a casting agent for her ...

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Growing up with a black, Auntie Mame -- like mother who performed with the likes of Lena Horne and Alvin Ailey, and a WASP seafaring father, Susan Fales-Hill thought nothing of watching her mother, Josephine Premice, perform in an acclaimed Broadway musical one moment and fleeing to Faleton, her grandparents' summer estate, the next.

But it was from her mother -- a woman who was dressed by Givenchy and sculpted by Alexander Calder, yet rejected by many a casting agent for her "dark," unconventional looks -- that Susan drew inspiration, particularly when she faced challenges in her own career as a television writer in Hollywood, a town that wasn't always receptive to positive images of people of color. As a result, the two developed a bond that mothers and daughters everywhere will find inspiring.

Dazzling in their public lives and emotionally vulnerable in their private lives, there is not a person in this touching and, at times, funny family memoir that the reader will soon forget.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
To award-winning television writer and producer Susan Fales-Hill, "Black Is Beautiful" is more than a catchphrase from the 1960s. It captures the essence of her extraordinary mother, Josephine Premice, the dazzling black actress whose life is celebrated in Always Wear Joy.

The product of a marriage that was "mixed" in more ways than one, the author describes life with her elegant, vivacious mother -- a Broadway star whose credits included Jamaica and Bubbling Brown Sugar -- and her wealthy father, a debonair WASP with a wandering eye. She recounts how she and her brother grew up in an extended family of Brahmin bluebloods, genteel, fun-loving Haitians, and superstar entertainers like "Aunt" Diahann Carroll and "Uncle" Richard Burton; and how her nurturing mother presided over the whole glamorous scene, determined to give her children the best of everything.

It was not until Fales-Hill was an adult that she discovered the extent of her mother's sacrifice. By then, Josephine was having difficulty finding work; her handsome husband of 27 years had left her for a younger woman; and she was beset by financial and health problems. Through it all, she never lost her optimism or her love for life, and she continued to guide her daughter along the road to happiness and self-fulfillment. (As executive producer for the TV show A Different World, Fales-Hill's greatest satisfaction came from finding roles for Josephine and her "semper fabulous" coterie of friends.) A daughter's valentine to her remarkable mother, Always Wear Joy tells the inspiring tale of one woman's struggle to face life's challenges with courage, dignity, and amazing grace. Anne Markowski

Library Journal
The late, Haitian-born Josephine Premice lived an extraordinary life, performing as a dancer, singer, and actress in nightclubs, theaters, and TV shows. Her daughter, Fales-Hill, a successful TV writer and producer, still draws inspiration from her memory and here chronicles those colorful experiences. Josephine's early passion for dance led her to study with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, and in 1943 she launched her career at Carnegie Hall, with Eleanor Roosevelt as a patron. Over the course of 50 years, Josephine performed with fellow stars and friends, including Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, and Alvin Ailey and starred on Broadway. Her unconventional marriage to the heir of an aristocratic WASP family took her to Paris and Rome, as she balanced her stage career with her role as devoted wife and mother. A painful separation from her husband and serious health problems in her later years did not diminish Josephine's glamour and love of life. Fales-Hill brings to life her mother's joyful personality on the pages of this warm and charming book. Recommended for theater arts and black history collections.-Howard Miller, St. Louis, MO Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Television writer/producer Fales-Hill recalls her mother, a Haitian-American musical legend who gave up her career for marriage, in one of those rare tributes that capture exactly what made someone widely loved and admired. Mixing family history with her own recollections, the author begins with her parents’ marriage in 1958. Josephine Premice, the Brooklyn-bred daughter of well-born and cultured Haitians, was appearing in the musical Jamaica when she met wealthy WASP Timothy Fales, an iconoclast who loved literature and reading but left Harvard to go to sea. The two married and moved to Rome; Josephine gave up her career to become a devoted mother. The couple knew everybody from Harry Belafonte to Richard Burton, and when they moved back to New York in 1963, their home became a lively salon for black and white intellectuals and actors. The children went to a French school and spent summers on the Fales family estate. These idyllic times ended in 1985, the year Susan graduated from Harvard, when her father moved to Paris and took up with the first in a succession of other women. Josephine stayed home putting on a brave front. Despite bad breaks, she strove to be upbeat, well-dressed, and "semper fabulous"; in the late ’90s, she turned her own mother’s death from emphysema into a performance worthy of the greatest diva. The author affectingly describes all the good and bad moments. Her poignant tale of an unusual woman and an unusual marriage also quietly but eloquently indicts blacks and whites who continue to think stereotypically. At Harvard, Fales-Hill was called an "incognegro" by black students because she associated with whites; Josephine, who had a stellar resume, was by the 1980sconsidered too elegant and well-spoken for TV movies that wanted fat black women talking trash. A distinguished memoir as well as an important contribution to black cultural history. Agent: Suzanne Gluck/William Morris
“[An] extraordinary story.”
“A daughter’s ode to her mother who showed her ‘infinity instead of . . .limitations.’ This is no Mommie Dearest.”
Town & Country
“Moving and beautifully rendered.”
Bill Cosby
“At last, at last a memoir by a daughter who appreciates and loves her mother, at last.”
Andre Leon Talley
“A daughter’s ode to her mother who showed her ‘infinity instead of . . .limitations.’ This is no Mommie Dearest.”
Malachy McCourt
“This love-filled, uplifting book will gladden your heart, moisten your eyes, and leave you smiling at the end.”
E. Lynn Harris
“A moving tribute from a daughter to a mother [and] a book about the undefeatable spirit of black women everywhere.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615529674
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/4/2004
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Fales-Hill

Susan Fales-Hill is an award-winning television writer and producer. She has worked on shows ranging from The Cosby Show to A Different World, Linc's, and Suddenly Susan. Her writing has also appeared in Vogue, Town & Country, and Travel & Leisure. She lives in New York City.

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First Chapter

Always Wear Joy
My Mother Bold and Beautiful

Chapter One

Here's Josephine

"Breathe in!" my mother commanded in her low, smokier-than-Bacall timbre, as she took a puff on her cigarette and cinched my lean, as yet unblooming fourteen-year-old physique into the pearl-gray peau de soie ball gown. "I bought this dress years ago, in Paris, from my friend Jacques Fath, one of the great designers." Each of my mother's gowns told a story of her life, her performances, and her travels. As she drew the zipper up, the dress's whalebones rose and folded over my pitifully underdeveloped bust, encasing me in femininity. Though just a few years earlier, white women had declared their emancipation in a bonfire of brassieres, in our home such garments represented neither bondage nor second-class citizenship, but rather glamour and its almost infinite transformative power. To my mother and her bevy of beautiful black diva friends and fellow performers Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Carmen De Lavallade, and Cicely Tyson, women who had survived segregation, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, and many a bad romance, it was creativity, illusion, and high style, not gunnysacks, earth shoes, and the dreary truth, that set you free.

"Your waist was tiny!" I exclaimed in admiration. My mother flashed her cat-that-swallowed-the-Hope-diamond grin.

"When I married your father, I could wrap my arms around it and shake hands with myself." She laughed her caressing, husky laugh. "You're going to be much taller than I am. That's why it fits you already. I'll have to take it in here!" she said nipping the strapless top of the bodice tight around my mosquito bite-sized breasts. I ran my hands over the forlorn, unfilled cups. "I was always flat-chested," she reassured me. "It's far more elegant! Big breasts are vulgar," she declared, casually demolishing in two sentences a hallowed canon of American beauty. She pulled a pink rayon overdress with three-quarter sleeves and dusty rose velvet piping off the Singer sewing machine perched on the dining room table and helped me into it. "There, go look at yourself." She prodded me toward the mirrors on the folding double doors. "Beauty lele," she cheered.

I straightened my back as though a string had tugged my head, standing taller and prouder. I could see my mother's reflection beaming at her creation. She had done it again -- transformed an old frock and pennies' worth of fabric into an exquisite costume and an indelible memory. I smoothed the skirt.

"You musn't lift the skirt when you walk," she warned. "Women didn't do that in those days." My mother seemed to know the dress protocol of every age, as though she had lived a thousand years rather than a mere fifty. She made the suggestion less for my performance in the school play than as a stage direction for life.

"It's beautiful," I gushed, kissing her on the cheek.

She hugged me. "It will be when I'm done, my angel. You'll be the most incredible creature on that stage." She didn't want me to follow in her footsteps and become an actress, but she was determined to prepare me for a "lead role" in the world.

"The lace!" she screamed, suddenly remembering. "We don't want it too dark." She grabbed her cigarette and dashed into the kitchen. On the stove, next to the simmering pot of aromatic curried chicken, steam rose from a saucepan filled with tea. Using a pair of pasta tongs, she removed a half-yard of lace soaking in the amber-colored liquid. "See, you leave it in the tea, and it turns a brand new piece of lace from the five-and-ten into an antique. When it dries, I'll sew it on the sleeves of the pink overdress. Then you'll really look like an eighteenth-century lady."

"Enrico," she then bellowed toward the firmly shut door to his bedroom, through which we heard the strains of Jimi Hendrix singing, "Manic de-pression's captured my soul." My then seventeen-year-old brother failed to answer. "Enrico!" my mother yelled louder, the veins on her neck bulging.

"What?" he answered with teen exasperation.

"Dinner in fifteen minutes. Call your father at the pub!" My mother rolled her eyes. "He looks just like your father and has the same brooding personality."

I nodded in sympathy. Even at age fourteen I wondered what we were to do with them. When would these Fales men start participating in life's banquet? Usually, my mother and I left them to skulk in their private chambers, reading their innumerable books -- Enrico of science fiction and occultism, Papa of naval architecture, mathematics, or history -- while we performed the "rites of glamour and joy" in the prewar apartment's front rooms. But this was a Monday, one of only two "dark" nights for the Broadway musical Bubbling Brown Sugar in which my mother was starring. She insisted we dine together as a family.

Enrico, six feet two inches tall, slender as an asparagus stalk, his medium-sized Afro flattened at the back from lying down, entered scowling and crossed toward the wall phone to dial Mikell's, the Columbus Avenue watering hole of New York's black intelligentsia in the sixties and seventies.

I knew it would take at least forty-five minutes for my father to tear himself away from the bar and the group of lawyers, musicians, doctors, and worldly women with ripe bodies who affectionately called this lone Wasp in their midst "Big Tim." While waiting for my father to wend his way home, I ran off to the quiet of my own bedroom. Once there, I memorized my lines from the play by repeating them over and over as I walked back and forth from the window overlooking the dilapidated welfare hotel acrossthe street to the tall Chippendale cabinet filled with my collection of antique porcelain dolls on the other side of the room.

Always Wear Joy
My Mother Bold and Beautiful
. Copyright © by Susan Fales-Hill. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide


Growing up with a mother who performed with the likes of Lena Horne and Alvin Ailey, Susan Fales-Hill thought nothing of watching her mother, Josephine Premice, perform in an acclaimed black Broadway musical one moment and host one of her celebrated salons, where Maya Angelou and Bobby Short might rub elbows with Gore Vidal, the next. And come summer time, the entire family -- including Josephine in false eyelashes and costume jewelry -- would flee to Faleton, the summer estate that belonged to her white father's aristocratic family. Here fox hunts displaced the Double Dutch jump that Fales-Hill learned in Brooklyn while visiting her grand-pere, a Haitian political émigré whose family had also enjoyed prominence and who taught Susan that black was beautiful and anything but inferior. Both a universally touching mother-daughter story and a portrait of an American family that is dazzling in its public life -- because of the company they kept and the values they forged -- and emotionally vulnerable in their private life, Always Wear Joy is a memoir the reader won't soon forget.

Discussion Questions

  1. Susan Fales-Hill says in the book, "clothing represented freedom for my mother. 'I may not get this part, I may not get to stay in that hotel -- but nobody's going to control how I present myself, and I'm going to present myself magnificently.'" Discuss the symbolic role of style and clothing in Josephine Premice's life.

  2. Mothers are the models for self-esteem development in their daughters. Discuss how Josephine Premice was a model for Susan Fales-Hill in both her childhood and in her working life and how being a black woman raising a biracial daughter in a white world affected this.

  3. In relation to people's perceptions on both sides of her racial heritage, Fales-Hill has said, "There is always someone who says, 'You're not singing the song I want you to sing.' I could have moved to Europe and married a white guy and not had to deal with race at all, frankly." From what we've learned about her in this memoir, discuss why you think she chose to stay in America and live the life she does.

  4. In 2002, we saw a black actor and actress both win Oscars for their lead roles in film for the first time in history. Susan Fales-Hill talks about the Friends of the Black Emmys, an organization created to honor black actors, writers, directors and producers, most often overlooked at the mainstream Emmys. We often think of the arts as being a very progressive industry so why are the Oscars and Emmys still lagging behind? Why do you think it is important that the arts do better?

  5. Always Wear Joy is a memoir of a mother as the heroine in her daughter's life. If you were to write a memoir about your mother, what would be some of the themes?

  6. If Always Wear Joy has a driving theme, it is that families are complex units. Discuss the complexities in your own families and how that has affected your relationship with your parents and with the world you encounter every day.

About the author

Susan Fales-Hill is an award-winning television writer and producer. She has worked on shows ranging from The Cosby Show to A Different World, Linc's, and Suddenly Susan. Her writing has also appeared in Vogue, Town & Country, and Travel & Leisure. She lives in New York City.

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