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A dog is flying across the room. It's Oscar time. The night of nights. The starriest evening of the year, even in a town like Hollywood -- known for constellations. Tom Hanks is here. Mel Gibson. Denzel Washington. Will Smith. Julia Roberts. But there is only one woman in the spotlight right now: Halle Berry. Tears are running down her cheeks. Her neck is tight with emotion. In her left hand she clutches the Academy Award for best actress. It is the first ever given to a woman of color. She holds it tight as if someone might take it away from her, even now, even in front of the hundreds of stars in the audience, the thousands of ordinary spectators, the millions of television viewers. But there is a dog flying across the room. She is thinking about her family. All the struggle, all the pain, all the setbacks -- it's all coming back, as if it never left. She pays tribute to her mother, her husband, her stepchild. She also pays homage to her father -- but not the one who was her biological parent. Berry calls her manager, Vincent Cirrincione, the man who helped guide her career for twelve years, "the only father I've ever known." Halle is a true child of showbiz now. The past is past. But that dog, its tongue bleeding red, continues its flight across the room.
The beginning wasn't pretty. It's hard to look at Halle Berry now -- the bright hopeful eyes, the perfectly tousled hair, the smile as white as clouds on a sunny day -- and imagine that her story started with so much ugliness. Even now she has grotesque memories: of screams and slaps, of fights at the dining room table, of battles between her mother and father. When I first talked to Halle in 1991, I expected her to talk only of pretty things: her red-hot career, her looks, fashion, other beautiful movie folks. Instead, she had ugliness on her mind: the pressures of working in Hollywood, the difficulty of being a woman in the film industry, the barriers faced by actors of color, and the racism she had faced her entire life because she was a black woman. "I got called 'Zebra' and 'Oreo' in school," she told me.
Halle was born into struggle. It's the mid-1960s. J.F.K. has already been assassinated; M.L.K. is about to be. It is illegal in sixteen states for blacks and whites to marry each other. In places around the South, blacks and whites use separate rest rooms; in places around the North, blacks and whites attend separate public schools (that part is still true). But at the movies -- a projection of hope perhaps or an outlet for social fantasy -- there are some encouraging trends. At the Academy Awards for 1963, Sidney Poitier wins the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field as a journeyman who meets up with a group of nuns. He is the first African American ever to win the award. It would be four more decades before an African-American woman would follow suit.
Around the same time, in the mid-1960s, against the odds, against prevailing social trends, against the wishes of their parents, a white woman and a black man fall in love in Cleveland, Ohio. Her name is Judith Hawkins and she is a nurse in a psychiatric hospital; his name is Jerome Berry, and he is a nurse's aide in that same hospital. Judith was a native of Liverpool, England, but left when she was ten and grew up in the suburb of Elyria, Ohio. The two begin to date and are soon married; in 1966 they have their first child together, a daughter they name Heide. Then, on August 14, 1966, the couple has their second and final child together: a daughter they name Halle. It is an unusual name for a baby who will go on to have an extraordinary career. "My mother was shopping in Halle Brothers in Cleveland," Berry was quoted as saying by the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service in 2000. "She saw their bags and thought, 'That's what I'm going to name my child.' No one ever says it right. It's Halle, like Sally." She was given the middle name of Maria.
Cleveland, with all due respect, is not the kind of place one expects legends to be born. It is, however, part of a region that has given birth to its share of American presidents: William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, and William Harding all hail from the state. The Buckeye State has also given rise to a number of other luminaries, including Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, singer Tracy Chapman, and talk-show host Phil Donahue. More on point, a number of notable actors come from Cleveland, including Ruby Dee, Hal Holbrook, and Debra Winger. "I come from humble, humble beginnings," Halle told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1997. "One mother and two latchkey kids. We went without a whole lot of things; we had the bare essentials, but for the most part we struggled....So I can understand having big dreams and little money, and no way of knowing how you're gonna make 'em come true. Most definitely."
Halle said to London's Daily Mail in 1993: "I think being raised by a single parent was important for me because I saw the struggle. I don't believe all that Hollywood hype that goes with this business. I know I'm only as good and as bad as the last film I just did and people don't care about me. If someone chooses to put me in a movie it's because they think I can make them money. It's not because of Halle Berry."
Cleveland has been in economic decline since perhaps the 1970s. Around 20 percent of all Ohio residents are employed in manufacturing. But sometime around the date of Halle's birth, the economic character of the state began to change. The factories in the area had become old and inefficient, having failed to modernize and keep up with the times. Every few years, someone in Ohio or in Washington, D.C., announces that there's a new boom under way in the Rust Belt states or that some economic miracle is just around the corner, but the truth is the region is still, at the time of this writing, immersed in a slump.
Cleveland should be beautiful. The name "Ohio" is a French adaptation of a Seneca-Iroquois word meaning "beautiful river." Cleveland should rock -- it claims to be the birthplace of rock 'n' roll and is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Cleveland should be a haven for African Americans. It was a hub for runaway slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad during slavery, and several Union generals, including Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, hail from Ohio. The state was also once home to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the woman who wrote the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. But Cleveland is also, infamously, the place where a river caught fire. In 1972, the Cuyahoga River, which had become choked with industrial pollution, burst into flames. As for music, Cleveland hasn't launched a significant new rock act in years.
In terms of race relations, young Halle found that her city and state had a long way to go. She also found, early on, that she had to deal with racial issues without being able to rely on her father for help or advice. Jerome Berry left his young family when Halle was four years old. According to Halle, her father was abusive -- to her, to her sister, to her mother, and even to himself. "He was an alcoholic, he battered my mother," Halle said to People in 1996. "I haven't had much to do with him." Halle was also left with familial guilt -- could she have done more to stop his rampages? Obviously, because she was only a small child, she couldn't have done anything, but guilt, and memory, work in strange ways. "He beat my mom and my sister," Halle told the New York Times in 2002. "He threw our dog against the wall. He never hit me. I felt a lot of guilt. When my sister saw him hitting my mother, she would jump in and get hit, but I would run and hide. I got out of the way."