On Thursday, two days after her memoir was published, Cicely Tyson passed away at the age of 96.
Actress Cicely Tyson has spent most of her life telling vital stories onscreen. Now, in her brand-new memoir, Just As I Am, written with Michelle Burford, she’s telling her own story. Her iconic roles — from 1969’s Sounder, to Roots in 1977, to guest-starring on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder — immortalized Black humanity onscreen and inspired icons like Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who penned the foreword. “Every one of these characters has left me with an emotional, spiritual, and psychological inheritance I will forever carry with me,” Davis writes in the introduction. “But while each, in some way, reflected me, none could reveal who I am in my entirety.” The story of a Black woman’s rise from Harlem to the height of Hollywood should prove just as inspiring. In her 96 years, Cicely Tyson has bumped into the best, showed ‘em who’s boss, and promptly moved on to her next summit. In Just As I Am, she details some of her proudest moments, some she’s not so proud of, and some that are just good to laugh at. “The lesson, I know now, is to relish the ride,” she offers readers. Here are seven stories only the great Cicely Tyson could tell, straight from her memoir, on stands January 26.
Miles Davis was in a robe the first time they met.
Don’t go too crazy imagining this encounter with the infamous trumpeter. At the time, Tyson’s future husband, Miles Davis, was still married to dancer Frances Taylor Davis and living in an apartment down the hall to one of Cicely Tyson’s good friends, actress Diahann Carroll. One day while Tyson was visiting, Davis knocked on the door in his housecoat, asking for some sugar. Not that kind, but after they got to know each other, she wanted to give him some of that, too. “I’d been wary to get involved initially,” she recalls. “But once I glimpsed his innards, and once it became clear that he and Frances had truly moved on (and I was with him on the day in 1966 when Miles received her divorce papers), my misgivings were swallowed whole by the warmth between us.” Spiritual “innards,” that is.
Tyson once called Lenny Kravitz’s mom on him.
Once while she was living on 74th Street in Manhattan, Tyson opened up her terrace and saw a group of musicians playing in Riverside Park. Down for a party, she headed over and found Lisa Bonet, the then-wife of rock star Lenny Kravitz, who happens to be her “beloved godson,” the son of her old friend actress Roxie Roker and filmmaker Sy Kravitz. “What are you all doing over here in my neighborhood?” Tyson asked Bonet. “We’re cutting Lenny’s record.” When she made it back to her apartment, she just had to call his mom. “‘You hear all that noise?’ I said, raising the phone’s receiver out on the terrace. ‘That’s your son and daughter-in-law making all of this noise in our neighborhood.’” she recalled. “We both just fell out laughing.”
She showed Liz Taylor there’s more than one queen.
Who else would be brave enough to sue Liz Taylor and still show her face around town? After Taylor’s production company fired Tyson from the 1983 Broadway revival of The Corn Is Green, she hit back for the earnings she was owed, severing Hollywood connections in the process. No matter. Tyson gleefully recalls years later when she walked up to James Earl Jones in a Beverly Hills restaurant without realizing who his dinner partner was: Liz Taylor herself. “We exchanged one of those fake double-cheek kisses, and she laughed as she said to James, ‘You know something? Cicely sued me,’” Tyson writes. “She then turned to me and smirked, ‘And how much money did you get?’ I raised my shoulders, thrust my nose heavenward, and announced loudly enough for the room to hear, ‘I was awarded more than a half-million dollars.’”
She snatched Miles Davis’s weave and she’d do it again.
Even a story as legendary as Tyson’s is not without its low points. In the memoir, she revisits her marriage-ending fight with Miles Davis that made headlines. One afternoon in 1987, six years into their marriage and long after Tyson first sniffed out “the stench of Miles’s philandering,” she found and hid a note from another woman containing the address for his rendezvous. “I’m not giving you anything,” she sneered. “Why don’t you go out and meet your woman? You know where to meet her.” As she tried to leave, Davis twisted her wrist, so she grabbed his beloved hair weave. “Well, honey, he got to twisting and turning, and the more he tugged his head back and forth, trying to pry himself loose, the tighter I held on,” she writes. “By the time he struggled free, I was holding a whole bushel of his weave in my right hand. I hurled it onto the ground, marched out the door, and slammed it shut.” She would divorce him a year later, though she remained in his life until his death in 1991. “At one point, I heard Miles saying to someone on the phone, ‘Do you know how much I paid for that weave? And she just snatched it right off of my head!’” she remembers. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cringe, which is why I did both.”
Tyler Perry pads her paychecks.
Everyone’s got a tale of Tyler Perry’s generosity, but Cicely Tyson might just have them beat. The two icons of Black Hollywood have been friendly since her role in 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and in the years since, they’ve built a friendship spanning six films. “When he heard how little I was paid for Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, his mouth fell open,” she writes. “From then on, he decided to double, and sometimes even triple or quadruple, my asking price for any role he requested that I play.” He’s making her rich in love, too. Tyson is godmother to Perry’s son, Aman. “You should see that child and me down on the carpet together, doing handstands, with a nervous Tyler standing by to be sure I don’t crack my neck,” she writes. “What a joy.”
She had to remeet Denzel Washington on the street.
Who could forget a face like Denzel Washington’s? A lady as busy and important as Cicely Tyson, okay? “Years ago,” while walking down the street, minding her business like a lifelong New Yorker does, a “rather handsome young man approached.” “‘Good afternoon, Ms. Tyson. My name is Denzel Washington,’” she recalls him saying. “‘Oh,’ I said, thinking, I guess I’m supposed to know who he is.” When he clarified that they were in a movie together, the 1977 television film Wilma, where he met his wife, Pauletta, it all came back. They, too, became family. Tyson is godmother to their oldest daughter, Katia. Sorry, John David, you probably have a cool godparent, too.
She hung up on Barack Obama.
Tyson has been the recipient of a number of honors in her life: the Spingarn Medal, the most distinguished honor the NAACP bestows; a Kennedy Center honor; an honorary Academy Award; and the honor of hanging up on President Barack Obama. Well, technically, she hung up on an aide, but it’s close! When the innocent Obama aide rang Tyson to let her know she was being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, the actress refused to believe it. “‘Oh please,’ I said laughing, feeling sure it was a prankster talking some foolishness,” she writes. “‘How did you even get this number?’ She tried to persuade me that her declaration was true, but I wouldn’t hear of it.” Tyson hung up with a click. Once she realized her mistake, her manager got the White House on the phone to confirm her attendance at the ceremony, where she received the final Medal of Honor of Barack Obama’s presidency.