A Lasting Legacy
Susan Fales-Hill: a balance of wit, elegance and introspection
When she delivers the keynote address for the Greenwich United Way’s annual Sole Sisters’ luncheon on April 24, Susan Fales-Hill may reflect on the meaning of legacy. The author, television producer and arts and education advocate can address the subject from many perspectives: Her critically-acclaimed memoir, Always Wear Joy, explored her upbringing as the biracial daughter of Haitian-American Broadway star Josephine Premice and Mayflower descendent Timothy Fales. She’s written for such groundbreaking sitcoms as The Cosby Show and A Different World. And she’s an elegant style icon frequently gracing the Vanity Fair’s “International Best-Dressed List.” In anticipation of the Sole Sisters’ luncheon, Greenwich magazine dialed up the New York City resident for a chat.
GM: You’ve been part of some iconic television shows. How do you find the current state of the sitcom?
“If you asked me eight years ago, this would have been a depressing conversation. I was walking around saying, ‘It’s over, it’s done; I have nothing to watch.’ Today, however, I think there’s an incredible renaissance going with shows like Modern Family, Mom and Hot in Cleveland. As I enter perimenopause it’s nice to have something I can relate to; things that are so well written and really make me laugh.”
GM: How do you remember your time at The Cosby Show?
“The first thing that comes to mind is the privilege of being around the mind of Mr. Cosby. He’s the closest thing to a genius I’ve ever met and he had such an encyclopedic knowledge of so many things. But here’s the thing I really loved: He’s an opponent of the comedy of cruelty. It was never about putting people down. He got his laughs without being mean.”
GM: You left Cosby for A Different World, which was considered groundbreaking television too.
“I think we had every race, religion, background in the writers’ room; this incredible eclectic mix, and [producer/director] Debbie Allen was kind of our Pied Piper. We were able to tackle things that weren’t appropriate and just wouldn’t have worked for The Cosby Show; topics like race, date rape, class, even AIDS. We knew what we were doing was historic.”
GM: You spent years on the “International Best-Dressed List,” but I understand you’ve “retired” from shopping.
“Well, it started with my daughter when she was four (she’s now eleven) and I came home with yet another party dress for her and she said, “Mom, really, don’t I have enough?” Out of the mouths of children. I had like eight closets with clothes falling out of them and then the recession came [laughs] and I decided to stop. I have enough to wear for anything I could possibly ever do—besides maybe meeting the Pope—and I don’t think that’s happening soon.”
GM: What was your mother’s most enduring legacy?
“Three things: Dignity, joy and love. She was so proud—in the right way—of her heritage as a black woman. Here’s my mother born in 1926 in New York when there was still de facto segregation. Yet she never took a job that would denigrate herself or the African-American image. She also used humor as a weapon. At one time she happened to have an all-white band. When asked by an ignorant person if she was colored, she leaned in and whispered, “No, but my musicians are.’”
GM: What's your message for the Sole Sisters’ luncheon?
“I like the idea of talking about emotional legacies. So many people focus on what they are going to leave their children in their wills, but your emotional legacy is going to impact your children a lot more than what’s in their trust fund. Though my mother hasn’t been around me in a while, she’s always with me and those lessons I got from her are like a bottomless well you can always draw on.”