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Secrets and Lies

June Cross couldn't grow up with her mother. Now she's telling painful truths about race in America.

November 26, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is an old photograph showing actor Larry Storch, dressed as Cpl. Agarn, the character he played in the mid-1960s comedy series "F Troop."

Storch is seated in front of his wife, Norma, and Norma's son from a previous relationship.

The Warner Bros. publicity department became curious about the young black girl kneeling next to Larry. The Storches explained that she was adopted from neighbors in New York, a victim of abuse.

Her name was June Cross. She grew up to be a Harvard graduate and now works as a producer for PBS's "Frontline." And tonight, she tells a story about color, Hollywood and America--about a family coming to terms with a secret and a lie.

It's about an aspiring actress who fell in love with an entertainer in 1952. She was white, her family Mormons. He was Jimmy Cross, an African American and vaudeville entertainer whose genius and talent went largely unknown, except to white entertainers like Larry Storch and Jerry Lewis, who studied him and incorporated his antics into their routines.

They had a child and named her June.

Tonight, Cross, 42, and her mother will set the record straight in "My Mother's Secret Daughter." People she has known for years will be surprised to learn that Norma fell in love with Jimmy Cross, one half of the comedy team, Stump and Stumpy.

And they will be surprised to know that Cross is her daughter and was not adopted.

When Cross was 4 years old and became "too dark to pass for white," Norma left her with friends, Peggy and Paul Bush, a black couple in Atlantic City. In tonight's documentary, Cross asks her mother tough questions, most of them beginning with one word: "Why?"

In the beginning, Norma says, she didn't want her daughter to suffer by growing up in an all-white world. But there were other concerns. She feared she would not be accepted if influential people in the entertainment business knew she had a black daughter.

When Norma married Storch in 1961 and moved to Hollywood, she was worried her husband's career would be ruined if the truth came out. She had seen how Cross' father had suffered from racism.

Norma will answer her daughter's questions about color, an issue they had never seriously discussed, despite the significance it played in their lives. Cross approaches the issues with conviction but not bitterness.

"Even when she sent me to Atlantic City, I got cards and letters from her, two or three a day," Cross says. "She would call once a week, sometimes twice a week. There was a strong connection, she just wasn't the one that was physically raising me."

Cross' primary reason for telling her story is because she believes it belongs in the national discussion about race. When she first coerced her mother into being interviewed, jury selection was taking place for the O.J. Simpson criminal case.

"I was in the family but not of the family, kind of a metaphor for the United States in a lot of ways, particularly the way things seemed to be falling around the O.J. Simpson case. As the country was dividing, I was trying to reach across the divide to try and get her to talk about something she really didn't want to talk about, engage her in the pain of the question as opposed to the intellectualism, the anger."

*

June Cross was 7 or 8 when she was taking a bubble bath with her mother. She saw her mother's skin, the color of bamboo, against her own, the color of toffee.

"She looked at me and said that if I had not gotten darker as I grew older, I could have stayed with her. That moment is frozen in time," Cross says in the documentary.

She says she never questioned her mother's love. She became accustomed to living with the Bushes, spending vacations with Norma and Larry. It wasn't until she started learning more about her father that questions surfaced.

Jimmy Cross appeared in Irving Berlin's "This Is the Army."

He danced and sang a song but never was listed in the film's credits. The song was edited out from versions shown in Southern theaters.

June Cross was 27 when she finally met her father, who was living in New York.

"He told me some of the happiest days of his life had been those spent with my mother," she says in the documentary. "That she had left him, and done the right thing too. And that he'd always figured visiting me would cause more harm than good. I didn't understand then what he was trying to say, and a week later, he died."

In compiling the 70 hours of tapes that went into "Secret Daughter," Cross says she came to a clearer understanding of race.

"It affected the way I think of myself, of what America is and what I am as an American," she says. "We're all mutts. Nobody is pure anything, so we can't really go around casting stones. . . . If my ancestors were Harvard-educated black folks and slave laborers in Maryland and worked at shipyards in Philadelphia, and were Mormons and abolitionists and were slave traders, then I need to have a much more open-minded approach to how I deal with humanity."

* "My Mother's Secret Daughter" airs tonight at 9 on "Frontline" on KCET, Channel 28.

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