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Norma Storch, 81; Focus of Daughter's PBS Documentary

September 15, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Norma Storch, a white woman whose decision to have her 4-year-old mixed-race daughter raised by a black couple was the focus of her daughter's award-winning 1996 documentary, has died. She was 81.

Storch, the wife of actor-comedian Larry Storch, died of cancer Aug. 28 at her home in New York City, where she and her husband, a co-star of the 1960s comedy-western series "F Troop," had lived since 1996.

For nearly 35 years, the Storchs lived a lie: The black girl who began visiting their Hollywood Hills home on holidays and summer vacations at age 9, they told most of their friends and acquaintances, was the abused child of former neighbors whom they had adopted but who lived with a black family.

In fact, the girl had been born out of wedlock in 1954 to Norma Storch -- then Norma Greve, an aspiring actress -- and black singer-dancer-comedian Jimmy Cross, half of the vaudeville team of Stump and Stumpy.

Storch raised her daughter, June Cross, for the first four years of her life in Manhattan.

But faced with the racism that came with being a white woman with a black daughter in the 1950s, she turned June over to her friends, a middle-class black couple in Atlantic City.

June Cross grew up to become a Harvard-educated TV news producer, who was working for PBS' "Frontline" in the 1990s when she set out to explore race in America by telling her and her mother's story.

The result was "Secret Daughter," a two-hour "Frontline" documentary that won an Emmy Award and the prestigious DuPont-Columbia University Award.

In producing her autobiographical journey of self-discovery, Cross interviewed close family members, friends, distant relatives and show business contemporaries of her long-estranged father, who died in 1981, not long after Cross had gotten reacquainted with him.

But the key interviewee was her mother, with whom Cross had never discussed how race had divided and affected their lives.

Convincing her mother to appear in the documentary, however, was a major hurdle.

"I didn't want to lose my friends -- nor Larry to lose his -- just over something June wanted to do," Norma Storch told People magazine in 1996. But, she said, "it meant so much to June, I gradually changed my mind."

Storch was born in 1922 in Pocatello, Idaho, and brought up by her maternal grandparents after her mother moved to Los Angeles. At age 9, she joined her often-married mother in Long Beach.

A 1940 graduate of Long Beach Polytechnic High School with show business aspirations, she later joined the Circle Repertory Theater in Los Angeles.

She met Larry Storch in 1947 and began a brief romance, during which she gave birth, in 1948, to a daughter, Candace, whom they put up for adoption.

Candace was not Norma's first child. At 18, she had given birth to a son, Lary May, who spent his early years living with various caretakers while his mother pursued her acting career in Los Angeles; he is now a University of Minnesota history professor.

After Storch began her relationship with Jimmy Cross in New York City in 1952, both her mother and Cross' mother refused to speak to her, and Storch's mother later refused to acknowledge her black grandchild.

Storch told People magazine that she initially found Cross "funny and endearing," but his career was soon on the downswing. She said that by the time June was born in 1954, Cross was "heavily into booze and drugs" and had begun beating her.

After one particularly violent confrontation, she fled with 2-year-old June.

By the time June was 4, the stares and whispered racial slurs from people who saw them together seemed to escalate. And residents of their apartment building on the West Side of Manhattan circulated a petition to evict the white woman with the black daughter.

Convinced that June would not be happy growing up in a "white person's society," Norma Storch approached her childless black friends in Atlantic City -- Peggy Bush, a second-grade schoolteacher, and her husband, Paul, a county government clerk who moonlighted as a taxi driver.

Leaving June with the Bushes in 1958 was traumatic for both mother and daughter.

Storch recalled in different newspaper interviews that she cried every night for months.

But she wrote her daughter daily cards and letters, made weekly phone calls, visited regularly and found consolation in believing that she had done the right thing for her daughter.

"Peggy gave her things I never could: stability, a life where she was within the black community," Storch told People. For her part, June Cross came to love the couple she called Uncle Paul and Aunt Peggy, and she felt "blessed" to have been raised in their home.

Norma Storch was working as a Manhattan hatcheck girl when she re-established her relationship with Larry Storch in 1959. They were married in 1961 and two years later moved to Hollywood, where Norma managed her husband's career.

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