Ophelia DeVore-MitchellApril 15, 1995, New York City
My finger presses a doorbell.
The door opens.
An astonishing silver-haired beauty appears.
I think, “Whoa, can someone explain to me what sexy is?” Before I can capture my breath to say hello, an inner voice struggles to calm my mind.
Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell says, “Make yourself at home.” There is a pitcher of juice and some snacks on the table. The décor reminds me of my great-grandmother’s home.
I sit across from her with a small plate and glass. Lord knows I should be ashamed of myself for having unsavory thoughts, but something about this woman is very alluring. I try again to clear my mind and come up with an appropriate icebreaker. Here it goes: I ask her to think of me as a 100-year-old man.
“Lady Ophelia” gives me a wink, moves in closer, and whispers, “There’s not much I can do with a 100-year-old man.” Then jokingly, I say, “Hey, hold up — that sounds like flirting.” She replies, “Me?!” The last time I was accused of something like that was… She ponders a minute, and then turns on the charm, “I think it was yesterday. Something must be going around.” I respond, “Hey that was smooth. You earned a kiss for that one.” I give her a peck on the cheek.
Downshifting a bit, I begin to inquire about her background. “In 1946, you used your beauty and notoriety to open the Grace Del Marco Agency. It was dedicated to providing black women with the opportunity to succeed in modeling. … In 1948, you opened the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling. Many well-known men and women have passed through your charm school, such as Camille Cosby and Cicely Tyson.” I flip through a couple of pages in a large, three-ring binder with images of Diahann Carroll and Richard Roundtree. Her response to all this is that “Someone has done their homework.” My reply: “I learned long ago to always be well-informed about your subject. It makes for better conversation.”
“You earned a kiss for that,” says Lady Ophelia. I smile. “That one can wait until I’m done with the shoot. What motivated you?”
She sighs. What motivated me? No one has ever asked that question. If they did, it was so long ago I don’t remember. She giggles and admits, “It all started when I went away to etiquette school to learn to be a proper lady.”
“Etiquette?” I observe. “A professional flirt.”
She laughs again, and recalls that “My father understood the importance of communicating well with others. My mother was all about appearance and etiquette. We were one generation out of slavery. The appearance of a Black man affected the level of his success. My parents made sure I had the best education, to deal with the world we lived in. I was a good student and learned to carry myself in social situations quite well. Then one day a young Latino woman came to the school. She was slightly darker than I.”
Lady Ophelia sips from a glass and asks, “You remember the movie, The Lords of Discipline?” In fact I do. I recall a scene where a man puts his hand into a boot, then pulls it out covered in blood: Not something easily forgotten. She says, “At my school, they didn’t treat the Latino woman quite that badly, but their treatment of her made me realize that they thought I was white. That night, I looked through literature I had been given and realized I should teach my people what I had learned. I left that etiquette school the next day.”
I position my subject for her photograph. She jokes and plays around like a teenager.
After the shoot, Lady Ophelia asks, “How old do you think I am?” First, I take a moment to examine her angelic face. I’m hoping she is in her fifties, but I know better. Then I take a shot: “Sixty-two.” This produces more giggles. “Thank you,” says Mrs. DeVore-Mitchell, “but I am seventy-eight. Women’s greatest strength is knowing how charming we can be in influencing the outcome of everything.”