White Lie

UPDATED 12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

THERE ARE TWO THINGS JUNE Cross, child of a love affair between Norma Greve, a white aspiring actress, and Jimmy Cross, a black vaudevillian, wants to make clear. First, she bears no ill will toward her mother for giving her up at age 4 to be raised by a black family in Atlantic City. Nor, says June, now 42 and a producer for PBS's Frontline, can she fault Norma, 74 and married to actor Larry Storch, for telling Hollywood friends—to this day—that June, who began visiting the Storches in California at age 9, is their adopted daughter.

"I spent a lot of time looking for unacknowledged anger and resentment, and I didn't find any," says Cross, whose chronicle of life with—and without—her mother lies disquietingly at the heart of Secret Daughter, a two-hour Frontline documentary airing Nov. 26. "If you're going to get angry at somebody," says Cross, "get angry at a society that put [my mother] in a position where she had to do this."

Understanding, not retribution, was Cross's goal in making the film, which she began two years ago. Though mother and daughter have maintained a cordial relationship over the years, they had never discussed how Norma's concealment of their biological ties affected June. "If I could start a meaningful conversation with my mother," Cross says, "it might bring to light an aspect of the American family that we don't like to pay attention to: that blacks and whites are [each other's] brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters."

Much of Secret Daughter follows Cross's odyssey contacting relatives, both black and white, that she had never met. But the person she most wanted to talk to—her mother—at first balked at being interviewed. "I didn't want to lose my friends—nor Larry to lose his—just over something June wanted to do," says Norma in the Manhattan penthouse apartment where she now lives with Storch, 73, a star of the '60s sitcom F-Troop. Back then, she had had another reason to fear exposure. "I wanted people [in Hollywood] to have respect for me," Norma finally admits in the film, "and I didn't think they would have if they knew what my previous life had been."

But before she would explain as much on-camera, it took months of gentle cajoling by June and her half brother Lary May, 56, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and Norma's son from a high school fling in Long Beach, Calif., where she was raised. Finally, Norma relented. "It meant so much to June," she says, "that I gradually changed my mind."

In the interim, Cross had begun to delve into her father's past. Born in Philadelphia, James Arthur Cross had been a vaudeville star of the '30s and '40s. Ironically, it was Storch, with whom Norma had just ended a five-year romance, who suggested that she look up his friend Cross. Early in 1953, she did. "He was so funny and endearing," she says. But his career was fading, and soon after June's birth in 1954, Jimmy, then "heavily into booze and drugs," says Norma, began beating her. Finally a friend helped Norma flee with June, then 2, to an apartment on Manhattan's West Side.

Norma was subjected to racial slurs from neighbors and rejected by a succession of suitors. "I could never see how I could bring June up where she'd be happy in an all-white world," she says. "We would have been absolutely alone." So in 1958 Norma contacted Paul and Peggy Bush, a black couple who were friends of hers and Jimmy's. Paul, a county clerk, and Peggy, a second-grade teacher, were childless. When Norma proposed that they raise June, the Bushes eagerly agreed.

"Peggy gave her things I never could," says Norma, "stability, a life where she was within the black community." June grew to love the Bushes (both now deceased), whom she called Uncle Paul and Aunt Peggy. "I was blessed," says Cross, "to have ended up in that household."

Still, parting from her mother was painful. Cross remembers throwing a tantrum early on at her new home. But Norma phoned and firmly told her to mind the Bushes. Leaving June there "was the hardest thing I've ever done. I cried for months," says Norma, but she kept in touch with June with phone calls, letters and regular visits.

Then in 1959, Norma, who was working as a hatcheck girl in Manhattan, rekindled her relationship with Storch. They wed in 1961 and two years later moved to L.A., where June spent many summers with them. For the couple's well-heeled, conservative friends, Norma spun an elaborate fiction, saying June was the abused child of former neighbors and that she and Larry had adopted her. June spent most of the year, Norma added truthfully, living with black friends of theirs. "In those days," Larry says, "people were encrusted in prejudice. We saw no reason to rock the boat."

Nor, surprisingly, did June. Even after graduating in 1975 from Harvard and forging a successful career as a TV producer, first at PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Report, then at CBS News and, since 1991, at Frontline, Cross endured her mother's deception. Recalls Cross: "I did at one point say, 'If there are people you'd prefer not know who I am, then I don't want to meet them.' "

Cross did meet her father, just months before he died of cancer in 1981. Her reaction to the reunion, she says, was one of "detached curiosity. I didn't know him well enough to develop any real feelings for him."

With Secret Daughter, she will, in a way, be coming out—a prospect her mother dreads. "When you keep a secret from people for 30 years, it's very difficult to tell them the truth," says Norma. "I said to June, 'I won't have any friends.' She said, 'You'll make new friends who'll respect and love you.' I hope that's true."

For her part, Cross, who shares a two-bedroom apartment in Boston with her companion Waldron Ricks, 28, a jazz trumpeter, hopes she has established an adult relationship with Norma. "I didn't ask her the really hard questions," she says. "I didn't even think of them until I'd seen the film 10 or 15 times."

And what are those questions? Cross laughs, a bit uneasily. "We'll save that," she says, "for a conversation between her and me."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Boston

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