Cicely Tyson, the 96-year-old actress, barrier breaker in terms of Black women’s imagery in Hollywood, and fashionista, is releasing her memoir Just as I Am next week. In promotion of the book, Tyson spoke with New York Times Magazine about her life and what we can expect her to detail in a memoir detailing nearly a century of life.
Anyone who has lived that long might have a few things to say about love. And given that Tyson was involved in an extremely high profile marriage with fellow artist, famed trumpeter Miles Davis, people are fascinated to know what made that relationship work. And when they couldn’t know for sure, people settled for speculation, including the notion that Davis was abusive.
In the past, as recently as 2015, Tyson didn’t speak about the abuse rumors. Instead, she spoke about how much she enjoyed every minute she shared with Davis.
But in the memoir, she’s being a bit more forthcoming and acknowledging that abuse, even if it was just one occasion, was a part of their relationship.
Still, from the interview, you get the strong sense that Tyson is still attempting to protect her late husband.
Here’s how the conversation went.
New York Times Magazine: The portrait that you paint of him in the book is pretty unsparing. In your telling, he was physically abusive, he was unfaithful, he was dishonest and he was also dealing with serious addiction problems. Was it hard to disclose those experiences?
Cicely Tyson: No. That’s who he was. I have never seen Miles Davis smoke reefer, snort cocaine or hit a woman, OK? He never did it in front of me. He never brought any of those things into our home, all right? And when I tell people that, they say, ‘‘That’s because of his respect for you.’’
NYT: I don’t quite understand. In the book, you write about him punching you in the chest.
Tyson: Oh, that was the only time he ever hit me, and that was at the beginning of our relationship. I was shocked. Some people came to the house, a famous writer and his wife, and something happened. I had prepared lunch and —
NYT: You dropped a knife on the floor.
Tyson: Yes, and he thought I threw the knife on the floor because of something he said. I hadn’t even been listening to what he was saying. And he came to me, yes he did, and he punched me in the chest. That’s the only time he ever struck me. I’d never had anybody do that to me, all right? He was so sorry. I’m glad you reminded me of that. Those things come and go. The abuse that’s mentioned, I understood where it came from. People don’t behave in that way for no reason. It comes from something or someplace. And nine times out of 10, it’s because they have been deeply hurt. The way people would refer to Miles, ‘‘He’s bad, he’s this, he does that’’ — not in a vacuum, he doesn’t. Nine times out of 10, the abuse came out when he was under the influence of the drugs, of the alcohol.
NYT: After all that you went through with him, is he someone you still have love for?
Tyson: Listen, let me tell you something. I got to know the soul of a man who is as gentle as a lamb. He covered it up with this ruthless attitude because he was so shy. Shy, you hear me? And in trying to be the kind of tough person that people thought he was, he ruined his life. Yes, gentle as a lamb, you hear me? That’s the Miles Davis I knew.
NYT: But what about love? I’m curious about how your feelings for a man like that might have changed over time.
Tyson: Wait a minute. The man I love was not like that to me. When he was dying, a friend of mine went to the hospital to see him, and he was trying to tell her something. But he had had surgery, and she couldn’t understand what he was trying to say to her. The nurse came in and said to my friend, ‘‘Why don’t you go for a walk and come back in about 45 minutes, and he will be able to talk to you.’’ So she went for a walk. And she came back to the hospital, and he was able to talk loudly enough to tell her this: ‘‘Tell Cicely I’m sorry. Tell her I’m very, very sorry.’’
Basically, it was complicated. But a love story none the less.
You can read Tyson’s full interview with the NYT, here.
Just as I Am will hit book shelves on Tuesday, January 26.