By Sharon La Cruise
Director, Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock
As a black woman who was a feminist before the term was invented, Daisy Bates refused to accept her assigned place in society. Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock tells the story of her life and public support of nine black students to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which culminated in a constitutional crisis—pitting a president against a governor and a community against itself. Filmmaker Sharon La Cruise shares a personal side to Daisy not covered in the documentary, which is currently streaming on PBS Video.
With another Valentine’s Day behind us, I’ve found myself thinking about Daisy and L.C. Bates and their unusual love story. The complexity of their relationship always fascinated me, ever since my first visit to Arkansas in 2004. I was there in search of a saint named Daisy Bates, whom I wanted to feature in my first documentary.
I had become enamored with Daisy and was on a mission to meet the people who knew her best. Much to my surprise, I found out there was no “Saint Daisy” and that, according to residents of Little Rock, her husband, L.C. Bates, was the true saint for putting up with her and the many unpardonable sins committed during the course of their marriage.
The couple had met when Daisy was fifteen and L.C. was twenty-seven years old. In photographs, L.C. never looked particularly young—he always gave the sense of being perpetually old. Daisy, however, was stunning and oozed sex like the 1950s movie stars Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. In private, Daisy admitted to close friends that she didn’t always love L.C. As I pieced together their life stories, I realized Daisy had suffered a horrible childhood trauma while growing up in Arkansas. When they met, Daisy was an angry teenager trying to come to terms with the rape and murder of her mother and her father’s abandonment.
L.C. drove into the town selling life insurance and instantly became Daisy’s ticket out. But L.C. was married, which meant Daisy was stuck being his mistress for the next ten years. During that time Daisy made sure L.C. felt both her love and her wrath. When they fought it was not unusual for Daisy to throw plates at L.C.’s head.
According to a relative, Daisy ran away from L.C. once to marry a WWII soldier who was shipping out to Europe. At the last minute the soldier changed his mind and Daisy was left stranded in New York City with no money. It was L.C. who had to wire her the funds for her to return to Little Rock. But once L.C. got his divorce and the couple married, they seemed to have a strong marriage and entertained often. They were the power couple of Little Rock, and L.C. adored and spoiled Daisy, catering to her every whim. That would all change by 1957.
Daisy Bates’ fight to integrate Central High School in 1957 not only turned her into an overnight celebrity around the world, but also altered her relationship with L.C. As the brilliant publisher of the Arkansas State Press newspaper, L.C. Bates was responsible for setting Daisy on her path to becoming an activist. As I got to know Daisy and L.C., there were moments I was envious of their bond. What would all our lives be like if we had an L.C. Bates in our corner—a man who believed in you, pushed you, encouraged you, saw you for who you were but loved you anyway, a man who was willing to stay in your shadow so that you could become all you were meant to be?
For several years, L.C. was that man to Daisy, but L.C. wasn’t a saint once Daisy became famous and he felt her slipping away. Soon, he found himself holding on too tight and lost her again to lure of New York City. For two years, Daisy lived in New York working on her autobiography and, according to close friends, having an affair. No one knows for sure who she was seeing while in New York—all I could find out was everyone in Little Rock knew about it and felt sorry for poor lovesick L.C. By 1962, Daisy was back in Little Rock and filing for a divorce—but within six months the couple had remarried.
At some point during their separation, Daisy had come to the conclusion that despite her efforts, she could no more live without L.C. than he could without her. Not long after their remarriage Daisy suffered the first of many strokes at 53-years old and despite the twelve-year age difference, it was L.C. who was taking care of Daisy. A friend remembers watching L.C. putting Daisy to bed and taking off her glasses while she slept.
When L.C. died in 1980, Daisy realized how much she had taken him for granted and what a loss she had suffered. Their relationship wasn’t perfect, but what relationship is? L.C. loved Daisy, and, in the end, I believe Daisy loved him just as much.
Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock is available to view in entirety online via PBS Video (for a limited time only). Photo credited to The Johnson Publishing Co.