The Matra Diva: The Iconic Frances Davis

Greta Chapin McGill - June 14, 2012

"Frances Davis is much more than the ex-wife of Miles Davis"

It’s a magical day when you meet the man of your dreams. A man who has fallen in love with you  just you, with all your faults, failures and successes. He takes you in his arms and tells you how proud he is of you and all you do. The stars in your eyes blind you and you add the words ”but I love him” to your vocabulary when you reference him for the rest of your life.

Recently I had a rare and unexpected opportunity to speak with Frances Davis. Who is she is surely the question you are now asking yourself. Before my conversation with her, I would have said, Miles Davis’ ex-wife. Now I say she is a woman of parts, a successful Broadway star, member of the world-renowned Katherine Dunham troupe and one of the rare people who can put “the first African American woman to....” in front of her name.

Born in Chicago, she began studying ballet at the age of 8 and was en pointe by 10. Davis won a scholarship to the Edna McRae School of Dance and auditioned en pointe for Katherine Dunham. She traveled to New York at the age of 16 accompanied by her father to make this audition. Staying with a family friends she was a protected prima ballerina.

So many successes came Davis’s way. Opening for the Benny Goodman Orchestra with her dance partner the legendary Walter Nicks. Traveling to Paris, joining the Paris Opera Ballet, another one of those events she places “the first” in front of. Match Magazine and the rest of the Parisienne press called her “the Leslie Caron of the tropics.” In New York, the Broadway stage called and she answered with flair and beauty, appearing in the original production of 'West Side Story," opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in "Mr. Wonderful," "Porgy and Bess" and "Shinbone Alley." Davis was a star.

Backstage admirers were plentiful and of course “there was a lot of competition for me..” One evening  one of the visitors was drummer Max Roach who had in tow Miles Davis. “Miles flipped for me right away,” she recalled.  Davis  was unimpressed with him and it would be several years before she saw him again. Appearing in "Mr. Wonderful," she was walking down Broadway when she met him again. This time he said to her , "Now that I found you, I’ll never let you go."

There is the life-changing statement, the moment when the beautiful and talented woman Miles Davis flipped for fell for him. She moved in with him and they married. It wasn’t long before he went to her Broadway producer and told him his wife would not be working anymore. Her profession required her to be on the road but her husband was not having it. “I want you out of 'West Side Story,' a woman should be with her man," he told her during Lena Horne’s performance at the Copa. She subsequently left the Broadway Stage.

Why, at the top of an obviously glowing and growing career, would you just walk away? Davis' answer is one many woman can relate to: "But I was in love with him."

So she left the Broadway stage. Her husband displayed her beauty on three album covers, wrote music for her and took her with him on tour around the world. He had captured his beauty and arranged her life to fit his. Marriage to the “Prince of Darkness” became intolerable, even a gilded cage is still a cage and after nine years ,she left and moved to Los Angeles, where she lives now.

As we women do, she healed and re invented herself. She worked teaching dance and as a host at some of Hollywood's most famous restaurants, including Chasens and Hamburger Hamlet. Her A-list friends call her “the Matra Diva” and she is known all over LA as the ever beautiful and sparkling person she was born to be. Her vision now is to open a new restaurant and she is involved with projects to bring her husband's life to the screen

Davis was pointed out to me in a jazz club one night in Santa Fe as “Miles Davis ex-wife.” For me, she is an icon of style, passion and strength. A woman who claims the title as “The First” for so many things; a woman of parts intricate and interesting. She is Frances Davis.