Growing up, FRONTLINE producer June Cross lived two very different lives. During the school year, she lived in Atlantic City with her black family as an adopted child. On summer vacations, she lived in Los Angeles as part of a white show business family with Norma, her biological mother, and stepfather Larry Storch, an actor famous in the 1960s tv series "F Troop." Norma had left June's father-African-American vaudeville performer Jimmy Cross-and had given June away when she became "too dark to pass for white."
In "Secret Daughter" producer Cross takes FRONTLINE viewers on an epic journey across the racial divide, into the hidden world of Hollywood and black vaudeville and deep into the painful,complicated relationship between an abandoned daughter and the mother who gave her away.
"This film was a journey to uncover feelings I never knew I had when I was young," says June Cross. "I was raised as an only child in the bosom of the black middle class: nurtured, supported, encouraged. But my own family's real story was a mystery to me."
Cross interviews distant relatives, close family members, and Jimmy Cross's entertainment contemporaries, including comedian Jerry Lewis, to reconstruct the mosaic of her life. She explores her father's history, tracking down old friends, exposing the racial aspects of show business in the post-war era as well as forming a picture of the father she harbored anger toward her entire life.
Jimmy Cross was half of the famous vaudeville song and dance team "Stump & Stumpy" and had appeared in Irving Berlin's 1943 film This Is the Army, starring Ronald Reagan. But neither he nor any of the other black singer-dancers received screen credit. The documentary reveals that although blacks couldn't share the stage with whites, backstage the races mixed freely.
Producer Cross went to discover what led to her mother's decision to give her away. Did Norma make the decision in her daughter's best interests, or her own? Cross grapples with her mother's dilemma as she tries to convince her to appear in an on-camera interview, which would reveal their secret to all.
In 1952, Norma came to New York, met Jimmy Cross, and June was born two years later. However as Jimmy's career declined, he became an abusive alcoholic and Norma left him in 1957 and sent four-year-old June to be raised by a black family Norma knew in Atlantic City. She was convinced that being brought up in an all-white world would ruin June's sense of identity.
But Norma was not only concerned about her daughter. She married Larry Storch who was an emerging star and was afraid her new husband's career would be destroyed if the truth about June were discovered-that the Hollywood of the 1960s was not ready for a white man who'd taken in his white wife's illegitimate black daughter. The cover story she developed was that June was her adopted daughter.
Cross discovers that, like many Americans, both her mother's and father's families had mixed racial heritages. And Cross's camera confronts her own racial stereotypes when she goes to meet her mother's Mormon cousins in Idaho. "I was seized by conflicting emotions...their sincerity versus the reality I think Mormon racism perpetrated in my own life," says Cross.
Cross finally comes to terms with her father's memory when she goes to Harlem and discovers some home movies of Jimmy Cross standing outside the Apollo Theatre holding a baby. "It took me a couple of replays before it hit me...that the baby was me," says June. "This is the only picture of us I've ever seen. I played it over and over."
And, ultimately, Cross finds a fuller understanding and a forgiveness for her mother's decision to send her away.