To make the point, of course, one must know something about this remarkable woman. It must be stated that she became this writer's idol since childhood. Many of her admirers first became aware of her when she appeared in the EBONY and JET magazines in the early 1960s as a model in the jus-emerging Ebony Fashion Fair. I had never seen such a beautiful woman and I was hopelessly smitten. I started collecting anything I could about her and was probably the only kid I knew with a Janet Langhart scrapbook!
She started a highly successful and award-winning career as broadcast journalist and in 1969 became the first Black "weather girl" for WBBM-TV in Chicago and from there began making a name for herself in a variety of markets, most notably Boston's WCVB-TV where she co-hosted a morning show, "Good Day!" from 1973-78. During her career she has interviewed numerous personalities from the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and business, including Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Leontyne Price and self-avowed white supremacist Louisiana Congressman David Duke. She became friends with Muhammad Ali and super-lawyer F. Lee Bailey, and she considers Martin Luther King, Jr. a personal mentor.
Not too bad for a poor Black girl who grew up in housing project in Indianapolis and raised by an unmarried, teenaged mother.
Ironically, Janet's physical appearance and seemingly meteoric rise unjustly contributed to the belief, among many, that she had not "earned" her place--that things had been handed to her on a silver platter--that this project kid had somehow sprung from an elitist and privileged background. The depth of this wound to her psyche and spirit were immeasurable. The truth was that from the beginning of her life, her mother, Russelle Mary Louise, knowing the fate of many multi-racial people, instilled in her daughter a clear understanding and acceptance of all of her roots and heritage (African American, European and Native American). She has always identified as a Black woman and saw no reason that she shouldn't.
She told me the story about enrolling on her first day at Butler University (Indianapolis) with a childhood friend, who could have easily "passed," but marked the race block on the form as "Colored." Janet admonished her and suggested that she mark "Other." Janet told her, "Make them know who you are, let the uncomfortability be theirs!"
She decided to keep her name from her first marriage to Melvin Langhart, even though it only lasted a year. Her second marriage was to Harvard Medical School professor and noted women's reproductive health pioneer, Dr. Robert Kistner (1978-89).
In February 14, 1996, on Valentine's Day, she married former U.S. Senator William Cohen (R-Maine). They became mutual admirers in 1974 during an interview in Boston, when he was in Congress, but did not personally meet until years later when she was working for Black Entertainment Television (BET) in Washington, DC and her friend, former U.S. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor, Andrew Young set up an interview for her. They remained friends and when they both became single again they started dating.
When Cohen first proposed, Langhart said she was concerned that his political career would be adversely affected by his marriage to a Black woman. William Cohen, a moderate Republican, was chosen to serve as President Bill Clinton's Secretary of Defense. Langhart is a Democrat and her life was getting ready to undergo an amazing transformation.
While her husband served as Secretary of Defense, she became known as "First Lady of the Pentagon." The same drive, tenacity and determination that had propelled her throughout her life and career, combined with her innate sense of humanity, elegance and graciousness were shining jewels in her new role. She embraced this opportunity to serve our country and most importantly she recognized that she could make a difference in the quality of life for those who served unselfishly in our Armed Forces.
She initiated several processes focused on the morale and well-being of military and civilian employees of the Defense Department, which included the Military Family Forum, the Pentagon Pops Concert Series and the Secretary of Defense Annual Holiday Tour (an entertainment revue. She was given the volunteer position as "First lady of the USO" and assisted in recruiting celebrities and civilians to work with the United Service Organizations.
In 1999, she founded the Citizen Patriot Organization (CPO), a non-profit committed to recognizing "those who serve, protect and defend the United States of America." The group periodically presents a CPO Award, which includes Jack Valenti, former long-term President of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Arizona Senator and former Presidential candidate John McClain among its recipients. The group has also organized a Homeland Defense Tour, which brought USO-like appreciation events to first responders at the September 11 attacks sites and other domestic locations and a Citizen Patriot Tour to military locations overseas.
Langhart unabashedly confided that she doesn't think of herself as a writer, although in 2004 she authored a memoir (with Alexander Kopelman), "My Life in Two Americas; From Rage to Reason" and in 2007 with her husband, "Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance." And, now her play, "Anne and Emmett."
Langhart said the spark from which the play originated was set off by remarks made to her by a friend at a cocktail party (it brought to mind the famous Eartha Kitt and Ladybird Johnson incident at the White House during the Viet Nam War). She was telling her friend about her first memoir, which dealt with the themes of race, discrimination and cultural and social isolation from her perspective as an American of multiracial (though clearly defined as Black) heritage. The friend urged her to forego the project as "...not being worthy of any further social discourse."
When Janet returned home she shared the incident with her husband and indicated that she was angry and deeply offended by the woman's comments. Mr. Cohen told her to write it down as a way of channeling her feelings. So, this self-described "non-writer" responded with her one-act play, "Anne & Emmett."
The play was premiering on the afternoon of June 9, 2009 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, honoring the 80th birthday of Anne Frank, when it was tragically disrupted by a self-proclaimed white supremacist who fatally shot an African American security guard and then was shot himself by other guards.
The play has had staged readings nationally and internationally in Boston, Baltimore and Jerusalem and will return to Washington, D.C.'s Atlas Performing Arts Center, on H Street, NE, Northeast as a fully staged production, November 3-6 in the Lang Theatre.
The playwright says, "I decided to write "Anne & Emmett" for a number of reasons, including making sure that today's generation of youth, particularly minority youth, did not miss out on learning Emmett's story and that the result has benefited them."
Though Anne's story has already been immortalized through her book, "The Diary of Anne Frank," (and the highly artistically and commercially successful 1959 Hollywood movie) revealing horrors and atrocities of the Holocaust from her perspective, Emmett Till's story is not as well known or with the same level of intensity. It is Langhart's effort to illuminate his story and bring to life its profound role in the dynamic history of the Civil Rights Movement (something I am sure her mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be inordinately proud of).
Perhaps this play will help make Janet Langhart Cohen a little less unknown warrior.