The Lost Supreme

SOON TO BE A MOTION PICTURE starring Terry Dexter as The Lost Supreme and Jon Heder as Author Peter Benjaminson. Based on extensive interviews with Florence Ballard. Published by Chicago Review Press Lawrence Hill Books. NOW IN PAPERBACK!
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I was lounging in the City Room of the Detroit Free Press one cold morning in early 1975 when Assistant City Editor John Oppedahl approached me.  He was wearing a half-smile that indicated he had recently heard something newsworthy.  "I was just told that Florence Ballard is on welfare," he said.  "Wanna check it out?"  I leaped to my feet.  "What!?" I shouted.  "A Supreme on welfare!?"  At twenty-nine, I was extremely excitable.  "Gimme a car and I'll stake out her house until I find her," I said, pounding my desk for emphasis.  Oppedahl's half-smile became a grin.  He was pleased when his reporters got into their stories.
I drove a Free Press staff car, a monstrously powerful Chevy Impala, to the small two-bedroom duplex in Northwest Detroit where John had told me Flo was living.  I parked in front of the house, strode purposefully up to the door, and knocked on it.  No one was home.  I went back to the car and waited.  Within forty minutes, Flo and her daughters came walking up the sidewalk.  Flo, sporting a neatly trimmed Afro, was wearing a hooded woolen overcoat over a white sweater and a dark pantsuit.  She was carrying a bag of groceries.  The girls were wearing colorful dresses under their coats and were obviously clean and well cared for.  Flo was somewhat startled to see a large, determined-looking man in a suit and topcoat get out of the idling car and approach her, but after I identified myself, she invited me inside.
Although Flo outlined her predicament on that first visit, she didn't seem particularly interested in talking.  After I wrote an article about her situation that appeared first in the Free Press and then nation- and worldwide, a friend called her and asked, "Why did you tell people you were on welfare?  That's a shame."  Her reply:  "I couldn't very well deny it, because it's the truth, and he knew it."
Flo was pleasantly astounded, however, by the media frenzy and the number of friendly calls the story inspired.  So she invited me back to her house to record her life story in her own words.  I visited her after work and on weekends over several weeks in 1975 and recorded more than seven hours of tape.  (I preserved the tapes, which have been converted to CDs.)
At the time of my visits, when her career was long over, Flo was more statuesque than heavy, with clear skin and a ready laugh.  She always dressed casually but neatly.  On each occasion, she served me glass after glass of Kool-Aid and talked in a low, pleasant, but somewhat depressed drawl about the ups and down of her life.  The sound of ice cubes tinkling in the Kool-Aid can be heard on the tapes, as well as the sound of her daughters occasionally running through the room, giggling and chasing each other.
I was thrilled to be in contact with such a major celebrity; a poster of the Supremes,including Flo, had decorated my college dorm room for years.  We laughed and joked occasionally as she told the happy parts of her story.  She recounted the sad parts unhappily, obviously reliving some difficult emotions.  It became clear after her death one year later, as those who had been close to Flo began to tell their own stories, that she had left out the very worst parts, either because they embarrassed her or because pain had caused her to suppress some of her memories.
Soon after Flo's death I tried to interest various publications and publishers in her life story; however, public awareness of and interest in her career had declined rapidly after she left the Supremes.  Her death revived that awareness briefly, but the decline resumed immediately after her funeral.  The success of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, which opened in 1981, caught me napping but inspired Mary Wilson of the Supremes to write her book Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme.  I thought Mary's book had satisfied the newly awakened public interest in both her career and Flo's.  But then the opening of the Dreamgirls movie, twenty-five years later, released a fresh whirlwind of fascination in the life and career of the Lost Supreme, whose full story had not yet been told.
Although some of the early portions of my interviews with Flo have been paraphrased and, to a very limited extent, quoted in some publications, most of their content has not been revealed until now.  Nor has the newest information on Flo, which I obtained through original research, based on clues in the interviews.  I hope you enjoy this joint effort by Flo and me to tell her side of the story.