“I’ve seen Spike evolve in terms of wanting to do things and go to things,” she says. The first year they were married, for example, she attended the annual gala for the Studio Museum in Harlem, the highlight of the fall calendar in black society, without him.
“I went with my parents because Philip Morris is a big supporter,” she says. “It was a Yankee game that night. Spike Lee didn’t go.” (Lee takes great pleasure in driving around Martha’s Vineyard—Red Sox territory—in his pin-striped Mustang customized with the Yankees’ interlocking NY. “You should see their faces!” he says.
He also flies an enormous Yankees flag from his house there, which happens to be located at the eighteenth hole of a golf course. “They hate it. Hate it!” he says. “That’s all right.” He whispers: “I just love seeing their faces.”)
In fact, Lewis Lee met her husband at another event she was attending because of her Philip Morris ties. It was a dinner for the Congressional Black Caucus: “My father insisted I go to represent the family,” she says. She and Spike crossed paths and immediately noticed each other. “I was going up the stairs, and he was going down the escalator. He was with a date—of course, some women would have no respect, but I did. But he came back around, and he was like, ‘Who are you here with? Do you have a date? Do you have a boyfriend?’ He said, ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ I said I just haven’t met the right guy yet. He did a little jig.” On their first date, he took her to the party for Madonna’s book Sex. “You know what’s so funny? He was really ready to commit.”
Lee immediately asked her to accompany him to his house in Oak Bluffs, a vacation destination on Martha’s Vineyard for wealthy African-Americans since the thirties, where Lee had a house built in 1992 when he was making Malcolm X. (Asked to describe the residence, Lee says, “Big.”) It was a technique Lee had employed with less success a few years earlier on the model Veronica Webb, whom he cast as his wife in Jungle Fever. Webb wrote about the experience in her book, Sight: “Spike is putting sexual pressure on me. I don’t like it. I hate it. Tomorrow he wants me to go to Martha’s Vineyard with him. The guy just won’t take no for an answer.”
Webb complained that “like a lot of young powerful men, Spike had a case of ‘kingitis,’ where the world revolves around their every wish and whatever’s in the way of their wishes is a complete and utterly unworthy lump of shit as far as they’re concerned.” If Lee’s bedside manner was aggressive, it was also effective: Webb ended up dating him for a year. Tonya Lewis became his wife.
The last thing Lillian and George Lewis wanted was for their daughter Tonya to marry “an entertainment type,” she says. “Philip Morris is a conservative corporation,” and it didn’t help that “Spike is mum.” Anyone who finds this confusing and imagines that Tonya Lewis was marrying up when she wed the famous director Spike Lee is not initiated in the mores of African-American society.
“It’s become more of a meritocracy in the last fifteen years or so, but prior to that, it was really about your family history,” says E.T. Williams, a retired real- estate investor and art collector who was in George Lewis’s chapter of the Boulés and comes from an African-American family that has been prosperous—and, by the way, free—since the late 1700s. Williams is an acquaintance of Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee’s; he last saw them for lunch in Jamaica, when he and his wife, Auldlyn, were staying at the Ritz- Carlton and the Lees were vacationing at the Half Moon. He has been on boards including MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Central Park Conservancy. He became close with Brooke Astor after she gave a lunch to introduce him to her vacation crowd on Dark Harbor off the coast of Maine.
Though E.T. Williams grew up in Brooklyn, he never met Spike Lee until after he’d married Tonya Lewis. Spike Lee’s family, says Williams, “wasn’t social … Put it that way. His father was professional, if I’m not mistaken—a nice, middle-class family.” Spike’s father, Bill Lee, is a jazz composer who scored several of his son’s early films. His mother was a teacher who died when Spike was a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was a third- generation legacy. (Lee’s second film, School Daze, was a delirious musical about life at the prestigious black men’s school. There is a memorable song-and-dance number in which light- skinned black women call their darker-skinned rivals “jigaboos” and the dark- skinned women sing the retort “wannabes.”) The Lees were well-to-do, yes; Blackristocracy, no.