When Joyce and David N. Dinkins went on vacation to Puerto Rico over Thanksgiving, she had two suitcases and her husband had four. "He always has more than I do," Joyce Dinkins said with a laugh in an interview at the borough president's office yesterday afternoon.
The city's new first lady is unpretentious, soft-spoken, down-to-earth and a bit shy. Unlike her fashion-conscious husband, who has his suits custom-made, she buys most of her clothes off the rack. She doesn't dye her hair, and is happy to have streaks of gray mixed in with the black. "I like things the way they're supposed to be," she said. Her few concessions to fashion include a bit of lipstick and red fingernail polish.
A private person, who stayed out of the public eye during her husband's grueling 11-month campaign for mayor, Joyce Dinkins is trying to get used to the spotlight as she moves into Gracie Mansion.
"I haven't done a lot of interviews," she said as she smoothed her navy blue pleated skirt and posed for a photographer yesterday. "I haven't been newsworthy up until now. You're asking me if I'm going to change? I don't plan to. I probably will be less private but aside from that I'll basically be the same person."
She quit her $57,453-a-year job as coordinator of the city office of the State Department of Taxation on Dec. 14 to work as the city's official hostess and to organize special projects at Gracie Mansion.
"I thought being first lady would be a full-time job and I thought that the demands of my new career would really not allow me to work full time," she said. "I think I'm going to enjoy doing it."
Being first lady is an unpaid position, but Joyce Dinkins clearly considers it a real job. She will be taking over some of the tasks performed by Diane Coffey, Mayor Edward I. Koch's chief of staff, during the bachelor mayor's 12-year tenure.
Coffey, who earned $110,000 a year, greeted visitors, helped oversee the restoration of Gracie Mansion, kept track of the comings and goings of dignitaries staying at the mansion, and made sure the rugs got cleaned, the chairs were upholstered and flowers were on the tables for important dinners.
Friends and co-workers say the new first lady has a knack for diplomacy and for smoothing over differences between people.
"She's always careful not to hurt anyone. She has the ability to make someone feel comfortable, as if you've known her for 20 years," said Monica Guglielmo, secretary to state Tax Commissioner James W. Wetzler, who worked with Joyce Dinkins. "When she said, `Hello, how are you?' she'd really be interested in how you were."
Her sister, Gloria Sparks, who lives in Los Angeles, said Dinkins is sweet-tempered, but determined and independent.
"With David's life-style in politics, you have to learn to stand on your own two feet," Sparks said at a dinner to honor Joyce Dinkins earlier this month. "She steps back and lets him enjoy what he enjoys, but when it gets beyond what she wants she stops. You can't push her beyond a certain point. She's determined, you can't budge her."
Born in Manhattan on Dec. 14, 1930, the former Joyce Burrows moved to Yonkers with her parents and older sister while in elementary school. Her father, former state Assemb. Daniel L. Burrows, who also worked in real estate and insurance, hoped that life in suburbia would give the children an advantage.
But Joyce and her sister were the only black children in the school and were teased and subjected to racist taunts. The family moved back to Harlem within a year. Her sister recalled that they were called "the little chocolate bars" at the school.
"It makes you aware that racism exists," Joyce Dinkins said. "Prior to that, we had never encountered anything to that degree."
She met her husband when they were both students at Howard University. They married in 1953, the same year she graduated with a degree in sociology.
She abandoned plans to work as a social worker to care for her children, David, now 35, and Donnaz, 32; to keep the books for her mother's Harlem liquor store, and to help care for her mother after she was stricken with multiple sclerosis. In 1978, she took a job running the day-to-day operation of the New York City office of the State Taxation Department.
She and her husband plan to move into Gracie Mansion in mid-January, two weeks after the inauguration and the traditional moving-in day for new mayors. Koch wanted to stay on to give one last bash, a New Year's Eve party.
"We have four years there," Joyce Dinkins said with her characteristic diplomacy. "We don't have to move in January 1."