Friday, October 14, 2011

Jill Krementz covers Harry Belafonte at NYPL

Harry Belafonte at The New York Public Library, photographed by JIll Krementz,
October 12, 2011.
Harry Belafonte
In conversation with Paul Holdengräber
Live From The New York Public Library
October 12, 2011

Harry Belafonte (b. March 1, 1927) is revered as a musician, actor, and a social activist. His new memoir, My Song, co-authored with Michael Shnayerson, has just been published. Mr. Belafonte kicked off his book tour at the NYPL discussing his career with Paul Holdengräber.

I first saw Mr. Belafonte in 1963 when I was a young reporter for Show Magazine. Like many young people, I cared about the Civil Rights movement and I joined a group heading down to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Civil Rights March on August 28th. We were all on a bus organized by, and for, people in show business and my fellow passengers included Patrick O’Neal, Madeline Sherwood, David Margulies, Keir Dullea, and Janet Margolin (the young actors who had just made their debut in Frank Perry’s film, David and Lisa).

I had received a Nikon camera for my 23rd birthday that year and was starting to take photographs. I shot three rolls of black & white film; the contacts and some prints are in my files along with my notes. I was way too timid to try and move close enough to the top of the stairs where Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Josephine Baker, and Miriam Makeba were performing and where Martin Luther King would give his now legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

My notes from the Civil Rights March on
August 28th, 1963.
This is what I wrote down on that sweltering summer day:

“I have a dream,” King cried. The crowd began cheering but King, never pausing, brought silence as he continued. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

”We have a dream,” he went on relentlessly shouting down the thunderous swell of applause,“That even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” Cheers, Cheers, Cheers.

“I have a dream," King cried again, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And my additional observations:

Statue of Abraham Lincoln behind me

Green & white circus tent serving as organizers’ headquarters

The river--Potomac

Negroes in faded overalls
Ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
Passed around canteens
Clergymen (young)
Onetime Folies Bergere Star Josephine Baker: O’Neal—“She’s a wonderful old lady."

Looking back I can see it was a pivotal moment in my life. I wanted to be present at an event that mattered to me and I had a deep desire to record history. It was the beginning of my life as a photojournalist.

That is why I went to hear Harry Belafonte speak at The New York Library. He has lived one of the great American lives of the last century.

Sing Your Song, a documentary about Mr. Belafonte airs this weekend on HBO (Sunday, October 17).

On Sunday, December 4th, Charlie Rose and Belafonte will appear at the 92nd Street Y. The evening will conclude with Mr. Belafonte autographing copies of his book.
Listening to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Marchers.
Patrick O'Neal and Madeline Sherwood. Janet Margolin.
On a sweltering day in August people came from all over to rally for civil rights.
Enjoying a leisurely lunch.
The 1963 March on Washington was one of the most important days in our nation's history. It is a day that everyone who was there will always remember.
Harry Belafonte's memoir, My Song, which has just been published by Knopf ($30.50). The books were on sale at the Library and when I arrived were being removed from cartons.
A portfolio of photographs from Harry Belafonte's memoir, My Song.
Harry Belafonte's "rosebud moment" of "Day-O" came from hearing Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River."

"It was a song I heard often, sung by Paul Robeson, most of my young adult life. Robeson was the first generation of his family who was a non-slave. His father was one. Robeson conquered the world in which he roamed as an actor and a singer.

"I met him at the American Negro Theater. I had heard of him before I met him. He was a hero of my mother's. My mother and I were at the American Negro Theater because I'd been given two tickets by a woman who lived in the same building where I was the assistant janitor. I had never been to a theater. Seeing him that evening was my first real epiphany."
Setting up for the event before the doors opened.
Patrick Knisley, manager of 192 Books, with his associate, Lucinda Segar. They sell books at all the NYPL events.
Mariel Fiedler, NYPL's office coordinator. NYPL intern Lee Kiara.
I looked up and saw a man walk into the Celeste Bartos auditorium. He was alone and wearing a baseball cap. It didn't take me long to realize who
it was.
It was Harry Belafonte.
Paul Holdengräber arrived moments later to greet his guest. And so did his wife, Pamela Belafonte. Ms Belafonte is a very good photographer who met her husband photographing social causes to bring people's attention to apartheid.
It was a sold-out event. While we waited for the conversation to begin we listened to many of Belafonte's most famous songs over the loudspeaker system. I am still humming Day-O. I am guessing I am not the only one who woke up this morning with what Oliver Sacks has referred to as a "bug in
my ear."
Michael Shnayerson, who co-authored the memoir, and Elizabeth Oberbeck. Ms. Oberbeck is a writer whose most recent novel is The Dressmaker.
Peter Duchin. Stanley Szaro, a dealer in 19th/20th Century American Silver and post 1930 Mexican Silver. Mr. Szaro teaches Silver Appraisal at New York University.
David Margolick, like Shnayerson, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair. Mr. Margolick's new book, Elizabeth and Hazel, Two Women of Little Rock, has just been published to glowing reviews, including a full page rave in last week's New York Times Book Review. Margolick devoted twelve years of research to this in-depth examination of one of the most iconic photographs of the civil rights movement and reveals how it came to be taken, the principal figures in it, and the impact it had on Little Rock and around the world.
The subjects of Margolick's book.
Flash Rosenberg, Artist-in-Residence for LIVE from the NYPL.

Ms. Rosenberg draws talks between prominent authors and artists live in real-time, during programs, to create 'Conversation Portraits.' These drawings are videotaped and then edited to create an animated summary of the discussion.

Rosenberg is the recent recipient of a Guggenheim grant.
Armond White, newly appointed editor of
The most recent issue of CityArts features a profile of Paul Holdengräber.
Mr. Belafonte greets Armond White.
Pamela Belafonte with Elizabeth Oberbeck and Michael Shnayerson.
The conversation begins.
Mr. Belafonte starts off by saying: "Before we begin I must acknowledge the presence of someone who means a lot to me. He's six feet nine and black as anyone I've ever seen. When I first laid eyes on him his skin was so black I thought he was from the Sudan."

We all craned our necks.

Then he asked Michael Shnayerson to please stand up. Which he did.
The "Tall black man from Sudan."
In the course of the evening, Mr. Belafonte talked about the great influences on his life by many people: His mother Milly, Paul Robeson whom he met while performing at The American Negro Theater, W. E. B. Du Bois whose books he read, "Leadbelly" (Huddie Ledbetter), Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Al Haig ("One of the great geniuses of the day who wrote "Pennies from Heaven"), Charlie Parker, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Rod Steiger, Miriam Makeba ("When I saw her I saw the voice of Africa"), Eleanor Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. ("I met him in the basement of The Abyssinian Baptist Church. He was two years younger than me but after four hours I knew I could throw my lot in with him."). It was MLK who taught him that "your real seat should be at the table with your adversaries."

He also told a story about an Australian doctor he met in Africa. Belafonte had asked the physician how he could deal with all the famine knowing that so many people would still go hungry. The doctor's reply: "I know I can't save them all, but I save some and that's enough."
The conversation was interspersed with various videos from Belafonte's life.
A clip from the evening when Jay-Z appeared at the Library with Mr. Holdengräber and talked admiringly of Mr. Belafonte.
Video clips from the recording session of "We Are The World."
Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles.
Michael Jackson.
Jazz singer Al Jarreau has his hand in the air. Rock singer Daryl Hall is the blond male behind him.
Sheila E. is on the left. June Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters) is on the right. Bob Dylan in background.
Harry Belafonte.
A video clip of Harry Belafonte guest hosting The Tonight Show and interviewing Martin Luther
King, Jr.
The evening ends with a standing ovation and a grateful interviewer.
Mr. Belafonte makes his way to the other side of the room to autograph books, accompanied by his wife Pamela. Arriving at the table where he is to sign books ...
He climbs on top of it and lies down, much to everyone's surprise, and amusement.
But soon revived, he receives warms kudos from his wife.
And more congratulations from Paul Holdengräber.
The book signing begins.
And in addition to autographs, his fans want to shake the hand of a great man.
At the end of the evening, Belafonte signed a few extra books that had been pre-ordered. Gabriella Brooks, Knopf's Director of promotion, and Patrick Knisley from 192 books aided the process.
Paul Holdengräber. Barbara Holdengräber, who is a writer and the wife of Paul Holdengräber.
Paul Holdengräber with Mr. Belafonte. Barbara Holdengräber with Mr. Belafonte.
I asked Paul if they were going to get an autographed book for their young son. "No," he replied, "He's waiting to get Def Jam's Russell Simmons's autograph when he comes to speak."
At the end of the evening all those shipping cartons were empty!
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.