Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Another sunny day on the second day of Spring in New York with temps in the 60s and warm in the Sun.
Today we’re running a memory first published on March 22, 2005, marking the 16th anniversary of the death of the great Bobby Short who died the day before (March 21) six months before his 81st birthday. It was a long and extraordinary life as a pianist and performer who was his own kind of genius from childhood on.
I think I first heard of Bobby Short when I came to New York after college and saw his name in the columns, especially Dorothy Kilgallen and Cholly Knickerbocker who always plugged his openings at various clubs around town. The first time I heard him was on a recording, singing Cole Porter’s “I’m Throwin’ a Ball Tonight,” a song I was not familiar with until that moment.
As a kid who grew up playing the piano (not very well) and always wishing I could perform (which I did briefly, and also not very well), and a developing aficionado of the American songwriters like Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Kern, Hammerstein, Arlen, the Gershwins, Vernon Duke, not to mention the man who became my musical hero, Fats Waller, Bobby Short fit the bill.
In the beginning I didn’t know anything about him other than the sophisticated leanings of his repertoire. By that time — although I didn’t know enough about him to know — he was already in his early forties and had been playing saloons (as they were referred to his early days) from childhood, for more than thirty years! In New York, thanks to people like Kilgallen and the Smart Set of Cholly Knickerbocker he’d become a kind of keeper of the flame — the reflection of American times quickly passing on into cultural history, the lullabies of Broadway.
Noticeably absent from this “image” I had of this serene serenader of Manhattan babies was the darker shade of his skin. I’d literally never laid eyes on him. I didn’t even know he was black until one day in a brokerage office I worked in, a woman who was very “sophisticated” made some crack about “Bobby Short thinks he’s white.” And it was a wisecrack, unthinking and insensitive but to this white boy, it meant someone who was embarrassed about himself.
A few weeks later, as it happened, on a warm Spring day in New York, I was walking with a friend down Fifth Avenue when in front of St. Patrick’s we passed a dark-skinned man impeccably dressed in a well-tailored light grey-flannel suit, light blue shirt, navy silk tie and Gucci moccasins (which were then the rage). He walked with an equally outstanding, yet quiet strut, head high, arms swinging just so. Like a man who was on top of the world. Who was that? I asked my friend. “Why that’s Bobby Short.” No sign of embarrassment there!
By the early 70s, however, Bobby had moved up several notches professionally from the gigs in joints here and there to becoming a fixture at ultra-chic Café Carlyle. During this period he also recorded several wonderful, best-selling albums for Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic Records beginning with a double album he did with Mabel Mercer “At Town Hall,” then with “Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter,” then later ” … Loves Gershwin,” “… Loves Noel Coward,” “… Loves Rodgers & Hart.”
Years passed, his recordings were a staple in my library. On a good day at the piano I’d imagine myself in the style of Mr. Short crooning, hooting out the witty and worldly lyrics of those songs, all while never having seen him perform live.
Until: I moved to Los Angeles and one day in the early 1980s, he came to town to play a concert at the Roxy, the basic-rock-and-roll club on the Sunset Strip. It was a program of mainly African-American lyricists and composers, like Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Andy Razaf, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Compared to the musical fare served up at the Roxy, this was a pretty tame program, accompanied by a bass and drums. Compared to what I had learned to expect from Bobby Short – Porter, Gershwin, Kern, etc. – this was something very new and hardly from a man “who thinks he’s white.”
It turned out we had a friend in common out there, Lady Sarah Churchill, a transplanted New Yorker then living in Beverly Hills, who happened to be throwing one of her big catch-all dinner parties – Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale, Jean Howard, Lillian Hellman (!), visiting pals from New York and London, the Prentice Hales from San Francisco, and Bobby Short. We met. It was nothing other than cordial, but I was very impressed to finally meet the man. Sarah even got the man to play a tune – something he was not wont to do in private (work was work was work in his book), but like the good guest, he acceded.
Cordial was a good word for him, under such circumstances. He was all of those things which one attributed to him – sophisticated, well turned-out, gracious, pleasant. In conversations that came up over dinner, he seemed to have met everyone in the world, and had an unerring and exact memory of them and so many things about them including even what was discussed and what they were wearing when he met them. The man away from the piano was a virtuoso of decorum, although very outgoing, yet cool, but friendly.
A few years later, 1990, to be precise, I was in New York for a few months working on a project and John Galliher invited me for lunch one winter’s day. It turned out I was one of six guests, including Kenny Lane, Gene Hovis, and Bobby. It was there that we really connected, however, briefly, when I confessed that I often entertained the fantasy when I sat down to play (badly), that I was Bobby Short. To me, that seemed like the idyllic glamorous existence, playing and singing my heart away like Bobby Short.
No doubt he was amused and/or flattered by this effusive outburst of whatever you’d call it … pianissimo idolatry. It was during that trip that I saw him perform for the first time at the Carlyle, and he flattered me back by playing a couple of tunes that I liked including “Street of Dreams …” (“Love laughs at a king; kings don’t mean a thing … on the Street of Dreams.”)
And that was my Bobby Short experience. Until a year later when I was in New York again and up in Litchfield County one weekend with my friend Beth DeWoody, staying with her friends (now divorced) Bob and Sandy Pittman. One night we went to dinner at the house of Sharon and Jim Hoge (also now divorced) and I was seated next to Gerry Stutz, the famous retailer who turned Henri Bendel’s into a fashion mecca in the 1960s. She had long retired from that business and now had her own imprint at Crown Publishers. As it happened, she was familiar with my work because she’d read the book I’d written for Debbie Reynolds. She had a “memoir” under contract and was looking for a writer – Bobby Short – would I be interested?
Naturally I said yes, enthusiastically. Meanwhile, I went back to California. He called and we discussed it. By this time we had become “friends” in that New York way – a couple of dinners, mutual acquaintances, shared interests and pleasant casual conversations. He had already written one memoir – one he did himself – called Black and White Baby which ended at age 13; a recollection of growing up poor but imbued with a grand natural musical talent, in Danville, Illinois, and going to work performing at the keyboard, from age 8 onwards.
What struck me most about the book was his enormous, encyclopedic memory for details. It was this same memory, I later learned, that allowed this child, then man, who could not read music, to remember thousands and thousands of songs and their lyrics. It allowed him to remember just about everyone he ever met – also numbering in the high thousands, and where and when. His memory served as his teacher.
That little boy who grew up poor was taken up, attracted to, at an early age, by the citizens of the town (who happened to be white, and wealthy) who appreciated his gift and were amused by it. Possibly because his mother had given him the gift of decorum and gracious courtesy, this little boy who first sat down at the piano at age four and just played a tune someone was singing, this little boy was invited to sit down and play on the great big white grand piano in the parlor of the richest family in town. And play he did. By six or seven, he was becoming, for a little one, quite accomplished.
I did not grow up black, obviously, but I did grow up in socio-economic and geographical circumstances which in many ways resembled the upbringing of Bobby Short. I too had a mother who could not depend on the support of her husband, and who could only rely on herself to feed, clothe, shelter and educate her brood. She too, like Bobby’s mother, was fortified with brute strength, and instilled in her children a sense of decorum, of “something better,” and the ethics of hard work. I felt I could bring that to this second memoir of Bobby’s. That would be my collaborative contribution.
After much back and forth, over what turned out to be very little money (the publisher did not expect blockbuster sales from a memoir of a saloon singer with a very select, if sophisticated audience), I put my belongings in storage, gave up my apartment in Los Angeles, and drove to New York to begin the project.
Almost from the beginning, the “collaboration” was uneasy. We’d meet in late morning, interview, have lunch and go back to another hour of talk. His “story” was richly harrowing – a little black boy who was out working in joints across America during the days of Jim Crow when child or no, he was rankly subjected to the cruel and hideous rules of segregation and the often daily bold, blunt, even life-threatening racial prejudice.
And he had dozens, even hundreds of stories, especially with his almost total recall, of the insulting, demeaning, demoralizing, even violent realities of every day life. And yet here was this kid, with this huge natural talent, working those smokey, boozy saloons (and often chic nightclubs too), meeting some of the greatest performers of the day (many of whom were adoring fans of this prodigy – including Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, the Duke), unbowed and by now supporting mama back home, making her life just a little bit easier than it had been before.
I felt this was a great American story, of courage, of artistry, of determination, of decency, and of triumph. Little David overcomes the Goliath of social monstrosity. Bobby who was always, unfailingly gracious although not particularly forthcoming to my probing questions about how it felt, was not at all impressed with the idea. Perhaps he saw the point, but it was not somewhere he wished to tread.
By this time in his life, he was now in his late sixties, he preferred reviewing the more glamorous and amusing side of his professional life – his late youth in Los Angeles where he eventually made a name for himself playing at the Café Gala, his move to Paris where he led the bohemian artist’s life and, as it was in LA, became something of the darling of the international set, and finally to New York where he had, over time, raised his art to something so refined that some people had the ignorant temerity to think he thought he was “white.”
I could see his point. Who can be faulted for the way they prefer to deal with their realities, especially when it affects no one else? He had made his way through the great racial morass of his youth (and well into middle age) by keeping his eye on the ball, by moving forward, by never looking back, by enjoying the good times and writing off the bad times.
The result of such modus operandi was, in essence, a grand success as the songman and balladeer of a part of 20th century American culture – black and white – that was valid and a pleasure. The other was the monstrous remnants of the dark side of humanity that has shackled and imprisoned generations of good and decent people without the fortitude or creative talents (or inkling of opportunity) to press on. Bobby Short was bound and determined not to be one of those people, and in the end, he wasn’t.
In New York he was named to the International Best Dressed List. He lived comfortably, even luxuriously in a studio above Carnegie Hall, and later in co-op apartments on East 57th Street. He had a country house with pool and gardens in Mougin, France. The greats of the world — royalty, film legends, singers, composers, millionairesses and actors and artists came to listen and return their appreciation with ovation. So many whom he had admired from a far while growing up became friends and fans.
As he grew older, he acquired the élan of a distinguished artist, a man who knew his field and who had become one of the foremost interpreters of American musicology. All this from a kid who could never read a note. The American public learned of him through friendships like that he shared with Gloria Vanderbilt (one in particular which was exaggerated to accommodate the fantasies of the press, but good for business for both parties).
The past which he had so bravely endured through his formative years, working, worrying about working, getting a gig here, a gig there, keeping the wolves from the door, keeping the jerks from his heels, keeping his mama in comfort, was behind him, and gone. Not forgotten, because he forgot nothing, but gone. And as for “thinking he’s white,” when his nephews were approaching manhood, like the father that he never was, he sat them down and told them “the first thing to remember when you go into a room full of people you’ve never met before – the first thing they’re going to notice … is the color of your skin. And don’t forget it!!”
Our collaboration ended about six months after it had begun. I was sitting in Beth DeWoody’s house in Southampton one cloudy grey winter afternoon, at my computer, worrying how I was going to make this great story “interesting” considering the boundaries the man had placed on it, when the phone rang. It was my agent. “I have bad news,” he said. “Bobby wants to end the collaboration.”
It wasn’t bad news. It was a relief. And so it was ended. Another writer was found, I was replaced, and the book was finished and published. I never read it. First of all, I’d already heard the stories. Second of all, it was his music I would always love anyway.
We remained friends, although it was never a close relationship. Bobby always had quite a few very good friends. His friendship with Jean Bach went back more than a half century. Same with Lena Horne. Same with Johnny Galliher, and with many many more, many of whom I never met or knew. I never actually knew very much about his private life, had never been invited to any of his small private dinners, although we had many acquaintances in common. What I always heard about him was how much fun they all had.
He had had several close, intimate relationships in his life, most of them with other men. There was a great romance in the 1960s with a very beautiful European model here in New York, and for awhile there, there was discussion of marriage and family. For whatever reasons it was ended mutually, although they remained lifelong friends and she was here last fall to celebrate his 80th birthday at the Rainbow Room, and just last month to celebrate his being honored by the Citizens Committee of New York.
We often saw each other at social events, at private dinners, and occasionally I stopped in at the Carlyle to catch his act and see his “new show.” I saw him shortly before the end of his last engagement just before New Year’s. He’d had physical problems – with his voice, and then with his legs – I’m not sure exactly what they were but they were cumbersome and required him walking with a cane. As it was with his musical life, “style” was an essential, even crucial ingredient, in every aspect of his life – and he maintained it like a true aristocrat. Several years ago, not ironically, although … ironically, considering what he had endured to get to this point in life, he was listed in the New York Social Register.
We never discussed the “ending of the collaboration,” which was all right with me. Bobby was not the kind of man who wished to hurt or disappoint anyone. He was, however, a man of deep integrity, and a believer in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. He certainly understood the difficulties of being a writer out of work, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted to have that effect on me. However, as it happened, fortuitously, soon after I had arrived in New York to work on his memoir, Dame Fortune smiled on me and I began on the road professionally that I still travel today. It was a road Bobby recognized and appreciated. I never knew what his thoughts were, if there were any, about it; I’d guess he was pleased for me.
A few years ago he decided to retire from his regular engagements at the Carlyle. He’d reached the age where 35 years at the same gig was just about enough. Someone, however, persuaded him to return again last year for his regular spring and autumn bookings. When I saw him performing last late December, I concluded that he was one of those lucky ones who’d work until he died, for the work was how he’d defined himself to the world, and he wore it as impeccably as that grey flannel suit he was wearing when I first saw him on Fifth Avenue more than forty years ago.
A few weeks later, Citizens Committee of New York honored him at a wonderful dinner at the Waldorf. At the end of the evening, when he went up on stage to receive his award, they asked him to perform. Knowing how reluctant he was to “just sit down and play” at a party, I was surprised to see him grant their wish. He played a song I’d never heard him sing before called “In the Dark …” — a rousing, raucous, almost raunchy bluesy number that he really let rip with. And when he finished he brought down the house to the point where he gave us an encore. Cane and all, he stood up from the piano and sent it on home baby! It was a beautiful and moving moment in the life of his great man, this charming and sophisticated boy from Danville who grew up on New York, Paris and Hollywood.
A few weeks later I saw him at Swifty’s at the birthday of our mutual friend (and an old colleague of Bobby’s), Barbara Carroll, the jazz virtuoso. I asked him about that song he’d sung that night at the Waldorf, “In the Dark ….” As was his style, he gave me an enthusiastic historical background of its genesis and its life, and how it was a song all the kids played on the victrola when he was a kid, and when their parents were out of the house … because it was naughty … all that stuff about what you do, in the dark, and ooh-ooh-ohhh! And he laughed at the memory.
Last Wednesday, Bobby, who hadn’t been feeling well lately, checked into Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for some tests. On Thursday he was diagnosed with leukemia. And the following Monday he was gone. The news came as a shock to almost everyone who knew him. He would have celebrated his eighty-first birthday the following September 15. I still wish I could play and sing like Bobby Short. Although that’s gone now too; he’s put it behind him.