Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Bobby Short Turns 80

So there I was, in Williamsburg, sipping on my "Pisco" (No, just joshing, my little cheesecake: I haven't done gone and become a "hipster;" (Averted Gaze) No, I was, of course, pulling on the Cutty Sark). But -- as I was saying -- there I was, laying doggo, sipping and reading the screen, when I learned that that significant cultural artifact, namely Mr. Bobby Short had turned 80.

What's even more bizarre is that Lenny Kravitz showed up for his birthday party.

Crazy like Swayze. Anyhoo: To get the poop on this, to get inside the rarefied atmosphere of New York Society, one turns to it's chronicler, actually, the greatest online society chronicler (the sun sets a violent red-bronze, Medieval French hunting horns play a somber galiard in the landscape), Our Proust, (the clapping of a phantom audience) Our David Patrick Columbia of NYSocialDiary:

"It was birthday number 80. There were, at last count, 180 guests. Peter Duchin played during the long cocktail hour and Bobby?s band played through dinner. Bobby Short is a real Mr. New York. The boy from Danville, Illinois, who calls himself a 'saloon singer,' who first started playing professionally when he was eight years old, settled here (after Los Angeles and Paris) in the mid 50s, early 60s, and he?s been a mainstay of Manhattan nightlife (thirty-five years at the Caf� Carlyle) ever since.When I was a young kid I used to wish I could grow up to be another Bobby Short. Just think, sitting there at the grand, rapping out those Cole Porter tunes, Kern, Arlen, Gershwin, Coward, you-name-it and singing your heart out, and getting paid for it ... Mr. Short is ... the quintessence, the top, the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum."

Bobby Short has always been a sort of enigma wrapped inside a riddle to me. A Russian Nesting doll, really. He is entirely unknown within "the Black Community," an X-Variable, but, on the other hand, he is beloved by that intimate circle known as Manhattan Cafe Society, which, every year, grows smaller and smaller with the death of another Whartonian banker or novelist of pretty archaic words and antiquated Knickerbocker tones. He certainly has a role in African-American music, but, to be frank, I'm not quite sure what that is precisely, as he was never a Creator, but rather, he belonged to that class of musicians now nearly extinct (within a nearly extinct social set, Manhattan Cafe society), The Standards Singers, the Bards of a Gentler Age -- music to unwind at the summer home to, music to accompany a leveraged buy out to, music to dance at the exclusionary country club to, music of an age when men knew what a cummerbund was, and drank martinis dry, occasionally engaging in fisticuffs.

When Short started out, most of these Standard Singers were white. African-American singers went in for jazz, as it was their own. Who wants to sing Irving Berlin when you can do Louis Armstrong? But Short found his way in this world, and, like a marathon runner, outlasted all the competition. Peter Duchin and, perhaps, Eartha Kitt and the wonderful Betty Buckley (also of the stunning Woody Allen cameo), who came much later, are now, perhaps, the last remnenats of a nearly forgotten world that stretches back into the Lost Genration of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

I was introduced to Bobby Short through his rather abrupt and somewhat starling cameo in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (one of my favorite movies of all time), where he went from loudly belting out some serious Cole Porter to -- a whisper, almost. Actually, Bobby Short may actually go down in history as the first African-American with a speaking role of any sort in a Woody Allen film up until that moment (domestic servants not included). Soon-Yi Previn's influence, since then, has brought on a more multicultural flavor to his works, though we hope that Woody returns to drama and stops making comedies in the hopes that unwashed rabble will like him again.

I didn't know what to make of Mr. Short. I still don't. Although I've never been to the Cafe Carlyle (on the grounds that I don't actually wear Depends Undergaments yet) and experienced what, I'm sure, are delightful renditions of Gershwin and Cole Porter as only Bobby can do them. My blood is still young, a cacophony of intellectual and sexual dissonance, I am not yet at an age where I can appreciate Gershwin yet, to be frank, I'm more 'boutitboutit of the mysterious Couperin and flava full Mobb Deep school of music appreciation. But, having said that, one aspect of Short's history has always particularly intrigued me.

In the 1970s -- remember, the Civil Rights movement was less than a decade old -- Bobby Short and Gloria Vanderbilt were an item (Cornelius Vanderbilt is currently spinning in his grave like a transcontinental railroad wheel). I know, I know, go straight for the sex, Corsair, why don't you -- but doesn't that intrigue you? In the 1970s, this, this ... The queen of American socialites, the most pampered of the pampered underwent an occasion of the "Jungle Fever" for Bobby Short?

But, in the interest of accuracy, does a passionate moment with Bobby Short really and truly qualify as "Jungle Fever"? I don't mean any disrespect here. I'll try to be gentle. What I'm getting at is Bobby Short does sing Cole Porter. And this is not exactly a "jungle" activity -- maybe as a prelude to love at Princeton in the 50s, but not now, if you know what I mean. What I am trying to say, awkwardly, is that there is nothing about Bobby Short, saloon singer, that says, "jungle." Maybe Bobby Short could be more properly construed as "Thicket Fever," or -- better yet -- a "Bunch of Thorny Weeds Fever." There. All done. And no one was harmed in the process. Gloria Vanderbilt likes her coffee like she likes her men -- extra light.

And didn't that poor little rich girl also have a thing with photographer Gordon Parks? The Corsair will refrain from further commentary until Mr. Parks' next birthday. But, back to Short.

Another thing that kind of surprised me was, ancillary to the proposition that Short and Vanderbilt made sweet, sweet love, was the corollary that Bobby Short was straight. Maybe my gaydar is being affected by Hurricane Ivan. Maybe it's half off and he's "bi." Oh, I mean, I'm sure that any gay man could get it up for Gloria Vanderbilt, just for the sake of the "gloria," the principle of the whole fucking-an-icon thing; but Bobby Short always struck me as way too stylish to be straight -- he had real flava, which straight people tend not to have. And that whole Upper East Side thing. I guess a sort of suaveness is a defense mechanism for living on the Upper East Side as a black man during the 50s.

I mean, it wouldn't be advisable for a black man to "walk hard" up 81st and York in 1958. They might have strung him up on "corrupting the public morals charges," or something. White people were just not smooth in the head back in the day. You guys were a little "uptight." Bobby prolly had to put a little caucasian sauce in that step, while waiting for the 1980s to arrive.

Anyhoo, as one biography puts it, "The ninth of 10 children born to a coal miner and a maid in Danville, Ill., Mr. Short was a self-taught piano prodigy who began performing numbers like 'Tiger Rag,' in local saloons when he was 10."

Bobby did good for himself, rising from humble beginnings to the top drawer of Manhattan's Cafe society, or what's left of it. I like Bobby Short, saloon singer, sometime star of Woody Allen films, soft speaker and Vanderbilt romancer -- he who hasn't been rightly appreciated by African-Americans (Although I'm sure Dave Chappelle could figure out something to do with this living legend, this chap) -- happy 80th, Bobby Short, you're the tops, you're the Coluseum.


NoIvoryNow said...

Having been mistaken for a black woman more than once in my life, I play up my coffee as much as possible eating collards at Sylvias. Go on Bobby. We all need a pass from time to time. Thanks for the great article. As per usual. Chris

Ron said...

thank you Chris. ;-)

Anonymous said...

re Bobby Short, such a great entertainer, just fab. I was lucky enough to see him several times at his usual Cafe performing in the late 90's. I recall that he was reported as being married to Gloria Vanderbilt years back but no evidence of this exists. Having spoken to him and heard from friends of his actual preferences, I have no doubt that he was gay, but like many of his generation, he was good at hiding it.

kirby heyward said...

He was a gentleman's gentleman .."per Harold Pinter".... Great insight in this article very well done. My man .

Mark Parrott said...

Growing up in that era I seen Bobby about three times at the cafe. I enjoyed him very much, I have respect for all music Bobby help me to enlarge my appreciation . For that , I am eternally greatful.k