May 12, 2023
Harry Belafonte’s death April 25 at age 96 has brought back years and years of memories of good times spent with the crooner and activist, whom I’d known since my childhood. A longtime business friend of my father, he spent many late-night evenings at our home in Washington, D.C.—some with his then wife, Julie, and some on his own. Once, I remember he brought the late Miriam Makeba, the South African singer/activist. The two improvised a song and dance routine in our den. He was always warm and kind, seemingly modest about his stardom, and—as outspoken as he was—always interested in what others had to say. Although he was quick to share his strong opinions, he didn’t seem nearly as strident in those days as he did in later years, when I ran into him many, many times, both in Washington, D.C. and New York.
Back in 2000, I caught up with Belafonte at President Bill Clinton’s State Dinner for Thabo Mbeki, President of the Republic of South Africa, held in a large, tented pavilion on the South Lawn of the White House. Covering the dinner for my newspaper column, syndicated in The Washington Times, Orlando Sentinel, et al., I found Spike Lee and Lenny Kravitz, as well as Belafonte himself, all seated at First Lady Hillary Clinton’s table.
“How do you beat Harry Belafonte?” Kravitz asked, obviously pleased with the dinner conversation. “I loved the diversity—a little bit of politics, a little literary,” he continued. Seated next to him was Jane Mayer, who’d written Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. It was Mayer, Kravitz related to me, who’d urged Belafonte to write a book about his involvement in the civil rights movement in the ’60s. Belafonte thought for a moment, Kravitz reported, and then replied, ‘That would be icing on the cake.’
A decade later—on January 15th, 2011, Martin Luther King’s birthday—a friend and I wandered into Ocean Grill, a seafood restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side, for a late lunch, and I soon heard that unmistakably deep, gravelly voice at a nearby table. There he was, the social activist/calypso crooner—Harry Belafonte himself. How coincidental, not only to run into that old family friend at this quiet restaurant, reminiscent of a luxury liner, but to reconnect with the long-time civil rights activist on this commemorative day.
Still charming, slim, and sexy at age 83, the gently mannered Belafonte, leaning on a walking stick, came over to our table and sat down to catch up. He was still as alive and passionate about his social beliefs as ever. This Belafonte—who marched and crusaded with Martin Luther King, Jr. and shed tears at his funeral, as well as performed his songs of justice at John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural festivities fifty years earlier—had aged gracefully while successfully inspiring change and gaining personal wisdom along the way. “I’ve seen it all now,” is how he put it to me.
He told me that he looked forward to his upcoming Sundance appearance, in Park City, Utah, to premiere the director Susanne Rostock’s independent documentary film about his life, Sing Your Song. The midcentury superstar, born in Harlem and raised in Jamaica, said “justice” remains the same today as it was back in the ’50s and ’60s. He had a clear vision of justice, whether that involved fighting racism here at home or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, with his hit “We Are the World”.
Having emerged as an international sex symbol, and arguably the first Black male sex symbol in American culture (Sidney Poitier didn’t make a major splash until the ’60s) at the height of his popularity in the mid 20th century Belafonte was turned away from White restaurants and hotels in segregated cities, including Washington—at the time a sleepy Southern town, where I grew up and first met him—because he was Black.
We reminisced about the time during my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh in the late ’60s—before cell phones or email. There was a single rotary dial pay phone mounted to the wall at the end of the hall in the girls’ dorm. Someone yelled down the dingy smoke-filled corridor that I had a call from Harry. Tom, Dick, and Harry called one after another in those days.
I raced to the phone. The deep, gravelly voice on the other end was not only distinguishable but familiar. Belafonte told me he was coming to Pittsburgh to play a date at a major auditorium the following Saturday. His younger brother Dennis, he said, was joining him. He wanted me to meet this brother—a basketball player, a little lighter in color than he was, he told me—envisioning a romance between us, I wondered?
I had known Harry since I was a youngster. He spent many late-night evenings at our home—some with his then wife, Julie, who was from Washington—and some alone. Once, I remember he brought the late Miriam Makeba, the South African singer/activist. They improvised song and dance in our den. He was always warm and kind, seemingly modest about his stardom and as outspoken as he was, always interested in what others had to say as well. Although he always shared his strong opinions, he didn’t seem nearly as strident in those days as he did in later years.
I didn’t hesitate to accept his gracious offer: “Meet me in my dressing room. I’ll have a ticket for the show for you; the three of us will have dinner afterwards.” I always enjoyed Belafonte’s performances and never tired of “Day-O”.
When I heard from my dad, I shared my enthusiasm that Harry had invited me to dinner with his younger brother. As the evening drew closer, I made sure my skinny black mini-dress was back from the dry cleaner, and I fantasized about a gorgeous hunk resembling the Belafonte I knew. But arriving at Belafonte’s dressing room at the appointed time, I was startled to find my dad sipping a scotch and shooting the breeze with Harry—with no sign of his brother around. Before I could utter a word, Harry walked toward me and stopped short, “May I still give you a big hug and kiss?”
He threw his arms tightly around me and lifted me off the ground. “Your father tells me you’re engaged. Who’s the lucky guy?”
For the record, I wasn’t engaged, and the evening certainly wasn’t the one I had anticipated. Finding Dad there was a surprise. And while he casually explained that he happened to be in town and thought he’d stop by to see the show and take us to dinner, he didn’t seem to understand why I was not thrilled by his surprise appearance.
I wondered aloud and asked Harry about his brother’s non-appearance.
His response? “When your dad called and told me you were engaged, I told my brother not to come.”
Later, when I asked Dad why he really joined us that evening, and what was all this about my being engaged, he explained, “If someone sees you in a restaurant with a Colored man, all they’ll see is a schvartse (Yiddish, with derogatory overtones, for a person of color). No one will know he’s Harry Belafonte’s brother.”
I think back and wonder why that would have made a difference. We’ve changed as a nation, but have we progressed enough? That’s why Harry Belafonte was still fighting, and his legacy is not just historical, but contemporary as well.
Karen Feld, an award-winning writer, penned a Washington-based syndicated personality column for many years, chronicling social history through the intersection of politics and entertainment. She also dished on-air political gossip weekly with Joan Rivers. This article first appeared on NyCitywoman.com