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2024-04-03 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Missing Bobby Short

Missing Bobby Short

Bobby Short
PIANO MAN Bobby Short and his band performing in 1965.
Photo by Arthur Schatz/Getty Images

Bobby Short decided to turn pro after he played the swank Palmer House in Chicago. He was 10. A precocious, cherub-cheeked man-child, he’d been singing and playing the piano by ear since he was four years old.

From the Palmer, Short would go on to perform for four presidents, numerous celebrities, countless society blue bloods, and anyone who happened to want to be wrapped in a gossamer cocoon of urbane luxuriance, if only for one night. He crooned reassuring American standards in a jazzy, polished, honey-soaked voice that made you think of money — old money.

Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty, Lena Horne, Liza Minnelli, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Eartha Kitt, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, they all came to Short to be romanced.

Short’s dazzling, seven-decade career took him to the White House and across the country to Frolics Cafe, the famed Apollo Theater, Café Gala in Los Angeles, and clubs in Las Vegas, London, and Paris. He eventually landed, in 1968, at the Café Carlyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he remained in residence for 36 years.

Fans became friends. Jackie O. first heard him at a small, obscure New York City restaurant, Short said. Thereafter, the former First Lady watched him at the Carlyle. Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner, and Gloria Vanderbilt, social butterflies with considerable wingspans, were regulars.

Short’s popularity extended beyond entertainment. He palled around with designer Fernando Sánchez, Henri Bendel’s Geraldine Stutz, Saks’s Helen O’Hagan — sometimes with her companion, the iconic actor Claudette Colbert — and writers Rex Reed, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Henry Van Dyke. He also counted as friends a who’s who of groundbreaking Black entertainers from the ’50s and ’60s: Horne, Josephine Premice, Diahann Carroll, and Fredi Washington. Short wrote not one but two autobiographies, such was the sustained interest in the last of the great supper-club troubadours. The first, Black and White Baby, came in 1971, followed by 1995’s Bobby Short: The Life and Times of a Saloon Singer.

KEY PLAYER Short performing at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 1988
Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

“We’re saloon singers,” he said to Horne. She’d often come with her husband, Lennie Hayton, the noted conductor/arranger, to watch Short. Afterwards, the three of them would retire to the couple’s apartment or remain after the show, singing, drinking, and playing piano.

He was one of Premice’s oldest friends, said the actor-singer’s daughter: producer, writer, and socialite Susan Fales-Hill. “I grew up my whole life going to see him at the Carlyle. He was a wonderful entertainer. It takes genuine talent to hold a room spellbound with just a piano and his voice.

“[Uncle Bobby] was very private,” remembered Fales-Hill. “But he performed with a lot of emotion. When he performed, you always left feeling good.”

Short almost certainly faced challenges. He was a child worker controlled by adults and described toiling long hours while in school, performing for a cup of cocoa. As an adult, he withstood racial slurs and more than once was refused access to venues he or his friends performed in. But he never lingered on these abuses. He wrote, “I am a negro who has never lived in the South, thank God, nor was I trapped in an urban ghetto.”

With derision, some have observed Short’s success with white audiences and the ruling class as indication of his desire to be white. But the truth was, he was a Black man navigating what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the “double consciousness.”

“He was this incredible stoic,” said Fales-HillI. “I remember thinking, whatever horrors he had been through in his life, for him, he seemed to be saying, he made it through them.”

Short was very much in touch with his African American roots. “He was beloved by high society — Nan Kempner adored him, Pat Buckley adored him — but he was always very grounded in who he was,” Fales-Hill points out. The parties he held at his Sutton Place apartment “were always very integrated” with white guests and Black guests like Carmen de Lavallade, Harry Belafonte, Carroll, and Premice.

When Fales-Hill married her husband, finance executive Aaron Hill, in 1997, Short, she recalled, had work that day. “I think one of the reasons he made a point of making it to my wedding is because he was so proud that this young Black woman was marrying this young Black man.”

As a performer, Short’s musical selections leaned toward the romantic: “Love Is Here to Stay,” “I’m in Love Again,” and “You’ve Got That Thing.” He was best known for his interpretations of the Great American Songbook by writers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, but also performed Fats Waller, Thomas A. Dorsey, James Weldon Johnson, and J. Rosamond Johnson.

Always dapper, he was partial to a cashmere sweater off duty and a tux and bow tie at work, a jaunty side part in his jet-black hair. As a child, he wore white tails.

START ’EM YOUNG A young Short at a piano in the 1940s
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Robert Waltrip Short was born in Danville, Illinois, on September 15, 1924, the ninth of 10 children. His parents, Rodman and Myrtle Short, were poor, the former a Kentucky coal miner and the latter a maid. The money he made as a school-age entertainer helped the family budget. In later years, his work — which included numerous albums, commercials (Charlie perfume, anyone?), and TV — afforded him a life of material ease and luxury.

When not at Café Carlyle, Short performed short gigs elsewhere or decamped to his stunning, mountainside home in Mougins, France, which he named “Villa Manhattan.” It was shouting distance from Saint-Paul-de-Vence, home to Simone Signoret, James Baldwin, and Pablo Picasso.

Van Dyke visited Short there just months before the singer died of leukemia on March 21, 2005, in New York. Short never married, his love life a source of speculation, nor did he have children, though he adopted one of his nephews. It was long-rumored that he dated Vanderbilt. One of the home’s bedrooms was named the Gloria Vanderbilt Room, Van Dyke wrote. In 1980, Vanderbilt sued the exclusive River House apartments, asserting that they blocked her purchase of a $1.1 million co-op because they were afraid Short would move in with her. She vacationed at his Côte d’Azur home, as did Premice and others. I asked Fales-Hill if the rumors were true. She claimed she had no knowledge of such a relationship.

THEY’VE GOT THAT THING Short and Gloria Vanderbilt at a party in 1979
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Short’s impact on entertainment is impossible to measure. “He’s one of the legendary performers who made the Carlyle Café the Carlyle,” declared Allal Gogo, Café Carlyle’s general manager. “There are a lot of regulars who still come into the Carlyle because they want to remember the memories of Bobby.”

“I sketched many of my collections there,” recalled designer Zang Toi, who lives across the street from the Carlyle. He first saw Short perform in 1998. “I kept going back to his performances for the feel-good vibe that’s gorgeous and glamorous.”

Short’s dapper image is painted on the Carlyle’s wall. This fall, the storied hotel plans to honor what would be Short’s 100th birthday. You’ll be able to order his favorite dish: mashed potatoes, truffles, and chicken. After, wash it down with Bobby’s Manhattan made just the way he liked it — with rum, instead of whisky.

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