The Song of
YOU look grand!''
Bobby Short shouted from behind the piano at the Café
Carlyle this past December. The packed, cheering house of
100 looked grand indeed on a weeknight, with a $95 cover
After his 36
seasons in that room, people were anything but tired of the
80-year-old grandfather of cabaret. Mr. Short's cane was
stashed away near the bar; under the spotlight, he showed
no signs of the neuropathy that had left him with wobbly,
aching legs. As for a singing voice worn down by 60 years
of saloon work, he blustered through the gravel with such
gusto that a New York Times headline of 2001 called him
''ageless as springtime.''
Flinging his arms into the air, Mr. Short whisked
audiences, through story and song, back to the Manhattan
that first won his heart: a 1930's dream world populated by
Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, No l and Cole
and Ira and George. ''If I must tell you Ira and George
who,'' he announced in his Park Avenue-inflected rasp,
''the door is right there.'' No one else in New York could
make you feel quite so glamorous, simply for being there.
Three months later he was suddenly gone, a victim of
leukemia. As Liz Smith reported, he learned of his illness
only days before his death on Monday. Thus ended a classic
sort of New York success story, that of the kid of humble
roots (Mr. Short came from Danville, Ill.) who reinvents
himself to an almost inconceivable degree. Barbra
Streisand, Robert Mapplethorpe and Beverly Sills all did
it; Mr. Short's transformation was no less remarkable.
In 1937, when he played the Frolics, a club above the
Winter Garden Theater, Variety tagged the 13-year-old
newcomer ''a sweet little pickaninny type.'' By the late
50's, rich white society folk were eating out of his hand.
By 2000 he had entertained four White House
Last April, in the face of growing frailty, Mr. Short
canceled his annual 20 weeks at the Carlyle. But in
December, when I interviewed him at his apartment, he said
he had signed on for two more seasons. ''I got to thinking:
What would I do?'' he confessed.
Bobby Short was of a show business school that kept up
appearances, soldiering on no matter what. His leap out of
an impoverished family is a familiar story. One of 10
children of a miner father, he was a largely self-taught
pianist by the age of 9; at 11 he left home to become a
grinning, white-tailed child vaudevillian. Emulating such
impeccably cultivated black stars as Ellington, Waters and
Lena Horne -- the kind that used to be called ''a credit to
their race'' -- he developed a burning desire for a
particularly New York brand of sophistication, along with
firm ideas about good taste. He groomed his persona in the
cabarets, the only part of show business liberal enough to
embrace, without prejudice, a black man with a so-called
The performer defined upward mobility. Murray Grand, a
veteran piano bar singer, pianist and songwriter, recalls
that even in the 50's, when Mr. Short played some
not-so-chic places in New York, he wasn't much interested
in hanging out with the saloon gang after work.
''He would say, 'No, I have a date,''' Mr. Grand recalled.
''It was always with somebody of high station. He was very
clever. Instead of wasting his time with a bunch of drunk,
doped-up musicians, he spent it with elegant people,
because they helped promote his career.'' That moneyed
following would sustain from 1968 through this past
December at the Carlyle hotel, the old-money East Side
dwelling that most people knew only because of him.
Bobby Short's success there brought him the Manhattan
lifestyle of his dreams: the sprawling apartment off Sutton
Place, the second home in the south of France, the
full-time personal assistant. There were friendships with
Gloria Vanderbilt, Brooke Astor and Kitty Carlisle Hart,
along with a roomful of awards. It made sense to honor Mr.
Short at charity functions: his fans could afford the
$10,000 tables. Every other cabaret singer-pianist envied
him; some were bitterly jealous. A joke circulated in the
''Wait till you hear this new guy. He's like a white Bobby
''No, he's not. Bobby Short is the white Bobby Short.''
In fact, he had thought long and hard about his blurry
racial identity. ''Colored'' was his word of choice, he
explained, to describe all the skin tones and ethnic
strains of the Negro. He loved collecting African art,
particularly figurines of black stereotypes: mammies,
thick-lipped children, spear-holding Ubangis.
''Bobby was intrigued, as we all were, at how far we'd come
out of that,'' says his friend and contemporary Jane White,
the singer and actress. ''He was definitely a black man in
the sense of his loyalties and his connections and his
memories, but he also grew up with this admiration of
things white. And if you had incipient class -- and Bobby
was born with that -- that's where you found your
equivalence, in a way. It wasn't that any of us wanted to
be white, but that's where it was at then. There was no
black Cole Porter.''
Yet he had never forgotten the humility of his work, which
was to sing in a bar. He once told Lena Horne: ''Girl,
you're just a saloon singer. We're saloon singers.'' Unlike
Horne, Mr. Short wasn't the kind to bare his soul, or many
personal details, in public; in 1950's fashion, he lived
the discreet life of a confirmed bachelor. As he wrote in
his frothy but guarded memoir of 1995, ''The Life and Times
of a Saloon Singer,'' his mother had taught him the meaning
of decorum: ''propriety, correct behavior, the fitness of
things. To this day I hold on to her philosophy of what is
just not done. Like public displays of emotion. Bad
With such Old World politesse vanishing around him, Mr.
Short had begun to feel like a relic. After the performance
I saw him give in December, he invited me to sit with him
and his friend Thomas Lampson, a high-end furniture dealer,
in the lounge behind the Café Carlyle.
FOR the next hour, Mr. Short sat clutching his cane while
admirers streamed by to pay court to him. Only when they
left did he allow the physical pain to show on his face. He
spoke mournfully about the Manhattan of his youth, of
departed show business pals: Mabel Mercer, Jean Sablon,
Josephine Premice. He seemed to know that only in the Café,
through him, did that world live on. One wonders what will
become of that room, for no other performer could match his
success there, or recreate the glorious time capsule he
turned it into.
Mr. Lampson drove us both home. When we reached Mr. Short's
building, the entertainer stepped out of the car. For a
moment he seemed dangerously unsteady. Spotting him from
inside the lobby, the doorman lurched into action, throwing
open the door.
In a flash, there appeared the grand, dignified Bobby
Short, the one he wanted the world to see. He straightened
up, lifted his head high, then strode inside that
fashionable East Side residence like a king.