The Gifts Harry Belafonte Gave Me

The Gifts Harry Belafonte Gave Me

The singer, actor, and activist gave generously of his time and wisdom—not just to me but to the world.


The last time I saw Harry Belafonte was at his 93rd birthday party at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on March 1, 2020. I gave him a quick hug and spent the next week worried that I’d given him the newly terrifying disease Covid-19. Belafonte’s birthday was my last social event for literally years, so with hindsight—knowing he lived three more happy and relatively healthy years, with his wonderful wife, Pamela, despite the isolation of Covid—I’m very glad I went. When he died Tuesday at 96, I felt sad for his family and friends of course, but strangely blessed too. Late in his life, when time was short, he gave me a great deal of his time.

I got to meet and get to know Mr. B, as so many of us called him, working on a documentary about the week in February 1968 when Johnny Carson asked him to guest-host The Tonight Show. I’ve written about the process many times; it began with this article in The Nation. You can watch the documentary, The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the tonight show here. You can learn all about Belafonte’s titanic accomplishments—the first to sell 1 million records (the album Calypso), he was an EGOT—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner—he assembled the celebrities, white and Black, who came to the 1963 March on Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said he’d donated more money to the civil rights movement than anyone else, at least in the mid-1960s—in the many wonderful obituaries published in the last day.

What stays with me are two main learnings from my time with him: the civil rights movement wouldn’t have been the same without Belafonte’s time, financial support, energy—and his love for King personally. And Belafonte poured that same love and energy into the world, long after King’s assassination.

The only photos in which I’ve seen King fully relaxed, smiling, even laughing, he’s with Belafonte. When he came to New York, he stayed in Belafonte’s West End Avenue apartment and the pair, often with others, talked late into the night, as King nursed Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Also I learned: The loss of his friend “Martin” was still deep and painful to Belafonte 50 years later. He told us about the first time he met King, in a Harlem church basement more than 60 years before. “Listening to his words, I knew I’d forever be in his service,” he recalled in the film. “Once I took up with him, my life never went anywhere else but there.”

And then there was his kindness and generosity and human warmth. For the last 24 hours, from friends and people I don’t know, I’ve been hearing stories of random encounters with the international superstar where he went out of his way to connect with awestruck strangers—at a party, in a pharmacy, a diner, on the street. Of course I had my own story like that. I first met him in the makeup room at 30 Rock just after Obama’s reelection in 2012. Starstruck, I was so bewildered when he approached me and introduced himself (unnecessarily). What he actually said is a blur, but it was something about appreciating my contributions on MSNBC during the bitter election campaign, and he thanked me for it. “You’re thanking me?” I quavered, honestly near tears.

My father adored Belafonte’s music and his activism; I grew up to the song “Scarlet Ribbons;” it was neither the first or last time I was sad to realize I couldn’t tell him about something wonderful that happened to me. I stood up, with a head full of rollers, shook his hand, and thanked him for everything he’d done.

Then I went on a Belafonte bender—I bought his 19-song album Live at Carnegie Hall, wore out “Jamaican Farewell,” “Shenandoah,” “All My Trials,” “Danny Boy.” I read his memoir, My Song, in two days. That’s where I learned about the week he hosted The Tonight Show, welcoming not only King and Bobby Kennedy, but also Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Paul Newman, Wilt Chamberlain, and so many more—most of the entertainers were also his partners in civil rights activism. It was like hidden history, though it was hiding in plain sight. I was convinced that it would make a great documentary, although I had never made one.

Fast-forward: The details of making an independent documentary are only interesting to other independent documentarians. It took seven years. I was lucky to partner with three great women who did have experience: MSNBC’s Joy Reid, producer Valerie Thomas, and director Yoruba Richen, who most recently directed The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. The collaboration was a treasure. What stays with me about our time with Belafonte, though, is the time and encouragement he gave us. Also his humility: He frankly worried about how much he could remember, he confessed, from five short nights 50 long years ago.

But early in the process, we got a great gift: Johnny Carson’s secretary at the time, who also worked with Belafonte that week, had saved an ad he took out in Variety where he thanked not only his many guests but Carson’s entire behind-the-cameras staff, for joining what he called his “sit-in.” That kindness paid itself back to Belafonte—and our project—by giving all of us the entire guest list for the week, which we couldn’t find anywhere else. We interviewed the secretary, Ginny Beauregard, and a couple of other people who worked with Belafonte, and it was incredible to see how one week, 50 years ago, when they were in their 20s, still meant so much to them. The ad also gave us the name for our documentary.

Ultimately, Belafonte gave us two hours-long interviews, the second one in his lovely, light-filled apartment, the walls like a civil rights museum, photos of Belafonte and everyone. Pamela made us chocolate chip cookies. Yoruba had a few extra questions, and he answered them patiently. More than patiently, often with joy. Yoruba got him talking about his folk-music roots, telling stories I’d never heard or read. “The truth of the matter is that I quit being a pop star,” he told us. “I had to go find an art that would tell what life should be. And nothing did that better than being in the folk world.” He sang us the opening to the Leonard Cohen song “Suzanne,” which folksinger Leon Bibb played on his Tonight Show week. (You can see it in our film.) The icon sat in a comfy armchair wearing a “Harlem-American” sweatshirt. We could have stayed forever, but we didn’t want to wear him out.

And I could go on forever, but I won’t. Our film was set to premiere in April 2020 at the Tribeca Film Festival, a great honor to the New Yorkers behind it, including Belafonte. That was not to be; Covid shut Tribeca down that year. The Sit- In found a home on Peacock, and MSNBC ran it several times. It lives, and I guess I was never happier about that than I was, in my sadness, the day Belafonte died, in his lovely, light-filled apartment not far from me.

I spent seven years dreading the New York Times headline that popped up on my phone Tuesday morning—“Harry Belafonte, 96, Dies; Barrier-Breaking Singer, Actor and Activist.” I had dreaded it selfishly, because I hadn’t started or wasn’t finished with the documentary. Three years after we wrapped, I wasn’t any more ready for the news. “It isn’t so important how long you live,” King told Belafonte on The Tonight Show, barely two months before he was murdered. “The important thing is how well you live.” Ninety-six years is a good long life, but Belafonte lived so well, the world would be better off if he had 96 more.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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