By Daniel Frezza
Pearl Bailey is probably best remembered as a singer, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s world premiere of Art Manke’s Pearl’s in the House features a number of songs associated with her—including “Hello, Dolly.” But Bailey was much more: an actress, dancer, author, television variety show host, special ambassador to the United Nations, and advocate for humanitarian causes. Her many accolades included the Donaldson Award for best Broadway newcomer in 1946, a Tony for Hello, Dolly! in 1968, a Daytime Emmy, Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, USO Woman of the Year, and America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by Ronald Reagan in 1988 for her artistic and humanitarian efforts. Plus, she earned a degree in theology from Georgetown University—at age 67! Clearly, Bailey was an interesting, complex person. Manke’s play celebrates her as an artist and as a many-faceted human being.
As a teenager, Manke saw Bailey in Hello, Dolly! Years later he saw her nightclub act. Manke keeps files of possible subjects for future plays and added Bailey to it around that time. About four years ago he felt it was time to tell her story. When asked why, the first thing he mentioned was that Bailey avoided labeling herself (Interview with the Playwright, 2017). She didn’t see herself primarily as a black person, or singer, or whatever. As she expressed it: “if all of us put more practice into dropping the labels we use, we’d be better off” (Between You and Me [New York: Doubleday, 1989], 39). Manke felt Bailey’s message was timely.
He was also intrigued by the relationship with her father. Her parents divorced when Bailey was a child, and her father paid little attention to her until late in his life. (He died in 1966, when she was forty-eight.) Manke sees a connection between that relationship and Bailey’s seeking approval from and relating well to presidents and heads of state. (Her book, Between You and Me, includes accounts of warm interactions with foreign rulers and their wives.) This star of Broadway, television, and recordings stated “Few things have ever excited me more as a performer than playing the White House” (Talking to Myself [New York: Harcourt, 1971], 50) She appeared there so often she referred to it simply as “the House”—giving Manke the play’s title. She was clear-eyed about politicians, though, commenting that they “are able to fool the public better than actors can. It isn’t that they act better . . . they have a nonpaying audience standing there hoping for something—promises that can never be kept by one man” (Talking to Myself, 24).
There is no biography of Pearl Bailey, but her six books—an autobiography, three memoirs, a children’s book, and a cookbook with reminiscences of her life alongside the recipes—provide a good picture of the things that mattered to her and what she noticed and felt about people, society, and herself. In addition to reading Bailey’s books, Manke watched videos of her interviews, talked with people who knew her, and researched the libraries of the presidents for whom she had performed.
Most of the play’s action unfolds in a Washington, D.C. television studio in February, 1987; Bailey is in town to perform at the White House. To promote her latest book she reluctantly agreed to an interview with a television host she refers to as “little Miss Black Power.” Interspersed with the main action are scenes from her earlier life, including performances for several U.S. presidents. These interludes provide occasions to hear Bailey sing.
The interview starts well, but soon the host, Renata Jackson, asks uncomfortable questions about Bailey’s personal life. Bailey smoothly handles the questions during the taping but in the break makes her displeasure known. When the interview resumes, Renata goes easy for a while (Bailey had been a childhood hero of hers), then—dedicated to her personal agenda—returns to pointed questions about Bailey’s politics, responses to racism, and finally to a pressing concern of the late 1980s—AIDS—and why Bailey hasn’t gotten involved in fund-raising or advocacy. At the next break Renata forcefully tries to persuade Bailey to lend her prestige to the fight against AIDS. Bailey replies: “Renata, I have to find my own way with this.” The closing segment of the interview is taped without Bailey giving Renata the commitment she wants. The final scene is Bailey’s White House appearance two days later; the songs she sings let us know that she has found her way.
Based on her writings, one could justifiably call Pearl Bailey a philosopher—not in the academic sense—but rather as one who examined the events of her life in order to find guidance for living. She practiced and preached inclusiveness decades before the term became current. As she put it: “I hate no one for what he was born. I love everyone for what he may be” (Hurry Up, America, and Spit [New York: Harcourt, 1976], 46).
She could be tough. A friend who worked with her remarked once that Bailey could be demanding offstage, but she never saw that come out onstage. Bailey explained: “The reason you haven’t seen those emotions onstage is that you haven’t interrupted me and bothered me onstage.” (Pearl’s Kitchen: an Extraordinary Cookbook [New York: Harcourt, 1973], 80).
Bailey experienced racial discrimination but learned early not to be embittered by it. One instance stands out. She was performing in Canton, Ohio during WWII. One night she made a long-distance call. During the conversation a faint voice in the background kept muttering insults. The hotel manager checked and found it was the hotel switchboard operator, who was duly reprimanded. Coming out of the hotel on her way to the theatre, Bailey noticed a young man and woman looking at her intently. She walked by, glancing back. They continued staring. “What are you looking at?” she demanded, still burning from the phone incident. The man said, “My wife saw the show last night, and we were just admiring you.” Bailey apologized and explained the reason for her belligerent reaction. From that, and other incidents, she determined not to wear a chip on her shoulder (The Raw Pearl [New York: Harcourt, 1969], 43).
In 1952 Bailey met prominent jazz drummer, band leader, and composer-arranger Louis Bellson. During a two-week break from playing with Duke Ellington’s group, he flew to London where Bailey was performing. Days later they wed. In a lengthy telegram sent to the Associated Press, Louis’s father objected to his son marrying “outside his race.” Bailey also received the telegram. She later wrote “It wasn’t cruel. It was sad because he was confused as to the race issue and pressure of people in his town” (The Raw Pearl, 132). When reporters asked Louis’s mother what she thought of the match, she said “That is my son and whom he loves, I love.” (The Raw Pearl, 148). Two years after they married, Louis’s father warmly welcomed Bailey into the family. The marriage had typical ups and downs––their careers often kept them apart––but it appears to have been a happy one, lasting thirty-eight years, till Bailey’s death in 1990 at age seventy-two.
Bailey achieved all she did despite recurring health problems beginning when she was twenty-eight and experienced extreme fatigue during a long nightclub engagement (The Raw Pearl, 47). She was hospitalized in 1965 for what appears to have been a near cardiac arrest (The Raw Pearl, 195). During the national tour and Broadway run of the all-black production of Hello, Dolly! that took place between 1967 and 1970, Bailey often missed performances. In 1970 she was hospitalized again after collapsing from exhaustion following a performance (Talking to Myself, 65). Though she worked regularly in nightclubs and on television, Bailey hadn’t done an extended run in a play since 1954, and she experienced fatigue then as well (Pearl’s Kitchen, 196).
As Pearl, the character in the play, stresses, Bailey avoided labeling herself and other people. Renata, however, makes a valid point when she says: “I guess we all want to hang onto labels . . . it makes our day-to-day existence just a little less frightening, somehow.” If one had to choose a label for Bailey it might be “humanitarian”—yet that seems too formal and aloof for her personality. The warmer, more down-to-earth Yiddish word mensch fits better: someone to admire and emulate, someone you’d like to know.