The Song of Himself

by James Gavin
Sunday, March 27, 2005

''DON'T 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 charge.

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 administrations.

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 white refinement.

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 saloon crowd:

''Wait till you hear this new guy. He's like a white Bobby Short.''

''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 manners. Temperament.''

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.