The Pearl Bailey I Never Knew

When I first saw a black and white photo of Pearl Bailey smoking, I said to myself, ‘I didn’t know Pearl Bailey smoked;’ but then I read the caption below that picture, ‘Pearl Bailey Married Louie Bellson in 1952‘ and quickly forgot her bad habit.

For the next hour or so, I was consumed with finding out about this guy with the lighter locked in Pearl’s gaze. Who was this white man? Eventually this is what I turned up online …

“Winner of a Gene Krupa talent contest while a teenager, Bellson was with the big bands of Benny Goodman (1943 and 1946), Tommy Dorsey (1947-49) and Harry James (1950-51) before replacing Sonny Greer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. A talented writer, Bellson contributed “Skin Deep” and “The Hawk Talks” to Duke’s permanent repertoire. He married Pearl Bailey in 1952 and the following year left Ellington to be her musical director. Bellson toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic (1954-55), recorded many dates in the 1950s for Verve and was with the Dorsey Brothers (1955-56), Count Basie (1962), Duke Ellington (1965-66) and Harry James (1966). He has been continually active up to the present day, leading big bands (different ones on the East and West Coasts), putting together combos for record dates, giving clinics for younger drummers and writing new music. Bellson has recorded extensively for Roulette (early ’60s), Concord, Pablo and most recently Music Masters.”–Scott Yanow, The All Music Guide

After reading that I felt better. For Pearl, that is. Not that I knew the woman personally. I just watched her on TV like most black Americans my age. I remember her sassy singing and that tiara. She was cool and black, like me not like Lena Horne, and she was on TV. Wow!

So why was I checking up on her husband like she was a long lost aunt or somebody? I don’t know. I guess I needed to know that she had found some measure of happiness with the guy. This was her third marriage, after all.

There was something else too. I needed to see that an interracial marriage from ‘way back when’ had worked. They stayed married until her death in 1990. Thirty-eight years. I’d like to think that they made a good life together. That despite the cultural stigmas and skewed mores of the time, they stuck it out. Like a couple should. No matter the differences on the outside.

In Pearl’s words, “You never find yourself until you face the truth.”

The truth is, I find myself expecting interracial, cross-cultural marriages to work. I find myself saying to them, in my mind at least, “You’d better make this work. You’d better be together for genuine love. Not because you want your babies to have ‘nice hair.’ And not because ‘you know the sex is better with them.’ ”

I also find myself inspecting those couples. You can spot the real couples a mile away. The ones that are in it for love, for the long haul. That skill has come from decades of ogling. They’re comfortable in their own skin and up close to one another’s. And in a wacky kind of way, seeing them that way gives me a measure of comfort–for them, for their children, and even for myself.

So what did I find out about myself by chasing down Pearl Bailey’s white husband on the Internet? That I’m as probably as crazy as any dark-skinned sister on the street. Liable to give the “eye” to any interracial couple. But hopefully for a better cause (or so I kid myself).

Thanks Pearl.