Harry Belafonte: the ‘Calypso King’ Who Met Marilyn, JFK and More

Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor and activist, died aged 96 on April 25th, 2023. He was born in Harlem in 1927, and spent part of his childhood in Jamaica. After serving in the US Navy during World War II, he studied acting in New York, alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Sidney Poitier, who became a lifelong friend.

In 1953, Harry co-starred with Dorothy Dandridge in MGM’s Bright Road, a low-budget film set in a rural black elementary school in Alabama. They were reunited in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), an all-black musical produced at Twentieth Century-Fox. Although Harry and Dorothy were accomplished singers, they were both dubbed as the studio considered their voices unsuited to opera. Nonetheless, the film was a major success.

Harry’s debut album, Calypso, was released in 1956, and became the first LP to sell more than a million copies worldwide in a year. He then starred in Island in the Sun (1957), which ignited controversy by hinting at interracial romance. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which he also produced, is considered the last great film noir of Hollywood’s classical era. In the same year, he won an Emmy for his TV special, Tonight With Belafonte.

On May 19th, 1962, Harry performed in the Democratic fundraiser in New York, honouring President John F. Kennedy on his 45th birthday. He also attended the after-party at the home of Arthur B. Krim. In a series of images captured by White House photographer Cecil W. Stoughton, Harry and his second wife, Julie Robinson, are seen chatting with the President.

A smiling Harry can also be glimpsed in the background of Stoughton’s photo showing Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, chatting with Marilyn Monroe and historian Arthur Schlesinger.

However, while visiting Atlanta in June, Harry was barred from a local restaurant. “When I got over my surprise, I was almost amused,” he recalled. “Only a week or two before, I’d dined with the President, after attending his birthday party at Madison Square Garden, the one where Marilyn Monroe sang her famous rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’ And now I was hearing I couldn’t enter a run-of-the-mill coffee shop.”

It’s unclear if Harry knew Marilyn well, but they had met on at least one other occasion, as Patricia Bosworth recalled in The Men in My Life, her 2017 memoir of life in 1950s Manhattan.

“Dusk had fallen. The heavens were a deep dark blue, and as I trudged up from the subway, teetering a bit in my high heels, I could hear music streaming down West Twelfth Street. The music was floating out of the open windows of Valerie Bettis’s vast townhouse.

She was hosting the [Actors] Studio’s annual spring party … I stood for a while watching the guests arrive by limo and cab and on foot … I was nervous about going in but I had been invited, after all, so eventually I pushed my way up the stairs and into the edge of an enormous double living room just in time to see a bare- foot Marilyn Monroe, in a skintight black dress, undulating across the floor opposite Paul Newman, lithe and sinewy in khakis and a T-shirt. They didn’t dance very long, maybe three minutes, but what a hot, pulsing three minutes it was. A small crowd gathered as they kept time to the jubilant tune of Harry Belafonte’s trademark ‘Banana Boat Song.’  (His  phrase ‘DAYOOOH, DAY-HAH-HAY-HOWWW’ had taken the nation by storm.) When the two broke apart, there was a spatter of applause; Marilyn giggled and Newman bowed and then moved past me through the crowd to grab a beer from a bar.

Around two a.m. the party ended. Marty [Fried] left me. ‘I’ll see you later,’ he promised. I decided I’d better go home. As I was walking into the front hall I saw Lee Strasberg shrugging into a black overcoat. He’d been surrounded by a group of adoring young actors when we were briefly introduced and he had barely looked me in the eye, but now he said gruffly, ‘Darling, do you want a lift?’

And he gestured to a cab outside—presumably Marty’s—idling on the curb … We walked without speaking again into the street. Lee got in front with Marty, who gave me a wink.

I slid into the backseat, where I found Marilyn Monroe huddled in a corner dreamily puffing on a cigarette … I couldn’t stop looking at her. We were about to pull away from the curb when a voice cried out, ‘Hey Lee, goin’ my way?’ and Harry Belafonte hopped in beside me. We drove uptown in silence … After a while Lee rolled down the window and moist cool air whooshed in. Marilyn gave a sigh and shrugged out of her coat. That’s when I noticed the pearls

Marilyn wearing her Mikimoto pearls

‘Those are gorgeous pearls, Miss Monroe,’ I said.

‘Yeah.’ Marilyn fingered the pearls absently. ‘The emperor gave them to me.’

‘The emperor?’ Harry Belafonte asked.

‘Hirohito of Japan. When Joe [DiMaggio] and I were on our honeymoon in Tokyo, he gave them to me in a private ceremony.’ Her voice trailed off as if she’d lost interest in the subject …

Then we reached our destination, the Strasberg apartment on Central Park West. Lee stepped out of the cab and waited for Marilyn to get out; then the two of them disappeared into the ornate lobby. She was spending the night, as she often did, with the Strasberg family … We continued to drive over to West Seventy-Fourth and Riverside. Belafonte vaulted out of the cab.

‘Night, Thanks, Marty.’ And he was gone.

‘Harry’s apartment is twenty-one rooms,’ Marty told me—then added, ‘Come on, sit up front with me. I’ll drive you home.'”

Through his longtime involvement with the civil rights movement, Harry became a close confidante of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributed to the Freedom Rides in 1961, and helped to organise the March on Washington in 1963. While standing in for TV host Johnny Carson in February 1968, Harry interviewed Dr. King and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy.

During the 1970s he spent much of his time touring, and made two films with his friend Sidney Poitier. Harry’s appearance on TV’s The Muppet Show was said to be creator Jim Henson’s favourite. He also produced Beat Street (1984), a musical film celebrating hip-hop culture; and in 1985, he performed at Live Aid.

In 1989, Harry received the Kennedy Centre Honours. He retired from singing after his last concert in 2003. Among his later film credits are White Man’s Burden (1995), Kansas City (1996), Bobby (2006), and finally, Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman (2018.) His autobiography, My Song, was published in 2011, and a documentary, Sing Your Song, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He remained politically active, and was an outspoken critic of South Africa’s Apartheid regime and U.S. foreign policy, including the Iraq War. In 2017, he was named as honorary co-chairman of the Women’s March on Washington.

Harry Belafonte had four children and five grandchildren. He died of congestive heart failure at his home in New York, and is survived by his widow, photographer Pamela Frank.