A catalyst for my family, and the world
Journalist Dan Rottenberg is the author of 12 books, most recently “The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech.” He lives in Philadelphia. His older daughter has lived on the Upper West Side since 1990. To receive his free weekly “Contrarian’s Notebook” column, click here: https://danrottenberg.
The year was 1958. The singer Harry Belafonte had almost single-handedly ignited a craze for Caribbean music with records like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.” His 1956 album “Calypso” had topped the Billboard album chart for an incredible 31 weeks. His highly personal brand of folk music had transcended racial boundaries, and he had personally crossed racial and religious lines the previous year with his marriage to Julie Robinson, a Jew who, as the only white dancer in the otherwise all-Black Katherine Dunham troupe, was something of a racial pioneer herself.
Yet for all his popular success, in the eyes of Manhattan’s upmarket landlords Belafonte was just another man with black skin. New Year’s Day 1958 found the Belafontes living in a three-and-a half room walkup apartment on a side street in Manhattan’s West 70s. In her syndicated newspaper column that October, Eleanor Roosevelt professed herself shocked to read that “Harry Belafonte and his charming wife and baby were finding it practically impossible to get an apartment, except in what might be considered segregated areas or in a hotel.”
But shortly thereafter, with the help of a white friend, the Belafontes moved into an 11-room apartment in an aging but elegant 13-story building at 300 West End Avenue, said to be the only Class A apartment building in New York then willing to rent to Blacks. Consequently, it had attracted an eclectic group of tenants that included the singer Lena Horne and the Japanese-American-Irish-French dancer-actress Sono Osato, as well as white celebrities like the flutist Julius Baker, the ventriloquist Paul Winchell, the Hearst Newspapers columnist George Sokolsky, and New York’s City Council president Rudolph Halley.
The building’s less glamorous occupants included a ladies’ knitted wear manufacturer named Herman Rottenberg— my father— who had lived there since 1947 with his wife, Lenore, my brother Bob, and myself. Belafonte’s arrival seven floors below us was about to launch our conventional upper-middle-class family into a dazzling adventure from which, thank goodness, we never quite recovered.
A death in the partnership
Unlike residents of most upscale New York buildings, who rarely interacted except to say hello in the elevator, 300’s tenants were soon thrown together in a common cause largely motivated by Belafonte’s fear of eviction: a movement to convert this rental building into a co-op (in those days a novel and risky concept, since a single rogue neighbor could ruin not just the neighborhood but his neighbors’ investment as well). The landlord— the notorious Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, of all people— was willing to sell, but not (for some reason) to his tenants. One of the tenants, a lawyer named Sid Sheiner, devised a solution: He created three dummy corporations to bid against each other to buy the building and enlisted Belafonte and my father as silent partners in the winning venture (named “Julenera,” blending the names of the partners’ three wives: Julie, Lenore, and Sara).
The contract to purchase the building was signed on May 22, 1961. Four days later, I came home from my freshman year at Penn to find a celebratory tenants’ party in full swing in the Belafontes’ apartment. Four days after that, our former landlord Trujillo was assassinated in Santo Domingo. And nine days after that, Sid Sheiner dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 42. Belafonte (who lacked any business acumen) and my father were left holding the bag as the surviving partners.
Over the next eight years, as Harry and my Dad struggled to unload the building’s unsold apartments, a remarkably close friendship developed between our two families. As neighbors and business partners, we dropped in on each other’s homes with impunity. Whenever Harry recorded a new album, we went along. (At one such session— for his 1962 album The Many Moods of Belafonte, Harry enlisted my father and brother for the backup chorus in “Zombie Jamboree.”) When Harry performed at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, N.J., or in Washington, D.C., or in a Christmas-week engagement at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, we went along. With Harry’s encouragement, my Dad sold his knitted-wear company to embark on a new career as an international folk-dance impresario and cultural director of International House, New York’s residence hall for foreign graduate students. At some point, I was dating Belafonte’s sister.
Martin Luther King, houseguest
Belafonte’s sheer personal magnetism inevitably drew my parents into the fringes of the Civil Rights movement. Many years later, as I personally witnessed, he was still enticing others to serve causes greater than themselves, urging black medical students at Penn, “Do you want to practice on Park Avenue, or do you want to treat AIDS patients in Africa?”
Early in the ‘60s, Belafonte acquired the “B” apartment opposite his own and transformed the entire fifth floor into a U-shaped 21-room apartment, complete with its own recording studio, a library, and a billiards room. This 7,000-square-foot home soon became a de facto gathering place for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy customarily stayed there when they visited New York, and John F. Kennedy himself paid a visit during the 1960 presidential campaign. In May 1963, Harry’s apartment hosted the contentious three-hour meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who felt the Civil Rights movement was moving too fast, and Civil Rights leaders who felt the Kennedy administration was moving too slowly.
One day when King and Abernathy were his houseguests, Belafonte phoned my parents to ask a favor. “I’m busy tonight,” he explained, “and Martin and Ralph have nothing to do. Could you take them out to dinner?” Of course my parents did.
Such was Belafonte’s fame in those days that he couldn’t step outside without being mobbed. I remember taking walks in Riverside Park with Julie Belafonte and their two small children— while Harry himself stayed home in their apartment, a prisoner of his fame.
One summer weekend when my parents were away, Harry invited me to join his family at the house he had rented on Fire Island. On the drive out from the city, he realized that he needed an extra bed to accommodate me. In a small Long Island town along the way, he and I walked into an Army-Navy store to pick up a cot. We hadn’t been in the store more than ten minutes when a crowd of autograph-seekers assembled on the sidewalk outside.
A secret condition
Dad typically drafted long memos to Harry concerning their partnership as well as Belafonte Enterprises, where Harry had sought Dad’s business advice. But Harry never responded and probably never read the memos, for a reason that he revealed only decades later: He was dyslexic, which explained his aversion to reading but also his remarkable facility at speaking extemporaneously. Yet for most of his life Harry was ashamed to acknowledge his dyslexia.
On one occasion, when Harry had a week-long engagement in Toronto, Dad mailed him, via special delivery, a paper that required Harry’s signature. (This was before fax machines or e-mail.) Receiving no reply, Dad re-sent the form, along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to expedite Harry’s reply. Again, he got no answer. When Dad phoned Harry to stress the urgency of the situation, Harry replied, “Why don’t you fly up here? We can have dinner, sign the papers, and you can see the show.” Which is what Dad did. Remaining in Harry’s orbit meant overlooking his quirks.
A great actor?
Most of us find self-delusion essential to our day-to-day survival, and Harry was no exception. He believed himself a great actor, when in fact— as a viewing of any of his films will attest— he was incapable of playing any role but himself, in various guises. This was actually to his credit: As in his music, Harry’s first priority was authenticity. He couldn’t pretend to be what he wasn’t, which is what acting is all about.
Harry also believed himself a great business manager and readily assumed the CEO title at both Julenera and Belafonte Enterprises. In fact, he was clueless about hiring, firing, and motivating employees, as Dad discovered when Harry asked him to help reorganize his floundering companies.
In his later years as well as his 2012 memoir, Harry claimed that he had racially integrated 300 West End Avenue by organizing the dummy corporations that converted the building into a co-op, after which he attracted Black friends like Lena Horne to take up residence. It’s a charming tale but mostly fictitious (see above). Lena Horne, not Harry, was the building’s first Black tenant. And the heavy lifting of the building’s co-op conversion was done first by Sid Sheiner and then by my Dad, not by Harry. (I possess all the existing records, if anybody’s interested.) But Harry’s keen desire for a home of his own was no doubt the catalyst for the building’s sale, just as Harry inspired so many other good things that happened in the world throughout his 96 years on the planet.
When I told Dad a few years ago that Harry had claimed most of the credit for the sale of 300 West End Avenue, my father— then 96 himself— shrugged: “If that’s how Harry wants to remember it, it’s OK with me.” I think Dad understood that, for all the unique experiences Harry provided to our family, not to mention all that he contributed to the world as both an entertainer and a humanitarian, he was entitled to an embellishment now and then.