By Carol Tannenhauser
The news that Harry Belafonte, the groundbreaking singer, actor, and civil rights activist, died on Tuesday at the age of 96 was reported by The New York Times, and word of it rippled across the media and the Upper West Side, where Mr. Belafonte lived for many decades.
Stories are written about his difficulty finding an apartment during the segregated 1950s, and how he foiled a racist landlord. Here is one from the Observer, written in 2005:
In the late 1950’s, Harry Belafonte was on top of the world. In 1956, he had recorded the album Calypso—the first ever to sell over one million copies—and had ignited a Jamaican music craze. Awards, accolades, celebrity and its attendant glamour followed in spades.
But none of this was enough to impress a landlord on West End Avenue, who turned Mr. Belafonte down for an apartment in his stately building, which dated back to the turn of the century.
The singer-cum-activist fought back not with picket signs, but with the muscle celebrities give such a workout: money. He bought the entire 13-story building and converted it to a co-op two years later, attracting the likes of singer Lena Horne to take up residence there.
Tributes about Mr. Belafante’s storied life, career, and participation in the global civil rights movement abound. We add the following local vignette from the West Side Rag, by Lydia Wilen, about her and her sister’s memorable encounter with this unforgettable man.
Decades ago, my sister Joany and I were looking for an affordable UWS apartment. The realtor took us to a building on West End Avenue in the 70s. The minute we walked into the apartment we knew it wasn’t for us. The realtor said, “I’ll leave you here to picture its potential.” Before stepping out the door, she turned back to add, “Harry Belafonte lives in the building.” Harry Belafonte! Joany was in love with him and had every one of his albums. I convinced her that even if we moved into this apartment, we’d never see Harry. We rang for the elevator. It came. The door opened and — you’re probably thinking there he was….wrong. We got in and when it reached the lobby, the door opened and there was Harry Belafonte. He smiled his beautiful smile and stepped aside allowing us to exit. We still didn’t take the apartment, but what a memorable D-a-a-a-a-y-O!