Pearl Bailey

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:3 mins read

November/December 2018
Pearl Bailey
by Marilyn Lester

Known as “Pearlie Mae” to her friends, Pearl Bailey—singer, dancer, actor, humorist, writer, humanitarian, and most of all, storyteller—was born on March 29, 1918, in Newport News, Virigina, the youngest of four children. At the age of three, she was singing and dancing in her father, the Rev.

Joseph James Bailey’s evangelical church. At 15 she won a talent contest and quit school for a career in show business. Although she excelled at many skills in entertainment, she always considered herself a singer first and, throughout her life, disavowed labels. She also fiercely asserted that she belonged to no
organization except “humanity.” Her voice was distinctive, with a warm timbre and nuanced vocal inflections, a gift she attributed solely to God. In 1978, after she received an honorary degree from Georgetown University, she enrolled there as a student, graduating in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology. In her later years, she wrote several books, including The Raw Pearl (1968) and Hurry Up, America, and Spit (1976).

At the start of her career, Bailey won a second amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, and then worked as a dancer with Noble Sissle’s band. In 1944, she broke into major New York nightclubs and in 1946 made her stage debut in St. Louis Woman on Broadway. On the success path that followed, Bailey also worked in film (Carmen Jones) and on television, with her own TV show in 1970-71. Among her many awards and accolades, she received a special Tony Award in 1968 for her portrayal of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon named her America’s “Ambassador of Love” to the world, and in 1975, President Gerald R. Ford named her special adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, a role she
maintained under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

Her interracial marriage to drummer Louis Bellson in 1952 was happy and enduring (she’d had several brief unhappy marriages before), ending with her death in 1990.

Bailey was a trouper, with a strong sense of pride in the level of her performance, no matter what the circumstances. She leaves an enduring legacy not only as an entertainer, but also as a force in breaking down color barriers in show business and for aiding the cause of civil rights.

Marilyn Lester

Marilyn Lester left journalism and commercial writing behind nearly two decades ago to write plays. That branch in the road led to screenwriting, script-doctoring, dramaturgy and producing for the stage. Marilyn has also co-authored, as well as edited, books. It seemed the only world of words she hadn’t conquered was criticism, an opportunity that presented itself via Theater Pizzazz. Marilyn has since sought to widen her scope in this form of writing she especially relishes. Marilyn is a member of the Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild, Women in the Arts and Media and The League of Professional Theater Women.