Sophisticated Lady

Terry Gross, host of “Fressh Air” (you have to kind of hiss that fresh like Terry does) on NPR rarely asks a dumb question, so I was surprised when I heard her ask Bobby Short if he ever thought it ironic that a middle class black boy (he was nine when he left) from Danville, Illinois became an authority on New York sophistication. Without missing a beat, Short mentioned Cole Porter (Peru, Indiana) and several other Hoosier cabaret greats. An Illini cabaret great is not so odd. Abashed, Gross let him go on. Short reminded her that his is an American dream: the small town kid makes it big in New York.

Short died on Monday at 80 and tributes from “Fresh Air” (which replayed a recent interview) as well as the Times follow on the heels of a Saturday spent listening to “Wall to Wall Sondheim” broadcast live from Symphony Space. Ultimately, I grew weary of the twelve-hour marathon, failing to be buoyed by the ever-indefatigable Jonathan Schwartz. But, I was moved to tears when Elaine Strich got up and delivered that great grande dame excuse about having a cold and being out of voice and, still, determined to come and pay tribute to “Steve.” (It was Sondheim’s 75th birthday.) She wound up her anecdote by seamlessly moving into her song, “I’d like to propose a toast. Here’s to the ladies who lunch…” She barked her way through that wonderful talk-song. Then, after much applause, David Green came out and said, “When I learned that I had to follow Elaine Strich, everybody said ‘Don’t!’” He proceeded to sing “Everybody Says Don’t.” Hurrah!

These show tunes and cabaret standards, in French and English, were my passport to sophistication when I was a little girl in Seattle and Seattle was a lumber town hoping that the latest Boeing strike wouldn’t force the city under. Listening to Bobby Short’s crisply articulated lyrics brought me back to my girlhood days when I would put a stack of records on the turntable and memorize not just the words but the situations. Listening, I prepared for all kinds of life experiences that I now know I will never have: saying goodbye to my lover in a small café, hanging myself after shooting my lover, mourning my loneliness from a penthouse apartment, mourning my loneliness while charging ten cents a dance. I also learned things that still come in handy, such as the relative locations of the Bronx and Battery (up and down respectively), the glamour of Broadway, the quickest way to Harlem, or the charms of the subway in summer.

When I first visited New York City twenty years ago this month, my friends and I walked by the Carlyle. I knew enough and was callow enough to scoff at the card in the window, “Bobby Short is still playing here!” (He had, after all, been playing there since 1968—most of my lifetime.) I didn’t know anything about him but I had decided that one of the first rules of sophistication is to scorn what you’ve heard of: if you’re from Seattle and you’ve heard of it, it must be passé. That lesson turned out to be a false friend. How I wish now that I had gone.