Pearl Bailey Dies; Actress-Singer Known as ‘Ambassador of Love’

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From Times Wire Services

Pearl Bailey, the actress and singer with the sexy, throaty drawl and droll sense of humor who once was called America’s “ambassador of love,” died Friday at age 72.

An official at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where she died, refused to provide further details. The entertainer had a history of heart problems.

“Pearl Bailey was the mother of the world,” said Stan Irwin, her manager for 25 years. “She was a very spiritual woman and she never recognized color. Her ideology was, ‘We are humans.’ ”


Last month Bailey underwent surgery to replace her arthritic left knee with a metal and plastic joint.

She left Pennsylvania Hospital on July 30, intending to continue visiting two sisters for a week while undergoing physical therapy. She then planned to return home to Arizona with her husband, jazz drummer Louis Bellson.

Bailey, who has been performing 57 of her 72 years, was one of the few entertainers who could still be called a trouper in the classic sense.


She was born in Newport News, Va., on Mar. 29, 1918, and moved with her family as a child to Washington and later Philadelphia, where she made her debut at age 15, winning an amateur contest by singing “Poor Butterfly.”

Still in her teens, she left her family to tour in a variety of small dramatic productions through Pennsylvania’s poverty-stricken coal-mining towns. It was a short hop to vaudeville, where she danced and sang with Noble Sissle’s band.

But it was the strong blues style and her unique delivery of lighthearted stage banter that usually began, “Listen, honey,” which endeared her to audiences in small, smoky jazz joints to the unseen millions over her television shows.


Bailey scored a remarkable stage debut in Broadway productions, including “Arms and the Girl,” “Bless You All” and “House of Flowers.” They were preludes to the start of a film career that aroused attention in 1958 when she performed in the all-black production of “Porgy and Bess.” Other films included “That Certain Feeling” and “All the Fine Young Cannibals.”

She was perhaps best known for playing Dolly in the black version of the musical “Hello, Dolly!” in the late 1960s.

It was on the movie set of “Porgy and Bess” that Bailey won an early skirmish for black civil rights by demanding the elimination of “undignified and unnatural” Negro dialect from the George Gershwin folk drama.

“There’s a lot of people out there waiting for a dialect, so let’s talk the way we really talk, without the ‘dems, doeses and deses,’ ” she told reporters. “We don’t talk like that. Maybe we did 50 years ago, but not now.”

But Bailey, known as Pearlie Mae to the world, considered herself foremost a singer.

“I’m not a comedienne,” she once told an interviewer, “I call myself a humorist. I tell stories to music and, thank God, in tune. I laugh at people who call me an actress.”

Flipping a feather boa or swathed in chinchilla, ablaze with rhinestones and jewels, Bailey was famous onstage for her throwaway style of singing, a mumbling growl laced with husky patter.


Her standbys included “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Row, Row, Row,” and “That’s Good Enough for Me.”

She also served as a delegate to the United Nations under the Ford, Reagan and Bush Administrations.

In 1988, she told officials of the World Health Organization that she wanted to dedicate her life to fighting AIDS.

Irwin, in Los Angeles, said he spoke to Bailey by telephone two days ago and spent two hours discussing some of the world’s problems.

“She was concerned about world politics and the demise of humanity in America, where children can be killed in the home and the womb and what has happened to family life,” he said.

Bailey did her first show for U.S. servicemen in 1941 and had been a staple performer of the United Service Organizations--better known as the USO--since then.


In 1988, she took a spin around the Persian Gulf to visit U.S. Navy personnel on ships there.

At a Washington, D.C., performance of “Hello, Dolly!” she was joined onstage by then-President Johnson and his wife.

In 1970, President Nixon named her America’s “ambassador of love” to the world.

She wrote humorous and inspirational books, including “Hurry Up” and “America & Spit.” Last year she published an autobiography, “Between You and Me.”

Bailey’s humanitarianism grew through several life-changing experiences in recent decades. She once said she medically “passed away” in 1972 from heart problems.

Her interracial marriage with Bellson, her fifth husband, proved to be a happy one. The couple adopted children and at one time lived on a ranch in Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. More recently she had lived in Arizona.

The singer said in 1970 that perhaps she had failed to speak out enough about racial injustice, “but I’ve lived that way. I walk with love and hope it rubs off.”


“I believe in humanity in that you don’t bother to look at the color of a man’s face. That’s brotherhood,” she said.

Heart ailments dogged her frenetic stage, screen and television career after World War II, and in 1965 exhaustion from overwork forced her hospitalization five times--two were relapses from previous heart seizures. In 1972 she was hospitalized twice.

She collapsed in the wings of a Manhattan supper club in 1965 and against the advice of her physician, belted out a second hourlong performance after being given oxygen. “Pearl can’t do the things she did 35 years ago,” she kidded during the performance.

Bailey collapsed again on Dec. 29, 1974, in her hotel room in Denver, only hours before she was to open a nightclub show. She was rushed to Denver General Hospital, where she quickly recovered. Doctors explained that she had suffered from exhaustion and the effects of altitude.

But she was back on her feet, lively as ever, within a few days. Two weeks later, after having watched President Ford’s State of the Union address on TV, she commented: “I kept hoping he would throw those papers up into the air and say, ‘Another thing, we’re going to clean up these buildings, clean the streets and start progress.’ ” Then she added: “What this country needs is a goddarned enema--not just a cleansing.”

Five years ago, Bailey also earned an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, where she majored in theology.


Funeral arrangements were pending.

She is survived by her husband, two sisters, Eura Robinson and Virgie Murray, a son, Tony, and a daughter, Dee Dee.