The Final Curtain Comes Down for An Iridescent Pearlie Mae
It was just weeks ago that Pearl Bailey, shortly after undergoing surgery for a knee replacement, gave voice to an odd feeling of unease. "There's a storm coming, and I don't know what it is yet," she told her doctor. "But I will know." And, indeed, it took a strong wind to extinguish her flame. One of America's most beloved showstoppers, Bailey died on Aug. 17, at age 72, of a probable heart attack unrelated to her surgery. "She gave me one last look, and her head slumped down, and that was it," says her husband, jazz drummer Louis Bellson, 66, who was with her in her Philadelphia hotel room. "I've lost my best friend."
The road that eventually brought her to perform before seven U.S. Presidents began in Newport News, Va., where Bailey was born to a Pentecostal preacher. "From him," she once said, "I got the wisdom, the philosophizing, the soul." A career that included nine films, countless recordings and an impressive array of awards and honors (including a 1988 Medal of Freedom) perhaps had its brightest moments on the stage. Two decades after earning an award as the best Broadway newcomer for 1946's St. Louis Woman, Bailey won a special Tony for her lead in the all-black cast of Hello, Dolly!, whose first night, with its string of standing ovations, prompted columnist Walter Winchell to call it "the greatest opening I have ever been to."
In private life, her fourth stab at marriage was the charmer: Pearl's union with drummer Louis Bellson lasted 39 years and included two adopted children, Dee Dee, 30, and Tony, 36.
According to E.B. Smith, her road manager for 23 years, just before her death Bailey sat in her hotel room, "doing her needlepoint, looking forward to getting back home to Arizona to sit on her porch and enjoy the sunset."
Instead, the memory of her, says Bellson, echoing a world of fans, "is something that I'll cherish for the rest of my life—but I have to get used to thinking that way. It's going to be tough to realize that she's not around anymore."
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