Harry Belafonte: Inside Dish

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Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insight into New York Times reporters and their work. Here a Times reporter, John Leland, shares some of the choice conversational morsels he collected in the course of writing a Metro feature article about Harry Belafonte.

This happens sometimes. When I interviewed Harry Belafonte for the “Lions of New York” profile, he used a phrase that perfectly nailed the malaise and dread that so many people seem to be feeling lately. We were in his elegant Upper West Side apartment — modest compared with his old 21-room spread on West End Avenue, but still luxurious enough to insulate him from current events, if he so chose — and he was thinking about the years to come. “And I look at this horizon of … ” And here was the problem. Mr. Belafonte, who chooses his words carefully but not always judiciously, chose one that did not belong in The Times.

Or did it? On Oct. 8, in a transcript of an 11-year-old video featuring Donald J. Trump and the “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush, The Times printed words not previously found in its vast outpourings. Were the language barricades forever breached? After nearly 17 years at The Times, I no longer knew what the rules were.

It turned out that they were mostly what they always were. My editor and I discussed the word in question, along with Mr. Belafonte’s next words — “this horizon of destruction” — and decided to pull back, asking Mr. Belafonte’s permission to quote only the second phrase.

So I can’t tell you the word he used.

Which is not to say I can’t dish. In the ’50s and ’60s, Mr. Belafonte seemed to know everyone who mattered, and have sharp opinions of them, which he generously shared. In the story I wrote, I quoted him on Ruby Dee (“She was very smart marrying Ossie, because the rest of us came after her like a herd of thugs”), but the others mostly didn’t fit the focus of the article.

On Marlon Brando: “Everybody sought his company, he was the guy to be around. He was a genius. You just wanted to be around him to be contaminated. Women were crazy for him, which was good reason to be his friend.”

On Henry Louis Gates and W. E. B. Du Bois: “I like Henry Louis Gates, but I don’t like Henry Louis Gates. There’s some things about him that I think are delicious, and other things about him that — get off it, Henry. I knew Dr. Du Bois. Lighten up. You’re no Dr. Du Bois.”

On Amiri Baraka, who criticized Mr. Belafonte and Sidney Poitier for not supporting militant activists: “He ran his spiel about how they needed money and they were going to get it from us. I said, ‘We’re not going to be able to do business.’ He sat there for the longest time, and there was a yellow pad on the table. He said, ‘How do you sign your name?’ I thought it was a very peculiar question. I wasn’t going to be intimidated. I signed my name. And he tore the sheet off the pad, folded it a couple times and put it in an ashtray, lit a match and put it to flame. He said, ‘That’s you.’ And he left. Right at that moment, I got two .38s, and I gave one to Sidney, and I walked around with this gun in my waist for almost a month.”

On Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whose political and religious careers survived public scandals: “His religious space was far from religious. He was a pimp. He was a sweet boy. He had a lot of women. He had a braggadocio. He had style. He was arrogant. And it’s ironic because that’s where I first met Dr. King. But Adam Clayton Powell was slick.”

Lions, it turns out, sometimes have sharp claws.

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