06 February 2011

Mary Cleere Haran

It says something about the talents of Mary Cleere Haran that one of her biggest fans was Jack Gilford. Jack had seen plenty of great nightclub singers in his time — he used to share a dressing room with Billie Holiday, after all — and he knew the real deal from the wannabe. Nobody was more real than Mary. She had it all: looks, brains, sophistication, and a voice that Jack always said was “like butter.” He was smitten from the start. And who wouldn’t be?

My own direct contacts with Mary were fleeting, sporadic, and few: mostly, I was just another fan who happened to know her in-laws. I can tell you only a few things about her: that she was a great artist and a terrific lady, and that, with her death yesterday, people I love are grieving.

We had this much in common, Mary and I: we were made a part of the Gilford family — more conventionally in her case than in mine, I admit. Mary was married for a time to Jack and Madeline Gilford’s older son, Joe, and together they brought into the world a sweet, funny kid named Jake, who narrowly avoided being named Jesus.

The story goes that, in December, with Mary ready to deliver any minute, Madeline locked her and Joe in the garage at Freedonia, the Gilfords’ country house. “Ma, let us out!” Joe cried.

“Are you out of your minds?” Madeline answered. “Your name is Joseph, her name is Mary, we’re right outside Bethlehem [Connecticut], and it’s almost Christmas. There’s no way I’m letting you out of there!”

Madeline relented, of course, and Jake managed to wait until after Christmas to be born, just to avoid any possible confusion in credulous minds.

Mary sang pop music with the grace and gusto of the greats gone by, but she wasn’t a stereotypical chantoozy. For starters, no matter what was going on in her personal life, you didn’t hear it in her voice; the resemblance between her and Billie Holiday began and ended with the fact that they both knew Jack. In performance, Mary maintained a witty reserve that, in the old days, used to be called “class.”

Mary Cleere Haran sings “For Now” from Avenue Q:

When there was emotion in a song, she served it up straight, and didn’t try to milk it. Her own troubles weren’t the point, she understood as if by instinct, and nobody knew better than she how to put over a funny lyric. Lorenz Hart never seemed wiser, more honest, more gifted, or more present than when Mary sang his songs.

Moreover, she was brilliant, a peerless authority on her subject, a passionate researcher whose acts and albums are like survey courses. She wrote, she interviewed, she poked around in archives, and she came up with treasures. Just one example: there’s a revival of interest in Doris Day’s work now, and much of the credit goes to Mary, who helped to produce a PBS documentary on Day, and who also performed material associated with her.

She was getting her act together — in every way — when she died. I can’t count the disappointments and the unfulfilled promises: I can’t imagine where she might have taken me, musically, because she was so far ahead of me and knew the path so well. There are so many songs she might have sung, and so many questions I might have asked her.

At least she knew that I was a fan, for Madeline introduced me to her as such. Mary looked from me to Bernard, and back to me again before saying wryly, “Of course you are.” Evidently there was something about us that reminded her of her other admirers.

Maybe it was my resemblance to Jack. People are always commenting on it.

1 comment:

debbie taylor said...

Thank-you so much for your story on Mary Cleere...she was my dear friend. I had not seen her in many years but Mary was part of my DNA. we met at San Francisco State college in 1970 and we became best friends. She sang at both my weddings! she was an exceptional human being. I loved her so much. I am so sorry I will not talk to her again...my heart is broken...Debbie Taylor