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Daphne Hellman's life and music were both marked by a blithe disregard for convention, and if anything, she deserves a mention here as much for her story as her music. Born into a healthy banking family, Hellman first took up the harp at the age of 12. Always one for experiments, though, she tried a variety of other interests, including modelling (for the artist Man Ray, among others), acting, and marriage, before returning to it.
Her first marriage,to Harry Bull, then the editor of Town and Country magazine, (which produced her first son, the equally innovative musician Sandy Bull) ended in a splashy divorce in 1941. Hellman's patrician good looks and her marriage in Reno to writer Geoffrey Hellman just hours after the divorce was finalized made for great newspaper fodder. At around the same time, she made her professional musical debut with a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Concert halls would be infrequent venues during her career, though. Instead, she plunged into the New York City nightclub scene, playing hot spots such as Le Ruban Bleu, the Hotel New Yorker, Upstairs at the Downstairs, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, the Versailles, Le Perroquet, and, for a record thirty-year run, at the Village Gate. But she was just as happy to perform in New York subways, where she could regularly be seen and heard throughout the 1980s, in Sri Lankan hospitals, and at Paris street fairs. "She was just the antisnob, that's what she was," said Art D'Lugoff, owner of the Village Gate. In the midst of the punk revolution, she once played the legendary CBGB's club alongside Mr. Spoons, a tableware percussionist.
Her home was something of a lost-and-found for people. She and Hellman divorced after a decade together, and Hellman filled the void with a variety of dogs, birds, gerbils, and transient geniuses. Mr. Spoons spent a few years there, as did her third husband, Hsio-Wen Shih, a Chinese-American architect and writer, who walked out of the brownstone one day in 1965 and vanished without a trace. Her ability to get along with anyone was astonishing, and one was as likely to find a bum as Norman Mailer or Arthur Schlesinger sitting down with her for tea. She and Richard Johnson, for many years the wind player in her combo, Hellman's Angels, met when she was out roller blading with her dog and it took off after the cat Johnson was walking.
Hellman never let convention keep her from getting where she wanted to go. During the Vietnam War, she traveled to the war-torn country just to see for herself what was going on. "She traveled around with an Instamatic camera and slightly bogus press credentials, which upset the news people to no end," her daughter recalled. Her musical tastes were just as wide-ranging. A typical set from the 1980s might include a Gershwin lullaby, Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," a couple of rock numbers, and her adaptation of Flatt and Scrugg's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
Although she gave up playing in the subway in her last years when her pack-a-day smoking habit wore down her stamina and the 85-pound harp proved too heavy to lug up and down the escalator, Hellman was on the go until the end. In the last year of her life, she performed in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, France, and places around New York City that ranged from the Firebird Cafe to the patient's lounge of Mount Hope Hospital.
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