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Harry B. Henderson Jr. 1914-2003

 

Harry Henderson died in Croton on Hudson NY on Labor Day, 2003. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. He was 88 years old. Best known for his books on the history of African American art that he coauthored with painter and collagist Romare Bearden, he passed away shortly after submitting his last manuscript for publication.

He was interested in art and knew many artists. He once met Arthur M Sackler, who is now remembered primarily as an art collector and philanthropist, in the studio of painter Earl Kerkam (1891-1965). Kerkam's portrait of Harry's wife, Bea, graces their living room. Henderson and Sam Shaw once rescued a self-portrait from Kerkam's discard pile. The face was pinched and unhappy looking. A few months later, Kerkam was surprised to receive a large check in the mail, money he sorely needed. His friends had sold the image to an ad agency which reproduced it to promote an anti-ulcer drug. The original hung for years in Harry's living room, often bringing a smile to anyone familiar with its history.

Harry also befriended painter Romare Bearden (1911-1988), who had shared a studio at one time with Harry's photojournalist partner, Sam Shaw. Bearden and Henderson conceived the idea of a book that would detail the lives of major black artists. Doubleday released the first product of their collaboration, Six Black Masters of American Art, in 1972. A History of African American Artists included over 50 biographies. It was published by Pantheon in 1993 after decades of interviews and other research. Documentary studies for that book found that Joshua Johnson considered an Afro-American for many for many years because many of his subjects were black, was more probably white. In a short article by Valerie Mercer, The New York Times Book Review called the book, "the first in-depth reference work on the history and development of art by black Americans. [Feb. 20, 1994 p.22] Veronica Chambers called it, " a landmark work both in the fields of art history and of African American studies. [Los Angeles Times book Review Jan. 2, 1994 p.2] After retiring from Medical Tribune in 1979 Henderson continued his collaboration with Bearden, researching and writing a biography of the legendary 19th century sculptor, Edmonia Lewis, and her struggle for recognition. She was the first African American woman to receive acclaim as a sculptor in Europe and America. Her works now fill a room at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art. In 1953, Harry produced the American introduction to Federico Fellini's film Love in the City [Amore in Città].

Born and raised in Kittanning, in western Pennsylvania, Harry Henderson's accent used to remind New Yorkers of Jimmy Stewart, who hailed from nearby Indiana, Pennsylvania. (His tall frame, gracious manners, and serious attitude did nothing to interfere with the impression.) His father died in 1928 when he was 14 years old. Most of their property was auctioned off to pay bills on the eve of the Great Depression. As the oldest of four siblings, Harry became the caretaker while his mother worked as postmistress. His brother Frank "fondly" remembered chipped beef on toast as a lunchtime staple. Harry also read every book in the local library while in high school and managed to go to college where he majored in journalism. His favorite memories were connected to the college newspaper and humor magazine.

After graduating from Penn State in 1936 he worked for the United Press wire service and various Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Centre Daily Times, and The Altoona Tribune. At Friday magazine he established many life-long friendships with writers Richard O. Boyer and Daniel S Gillmor, playwright Micheal Sayers, and photographer Phil Stern. Eventually he became a freelance writer for national general interest magazines that included Collier's, Harper's, Reader's Digest, Argosy, Look, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, McCall's and Coronet. His best-known articles include a ride-along with a gypsy truck driver (Argosy) and a two-part study of Levittown as a mass-produced suburb [Harper's Nov, Dec, 1948]. Often partnering with photographer Sam Shaw (1912-1999), who later gained fame for his photograph of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate, he introduced performers like Frank Sinatra, Bert Lahr, Kay Medford, Perry Como, Dizzy Gillespie, and Martha Raye to the nation in the pre-TV era. One of their Collier's stories, "Girl's Town" [110:50-3+ Nov 21, 42], was also produced as a Paramount motion picture that year while World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific. Soon after Pearl Harbor, Harry published a pictorial history book showing the rise of the Nazis during the first eleven years of World War II, War In Our Time, prepared with Sam Shaw and H. C. Morris using the photo collection of International News Photos, Inc. on the 8th floor of the Daily Mirror building. [Doubleday Doran and Company. 1942]

The office that he shared with Sam Shaw at 171 Madison Avenue and later19 East 48th Street in Manhattan was a stopping place for young writers and artists wanting to share and develop ideas. For example, Harry and Sam's story in Collier's titled "This Strange Bright Land" [111:18-20 Jan 30, 1943] described British sailors on shore leave discovering Broadway. The appeal of the article blossomed into an idea for a Broadway musical to be titled "H.M.S. Times Square." Duke Ellington agreed to write the music and Bob Russell would create the lyrics. To make a long story short, Murphy's Law kicked in. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Harry, Sam, Duke and the orchestra all had to make a living. The libretto today sits in the collection of the New York Public Library.

Harry also followed a social agenda in his work, well before the civil rights movement dominated the national scene. As a reporter for Argosy's "Court of last resort" series, he investigated indigents who had been convicted on the basis of little evidence and poorer representation. His stories helped a number of innocent men get justice. He was also disgusted by Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo's local political history, which he learned while doing a story about the "Sullivans of Sullivans' Hollow" [Collier's March 17, 1945]. He and Shaw released an exposé [Collier's July 6, 1946] that he felt help to block the racist demagoguery of Bilbo's aspirations for national office. The following session of congress empanelled no less than two Senate committees to investigate Bilbo. A slim majority of the panel reviewing his campaign concluded that he should be seated although he ran a crude and tasteless campaign. The others committee found that he had converted thousands of dollars of campaign contributions to his personal use. Bilbo's political career was over. Harry was active in labor movement politics as a member of the American Labor Party and a stringer for the New York Compass. Among his oldest friends were the labor organizer, Harry Millstone (1906-1999) and his wife, Mae Kaplan whom he met at Penn State.

Harry was also a science writer who introduced diet studies and wonder drugs to the public. His account of the clinical development of aspirin was one of Reader's Digest's [March 1954; reprinted from Collier's 132, 112. Nov 27, 1953 p. 113-114, 1116-117] most popular articles at the time, appearing in eleven foreign editions.* One of his first science stories focused on physiological studies of hunger by American Association for the Advancement of Science president A. J. Carlson. [Coronet 25:67-74 Dec. 1948] When he first asked for an interview with Carlson, the scientist said, "What makes you think you can interview me?" Harry talked in vain about his interest in Carlson's work. Finally, it was his mention of nutritionist Pauline Beery Mack, with whom he studied at Penn State,  that finally opened the door. He also ghostwrote Your Inner Child of the Past, for W. Hugh Missildine, MD [Simon & Schuster, 1963]. This book, which was widely recommended by psychotherapists to their patients, introduced the phrase 'inner child' to common use. In 1956 he went to work for Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987) as a science writer. He developed specialized publications in allergy, cardiology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and sexual medicine. He also produced 12 films on psychiatric hospital problems. Eventually he became editor in chief of Sackler's Medical Tribune (1971-1979) and related publications. Harry's first contact with Sackler was in pursuit of further information regarding alternatives to electroshock therapy that Sackler had written as an experimental psychiatrist.

Harry Henderson met his wife, Beatrice [née Conford] at Penn State. They married in 1937 after her graduation. They lived in a cold-water flat, first floor front, at 3212 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. To pursue his writing career, he moved his family to East Orange, New Jersey, to 48th street in Sunnyside, Queens, and to Jacob Street, Peekskill, among peach and Macintosh apple orchards before moving to the Fagnani Apartments at 8 Sunset Trail, Croton-on-Hudson, in 1949.

Already a familiar figure in Croton community affairs, Harry became more active after Bea died in [April 22] 1988 of cancer. He was the first president of the Croton Caring Committee. In that capacity he made many appearances at village board meetings in order to obtain official recognition of the new agency. He lobbied for structural improvements in the Croton-Harmon railroad station after a good friend, architect Richard Stein, died from a fall on its steps. He served as an advisor to the Bennett Conservatory of Music and the Croton Free Library. One of his pet projects was to see that the local newspaper was put on microfilm for posterity. His reminiscence was featured on the front page of the centennial issue of The Croton Gazette [Feb. 12, 1998]

A son, Harry B. III, a brother, Frank, and a sister, Martha, predeceased him. His sister, Mary Elizabeth Scahill, lives in Kittanning, Pa. His other sons are Albert K. of Milford CT And Joseph P. of New York City. He had three grandsons: Christopher, Andrew, and Theodore.

--A.K.H.

 

References:
[Shaw obituary NY Times April 9 1999:A21]

[Readers Guide July, 1943 - Feb., 1957, indexes some but not all articles]

[Whos Who]

*Theodore Bilbo had been exposed to national view for 20 years, but not until 1946 did the U.S. really savor the fulsome putrescence of Bilbo's bigotry. [Time Jan 6, 1947 Man of the Year review]

** He refers to this story in his letter to Science, The Paternity of Aspirin. 286:1089 Nov. 5, 1999.

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Albert Henderson, POB 2423 Bridgeport CT 06608-0423

203-301-0789 fax 203-301-0792

ah@edmonialewis.com

 

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