I love this picture of Sarah Vaughan reclining. It’s an unguarded, almost stolen moment. And as her biographer, I’m always searching for these kinds of private moments, glimpses into the woman behind the art. This is not an easy task. After years of studying her life, I’m not convinced that Vaughan, as much as she wanted to succeed as a performer, wanted the public to know her, to know her definitive truth.
She left behind no tell-all memoir or autobiography like her contemporaries Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Anita O’Day, or Nina Simone. Nor did she give many interviews, and when she did, she remained notoriously tightlipped much to the frustration of the journalists tasked with writing about her. British journalist Max Jones covered Vaughan’s career for more than thirty years and likened her resistance to questioning to the aversion most people have to eating tripe. If she were living today, I doubt she would be on Twitter.
When Max Jones first met Vaughan in 1950, he said “getting to know her a little meant penetrating barriers of reserve, dignity, and, no doubt, justifiable distrust, and coping with a keen, often oblique sense of humor.” She was aloof and reserved, polite but seemingly disinterested. Despite the intimacy almost everyone felt with her voice and her song, she bristled when fans – or the press – assumed too much familiarity. Vaughan had a talent for tapping into the essence of the human experience – it’s ups and downs, comic and tragic turns – then communicating her insights to listeners. Her fans believed that they shared an intimate, real life connection with her, and unlike the musical stars of today she did not encourage it. She saw herself as a professional entertainer, not everybody’s friend. When fans approached her after a concert and called her “Sarah,” Vaughan was offended. “They don’t know me,” she once said, “and they should say Miss Vaughan, or Mrs. Atkins, or something. That’s what I would do. So I just keep walking.”
I’ve often wondered how I would feel if one of my musical idols simply walked away when I approached. I’d be hurt, I think. But I’ve also wondered what it would be like living such a public, scrutinized life. Like Vaughan, I’m a private person, and I don’t think I would enjoy it. Would you? What would you do to preserve your privacy?