Dancer and singer Harriet Clark is remembered more today for her marriage to, and divorce from, Charlie Barnet than she is for her short career on the bandstand. A Long Island native who was sometimes said to resemble Betty Grable, Clark began dancing at a young age and worked as both a dancer and a model during her teen years.
Clark’s early story and how she came to be involved with Barnet in mid-1940 varies depending on source. Newspapers at the time carried a rather fanciful tale that was likely created by Barnet’s press agent, Leonard Feather. According to this version, Clark, who had always wanted to be a singer but had never had the opportunity, landed her first Broadway job in Billy Rose’s Casa Mañana revue, in which she asked for a singing role but was told that the only openings were for dancers. She later worked in “one show after another,” looking for singing opportunities and had been in the Broadway production of Keep Off the Grass for “several months” when the rehearsal pianist failed to show one day and she volunteered to sing the entire rehearsal. Unbeknownst to her, Barnet was in the audience and was so impressed with her voice that he offered her a job as his vocalist.
There are several problems with this tale. Casa Mañana was a musical revue done by Rose at the theater of the same name in Forth Worth, Texas, during the late 1930s and doesn’t appear to have ever been produced on Broadway. Also, Clark’s name only appears in the cast of two Broadway shows, the first as a dancer in Keep Off the Grass, a production which ran for one month, not “several.”
The truth is probably closer to what Down Beat magazine reported. While rehearsing for Keep Off the Grass as an understudy, the eighteen-year-old Clark, who claimed to have little interest in singing, preferring to be a dancer, sent test records to Barnet and bandleader Ray Heatherton, and possibly others. Heatherton initially hired her, but Clark changed her mind at the last moment, going with Barnet instead. There were rumors of romance between the two, but according to Down Beat gossip columnist Jack Egan those rumors were a “gross exaggeration.”
Despite what Egan reported to the public, it was pretty clear to those who knew Barnet that he’d hired Clark because he had a personal interest in her. According to Barnet’s then female vocalist Mary Ann McCall, rumors were circulating that Barnet was seen around town with Clark, and McCall asked if she should be concerned. He told her not to be, but she soon discovered that he’d lied to her and intended to replace her. According to a representative of Barnet’s band at the time, McCall was put on notice so that Barnet could bring in Clark. McCall took exception with that report, published in Down Beat and headlined “Bounced by Barnet” with her picture prominently displayed underneath it. She wrote a letter to the editors stating that she had been the one to give notice to Barnet upon learning the truth.
Clark joined Barnet in June 1940. Despite being billed as “America’s Swingheart,” she failed to set the world on fire and received little press beyond her initial joining. That all changed on November 29, however, when Barnet and Clark flew from Florida to Havana, Cuba, to get married. Clark, who was Barnet’s fourth wife, resigned as the band’s vocalist after her marriage and attempted a return to the theater, rehearsing in Boston for a show titled Too Hot to Handle which eventually made its way to Broadway as Crazy with the Heat. The show ran for a total of five nights in January 1941 at the 44th Street Theater before closing. It was Clark’s last Broadway appearance.
By mid-January 1941, Barnet and Clark’s marriage was already on the rocks and quickly became fodder for the gossip columns. Reports suggested they had separated and that Clark would start divorce proceedings. While the former was true, the latter failed to happen. By late March, the couple had reconciled enough that Clark, unknown to her at the time, became pregnant. She then caught measles in late April or early May.
In June, Clark joined Sonny Dunham’s orchestra as vocalist but stayed for only “a couple of weeks” before supposedly receiving a contract with 20th Century Fox. If true, nothing ever came of it. This was likely the time that Clark discovered her pregnancy, as it made the rounds of the gossip columns in early July, and the contract story may have been released to cover up that news. Also in June, Clark was named queen of National Model Week by the Model Industry Association, as in model cars and airplanes. She was to travel to Chicago to preside over miniature auto races and airplane contests.
In August 1941, Barnet denied that he and Clark had reconciled, saying that they were “definitely and finally through.” In September, Clark filed a separate maintenance suit against Barnet in Los Angeles, charging him with desertion and non-support. She demanded a share of Barnet’s income, which she estimated to be $3,500 a week. She wanted $750 per month, along with attorney’s fees. Music industry cronies quickly came to Barnet’s defense, citing that his band rarely sold for more than $2,000 a week, out of which he paid salaries, commissions and expenses. Barnet, however, was from a wealthy family and didn’t rely solely on his musical income for living expenses. Its likely he had investments and other sources of earnings as well. Barnet, in his own defense, “snorted” at the charges, saying “Harriet has been getting her checks regularly.”
Also in September, Clark joined Dunham’s band for a recording date after Dunham lost his regular female vocalist, Diana Mitchell, who was leaving to get married. Clark’s time with the band was only temporary though, due to her pregnancy, and she did not tour with them. On December 27, 1941, she gave birth to Charles Daly Barnet Jr. in New York. Barnet Sr. flew in when he heard the news.
In early February 1942, Clark rejoined Dunham’s band, where she remained through May, making one musical short with them, Jivin’ Jam Session. After leaving Dunham, she settled in California, making a soundie, Skylark, for RCM in June. Her suit against Barnet was finally settled that spring. Instead of the $150 a week she had requested, she received $40 a week. Walter Winchell said that divorce had been filed but reports in August suggested that she and Barnet had reconciled. From this point on, Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen kept referring to Clark as the ex-Mrs. Barnet, however Down Beat insisted that the couple were still married but separated.
Clark was said to be doing shorts for Columbia Pictures in early 1943. In June, it was suggested she had filed for divorce from Barnet. In September, she was working as a dancer at the Copacabana in New York, but by the end of the year she was inexplicably back in Barnet’s band as his female vocalist, with Barnet giving her a mink coat for Christmas. Columnists were confused about the turn of events. When asked about it in mid-1945 by Erskine Johnson, Barnet added even more confusion by replying:
Well, we were not speaking the last time I saw her so I hired her to sing with the band. No, that didn’t make us friends. I gave her a mink coat for Christmas but we still didn’t speak. She was mad because I kept telling her she couldn’t sing.
Clark supposedly told a friend: “I want to thank him for the coat, but he won’t talk to me.”
Clark remained with Barnet’s band until February 1944, when she left after getting ptomaine poisoning. She made two soundies with the Modernaires that spring, and in June she again was said to have signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. She made the October 1, 1944, cover of Down Beat with notice that she was doing “picture work,” though what that amounted to is unknown. Down Beat also noted that she was still legally separated from Barnet at that time.
Clark and Barnet eventually divorced, though on what date sources fail to say. By 1947, however, Clark was engaged to Albert Marx, the wealthy jazz philanthropist and record producer. She and Marx married but by late 1949 had separated, eventually divorcing. After that, Clark disappears into the mists of history.
Barnet was married a total of eleven times. According to gossip columnist Erskine Johnson, Barnet’s third wife was after him with alimony papers at the time he married Clark. Barnet was said to have uttered “Millions for defense, not a fucking cent for alimony.” ↩︎
Ironically, Clark again replaced Mary Ann McCall, who had returned to Barnet earlier in 1943. Reasons for McCall’s departure were not given. ↩︎
It’s strangely difficult to find a list of Barnet’s wives and dates of marriage. The same goes for dates of Marx’s marriages, though he only married three times. ↩︎