Tragedy of bike-riding cabaret activist Mary Cleere Haran

Cabaret is a forum for the classic American pop song — and the death of singer Mary Cleere Haran, hit by a car coming out of a driveway while she was riding her bike in Deerfield Beach, Fla., robs the world of an activist who interpreted, updated and preserved those brilliant, melodious standards.mary cleere haran.jpeg The genre and milieu in which she worked isn’t my preferred entertainment, but there’s no denying the centrality in sophisticated contemporary culture of the words and music of Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and the many others celebrated by Haran, age 58, who wrote and produced shows and contributed significantly to television documentaries about the stars and songs of the U.S. in the mid 20th Century. Though there are performers as devoted to sustaining this legacy of wit and glamor as she, when an artist as deeply into their speciality it taken from the stage in their prime, that specialty is severely wounded, too.

 I’m particularly disturbed by Haran’s death because as a bicyclist in Brooklyn I’ve become increasingly aware of the disregard drivers of cars and trucks routinely practice on streets they share with lighter and less powerful conveyances (as well as pedestrians). Even worse is the backlash of officials and some governing bodies to this non-polluting, healthy and economic way of getting around. Haran was reportedly on her bike, returning from having dropped off her resumé at a hotel where she wanted to perform. Deerfield Beach, a South Florida town with a population of approximately 76,000 and about 15 square miles in size, sounds like the kind of community in which biking is an easy way to get around. I can find no details about the accident that left Haran in a coma, but how fast must a car be coming out of a driveway in order to blindside a rider? How careless is the driver who doesn’t see a biker or walker on the street they’re about to enter? 

Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz made newly created bike lanes a joke and a target of criticism in his recent annual address. Rather than speak up for bikes as a worthy addition to a hard-pressed overall transportation plan, he belittles them as conveyances that tie up privileged motor vehicle traffic, rendering roads ugly and dangerous. It’s true that bikes can do damage to a person in a collision, but the severity of injuries is typically far less than what happens when a car strikes a living being.
I never heard Mary Cleere Haran sing live, and I never will, which strikes me as sad. There are no videos of her performing on YouTube, though she leaves a legacy of some half-dozen recordings (most recent is The Big Band Sound of WWII, on which she sings with the Eric Felten Orchestra). The mission of cabaret is not to break conventions, push boundaries or, in most cases, to explore what’s new, but rather to conserve culture of the past and enliven the spirit of music that has enduring value in the present; who’s not for that? And my interest in making the riding of bikes safe for everybody — kids and grownups, pedestrians and car drivers alike — is a bigger thing: jazz beyond jazz. So take a moment to think of Mary Cleere Haran. And whatever you’re steering, look all ways.
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  1. Barb Connelly says

    Well said, Howard. As much as I love jazz, I also love cabaret and the Great American Song book and preservation of that wonderful genre.
    I’ve never had the pleasure of hearing Mary Cleere sing live and feel deprived of now not ever having that chance. What a terrible, senseless loss of a beautiful life . . .

  2. Lloyd Townsend, Jr. says

    The way most US bike lanes are shoehorned onto existing roads, they ARE ugly and dangerous. Most other countries have lanes that are separated by medians or physical barriers, or follow their own routes! We depend on a stripe of paint, and often don’t bother to reorient storm drain covers so they don’t trap bike wheels, or sweep the lanes of rocks, nails, and broken glass so bikers have a reasonably safe surface to ride on. And then we don’t even bother to train our drivers before turning them loose!
    Americans are just too damn cheap (and, in general, too lazy) to do the job the right way, and I don’t see that changing anytime in the near future.
    HM: Lloyd, In NYC at least some of the new bike lanes are separated by medians and physical barriers (which have earned them further antagonism by diehard antagonists). I agree, maintenance is not a high priority either. But at least here, Transportation Alternatives has found that the biking community itself can be organized to do a lot to make its lanes safer and more navigable. I can’t speak for elsewhere, but maybe Americans turning to bikes in ever greater numbers can institute and sustain improvements, if necessary, themselves.

  3. says

    I thank you for this article that mentions not only the Great American Songbook, a major inspiration for your preferred milieu (Jazz), but for taking on the subject of Bike riding in our country. While not much of a Biker myself – my husband does several hundred miles a month and it has changed his life for the better–
    I wonder about these new physical barriers put up – are they causing more hostility among drivers and truckers? Or are they smoothing out the trails—gotta check out the stats on that…

  4. francine says

    As a cyclist and lover of standards I, too, was stunned and saddened on a personal level when I learned of Mary’s untimely death.
    Perhaps it is worth noting that Deerfield Beach, FL probably has one of the oldest driving populations in the country. Not to bash the elderly, but there is a time when they should get away from being behind the wheel of a car. A very good friend of mine came home from Vietnam, unscathed, only to become a paraplegic following an elderly driver hitting his car.
    Only conjecture, of course, but it was my first reaction, having driven around in Deerfield Beach a few times.
    HM: People of every age have and cause accidents. My first reaction was, “Oh, some careless, hotshot young driver” — revealing my bias. The responsibilities of going slow, anticipating others, proceeding with caution and realizing a car is a heavy blunt object capable of moving with devastating force should be remembered and reinforced regularly, broadly.