Unconventional jazz harpist Daphne Hellman was born Daphne Van Buren Bayne; the granddaughter of the founder of the Seaboard National Bank, she began playing the harp at age 12 before pursuing a career as an actress, studying in New York and London and even appearing in a walk-on capacity in a Broadway production of Hamlet. Often compared physically to Hollywood legend Katharine Hepburn, she also modeled for photographer Man Ray and Harper's Bazaar magazine before marrying Town & Country editor Harry Bull, with whom she had two children, the noted guitarist Sandy Bull and musician Daisy Paradis. An affair with New Yorker writer Geoffrey T. Hellman was grist for local gossip columnists, and in 1941, just hours after her divorce from Bull was finalized, she wed Hellman in Reno, NV. Taking her new husband's name, Hellman then began playing her harp professionally, making her debut at New York City's Town Hall -- because of her wealth, beauty, and social status, the performance was the subject of much media interest, and even Time magazine covered the event, calling her "as curvesome as a treble clef." In time, Hellman moved away from classical performance to jazz, beginning with an appearance at Le Ruban Bleu; in the years to follow she was a fixture of the Big Apple cabaret circuit, appearing at the Hotel New Yorker with Ving Merlin & His All-Girl Band and at Upstairs at the Downstairs with Blossom Dearie and Imogene Coca. In 1961, after her marriage to Geoffrey dissolved, Hellman married the writer and architect Hsio-Wen Shih, who mysteriously disappeared four years later -- Hellman often toured his native China, but never saw him again. Over the decades her repertoire expanded to included contemporary pop and country songs, and in 1964 she and her trio, Hellman's Angels -- touted as the world's only jazz combo fronted by a harp player -- made their first appearance at the Village Gate, where they played virtually every Tuesday night until the club shut down three decades later, making it one of the longest nightclub runs in New York City history. Hellman also appeared at unconventional venues like the pioneering punk club CBGB's; beginning in the '80s, she regularly played on subway platforms and on city street corners, even collecting spare change from passers-by in spite of her considerable wealth. Hellman maintained an active performing schedule into her eighties, and was appearing at New York's Firebird Café in the summer of 2002 when she was critically injured in a fall at her home; she died weeks later on August 4 in a Manhattan nursing home at the age of 86.
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