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Daphne Hellman Dies at 86

Daphne Hellman, a jazz harpist who loved to play on subway platforms, died August 4 at a Manhattan Nursing home where she was recuperating from injuries sustained from a fall. She was 86.

Born wealthy as the granddaughter of the Seaboard National Bank’s founder, she began plucking the harp at age 12. After a short career as a model and actress, and after a marriage to Town and Country editor Harry Bull which produced two children, she wed New Yorker writer Geoffrey T. Hellman at 25 and began playing harp professionally, playing mostly classical music. After a while she began concentrating on jazz and worked the cabaret circuit, playing with Ving Merlin and His All-Girl Band, and singers Blossom Dearie and Imogene Coca.

While Hellman’s career as the only harp-playing leader of a jazz combo was rock solid with a steady weekly gig at the Village Gate (which lasted thirty years) Hellman’s love life continued to be troubled. Her marriage to Geoffrey ended in 1961 and she quickly married writer/architect Hsio-Wen Shih, retaining the last name Hellman. You can’t blame her for that; she had a fantastic name for her band: Hellman’s Angels. Her marriage to Shih ended mysteriously four years after their vows when Shih left the house on a regular errand and never returned.

In addition to playing at the Village Gate, the Hellmans’ Angels also performed in the late ’70s at the punk club CBGB’s. And Hellman would often perform on subway platforms and city street corners. She would even collect change from passers-by, despite her wealth.

Hellman left us with only one leader record in her discography, Holiday for Harp (Columbia/Harmony), now out of print. She did remain musically active into her 80s, however, and was playing at New York’s Firebird Café in the summer of 2002 up until suffering the injuries from her fall.

Hellman is survived by her daughter, sitar player Daisy Paradis.

Originally Published