This story was originally published on July 29, 2009.
ST. PETERSBURG — Every Sunday for the last 25 years, the most reliable greeter at Lakeview Presbyterian Church handed church bulletins to people dressed far more casually than he, always with a smile on his face and a carnation on his lapel.
If some of the suits seemed a little dated, there’s a good reason for that: Nelson Rockefeller’s tailor made them. Mr. Solomon chauffeured the former New York governor for 18 years.
Powered by resentment for racists and a thirst for the good life, Mr. Solomon moved from the slums of Jacksonville to a whirl of resorts and mansions in New York, where he shuttled movie stars and politicians and became a golfing buddy of boxing great Joe Louis.
He did it under the yoke of segregation, bringer of countless spoken and unspoken insults that became a part of his daily life. But over time, he realized that he had won. And gradually his anger subsided.
Mr. Solomon died Sunday at a rehabilitation center. He was 95.
He grew up in an impoverished household where he sometimes got into trouble with authority figures. The boy realized at an early age that black people were treated differently than whites, and that knowledge propelled him forward.
"He was a recalcitrant child," said niece Edith Solomon, who cared for her uncle in the last years of his life. "You couldn’t control him. You couldn’t tell him what to do."
He moved to New York as a teenager, where he worked odd jobs and caddied for golfers. The caddying job came naturally to Mr. Solomon, who played the game at par or better.
In 1936 he started chauffeuring for the members of the New York Stock Exchange and various hotel magnates, including Howard Johnson.
More celebrity clients followed: Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Carol Channing, Raquel Welch.
Without really trying, he circulated, networked and rubbed elbows with legends. He struck up a friendship with Joe Louis, beat him at golf and attended his fights.
The stories — and the big names — rolled off his tongue.
"We used to hang out at the Apollo Theater every night," he said in a 1999 newspaper interview. "Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne were there, and Redd Foxx and Nipsy Russell, too. We used to hang around outside, in between shows, and shoot dice. Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson."
Sometimes, he said, entertainers who had not yet made it big stayed in his home.
In 1957, he began chauffeuring for Rockefeller. The job lasted through Rockefeller’s 14 years as New York’s governor.
Mr. Solomon’s boss made sure he had good suits to wear. Every so often, Rockefeller would send Mr. Solomon to his tailor for a new one.
One job led to another. He chauffeured for Zsa Zsa Gabor - who, he claimed, smoked cigars decades before it was cool, and tried to find eligible millionaires for her European girlfriends.
He found a measure of success on the greens. A frequent player at Winged Foot Golf Club, Mr. Solomon played in tournaments in the United States and Europe.
At times, racism reared its head and brought him to anger. "He played at clubs where he couldn’t even stay," his niece said.
Mr. Solomon retired from Gov. Rockefeller’s staff in 1975 and moved to St. Petersburg three years later. He married the same year. Though his wife had children from a previous relationship, they never had children together.
By then, some of the bitterness of his youth had ebbed, Edith Solomon said.
"When he learned that he was responsible for his circumstances, that’s when he turned," she said.
He continued to wear his work clothes -those dapper suits - for so much as a trip to the grocery store.
"That was his regular garb," his niece said.
He added a layer of charm for church.
"He was the first person people saw when walking through the door for over 20 years," said the Rev. Todd Sutton, Lakeview’s pastor. "Always ready to meet people, always smiling, always with a phrase or two."
Women, especially, knew some of those phrases.
"He’d say, ‘You’re so pretty, I’d like to put you in a sugar sack and make a cake out of you,’" his niece recalled.
His wife died in 2004. As he grew older, Mr. Solomon considered giving up driving, but decided he would miss his beloved white Cadillac. He continued to drive it up until this year, but he entered a rehabilitation facility a few months ago. The day he died, he squeezed his niece’s hand so hard, it hurt.
This week, Edith Solomon was sifting through his clothes. Hats line the top shelf of his closet: fedoras, elegant straw hats, a purple hat, plaid caps. There is a rust-colored beaver hat with a peacock feather band. A gold flake hat for New Year’s.
The Rockefeller suits still hang in his closet beside monogrammed shirts, canary and banana yellow slacks, and at least 20 pairs of shoes. Drawers nearby hold yellow, purple and green socks. Silk Ascots of paisley and print fill another drawer.
His niece thinks she might give the clothes to the Salvation Army.
During his life, the man who once wore these clothes had been a kid from the slums, a chauffeur to the stars and, finally, a chatty church greeter. He had lived through times of harsh segregation, but had come through in grand style. He is now gone with his era.
"Those guys are irreplaceable," Rev. Sutton said. "You just can’t find another Harold Solomon."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.
Harold Edward Solomon
Born: April 12, 1914.
Died: July 26, 2009.
Survivors: stepdaughters, Yvonne and Patricia; stepson, Isaac; and three nieces and three nephews.
Service: wake 10 a.m. Saturday, Smith Funeral Home, 1534 18th Ave. S; memorial service to be arranged at Lakeview Presbyterian Church.