The great nights of 'A Great Day in Harlem' director Jean Bach

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated March 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

There was the night Dylan Thomas exploded in a fit of expletives when Jean Bach’s doorbell interrupted his poetry reading. There was the time Ethel Merman mistook the Bachs’ Greenwich Village carriage house for an after-hours gin joint (”We couldn’t turn her away,” Bach says). And there was the evening Winston Churchill’s son Randolph got out of hand (”He was a terrible drunk, you know”). So Jean Bach isn’t exactly phased by the big soiree coming March 27, when the 76-year-old rookie filmmaker will be in Los Angeles to see if her jazz documentary A Great Day in Harlem wins an Oscar. She’s been at home with greatness for four decades.

”We’ve had some cool casts here,” says the hip producer-director of the shindigs she and her late husband, What’s My Line? creator Bob Bach, threw. Sipping orange-spice tea, Bach casually lists such revelers as Count Basie (”a pussycat”), Frank Sinatra (”He’d come by when he was in town”), and Duke Ellington (”a jive turkey, he gave such compliments”) among those who partied within her walls, where photos of herself with Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday, and Bobby Short share space with works by Picasso and Dali.

Bach, who spent most of her career as a radio producer, worked for three years on Harlem, putting up more than $300,000 of her own money to back the nostalgic film, which she began as ”a small home project” by interviewing old friends. ”Somewhere along the way this pig’s ear turned into a silk purse,” says the lady who’s still ”flummoxed” by all of this Oscar ”flapdoodle” over a film she says is her first and last.

And even though Bach is by all accounts the hostess with the mostest, she feels a bit like a party crasher in Hollywood. ”I’m acting as though I have a chance,” she says, referring to all of the buzz surrounding the category since the critics’ darling, Hoop Dreams, was denied a nomination. ”But if I win,” she says, laughing, ”Siskel and Ebert will probably have someone come out and break my kneecaps.”