on January 18, 2013
Last year, when I heard that a new biography of Lorenz Hart was going to be published, I was delighted. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's songs have fascinated me and inspired me as far back as I can remember; Hart is one of my lifelong heroes. When I read Dorothy Hart's tribute to him, "Thou Swell, Thou Witty" I first realised the sophistication, great range and achievement of his lyrics. Shortly afterwards "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bedeviled" by by Samuel Marx and Jan Clayton was released. I was still a young teenager but I sensed when I read "Bewitched" that a great deal of Hart's life could or would not be spoken about openly until the time of the book's publication, the 1970s. For a long time it was one of the few accounts that discussed Hart's torment about his sexuality. I felt there was still much about Hart's life that has never been fully examined or considered. I welcomed Frederick Nolan's 1995 biography of Hart. Unfortunately Nolan faced several difficulties in writing his biography: he was denied permission to cite any of Hart's lyrics and later found that the ban was due to opposition from Dorothy Hart, who angrily wrote over the manuscript's discussions of her beloved brother in law's homosexuality, "Lies, lies, lies."
Gary Marmorstein clearly reveres Hart's lyrics: the chapter titles are memorable phrases from them. His research is through: he meticulously details the shows, films, and scores Rodgers and Hart created together from their first meeting in 1919, when Rodgers was 16 and Hart 24, to their last collaboration in 1943. He succeeds in giving an awareness of the effects of the Second World War on New York and the American theatre world. Perhaps one of the reasons why Oklahoma! and the new Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership overshadowed what Hart achieved with Rodgers was due to sensibilities changing while the country was fighting for its values. It's a pity that Hart didn't live to see peace restored and audiences' desire for urbane lyrics return.
The book's opening chapter is its strongest. Marmorstein confidently conveys the shock of Hart's brother and sister in law to learn, during the reading of Hart's will, that the will has been changed. Hart's financial advisor, William Kron, who also worked for Richard Rodgers, convinced Hart to leave his brother and his wife $100,000 and royalties from his songs during their lifetime: their children would earn nothing. Rodgers maintained control of the copyright for the songs. The Hart family's legal appeals against the will are revealed compellingly. However, after the first chapter, there is little in "A Ship Without a Sail" that isn't explored in other works about Rodgers and Hart. Indeed, throughout the book Marmorstein frequently refers to Nolan's biography. Another reviewer here on Amazon commented that the book reads like a college term paper. It reminded me of a dissertation by a student intent to include comments from firsthand accounts from memoirs and autobiographies of the stars, directors, and authors who worked with Rodgers and Hart's shows, and who has stalwartly tracked down legal documents, oral histories, contemporary newspaper articles, and medical files. Some of the material Marmorstein chooses to incorporate appears tenuously related to his main subject. At one point Marmorstein quotes at length from the screenplay of "The Lady Eve" and states that Hart sat up in his cinema seat while watching the film, recognising an allusion to the theme of deja vu as Hart described in "Where or When". The speech expresses a feeling of having known for a long time the woman the speaker has just met, there is no distinct echoing of the song's lyrics or topic, and there's no reference to where or how Marmorstein learned of Hart's seeing the film and his reaction to it.
Marmorstein surprisingly doesn't include Rodgers' famous recollection that the afternoon he first met Hart "Neither of us mentioned it... but we evidently knew we would work together, and I left Hart's house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation." At several points Marmorstein's discussions of Hart's lyrics and achievements place significance on Hart's family being descended from Heine. However, his relation to Heine has never been verified. Other accounts of Hart's life have remarked that while Hart's father claimed the family was related to Heine, Hart took this story with a grain of salt; Hart's father was a con artist known to exaggerate.
Overall the biography is let down by recurrent long lists of national or worldwide events happening at a particular time and the author's tendency to discuss important developments flatly without changing tone. The reader gains no impression of how intensively Rodgers and Hart struggled to make the leap from amateur productions to becoming Broadway professionals; that Rodgers had already resigned himself to giving up the theatre entirely and was about to start work selling babies underwear. For all of Marmorstein's detailing of the songs and sketches Rodgers and Hart created for "The Garrick Gaieties", he gives little indication of the impact of their breakthrough with "Manhattan" or the show's revolutionary freshness.
The highlight of the book is Hart's 1941 essay on lyric writing which proclaims his frustrations with censorship. It is all the sadder that throughout his career he had to find inventive ways to get his intended meaning past bowdlerizers. Hart rages at the critics' discomfort with the amoral behaviour of the characters in his musical "Pal Joey": "Pal Joey, moreover, is a cad and a scoundrel and something else unprintable right here, and he has to sing out words that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow never would have used. In fact, Joey is so unsanctimonious that even the publisher would not print his songs.... I was forced to write "Nice Nelly" versions for the radio. How can the modern lyric writer approach the divinity of the Psalms? He hasn't a chance." The sanitised lyrics for "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" are still performed today: instead of Hart's original "Couldn't sleep and wouldn't sleep until I could sleep where I shouldn't sleep" many vocalists sing, "Couldn't sleep and wouldn't sleep, then love came and told me I shouldn't sleep".
Now in a less priggish and less prejudiced era Hart's lyrics are all the better appreciated. A few years ago I was gratified to hear Rufus Wainwright singing unabashedly Hart's unexpurgated lyrics in his recording of "Bewitched": "I'll sing to him, each spring to him, and worship the trousers that cling to him". Perhaps the ultimate tragedy of Hart's life is that he was born in a time in which he couldn't express himself freely, and couldn't escape the pressure of prudery in his lyrics and in his personal life. "A Ship without a Sail" is worthwhile reading but far from the definitive biography blurbs claim it is. The definitive biography of Hart is yet to be written. For the time being, the best appreciation of Hart's life and achievements is Brad Leithauser's poem "Lorenz" which the book quotes:
Now and then he would drop from sight,
days at a stretch. No doubt he found his way
to drink--some suitcase full of spirits--
and, likely, to some paid romance;
he knew the poignancy of that
from both sides of the street--the dwarfish man
who wrote "Ten Cents a Dance."
I think of him, his low head low,
trundling through some dim, ratty hotel lobby.
Under his breath, he curses when
one of the great ones ("Blue Moon," say,
or "I Could Write a Book," or "I Wish
I Were in Love Again") again comes piping
over the p.a.,
at his side some sweet-faced young man--
or sweet enough--or young enough--who hails
from those spellbound Great Plains (his story
a pretty once-upon-a-time)
where silos grow instead of skyscrapers,
horizons call, and nobody has ever
heard of a triple rhyme.
This young man isn't apt to know
the melody (the elevator door
clangs shut, the huffing car ascends),
and still less, thankfully, the neatly
turned tortuous lyric. . . . Soon now, a gorgeous
silence will bloom, and the unworthy, wordless at last,
disclose himself completely.
on September 8, 2012
Review of A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart by Gary Marmorstein
The hits of the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) are numerous. People familiar with what has been called "American Popular Song" since publication of the seminal work by Alec Wilder entitled: American Popular Song: The Great innovators - 1900-1950 in 1972, are fondly aware of the charms of "Manhattan," "With a Song in My Heart," "The Blue Room," "Dancing on the Ceiling," "Isn't It Romantic," "Blue Moon," "It's Easy to Remember," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," ""My Romance," "Lover," "There's a Small Hotel," ""The Lady is a Tramp," "Bewitched," "My Funny Valentine," ""Where of When," "Falling in Love with Love," "This Can't be Love," "and "I Didn't Know What Time it Was." These Rodgers and Hart songs were ubiquitous in the golden age of American Popular Song, when they were sung from the Broadway stage, in Hollywood films, on network radio, and by singers with the great dance bands that endlessly toured the nation. Consequently, they became embedded in the musical consciousness (and subconscious) of a significant part of the American populace in the years 1925-1950, and beyond.
In addition to these hits, all of which have considerable musical merit (thank you Mr. Rodgers) and lyrical merit (thank you Mr. Hart), are many other Rodgers and Hart songs of great worth. These include: "Mountain Greenery," "This Funny World," "Thou Swell," "My Heart Stood Still," ""You Took Advantage of Me," "A Ship Without a Sail," "He Was Too Good to Me," "Ten Cents a Dance," ""Spring is Here," ""You Are Too Beautiful," "Little Girl Blue," "Glad to be Unhappy," "Quiet Night," "Have You Met Miss Jones?" "My Own," "It Never Entered My Mind," "I Could Write a Book," and Wait `Till You See Her." The songs of Rodgers and Hart have transcended the purposes for which they were created and are now a part of the fabric of American culture.
I have always been struck by the poetic sensibility of many of the lyrics of Lorenz Hart. From what human experiences, I have often wondered, did this lyric come?
"I'm wild again, beguiled again,
A simpering, whimpering child again,
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I."
Or this one:
"Fools rush in, so here I am,
very glad to be unhappy.
Unrequited love's a bore,
and I've got it pretty bad.
But for someone you adore,
it's a pleasure to be sad."
The new biography of Lorenz Hart, A Ship without a Sail: the Life of Lorenz Hart, by Gary Marmorstein, (Simon and Schuster), answers that question. It also traces, in considerable detail, the life of the man known to all of his friends and professional associates as "Larry," from its beginning in 1895 in an immigrant family in Manhattan, to its sad end forty-eight years later, in a Manhattan hospital.
The soil from which Lorenz Hart sprung was very different from the norm in the U.S.A. in 1895. But it was not so different from the norm in New York City then. His family was led by his father, Max Meyer Hertz, and mother, Frieda Isenberg Hertz, both Jewish immigrants from Germany. The Hertz family moved from Manhattan's lower east side to Harlem, where a Jewish community was blossoming, a few years before Larry was born. Max Hertz could aptly be described as a combination hustler, con-man, and broker of any and all deals that might bring him financial profit. He was a practical man who didn't worry too much about ethics, or the law. He was often the defendant in both civil and criminal lawsuits. Nevertheless, he provided well for his family. He decided that he should change the name Hertz, which is German for "heart," to Hart, so that he could fit in better in America. He also became an American citizen so he could have more business opportunities.
The Hart family which also included a second son, Theodore, known as Teddy, lived in a commodious house which was warm and embracing, with an abundance of food, affection, and material goods. These were provided by Frieda, who spent Max's money carefully, but wisely. Larry became fluent in German as a child, learning to read and write the language, as well as being able to speak it. He also became enamored of the English language at an early age. He was endlessly fascinated by words, their meanings, and their sounds. His mother noticed this and began to acquire works of literature in the English language for him to read and study. Larry devoured them. At about the same time, he discovered the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert. Soon libretti from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas began to appear at the Hart house, with Larry poring over them by the hour.
Max and Frieda enjoyed theatrical entertainment, but for them that was to be found in The People's Music Hall in the Bowery, or in many other theaters below Fourteenth Street that catered immigrant Jewish audiences. Max, who when he was flush with cash could be rather extravagant, would often invite performers from these entertainments to the Hart home. Both Larry and Teddy were thus exposed to theater people from an early age. They soon were bitten by the theater bug. (Teddy would become an actor.)
Larry was obviously a bright boy, with an outgoing personality. He did well in school, writing bits of fiction, poems, and essays for school literary magazines by his teen years. In the summers, Frieda felt he should be sent out of the sweltering streets of Manhattan to a summer camp, where he would be able to be stimulated by camp activities, including theatricals. Due to the rather blatant anti-Semitism that was the norm then, Jews were largely ghettoized and not welcome in "American" summer camps. As a result, Jewish entrepreneurs began to develop their own summer camps for youth and resorts for adults, mainly in the Catskill Mountains about a hundred miles northwest of New York City. Larry thrived in various Jewish summer camps over a period of almost ten years, and met many of the people there who would shape and energize the entertainment business in the middle of the Twentieth Century. He also began writing skits for musical shows.
By the time Lorenz Hart had finished growing, he stood barely five feet tall, and had a large head, the size of which was exaggerated by his balding pate. Although he had a handsome face, he had a heavy, dark beard, which required at least two shaves a day. Nevertheless, he always seemed, like Richard Nixon, to have a five o'clock shadow. He was rejected for military service in World War I because of his height.
By the time Larry entered Columbia University to study journalism, the Hart home nearby had become a sort of unofficial fraternity house. Larry's classmates and friends were always welcome there, and at all hours of the day and night, they were there. Frieda's food and Max's liquor were made available to all comers. Young men's thoughts are frequently fixated on young women, and there was much hilarious story-telling in the Hart house by Larry's guests centering around women, ribaldry, and sex. Larry participated, but in a rather abstract way. He was at that time grappling with his own sexual identity, and soon concluded that he was homosexual. This, in addition to his physical stature and appearance, alienated him from a large part of the world he knew and lived in. His antidote to all of this was to drink more, be more convivial, and pick up more checks, which he could afford do with the generous allowance Max always provided him.
Larry was not very interested in taking classes at Columbia University, or in journalism. He was interested in the theater. Gradually, his activities in the classroom at Columbia receded in direct proportion to their increase in the theater, both at Columbia and elsewhere in Manhattan. He slowly began to gain a reputation as someone who knew about the theater in general, and musical comedy in particular.
He met Richard Rodgers, who was seven years younger than him, in the spring of 1919, being introduced to the seventeen year-old pianist and melodist by a mutual friend. From the moment they met, it was obvious to both of them that their association would be creatively successful. The relationship Lorenz Hart would have over the next twenty-five years with Richard Rodgers would be the most fulfilling one in his life, on a number of levels. Unfortunately, despite the great success of the team of Rodgers and Hart, the same would not be true for Rodgers. The demons within Larry Hart would increasingly emerge to make him, very often, a less than ideal collaborator. But no matter how difficult Hart's personality problems made it for him and Dick to work, when they did work together, the experience for both men was often exhilarating. Their relationship would evolve from one of deep personal friendship to love-hate.
Lorenz Hart was liked, indeed beloved, by many of the people he worked with in his professional career. He was witty, articulate, generous, and compassionate. By the early 1920s, he was a first-rate professional lyricist, on his way to becoming a nonpareil wordsmith with a restless and well-stocked mind. He would have been the first to scoff at any assertion that he was a poet. Nevertheless, his lyrics very often were poetic.
Rodgers's personality was almost completely different from Hart's. Both of them were extremely talented. But Rodgers's great musical talent was coupled with limitless ambition, ego, and chutzpah. Rodgers wanted to get somewhere in this world, and would run over people to get there. When the young arranger David Raksin (later composer of the haunting melody "Laura"), changed a chord in a Rodgers melody, Dick had him fired from the show they were working on. When a singer added or subtracted something from a Hart lyric, Larry would simply tell them not to do that. Rodgers aspired to be accepted and embraced by the upper levels of society. Wealth impressed him. Hart was repulsed by buccaneer capitalism. (A Marmorstein usage. Bravo!) His idea of a good time was to gather with friends in a bistro, engage in witty, stimulating conversation, and pick up the tab.
This difference in personality was only exacerbated by Larry's homosexuality. In a time long before gay pride and compassionate acceptance of gays, Larry would often retreat into the shadows of a homosexual nether world. In the world he worked in with Richard Rodgers, being outed was tantamount to professional ruin. Rodgers grudgingly accepted Hart's gayness because he really had no choice. The fates had brought him together with a perfect collaborator. Larry dealt with these issues by this by drinking more and more alcohol. Still, Dick was patient and encouraging to Larry. He constantly attempted to deal with his increasingly errant partner's pecadilloes. He more than anyone else understood how Larry's talent added not only to the commercial appeal of Rodgers's songs, but also to the musical comedy plays they began to work on starting in the mid-1920s.
The Broadway theater of the 1920s was evolving from a place where very often either European-styled operettas or old-fashioned vaudeville reviews with songs were staged, to more narrative driven plays. Rodgers and Hart were in the vanguard of the movement to alter the old conventions further by writing songs that would advance the story of the play. Although the basic modus operandi for Rodgers and Hart had Dick writing the music first, and then Larry writing the lyric, what stimulated Hart's creativity every bit as much as Rodgers's melodies, was a specific character or occasion within the show they were working on. It would not be an overstatement to say that Hart was obsessed with the integration of story and songs in a show. This was revolutionary in the 1920s Broadway theater where Rodgers and Hart first found success.
The breakthrough success they had with The Garrick Gaieties (1925) provided them a springboard to numerous other Broadway triumphs in the Twenties including A Connecticut Yankee (1927) and Present Arms (1928). The coming of sound to motion pictures in the late 1920s opened lucrative but not creatively fulfilling opportunities for Rodgers and Hart. They often went to Hollywood in the early 1930s, wrote quality songs (many of which were never used, at least initially, in the films they were written for), took large sums of money with them back to New York, and continued working in the theater. More Broadway successes followed: On Your Toes (1936); Babes in Arms (1937); The Boys from Syracuse (1938); Too Many Girls (1939); Pal Joey (1940); and By Jupiter (1942).
By the early 1940s, the differences between Rodgers and Hart, and Larry's increasingly undependable behavior, were driving them apart both personally and professionally. Rodgers craved more mainstream acceptance and success; Hart wanted to create more provocative and challenging theater. Rodgers had the stronger personality. His will to compete and triumph over rivals in the theater like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, among others, drove him to undertake a bucolic farce entitled Green Grow the Lilacs in 1942. Larry disliked it and told Dick he didn't want to work on it. Indeed, Larry was having difficulty working at all then. Rodgers, who for some time had been planning how to deal with the inevitable dissolution of Rodgers and Hart approached lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, who had worked with a number of collaborators previously, about the project. Hammerstein, reliable and professional to the core, was very happy to be working with Richard Rodgers on Green Grow the Lilacs. As the production evolved, the title changed, to Oklahoma! The play debuted in early 1943, and was an immediate runaway success.
Larry, who had been hospitalized in early 1942 for various aliments related to his alcoholism, was no longer the partner of Richard Rodgers―Oscar Hammerstein was, and they were enjoying a colossal Broadway triumph together. Larry was not jealous of their success with Oklahoma! He was very gracious to both Dick and Oscar in expressing his good wishes. But without Rodgers, who very often acted as Larry's surrogate parent, begging, imploring, wheedling to get him to work, Hart was lost. This situation was compounded by the death, in early 1943, of Larry's mother, who was probably the only person in his life who had given him unconditional love. She too had been a stabilizing influence on her wayward son. In the wake of Frieda's death, Larry's drinking accelerated from episodic binges to continuous.
The end came for Lorenz Hart in November of 1943. After wandering about the cold, rainy streets of Manhattan for several days, he was hospitalized with bilateral bronchial pneumonia. His exhausted body did not respond to treatment. He was forty-eight years old.
Gary Mormorstein's biography of Lorenz Hart is very good. It is well written, though its prose, unlike the lyrics of Larry Hart, seldom sparkles. It is a treasure trove of esoterica about Broadway and Hollywood in the years 1925-1940, and the details included serve to place the story of Hart's life in context. It is a welcome addition to the information available about the life and career of Lorenz Hart that scholars will find useful in future years.
Although there are a few amusing anecdotes sprinkled throughout the pages of Mr. Marmorstein's book, I would think, given Hart's colorful personality and fabulous theatrical career, that many more could have been recounted. That would have leavened the sometimes name and fact dense narrative, and livened the prose.
Over the 500+ pages of the book, Mr. Marmorstein seldom expressed his opinions about the inner workings of Lorenz Hart's mind, something he undoubtedly was well-qualified to do after having amassed, analyzed, and written about all of the information he included in the book. Such opinions, judiciously expressed, would also have added some balance to the voluminous facts.
One of the highlights of "A Ship without a Sail" is its prologue. It contains some of the most concise, insightful writing in the book. I read it with great interest as I began reading the book, and it thoroughly engaged me. I then read the rest of the book. I am sure that was exactly what Mr. Marmorstein intended for readers to do. But as effective as the prologue is as an introduction to the story of Lorenz Hart's life, it would have been more effective, given its content, if it had been placed at the end of the book as an epilogue.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the history of show business in America in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Michael P. Zirpolo
"Mr. Trumpet...the Trials, Tribulations
And Triumph of Bunny Berigan"
on May 10, 2013
This is a fine book for anyone interested in the life and times of Larry Hart, one of the creators of 20th Century American Song. Happily there are thoroughgoing descriptive and analytic reviews on this Amazon web page; I see no need to add anything but reinforcement to the recommendation that this is a very readable and reliable source for the interested reader. I will add only one point about which I was curious as to how it would be handled by the author: that is, how would he deal with the Black Star of Hart's Life. The answer is, he did about the best one can do without resorting to psychobabble or imaginative reconstruction of the unknown from the little known. So far as I can tell, to this date, there exists no body of personal letters from Hart, no detailed diaries, not even multiple source intimate accountings, of that part of his life which existed behind the iron curtain between it and the part he lived with Richard Rodgers, his younger brother Teddy, and, in fact, nearly all the old Columbia University, summer camp, Broadway and Hollywood acquaintances. Apparently, the ubiquitous ex-dentist, Bender, who was the only known regular participant with him, left nothing to biographical history, by which light could be cast on him, when he was deep in the shadows. It is assumed that he was a homosexual. Yet we do not have a single fact clearly supporting the notion that he ever engaged in an actual sexual act with another man. He did have homosexual buddies, he had heterosexual buddies. He knew women in his public life and never did much with them...as far as we know. He is likely to have gone to the baths and other centers of homosexual life in NYC, when it was an illegal act; but, so did many men who were not homsexual. Are we assured that he never was active at Stella Adler's, center for so much show business and political heterosexual activity, did he never have a "kept" woman in one of the infinite number of private apartments available to a rich man. The answer is, to date, we do not know. (From this book we do know that, in his dying days, he suffered from gonorrhea, which allows us to assume that he had some form of sexuality.
It is not only the sexual activity that is masked by this iron curtain. Do we know for certain that in the shadows, more or less, he never ghosted the writing of lyricsof songs orparts of the books of shows, just to help one friend or another...or, given his gregariousness, almost anyone. Are there classic songs, outstanding theatrical events, that are Hart's and not the one to which they are attributed.
I stress the first point, in particular, because I expect, if the best of the club singers, of the good middle of the road singers, still sing Rodgers and Hart, someone is going to give us deep analysis of the "real" Larry Hart, when, there is a good chance that there will be no more data available than there is today on which to ground it. (Given that many collections of private papers are donated on the basis of no public availability until fifty, a hundred, or what have you, number of years after the death of...(for example, anyone mentioned in the papers), there is always the hope that more will be known of the "Private Life" of this man who has given so many of us greatjoy through his lyrics.