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A Ship Without A Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart Hardcover – July 3, 2012
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“The whole story, joyful and unflinching, of an astounding talent. This biography really has Hart.”
—Laurence Bergreen, author of As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin and Columbus: The Four Voyages
“Sophisticated, engaging, elegant, and packed with absorbing detail, A Ship Without A Sail is the definitive biography of Larry Hart for which all of us who love his work have been waiting. That Gary Marmorstein has captured the soaring highs and the crushing lows of that short, unhappy life so completely and so sympathetically is a truly remarkable—even enviable—achievement. And I speak of what I know.”
—Frederick Nolan, author of The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway
"Marmorstein brings to the task just the right precision instruments for dissecting Larry Hart -- panache, sympathy and smarts. The very title of his book goes to the heart of the tortured story he tells so well. . . . He knows the period and its players inside out and along the way offers wonderful cameos of many minor figures in the story..."
—J. D. McClatchy, The Wall Street Journal
“Readers will be grateful that Gary Marmorstein, who writes about film, theater and popular music, has resuscitated Hart, also known as Larry, in riveting detail in his A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart.” (Sam Roberts The New York Times)
“A deeply sympathetic biography of Lorenz Hart, the talented, troubled lyricist of film and Broadway fame. Marmorstein has done an enormous service for fans of stage and movie musicals of the early decades of the 20th century. . . . ‘Ev’rything I’ve got belongs to you,’ goes one Hart lyric that now, thanks to the author’s thorough, affectionate research, holds another, profoundly poignant meaning.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"The lyricist who, with composer Richard Rodgers, penned 'Blue Moon,' 'The Lady Is a Tramp,' and other standards is a figure worthy of his own bittersweet songs in this graceful biography. . . . A vivid panorama of pre-WWII musical theater and the efflorescence of Jewish-American tune- and word-smithing that created it. Marmorstein’s take on his subject’s life feels like a Rodgers and Hart show, nicely balanced between exhilarating spectacle and pithy revelations of character."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A fine new biography of Lorenz Hart by Gary Marmorstein, A Ship Without a Sail, makes clear that Hart, over the years since his early death at age 48 in 1943, has been taken up by the very society he set out, in his lyrics, to unsettle." (David Hadju The New Republic)
"Hart has his shining hour in a new biography. . . . It's the absorbing story of a sparkling but tormented artist and a rich slice of show business history. . . . A Ship Without a Sail quotes liberally from Hart's lyrics, and Marmorstein's analysis is always interesting and often revelatory."
—John Fleming, Tampa Bay Tribune
"Brings a new dimension to so many familiar songs."
"Marmorstein bolsters the story of Hart's rocketlike career with a wealth of factual detail. . . . [Marmorstein's] biographer's sense, his dogged researches, and his fair-mindedness constantly lead him in good directions. His account of Rodgers's controversial involvement in Hart's business affairs at his death is the best-balanced I've encountered."
—Michael Feingold, the Village Voice
About the Author
Gary Marmorstein is the author of Hollywood Rhapsody and The Label and has written about film, theater, and popular music for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Stagebill, among many other publications.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
That would be enough in itself, but the author's appreciation and insight into the songs of Rodgers and Hart is irresistible. Marmorstein connects threads in Hart's lyrics and does so through the decades. I am grateful not only for the insights, but also Marmorstein's elegant prose, always with a light touch and a stunning re-creation of New York City in Hart's times.
Finally, the book enables you to learn new things about Hart's personal history, which makes for a richer appreciation of his magnificent lyrics. (note to some of the other reviewers here - some of this information may be new to you and some of this information may make you uncomfortable, but that's how we learn.)
It's filled with details about the various Rodgers and Hart shows. For those keenly interested in the history of musicals, this is probably of great interest. For the more casual reader, the minutia is probably overkill. What I feel this biography lacks is any real insight into the character of Larry Hart.
We learn that he drank to excess from the earliest days of his involvement with writing partner Richard Rodgers and that this increased as the years wore on, leading to Hart becoming less and less reliable until he was uninterested in working by the end of 1942. His homosexuality is mentioned. We find out he was incredibly self-conscious about his short stature, standing barely 5 feet tall, and thought himself ugly due to his head being oversized for his body. But we never really find out anything about the inner man and what made him tick.
I came away from this book feeling I knew quite a bit about the history of one of Broadway's greatest lyricists but, at the same time, knew almost nothing about him at all. Perhaps Hart was so secretive about his personal life that this information simply was unavailable or difficult to acquire. But it seems more could have been done in elucidating the personal side of Hart and not just the professional one.