THE BOOK SHELF: Biographies of Lorenz Hart and The Astaires

By Steven Suskin
July 22, 2012

This month's column looks at biographies of lyricist Lorenz Hart ("A Ship without a Sail") and the internationally famous dance team, Fred & Adele Astaire ("The Astaires").



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You gotta have heart, it has always seemed to me, although in my case I spell it Hart. As in Lorenz Hart, also known as Larry Hart. The lyricist, who wrote so many of our very favorite songs, died in 1943. While his words remain familiar — at least to those who care about the American popular song of the Roaring Twenties and the depressed Thirties — his life has always been something of a closed book. The pages are opened for us, somewhat, in A Ship without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart by Gary Marmorstein [Simon & Schuster].

The life of Hart is not unknown, altogether; the oft-told basics tell of a talented-but-tortured misfit with a dwarf-like body and the inability to see himself as an object worthy of love. At least, that's what they tell us. For many years, we heard little of Hart; his legacy was seemingly controlled and somewhat hidden by his long-time collaborator Richard Rodgers. Rodgers, as we've learned, was a difficult man. He seems to have been conflicted about Hart, and about his long partnership with Hart, and even about their joint song catalogue; during the Rodgers & Hammerstein years, the composer seemed to try to brush away references to his first collaborator and compliments about their songs. The pair met and began working together when Dick was 16 and Larry was 23; seven years isn't such an enormous gap, but it is when you are still in high school. As Rodgers wrote of their first meeting, "I left Hart's house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a permanent source of irritation."

By 1940 that irritation was indeed permanent, by 1941 it was intolerable and by 1942 the partnership ceased. Following the lyricist's death the next year, Rodgers seemingly washed his hands of Hart. We are not here to psychoanalyze Mr. Rodgers, a pastime which other writers have engaged in with relish (accurately or not). He does, though, seem to have retained a fair share of guilt and hypersensitivity. Being the king of Broadway, more or less — besides writing all those shows, Rodgers was one of the most active and successful producers of his time — he seems to have purposely kept chatter about Hart to a minimum.

The moratorium was broken, with a vengeance, in 1976. Rodgers' 1975 autobiography "Musical Stages" had discussed life with Larry at length, albeit in a gentle manner. This was followed, the next year, by not one but two biographies. "Rodgers & Hart: Bewitched, Bothered and Bedeviled" came from Samuel Marx (a Hollywood writer) and Jan Clayton (the original Julie in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel). I have not had time to go back and read this — or the other old books — referred to here, but I remember the Marx & Clayton book being chatty and something of an eye opener. For the first time we got a sense of how tortured, or "bedeviled," Hart was; we also got a clearer portrait of Rodgers. While he had a well-earned reputation in the business, this might have been the first time the reading public learned that his personality wasn't quite so sweet as his music.

Also in 1976 came "Thou Swell, Thou Witty," from Hart's sister-in-law Dorothy. This gave us an inside view of Larry, yes; but her portrait of a "swell" guy didn't jibe with the "bedeviled" Hart of Marx & Clayton. Let alone the fellow Rodgers called "my favorite blight and partner." Mrs. Hart and her husband — actor Teddy Hart (who created the role of Dromio of Ephesus in The Boys from Syracuse) — felt that Rodgers had more or less engineered a hijacking of Larry's will; they waged a legal battle with Rodgers, which ended poorly for the Hart family. So Dorothy might have had a bias in "Thou Swell" and her subsequent writings. (The contested will takes up the first dozen pages of Marmorstein's book, and is strongly in the anti-Rodgers camp.)

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Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
A generation passed, as did Rodgers (in 1979). An English writer named Frederick Nolan — who in 1979 had written "The Sound of their Music: Rodgers and Hammerstein" — turned to Hart in 1994 with "Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway." This being the '90s, people who had known Hart 50 years back seemed more willing to talk on the record. What emerged was a fascinating and incredibly sad tale of this fellow from whose mind sprung so many beautiful songs.

Another 20 years or so have passed, which brings us to "A Ship without a Sail." Marmorstein's book is fine, all told, and certainly worth looking at. But there is little flavor of Larry Hart on these pages. We get the same stories as before, and the same conjectures, but very little that is new. The main problem, I suppose, is that there were few people around for Marmorstein to talk to; while he has meticulously combed archives for any information he can glean, there simply isn't all that much of import that wasn't in Nolan's book. (Nolan is quoted at length, and profusely thanked by the author.) What we do get from Marmorstein are better descriptions of the musicals than we have read elsewhere. But the discussion of the lyricist is full of supposition, telling us what Hart might have done or must have thought.

Oddly enough, we do get a clearer picture of the real Rodgers than elsewhere. While Rodgers covered the Hart years — through a gentle filter — in "Musical Stages," Marmorstein makes good use of the trove of candid, complaint-laced letters the composer wrote through the Hart years to his wife Dorothy. So we do get an enhanced understanding of the relationship from the beginning (when Rodgers looked up to the so-much-older Hart) to the end (when Rodgers felt like he was saddled with an unruly, drunken child). So here is a new picture of Richard Rodgers; but Larry Hart, in this latest biography, remains but a sketchy, troubled soul.

On a personal note, let me add that I have in the recent past stumbled over odd but concrete evidence of the long-gone Hart. Marmorstein discusses the under-employed lyricist spending summers at a boy's camp up in the Adirondacks — where, on the first night, they would read Balzac and O. Henry. This is the same place my son attends, although Balzac is no longer on the agenda. (As soon as I finish writing this review, it is off to Visiting Day. Larry got there by taking the night boat to Albany, then catching a train inland to Riverside — which doesn't seem to be there anymore — and then being shuttled in a car. Me, I'll just get on the N.Y. Thruway and drive for six hours.)

Closer to home, one of those old class photos on the wall at my kid's school is of the Dramatic Club, 1913. Sitting there on the end in black tie is the 17-year-old Hart, sporting a headful of hair but instantly recognizable. And reading Marmorstein's description of the penthouse duplex that Hart bought in 1939 — at the Ardsley, a block away from school — I realized that this must be the apartment that a school friend of my daughter lived in. I had noted the extremely odd layout, with the living areas widely separated; Marmorstein tells us how Hart found it suitable, because he lived with his mother and could keep her relatively out of sight.

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Cover art for "The Astaires: Fred & Adele"
Readers who can't get enough of Broadway of the '20s will find plenty to intrigue them in The Astaires: Fred & Adele by Kathleen Riley [Oxford]. Fred, of course, is celebrated beyond measure. He even wrote an autobiography — all by himself, we are told — back in 1959. "Steps in Time" is mighty readable; but this is a somewhat cautious Fred, restrained perhaps by a need to keep the three women in his life happy. (Namely, his mother Ann; his sister, Adele; and his wife, Phyllis. Each of whom seemed immensely and intensely jealous of one or the other.) And perhaps by a desire to keep things suitable for his beloved daughter, Ava, who was then still a teenager.

For all the countless words that have been written about Fred over the last hundred years — he made his stage debut in 1905 at the age of six, in a vaudeville house on the Jersey Shore — readers have been hard put to learn much about sister Adele, who was two years older. Adele was the talented one, we have long been told; she was the star of the act, with Fred playing a subsidiary role. Even when they became major stars in New York and London, it was Adele who took the spotlight.

But Adele retired in 1932, decamped to England and married a Lord. (Who immediately proceeded to drink himself into a stupor, followed by an early death. After which she married a second alcoholic — an American one — who did the same.) Fred, as you might have heard, went to Hollywood and tried the talkies; he soon linked with Ginger Rogers, who remains his most-remembered dance partner. Adele never seems to have been filmed, which means that her legendary magic is remembered only by people who were attending theatre prior to March 1932.

Now, thanks to Ms. Riley, we have a full-scale portrait of Adele and her brother Fred. And it is a lively tale, as the Austerlitz kids from Omaha storm New York with their stage mother and fight their way from the lowest rungs of vaudeville to stardom. Not unlike Gypsy, but with class and talent. And in which the young hopefuls they befriend along the way bear the names Gershwin and Coward.

The Astaires scaled the heights in New York but cemented their fame in the London transfers of three Broadway musicals — For Goodness Sake (known overseas as Stop Flirting), Lady, Be Good and Funny Face — so it is very much an international affair. Riley guides us through this exceedingly well, recreating the theatre world in the days between the War and the Crash. In contrast to the book reviewed above, we get a true sense of Fred and Adele. And not just with descriptions of their talent. Their characters, their voices are present on these pages. Riley had access to what seem to be voluminous archives; she also seems to have had the cooperation of Ava Astaire, who had close relationships with her father (who died in 1987) and her Aunt Delly (who died in 1981).

Adele Astaire

So we really do get to see the wildly charming Adele and the relatively sedate workaholic Fred. (His nicknames for her was "Goodtime Charlie," she called him "Moaning Minnie.") What we don't get to hear about is anything unseemly, other than those two severely damaged husbands. Ann moved the children to New York for dance lessons when Adele was eight, leaving her husband to fend for himself in Omaha (and send money). She continued to have an outsized influence over them throughout their lives, dying in 1975 at the age of 96.

Such was the extent of Ann's control that Fred — at 34 a major international stage star on the cusp of a Hollywood career — had to engage in a long battle to get his mother, and sister, to allow him to marry. There is presumably an interesting web of interfamilial crosscurrents here that aren't exactly explored. (Riley does quote an unpublished, taped interview in which Adele says her brother confided that he wanted to get married "because he knew that many people believed him to be a homosexual.") We are told that Astaire had a few unimportant relationships over the decade when he was the toast of Broadway and London, including what seems to have been a brief one with the pre-Hollywood Ginger. But one gets the impression that this topic — in this otherwise far-ranging biography — was off-limits.

The Astaires, as the English-speaking world's favorite dance team of the 1920s, are said to have glided effortlessly and gracefully across the stage. Which, quite neatly, serves to describe Ms. Riley's book.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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