THE BOOK SHELF: Biographies of Lorenz Hart and The Astaires

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22 Jul 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart"

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").


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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