THE BOOK SHELF: Biographies of Lorenz Hart and The Astaires

By Steven Suskin
22 Jul 2012

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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