THE BOOK SHELF: Moss Hart's "Act One" and Dorothy Gallagher's "Lillian Hellman"

By Steven Suskin
02 Feb 2014

Hart weaves a magical tale of breaking into show business, 1925-31, and one that I don't expect is likely to be supplanted. The action builds to the triumphant opening of Once in a Lifetime, the play which made Hart famous. The creation of this comedy takes up almost half the book. After turning down an offer to have it turned into an Irving Berlin musical, Hart accepts director George S. Kaufman as collaborator. Kaufman was at the time already a Broadway legend, but the Kaufman and Hart partnership over the next decade was to bring some of Kaufman's finest work. Kaufman was quite a character, and Hart's portrayal of him in these pages is as well-illustrated as Dickens' Mr. Micawber.

After two separate disappointing tryouts, Once in a Lifetime was pulled from the brink of folding by a last-minute burst of inspiration by Hart and an all-night writing session — according to Hart in "Act One," that is, although Mr. Bach gives us reason to wonder. Hart tells us how he spent the spring of 1930 slaving away in Kaufman's townhouse, dashing off at night to fulfill prior commitments as director of amateur groups in Brooklyn and Newark (which is how he supported his family).

Hart-the-memoirist neglects any mention of the fact that at the very same time that he was rewriting the play with Kaufman, he also wrote a Broadway musical which opened that same April, after a month of tryouts in Washington and Philadelphia, which Hart surely attended. So there is something off in the representation of this starry-eyed newcomer, struggling and starving in Kaufman's garret.

But hart was apparently not looking to write a literal autobiography (although the book is officially titled "Act One: An Autobiography"). He was looking to weave a magical and compelling tale of theatrical life, circa 1930, and he succeeded in leaving a treasure for all of us who have followed.


If Moss Hart seems to have embellished the facts in his autobiography "Act One" — the better to build an engrossing story — Lillian Hellman, in her three books of memoirs, seems to have determinedly made up facts of her own, as found in Dorothy Gallagher's "Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life" [Yale]. Gallagher turns out to be a fine guide to her subject.