Commentary Magazine


A Talent for Genius, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

Piano Man

A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant.
by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.
Villard Books. 512 pp. $25.00.

Oscar Levant is remembered chiefly for two things: his recordings of classical piano music—particularly the works of his friend George Gershwin—and his appearances as a lovably neurotic sidekick in several movies, among which the musicals An American in Paris and The Band Wagon are probably the best known. But in his heyday in the 1940’s, Levant was also among the most popular entertainers of his time, and one who helped to invent a new mode of celebrity.

Levant was born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to Russian-Jewish parents. His father was a watchmaker of rather stern though loving temperament. His mother was a lover of music, especially of the Romantic piano literature; she encouraged Levant to develop what she quickly perceived as a keen musical talent. Though his father wished him (and his brothers) to pursue a career in the professions, the restless young Oscar was not to be pinned down, and after his father’s traumatizing, early death, he was left to follow his musical muse. His mother dreamed that he might have a concert career like that of her idol, the celebrated pianist Paderewski. In part Levant shared her ambition, but in part he wanted to be freed from her smothering musical ideals—as well as from the religious strictures of his Orthodox household.

Levant’s musical career actually began in the dregs of show business, when, as a dropout at age fifteen, he moved to New York and took his first jobs as a “piano man” in speakeasies and roadhouses, entertaining the various bookies, hoods, pimps, prostitutes, and drunks who frequented them. This was not exactly the career he was supposed to be cultivating; but Levant loved the crazy, spontaneous, demimonde life, a night-crawler’s existence he was never to get out of his system.

By the 1930’s Levant, having already mingled with many Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including the Gershwin brothers, had advanced from dives to the beginnings of a Broadway career. Throughout the 30’s he built a steadily growing reputation as a composer, songwriter, and pianist. And he was also starting to make his real mark through chat in the hugely popular gossip columns, which talked him up as a “personality,” among the wittiest and most outrageous partygoers and backstage mavens of both Hollywood and Broadway.

Starting in 1938, on the new radio quiz show, Information, Please!, Levant honed to perfection his art of repartee and packaged his personality as an entertainment vehicle. Though not the only talent on the show, he became its essential catalyst—the fascinating wag and “know-it-all” most people tuned in to hear. The show reached what was for the time the staggering figure of some twelve million listeners, and made Levant a household name.

Levant’s first autobiographical book, A Smattering of Ignorance, was published in 1940, and immediately rose to the top of the bestseller list. So, too, when he was signed to a recording contract his albums became instant hits. He became one of the principal concert pianists of the 40’s, eclipsed in adulation only by the very greatest performing artists, Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein. Inevitably, he began a movie career.

Until the demands of his newfound popularity made it too trying, Levant sought success not just as a performer but also as a composer of “serious” music in the new modernist idiom championed by Arnold Schoenberg. Indeed, he persuaded Schoenberg, then teaching at UCLA, to become his instructor in composition. Levant’s work showed promise, but he could never fully commit himself to the discipline required by art music; besides, playing other people’s music—especially that of Gershwin, to whom he dedicated himself after Gershwin’s early death—offered surer rewards.

By the early 50’s, both Levant’s career and his life were beginning to fall apart. He developed a growing addiction to painkillers, on top of his chain-smoking and incessant coffee binges; he suffered a heart attack; and eventually the strains of both his work schedule and his underlying personal insecurities took their toll. By the mid-50’s, obsessive-compulsive rituals and addictions unraveled whatever was left of a cloak of sanity, and he had become a frequent patient in mental hospitals.

Yet the resilient Levant began to use his sickness as material for a new kind of shtick, what might be called “confessional” humor. He did this on his own television talk show in Los Angeles and then, for a national audience, in appearances with Jack Paar. Levant’s lack of inhibition about the formerly taboo subject of mental illness made these performances offputting or scary to some, but intriguing to many others. Encapsulating and recasting his experiences in book form in The Memoirs of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance of Being Oscar, Levant managed to hit the best-seller list twice again in his final creative brushes with fame. But he spent much of his last decade—he died at age sixty-five in 1972—sleeping incessantly, mired in despondency, wondering, like the rest of the world, what had happened to Oscar Levant.

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Such is the basic outline of a rich, complex, and truly surprising life, told well by the husband-and-wife team of Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. Wrestling with a maddeningly paradoxical character, the authors manage to convey the twists of Levant’s life with economy and skill, and to lend their tale a sense of coherence.

But here lies a problem: for the story they tell is a little too coherent. In essence, Kashner and Schoenberger’s Levant is a remarkably talented man besieged from an early age by a sense of free-floating guilt, phobias galore, and crippling self-doubt. The authors make out Levant’s life to be a painful, futile struggle of talent with self-destructiveness, with the latter ultimately winning out.

This is a plausible spin on Levant’s life; in fact, it is his own spin, presented in mordantly comic form in his autobiographical books. But another spin is possible, one that would proceed not from the question of how such a talented man could be so crippled by doubt, but rather from the question of how a man so enfeebled by neurosis could accomplish so much.

Levant was certainly insecure, always feeling the sting of slights, often more imagined than real. And he suffered at times from awful stage fright. Yet he nevertheless enjoyed a fantastically successful concert career, and his apparently fragile ego was able to subordinate itself to that of a one-time rival, George Gershwin, who, he recognized, possessed the superior gift for melody.

And lest we be tempted to take Levant’s disavowal of ambition as a serious composer for a sign of self-doubt, consider how he got to that point in the first place. Here was a largely self-taught pianist, without any formal training to speak of in the building blocks of harmony and orchestration. And yet this piano man and Broadway tunesmith had the nerve to approach Arnold Schoenberg, the most ascetic of the high modernists, to tutor him in the esoteric art of atonal composition. A strange kind of insecurity indeed.

It is a pity that the first full-length biography of Levant should not emphasize the more affirmative dimensions of his life. Today’s readers, after all, are quite accustomed to stories of genius overwhelmed by madness and collapse, and do not need to be encouraged to find Levant’s self-destructiveness more compelling than his accomplishments, his vitality, and the amazing range of his friends. This is all the more regrettable in that it obscures what is valuable and enduring in Levant’s brand of confessional humor, unwittingly linking it with a comic style that by now has become an obnoxious affront to intelligence and wit.

By the 1980’s, the comic mode to which Levant gave impetus, and whose practitioners ranged from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen, had degenerated into self-indulgence and belligerence. “Angry” comics like Andrew Dice Clay and the late Sam Kinison; monologists like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian; “shock-radio” hosts like Don Imus and Howard Stern; and scatological performance artists like Karen Finley and Annie Sprinkle—all force their audiences to embrace their often insufferable eruptions of self in a kind of guerrilla theater in which the audience becomes an object of assault.

All this is a far cry from Levant, who regaled his audiences with jokes about his mental state and his addictions, but with no pretense of dragging others into his own maelstrom of self-destruction. Rather, Levant’s wit, a continuation by other means of the smartaleck persona cultivated by Jewish comics for a generation, was a way of reconciling himself to his own contradictions. When, for instance, he referred to his Catholic second wife and their daughters as “the goyim,” the point was to be funny and irreverent, but with the background understanding that he had no intention of sacrificing the family feeling he still held dear; the joke was really on himself. Or take this passage from The Memoirs of an Amnesiac:

I think the most awesome thing I ever said on television was in the spring of 1964 when Jack Paar asked me what I had wanted to be when I was a kid. I said that when I was a boy I told my father and mother, “I want to be an orphan.” There was a delayed reaction in the audience—one of sheer, quiet horror.

At this point in his life—1964—Levant’s awkwardness and insecurity, which once seemed a kind of lovable goofiness, had been twisted by mental and physical ravages into something ugly and monstrous. Yet in making a joke of it, he blamed no one but himself—his own insular intensity, his failure to define his feelings without kicking back at others, his own misunderstanding of human relationships. Others were simply invited to enjoy the performance.

A Talent for Genius, well-paced and written in an unobtrusive style, reacquaints us with a truly lively mind and an original and brilliant character, but covers them over too neatly with the coarse conventions of a lesser age.

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