The Hart of the Matter
America has never produced a Schubert or a Schumann, but we do have the Great American Songbook, which has been called our classical music. The composers Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers are its immortals, though such immortality might seem to some a prolonged old age, given that their finest tunes are heard nowadays as background music in chain Italian restaurants or played by the sensitive son in a political melodrama on cable television. Part of the reason these composers will last is that in popular song, lyrics matter as much as, or in some cases more than, the music, and the men who wrote the words were virtuosos in their own right. Berlin and Porter were their own lyricists; George Gershwin called on the ready cunning of his brother Ira; and both Kern and Rodgers wrote their most successful shows to words by Oscar Hammerstein II.
But the lyricist of supreme gifts, who could coruscate with comic brio, brood with eloquent simplicity, tap his toes or tap a vein, was Lorenz Hart. He served as Richard Rodgers’s exclusive songwriting partner for more than 20 years until he met an early and bad end. In the new biography A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster, 531 pages), author Gary Marmorstein discusses the show-business milieu in which Hart moved, makes deft observations about Hart’s lyrics, and movingly renders the chaos and sorrow of Hart’s alcoholic loneliness. Hart was perhaps better served by his 1994 biographer, Frederick Nolan, in Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway (Oxford, 451 pages), but Nolan was not allowed to quote from Hart’s lyrics by their copyright holders; Marmorstein has been granted such permission, which makes his book indispensable.
About the Author
Algis Valiunas reviewed Satisfaction ‘Not’ Guaranteed in our September issue.