• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.
If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.
• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.
Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50’s and early 60’s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.