Commentary Magazine

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.

Lorenz Hart was born in 1895 to Max and Frieda, German-Jewish immigrants who had changed their last name from Hertz and moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to prosperous Harlem after their firstborn son died following a tenement fire. Five-foot-four and pushing 300 pounds, politically connected to the Irish and German Catholics who made things happen at Tammany Hall, Max dealt in coal, insurance, real estate, and what you will; indicted more often than the Chicago City Council, he was even convicted on occasion, but he always got off on appeal and didn’t really spend that much time in jail. When he was flush, he owned three cars at once, and Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady came to his parties; when he was broke, he pawned his wife’s jewelry.

Larry, as everyone but his parents would call him, was cut out for a different line of work. He was a great-grandnephew, on his mother’s side, of the poet Heinrich Heine. But W.S. Gilbert, the librettist for Arthur Sullivan, was a stronger early influence, and a lasting one. The Yiddish theater also inspired him, and his parents took him often.

Larry was a schoolboy literary prodigy, reading Chaucer and Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Maupassant, and Yeats, and writing poems and stories. At Columbia University, he studied journalism, which at the time meant getting an education, but he took greatest pride in writing for the Varsity Show; in Marmorstein’s phrase, except for athletics, it was “the most anticipated university event of the year.” At age 21, Larry had all he needed from Columbia academics; he left college without a degree and began translating song lyrics from German shows for a theatrical agency. A show called Crazy Dolly featured his first hit, “Meyer, Your Tights Are Tight.”

The defining encounter of his life came in 1919, when a Columbia friend brought the 16-year-old composer Richard Rodgers over to meet him. A doctor’s son from a secular Jewish family, a middling student but an ambitious musician, Rodgers gave Larry the fish-eye at first. Here is Rodgers’s initial impression, as he recalled it in his 1975 autobiography, Musical Stages:

His appearance was so incredible that I remember every single detail. The total man was hardly more than five feet tall. He wore frayed carpet slippers, a pair of tuxedo trousers, an undershirt and a nondescript jacket. His hair was unbrushed, and he obviously hadn’t had a shave for a couple of days. All he needed was a tin cup and some pencils.

A second glance, however, revealed Hart’s handsome individual features; a third look rather undid the effect of the second, though, as Rodgers saw that Larry’s head was too big for his body and gave him “a slightly gnome-like appearance.” But Larry’s conversation made a thrilling impact, and the most important thing was that they both admired the hit musicals written by Jerome Kern with Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse—and believed they could do better themselves.

In due course they did, but they had to work their way up, collaborating for several years on amateur productions. In 1925 Rodgers was all set to take a job in the babies’-underwear business when the break came: One of his father’s patients arranged an audition for a revue to be written and performed by the junior members of the Theatre Guild. Their jaunty number “Manhattan”—“We’ll have Manhattan,/The Bronx and Staten/Island too”—turned The Garrick Gaieties from a two-performance showcase into a Broadway hit that played for more than 200 performances. As Nolan writes, “‘Manhattan’ was an enormous hit, the first popular song whose lyrics made headlines nationwide.”

Together they would write some 800 tunes for 30 Broadway shows and as many films. They were not only famous but respectable. The New Yorker ran a two-part feature about them, and Time put them on the cover. Their shows were smash successes in their day—A Connecticut Yankee (1927), On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), I’d Rather Be Right (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940)—but as is true of most Broadway musicals of their time, they are difficult to revive.

Individual songs, however, remain jazz and cabaret standards, and uphold Rodgers and Hart’s place. “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Falling in Love with Love,” “Where or When,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “I Could Write a Book,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” are canonical. Dozens of others, including “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Glad to Be Unhappy” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” “Johnny One Note,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Manhattan,” “A Ship Without a Sail,” “Spring Is Here,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” “There’s a Small Hotel,” “With a Song in My Heart,” and “You Took Advantage of Me,” will always matter to musicians and listeners who take popular song seriously enough to demand of it, as is appropriate, audacity, urbanity, gaiety, melancholy, and loveliness.

Usually Rodgers wrote the music first, and then Hart wrote the words. The inventiveness this required of Hart is staggering. He seemed able to summon any subject and tone on command. Of course, the matter usually had to do with love or its simulacra. Disappointment and disillusion figured prominently, and even many of the happier songs were shot through with plaintiveness. The rapid-fire multiple rhymes, cynical and cutting, in “I Wish I Were in Love Again” from Babes in Arms, are bloody with regret and funny as all get-out:

The furtive sigh,
The blackened eye,
The words “I’ll love you till the day I die,”
The self-deception that believes the lie,
I wish I were in love again!

And then there is “My Funny Valentine” from Babes in Arms, chestnut, perennial favorite, stroke after stroke of genius, and the anthem of all who hope for love despite feeling they were born unworthy:

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak,
Are you smart?
But don’t change a hair for me,
Not if you care for me,
Stay, little Valentine, stay!
Each day is Valentine’s Day.

Hart had loneliness and ruin written all over him from the start. During a working afternoon at Rodgers’s parents’ apartment early in their partnership, Hart reached continually for the liquor bottle, and Mrs. Rodgers said after he’d left, “That boy won’t be alive five years from now.” It took another 23 years of dissipation to finish the job, but if Mrs. Rodgers was off on the timing, she nailed the essential point nevertheless. Hart did not like to work and he loved—he needed—to drink. His native brilliance allowed him to accomplish marvels, but Rodgers literally had to be in the same room with Hart to get him to do anything. What he did get done was in danger of slipping from his unsteady mind. One night he called his friend Milton Pascal to read him the lyrics of “A Ship Without a Sail.” Pascal loved it. Hours later, Hart called again, distraught now: He had scribbled the song on a scrap of paper, the paper was gone, and he couldn’t remember the words. Pascal’s memory saved the day. Hart himself was soon past saving.

Like many alcoholics, Hart was first desperately gregarious, then desperately alone. For years the party roared on at his place. He didn’t just burn the candle at both ends; he took a blowtorch to it. As Nolan notes: “Once Larry Hart began making big money, his fate was sealed. He was a free ride, a soft touch, a money tree: All you had to do was shake him, and down it came.” This party child lived with his mother until she died, seven months before he did; she took surprisingly well to the commotion. When a woman singer was completing a striptease atop a table, Frieda wandered in, took a look, and with motherly solicitude said, “Oh, you poor child, you must be freezing,” and gave the girl her fur coat to cover up.

Hart’s nocturnal prowler’s nature, however, really emerged after his mother had gone to bed. Then he hit the town, often with his agent, sidekick, and reputed procurer, Doc Bender. Hart didn’t talk about these excursions, and no one else could say with certainty that he was pursuing a back-alley homosexual life, but everyone who knew him suspected as much.

In any case, the life Hart had was not the one he wanted. He asked two women, both lovely and gifted singing actresses, to marry him; they understood better than he did how that would work out, and turned him down. Hart was small and unhandsome, and he believed himself unlovably runty, stumpy, and ugly. His charm and brainpower could not overcome his shortcomings, real or imagined.

In 1943 Rodgers delivered Hart an ultimatum: Dry out in a sanitarium or the partnership is over. Hart refused. Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II to write Oklahoma!, which was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize. In November 1943, friends found Hart sitting blind drunk in a downpour on the curb; he contracted pneumonia and died soon thereafter. A nurse said his last words to her were, “What have I lived for?”

Like most artists, he lived for his work and the pleasure it gave to his peers and the wider audience. Hart admired in others what he hoped they would admire in him. To Ira Gershwin he dashed off a mash note in 1925, praising the Gershwins’ Tip-Toes, which heralded a smart and snappy future for popular entertainment:

It is a great pleasure to live at a time when light amusement in this country is at last losing its brutally cretinous aspect. Such delicacies as your jingles prove that songs can be both popular and intelligent.

Some critics and rivals and ordinary listeners found Hart’s lyrics to be top-heavy with intelligence, too showy in their wit to be genuinely popular. The lyricist Howard Dietz flashed his own wit in a derogatory sideswipe: “Larry Hart can rhyme anything. And does.” In a 1928 newspaper interview, Hart defended himself against the accusations that he was too clever several times over and could never capture the nation’s heart: “Mr. Rodgers and myself are striving for the public consumption, and this means not for the intelligentsia but for men, women, girls, and boys from every walk of life.”

Rodgers and Hart enjoyed not only public acclaim but also more rarefied esteem. F. Scott Fitzgerald called Hart the poet laureate of America. One wonders then whether Hart would have been tickled or nettled by Fitzgerald’s remark, in a letter to his daughter cited by Marmorstein, that sometimes he wished he had become a writer of popular diversions in the Rodgers-and-Hart fashion, and he regretted that his inbred seriousness had closed off that possibility: “I guess I am too much of a moralist at heart and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form rather than to entertain them.”

Between Babes in Arms, a show Fitzgerald loved, and The Great Gatsby there can be no legitimate comparison in quality. One can only be glad that Fitzgerald had to be the writer he was. But that doesn’t mean one can’t also be glad that Hart wrote as he did. “Poet laureate of America” sounds too rich a title for Hart; reread the last pages of Gatsby and a more likely candidate emerges.

Nevertheless, Hart deserves another hearing, and another, for sheer pleasure’s sake, by those who can still take pleasure in such airy and antic creations. Since popular music in this country has spent nearly a half-century descending into brute cretinousness and bringing its listeners along with it, the songs of Rodgers and Hart will necessarily appeal to a far more exclusive taste than they did in their day, but the taste will not die out: It will continue to live among the same people who enjoy the best of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

About the Author

Algis Valiunas reviewed Satisfaction ‘Not’ Guaranteed in our September issue.

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