The Magazine

Little Boy Blue

The brief, unhappy transit of Lorenz Hart.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By KATE LIGHT
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With Richard Rodgers and his wife so often apart, Rodgers’s letters home provide snapshots of his work with Hart, revealing a none-too-gracious Rodgers. To Dorothy, in 1937: “Had dinner with the shrimp last night, and hit the hay at a very early hour while he went about his nefarious (get it?) business.” The bigoted tone, just shy of insult, seems his default setting, and not just in private. On Canadian radio, Rodgers was asked whether the boys’ music-making ever caused complaints from neighbors. “Whenever someone comes up to complain,” Rodgers replied, “I just pick [Hart] up, put a bottle in his mouth, and walk the floor with him. ‘Little Junior needs to be fed.’ ” 

“The studio audience roared,” writes Marmorstein. “Larry was used to this theme.” Indeed, the press harped on Hart’s five-foot stature: “Larry Hart has a silk hat that is as tall as he is,” quipped Walter Winchell in 1927. 

Hart was not writing home, but one’s sense of him often comes from his lyrics. In 430 pages, he speaks only a few times, and he left behind very little prose. We see a silhouette of the man, reflected against smoky bars, backstage walls, and murky late-night comings and goings. Finally, replete with hospitalizations and rescues from the gutter, we see his final alcoholic days in heartbreaking detail.

Whatever Hart’s chronic evasions, however, the boys cranked out songs in a few days or hours—in hotels, on trains, ships, planes, and in corners of a set. When present and willing, Hart was fluid; he’d prop himself against a piano or a pillar, write a few choruses, then disappear into a bar while the new material was rehearsed. As described in an unsigned New York Herald Tribune piece, “To watch Larry Hart write a lyric .  .  . is to become as exasperated as is possible to a mortal man who is also a writer.” Asked to provide another chorus for the title song of The Girl Friend, Hart 

seemed to be disappearing behind pieces of the set; while dancers in rehearsal pounded the floor, furniture was being moved, lights were adjusted, and cast and crew were calling out to one another, he would finish the thing in minutes. 

Pal Joey cast member Stanley Donen reported that Hart, asked for extra choruses for the song “Zip,” stepped to the back of the theater and wrote two great ones. He was photographed revising “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” on the mirror in Gene Kelly’s dressing room. Hospitalized for alcoholism in 1942, he wrote songs for By Jupiter between therapies, with Rodgers at a piano that had been wheeled in once before, for surgical patient Cole Porter.

Opposites in build, temperament, sexuality, and lifestyle, and riding the waves of Hart’s drinking, Rodgers and Hart partnered for 25 years. Hart’s charms may have been lost on Rodgers, but not so the charms of the lyrics. Evasion-by-humor factored in many an interview: Was it true, a reporter asked in 1940, that they were dissolving their partnership after Pal Joey? Rodgers’s answer: “We’ve been parting for 22 years and we still are.” Richard Rodgers wrote a lifetime’s worth of songs (800) and shows and film scores (more than 30) with Hart. He went on to write another lifetime’s worth of shows with Oscar Hammerstein II. 

The first partnership did not stop for death, but just short of it; Rodgers had had enough. Hart, the man who hated to be alone, was truly desolate. Between Teddy’s marriage, his mother’s death, and the misguided dismissal of his live-in cook of 20 years, Larry Hart was sinking fast. In 1943, to Rodgers’s credit, having already begun his work with Hammerstein, he asked Hart to revise A Connecticut Yankee, producing it himself. Whether the project was meant to take the sting off Oklahoma’s success, provide Hart a reason to live, or simply to be a theatrical endeavor, Hart wrote brilliant lyrics for the revamped show, adding “To Keep My Love Alive” (seven choruses, all golden). But on opening night, he had to be firmly escorted from the theater. 

These were not easy times to be homosexual. Though there was a gay culture in New York and Hollywood, it was deeply “counter,” and Marmorstein, well versed in the social history of the time, handles the subject discreetly and compassionately. One wonders how Hart would have fared in a more tolerant era.