Alec Wilder met Lorenz Hart in 1942, while listening to Mabel Mercer at Tony’s on 52nd Street in New York. At the time, Hart was working on All’s Fair, to become By Jupiter, his last show with Richard Rodgers. Years later, Wilder would write:
[Hart] told me that all his lyrics were concerned with character delineation and plot. He considered a lyric that ignored either of these to be unprofessional and untheatrical.
Gary Marmorstein, author of this new biography, explains that Hart’s words were “revelatory for Wilder, who was used to hearing the Rodgers & Hart songs unmoored from the contexts of their shows.” Those of us—that would be most of us—weaned, like Wilder, on unmoored Hart may now experience re-hitching the songs to the shows, and to the life. To imagine that this great master of wit and love felt pangs as each song left its family of character and context is to imagine only one of his varieties of loneliness.
Unmooring song from show, for theater writers, is both a blessing and curse. Let’s say a song enters the ranks of “standards”—as from Rodgers & Hart’s shows, one to four typically did. (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and “I Could Write a Book” from Pal Joey; “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and “My Funny Valentine” from Babes in Arms; “This Can’t Be Love” and “Falling in Love with Love” from The Boys from Syracuse; “There’s a Small Hotel” from On Your Toes, to name a few.) Writers must then stand by as layers of context, subtext, and irony they had carefully built in are swept aside and the song begins its new, lone, yet thrilling, life.
Hart’s own life was thrilling, until it wasn’t. “Somewhere along the line,” Alan Jay Lerner wrote, “there obviously did come a time when the joy of his professional success became drowned in the lost misery of his handi-cap-ped life.”
Possessed from a tender age of breathtaking creativity (“pinwheel brilliance,” Rodgers called it), Lorenz (Larry) Hart was born in Harlem in 1895. His father, Max, was a “career con artist” who was boorish and unstable, his ventures ranging from scheme to scam: kiting checks, signing his wife’s name to shady deals, possible arson. Hart’s mother, Frieda, was seemingly devoted and fun-loving, though not fleshed out in this book, and she lived with him until her death in 1943. Teddy Hart, a younger brother, was a character actor; Larry wrote The Boys from Syracuse for him. The brothers shared a bedroom until Teddy Hart married in 1938.
Teddy and Larry Hart grew up on Byron, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Gilbert & Sullivan, and attended the Irving Place Theatre (where they saw shows in German) and Yiddish theater. Adolescent Larry Hart wrote song parodies, short stories, and summer camp musicals, already combining classical references with contemporary ones. He enrolled in Columbia’s School of Journalism, and then dropped out. Fluent in German and English, he translated for United Plays, earning $50 a week. (One such translation was Molnár’s Liliom, later adapted into Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein.) After the First World War, Hart, then 23, was introduced to 17-year-old Richard Rodgers. “The boys” got to work, but as Hart eyed the liquor earlier and earlier in the day, Rodgers’s mother predicted, “That boy won’t be alive five years from now.”
Their output, with shows running in the United States and in Europe, was jaw-dropping. In 1926, Lido Lady opened in London and Peggy-Ann in New York, along with Betsy Kitsel for Ziegfeld and The Girl Friend written with Herb Fields. In 1927, One Damn Thing After Another opened in London; A Connecticut Yankee opened here. Soon, Hollywood entered the mix.
Marmorstein’s research is thorough. The early lyrics, with which he is impressively familiar, exude Hart charm; but the 1920s (Connecticut Yankee excepted) were awash in tepid plots and now-vanished stars—not scintillating reading, though not the fault of the biographer. It’s also a handicap that Hart, voluble in life and prolific in scripts and lyrics, left no memoir, no stash of letters, to bring himself back to life. But through a kind of cumulative imagining, the reader’s sense of him grows. Many figures here are just . . . figures—and I don’t know what might have remedied this. But after a few hundred pages, swept up in the momentum of the story, I didn’t mind.
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.
Ultimately, biographies end sadly: Men and women who have done wonderful things become sick and die—but usually after growing old. Hart cut to the chase, straight to deterioration and death, at 48. His last words were, “What have I lived for?” He was, by numerous accounts, funny and imaginative, generous and charming. Many consider him our greatest lyricist: love, life, irony, absurdity, loneliness, and loss, all cloaked in a smoke-and-alcohol haze. Said Hugh Martin, an arranger for The Boys from Syracuse, “The great tragedy was that he never found anyone.”
Kate Light, poet and violinist in New York, is the author, most recently, of Gravity’s Dream and the libretto to Once Upon the Wind.