1:53 pm Jul. 3, 2012
The 1958 album Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, a study in melancholy, includes two songs by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer: “Blues in the Night” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”
Sinatra’s vocals on these tunes are widely held to be among his finest work, performances of extraordinary eloquence and beauty. Yet for all the grandeur of those songs, and for all the implacable darkness of Only the Lonely as a whole, “Spring is Here” has always seemed to me to be the album’s most harrowing track. The title is all innocence, and Nelson Riddle’s arrangement evokes sun-dappled greenery and chirping birds. But, oh, the words:
Spring is here.
Why doesn’t the breeze delight me?
All the stars appear.
Why doesn’t the night invite me?
Maybe it’s because nobody loves me.
Spring is here, I hear.
Lorenz Hart’s desolate lyric turns Richard Rodgers’ soaring melody into a howl of pain. Hart’s artistic brilliance and personal misery are chronicled in a magnificent new biography by Gary Marmorstein, A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster, available tomorrow). Hart’s lyrics, Marmorstein writes, “disclose what it’s like to be excluded from [a] party: to be standing outside looking in” while feeling “undesirable and insignificant.”
The darkness of Hart’s lyric for “This Funny World” (“If you’re beaten, conceal it,/ There’s no pity for you”) so unnerved Belle Baker, who was to give its first performance in the show Betsy, that she commissioned a more upbeat number from Irving Berlin and sang that instead. Hart’s songs could be tender (“My Funny Valentine,” “Isn’t It Romantic?”), topical (“Zip!”), or meta (“Johnny One Note”), but it is their sadness that sticks in the mind: “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “It Never Entered My Mind.”
And yet Hart, born in 1895 to German-Jewish immigrants living in Harlem, seemed to be the life of the many parties he attended: he “spent everything in his pocket” and “craved company,” according to Marmorstein. And while he may have thought himself undesirable—he was less than five feet tall and a closeted homosexual who apparently never had a lasting relationship—he made sport of his stature and was loved and admired perhaps more than he felt he deserved.
At the Weingart Institute, a Catskills summer school he attended in 1908 and 1909, he was a precocious wordsmith, already fishing for laughs: “My heavy brain does not permit me to grow in a vertical direction,” he wrote.
The producer Leonard Sillman remembered Hart as “the most gentle of geniuses,” and no less an authority than F. Scott Fitzgerald called him the poet laureate of America. Richard Rodgers, his methodical and strait-laced partner, wearied of the alcoholic Hart’s erratic behavior and eventually formed a new partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II. First, though, he volunteered to have himself admitted to a sanitarium along with Hart. And when Hart refused, urging the composer to forget him and wishing the new team good luck, Rodgers wept.
A great-grandnephew of the poet Heinrich Heine, Hart was an erudite man who knew at least four languages and had devoured Shakespeare and other classics as a child. His father Max, from whom Hart inherited a love for the stage and for beer, was a real estate broker and con artist, a stout “voluptuary” whose West 119th Street brownstone teemed with characters of all stripes, including members of New York’s Yiddish and German theatrical troupes. By the time Lorenz Hart enrolled in a Columbia extension class in dramatic technique, he was entertaining friends at all hours at the “bohemian” Hart home, making free with the old man’s liquor, food, and cash.
Booze was the downfall of Lorenz Hart. During the heyday of his career with Rodgers (which spanned a quarter-century and nearly forty stage and film scores), Hart’s taste for the tipple could be a gag; by the late 1930s, he was passing out regularly, and whatever comic spectacle his drunkenness had ever had vanished. In November 1943, he made a drunken nuisance of himself at a revival of A Connecticut Yankee (a 1927 Rodgers and Hart hit) and was removed from the theater at Rodgers’ request. He vanished for days, turned up in the gutter outside an Eighth Avenue bar, and despite a massive dose of penicillin (obtained with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt), died of pneumonia at the age of 48.
To his credit, Hart at his most lucid dismissed the Romantic hogwash that conflates artistic achievement, dissipation, and “genius.” Success, he said, was a matter of discipline and elbow grease.
“[Rodgers and I] meet at 11 a.m. and from then on it is hard work without a trace of genius to make it easier.” One paper praised the team for their lack of “chi-chi about the ‘muse’ or inspiration.”
The boys were introduced by a common friend in 1919; both had grown up near Mount Morris Park and enjoyed all forms of musical theater. Working together at a breakneck pace, they wrote varsity shows at Columbia (both attended but did not graduate from the university), numbers for revues, and original musicals. They scored their first major hit in 1925 with “Manhattan”—a song that one lunkhead producer had passed on several years earlier.
Denied a full human relationship by the bigotry of his day (and perhaps also by the imponderables of fate and disposition), Hart nonetheless had one great love: the city of New York. He may have enjoyed California’s weather (and somewhat freer gay scene), but his intellectually sharp, disenchanted lyrics marked him as a New Yorker through and through.
One of the marvels of A Ship Without a Sail is Marmorstein’s deft interweaving of urban and social history with the whirlwind story of the Rodgers and Hart partnership. He quotes Fitzgerald on the city’s exuberance after the Great War: “New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world.” He explains why incandescent lighting mattered (it made the dark urban jungle safer and more welcoming), when and where transit lines were built, and how they shaped the city’s ethnic mix. And his graceful prose allows us to see 1930s New York transforming before our eyes:
Radio City Music Hall, anticipated to become the greatest of all Art Deco theaters, was nearing completion. The city’s steel-and-concrete muscularity was softened here and there by vestiges of an older New York: hansom cabs clustering around Central Park South; bishop’s-crook lampposts still lining many of the avenues and recalling an Edwardian elegance; cast-iron arcades and kiosks that hadn’t yet been torn down; and tugboats, beautiful in their squat, unprepossessing way, pushing along the Hudson.
(Incidentally, the American Folk Art Museum’s show Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions includes a film that illustrates New York’s changing terrain, an apt complement to this aspect of A Ship Without a Sail.)
As for the shows and songs, here too Marmorstein’s work is exemplary. He walks us through plots at length because Rodgers and Hart were keen for the musical numbers in their shows to reveal character and advance action—a facet of their art that can be lost on those of us who know their songs only as discrete units in the American Songbook.
Marmorstein shows us why the Rodgers and Hart partnership was groundbreaking: in part because they took to heart William Butler Yeats’ advice to tell time-honored stories using snappy, everyday language. And he illuminates subtle facets of their art, including the social satire in “Manhattan” (when it was written, Mott Street in July reeked, and swanky folk wouldn’t have been caught dead there); and the ribaldry that was often bowdlerized out of Hart’s lyrics. Ella Fitzgerald’s sumptuous recording of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” for example, includes original lyrics, sanitized lyrics, and lyrics written specifically for the film version of Pal Joey.
In the end, the only major flaw of A Ship Without a Sail is intrinsic to its subject. Hart’s life wasn’t “tragic”: tragedy, at least as Aristotle defined it, entails dignity and catharsis. Hart’s life was a sorry mess. True, he accomplished much in his 48 intemperate years: he wrote lyrics for some 500 songs, dozens of them standards, and he was a loyal, great-hearted friend to many. But in reading his story, you long for him to settle down and choose a long creative life over addiction like, say, Tony Bennett, who at 85 is still topping the Billboard charts and making our world more joyous and beautiful.
Hart, instead, lived maybe half a creative life before joining his parents at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens. Still, as Marmorstein notes, American music without the songs that he and Richard Rodgers wrote is “unimaginable.” And if a classic is a work “that has never finished saying what it has to say,” then Lorenz Hart’s lyrics at least will live to a very great age.
More by this author:
- A Pasolini series at MoMA provides occasion to revisit the principled, prolific filmmaker
- A rare chance to contemplate Renaissance painter Rosso Fiorentino at The Morgan