A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart Looks at the Woeful, Triumphant Career of the Great Lyricist

The human Hart

'I was small [when I was born], and am still small, because my heavy brain does not permit me to grow in a vertical direction." The cockeyed witticism, from a jocular self-interview that the teenage Lorenz Hart published in a high school periodical, shows that his signature attitude toward life was already firmly in place, years before he had begun to write the song lyrics that made him one of the immortal figures of the American musical theater. The line's ironic bravado, barely concealing an undercurrent of painful rue, crystallizes Hart's tone, a perfect balance of outward humor and inner hurt.

As Gary Marmorstein's flawed but informative new biography, A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster, $30), makes clear, Hart (1895–1943) had ample reasons for feeling inner hurt, starting with his physical appearance. Like his father and his doting younger brother Teddy, "Larry" Hart was a short man, standing just over five feet. Though not unhandsome, the head that contained his "heavy brain" was slightly too large for his body, giving him a faintly grotesque appearance. The outer difference from conventional "manliness" was seconded by an inner one: Hart was homosexual, in a time and a culture where such preferences had to be elegantly concealed.

The son of immigrant Jewish parents who spoke German and Yiddish mingled with accented English at home, Hart was elegant only while assembling written words on a page. The family home on 119th Street was viewed with suspicion by the parents of Larry's boyhood friends as "raffish" and "Bohemian." His father, Max, a somewhat shady small-time real estate broker, relied on his Tammany Hall connections to keep him out of jail during his frequent brushes with the law. The Hart house was open for socializing day and night, with food, booze, and Max's cigars available to Larry's college pals at any hour. Like his father, he became a chronic night owl.

Impish wordplay, plus booze binges: Rodgers and Hart, 1936
Courtesy Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences
Impish wordplay, plus booze binges: Rodgers and Hart, 1936

Details

A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart
By Gary Marmorstein
Simon & Schuster, 576 pp., $30

While Hart's family-bred generosity, along with his own unfailing wit and verve, always made him popular in a crowd, his looks and his same-sex longings usually meant that the party's ending would find him alone again. Increasingly, over the years, alcohol became his consolation. He had no qualms about making that, too, into a rueful joke, even while it was destroying him. "All-night parties, drinking like a lord/Fit into our social plan/Waking in the alcoholic ward/Is too good for the average man." Since Hart died, in Doctors Hospital in Manhattan, while drying out after one of his epic binges, the lyric, from 1936's On Your Toes, is exactly as prophetic as it is funny: pain and humor again balanced perfectly.

The dynamic tension between his anguish and his ever-alert intellect brought Hart extraordinary creativity. Broadway audiences then expected comedy songs that "went over" to offer additional witty stanzas when encored. Dozens of anecdotes (Marmorstein cites several) attest to Hart's ability to turn these out without blinking.

A master of impish wordplay, Hart was also a poet of intense melancholy (which he would invariably infuse with sardonic jokes), and a psychologically astute literary man with an unerring gift for the common touch. As any chronicle of his two-decade career makes clear, he did more than almost anyone else to shape the sensibility we associate with the American musical. His reward was to be adulated while alive, and then to be sloughed off and nearly written out of the history he had affected so greatly when Richard Rodgers, the composer to whose melodies he had spent his adult life fitting words, found himself turning in a different direction artistically. Even as narrated by Rodgers himself, the history of the musical granted little space for Hart's achievements.

Yet those who believe that Rodgers's subsequent collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II on Oklahoma! (1943) was the seminal event in the shaping of the American musical need to look back at Rodgers's late-'30s collaborations with Hart, climaxing in Pal Joey (1940). Serious themes are touched on (although lightly); songs emerge from character and situation (though in a carefree fashion). It was Hart who conceived of a musical in which a ballet would encase a pivotal element of the plot, resulting in On Your Toes, and it was Hart who brought George Balanchine into what proved to be a continuing collaboration.

Even earlier, Hart had been integral to the duo's triumphant Hollywood partnership with director Rouben Mamoulian—later to stage the original productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel—on the still-sparkling film Love Me Tonight (1932). The opening sequence, in which the work noises of early-morning Paris segue seamlessly into song, carrying the viewer from place to place, the sung lines alternating with rhymed dialogue spoken in rhythm, still constitutes a remarkable cinematic feat. And it's all Mamoulian and Hart, to the accompaniment of Rodgers's tunes.

The elation, creativity, and conviviality that make Hart's work an enduring delight were offset, for Rodgers and other Hart colleagues, by the downside, which wasn't just a matter of his personal unhappiness. Hart's darkly comic view of the world encouraged him to regard even his own aesthetic passions as trivial. Determined as he was to build musical comedies with coherent stories and characters whose songs arose naturally out of the action, he cared little about giving the coherent stories dramatic depth and substance. Rodgers, who viewed life more earnestly, bided his time, swept along by Hart's freewheeling inspirations, until, with World War II and the partnership in midlife crisis, he found a more congenial match for his earnestness in Hammerstein. It was not the technique of the musical theater that they changed together, but its tone. And not everyone today feels that the change was for the better.

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1 comments
hrmnkzglr
hrmnkzglr

In spite of what the Bible says (& what most Christian churches teach), there is a God. A God of infinite, unconditional Love. (In spite of the state of the earth now - or in historic memory.)

A God also known to many as Infinite Intelligence.

How do I know? Do you have the hours or patience to listen as I tell you my story & all the surprises revealed to me from the Spirit World? You really don't - especially on the very limited space afforded here.


Why I subscribed to the Offstage Voice Newsletter:

I just couldn't let this opportunity pass to tell the world (or the infinitesimally small portion of it who'll read this) how much I appreciate, how much I loved/love Lorenz Hart. (No, I never met him. I was 4 when he died.) Perhaps if I had known him I too couldn't have countenanced his behavior. I'll bet against that. Perhaps if I had known him he wouldn't have acted in any distasteful ways. On that...I'd bet.

I have a fantasy: In it I'm born maybe on Jan 1, 1900. I grow up to have a voice as good and as sweet and as powerful as any male singer has ever had. From the age of, say 14, I demonstrate my singing abilities all over the world. I'm truly an over-night sensation. There may be some people who can't stand me: my stentorian voice (yet capable of the most breath-taking pianissimos, and holding the sweetest or highest notes longer than any other tenor - remember blessed Franco Corelli?), or my gushing-with-good will and unconditional love type personality, or my stunning matinee-idol good looks. (They're the 1% minority of the world's population who can't stand me.)

Yes,I'd be 6'3" and as handsome as can be. With a perfectly proportioned muscular physique - just breath-takingly stunning! (As all who see me - especially in the nude, can testify.) A blue-eyed, green-eyed, a redhead, a brunet, a blond - whatever Larry Hart prefers. Yes, and I'm as loving as a human can be. I'm pure Love.

I met Larry Hart. I can't remember where or when. I think it was when I was 18. But YES! we meet. And the angels sing! It's love at first sight. I am gay, also, - of course! I sweep him off his feet. Carry him to my bed. Make love to him. So passionately, so gently, so joyously. It's a manifestly complete, a heavenly union - yet right here on earth! From that moment on - it's our blessed nuptial bed. Nobody near us - to see us or hear us - no friends or relations - while we're having sexual elations. Except the angels in the Spirit World. Who rejoice at our perfect love - perfectly expressed! I kiss him, cover him with unconditional kisses. He can't deny it - he knows he is loved! Knows (I know this seems unfair, but bare with us. For God's sake! Let there be Light. And Life. And Love!) - he knows that at least for us - we experience perfection. Paradise on Earth. And it stays that way. Well passed our 75th anniversary together. We are the grand marshals of a hundred gay-pride parades. When they become the rage. We are the poster boys for gay commitment. For gay bliss. Because of us, gay marriage is accepted 2 - maybe 3, decades earlier in the West. And now in 2014 even in the Muslim Word.

Yes, such miracles come true. Miracles like no one could ever have imagined.


May I also say, truly humbly, that it was my angelic voice in pre-June of 1914 that convinced the would-be-assassinators of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary (and his wife) that there is a Loving God. A God who could be appealed to - to bring about justice for their homeland. Thus preventing World War I (You DO know 700,000 men died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916? SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND men were pounded into the mud there in northern France! I'm pretty sure I was one of them in my previous past life.)  With no WWI, there was no WWII. No 40 million dead in that war. No Holocaust of 6 million Jews. It's amazing what a Voice of Pure Love can do.

In a fantasy.

 
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