A Ship Without a Sail

Gary Marmorstein choses to open his biography of Lorenz Hart one week after Hart’s death as his younger brother Teddy (best remembered as “Dromio of Ephesus” in The Boys from Syracuse) and his wife discover that the will excludes any children of theirs from any inheritance. It is a strange and quite negative discovery, and Marmorstein attributes some of the unusual features of that will to the influence of Larry Hart’s partner with whom he had “produced nearly thirty shows and some eight hundred songs in twenty-five years,” Richard Rodgers.

I wasn’t three pages into the book before I was writing in the margin “I assume he supports this assertion later.” I looked for it as I read, but the evidence that convinced Marmorstein of the questionable influence of Rodgers on that final will never surfaces.

Marmostein makes other assertions without providing support. For example, he often refers to Hart’s views on the state of the American Musical Theater and asserts that “Larry was increasingly preoccupied by the idea of making new theater” without once quoting from Hart’s letters, statements or published writings. I, for one, wanted to read just what Hart had to say on the topic.

The result is that this highly readable and very enjoyable biography of Hart starts off on a sour note. It takes a while to recover, as it details the partnership with Rodgers over that quarter century. That partnership had its high points and its low points, but we are interested in it principally because of how high its highs reached, and starting off with perhaps its lowest low seems a strange choice.

The book does recover, however, and becomes a fascinating recital of events over the phenomenal career of one of the English language’s finest lyricists. Replete with details, the text allows you to make the acquaintance of Larry Hart – a charming, reclusive, social, giving, supportive, inhibited, generous, conflicted and pained man who gave us such a trove of literate treasures. He’s someone you would want to know.

I must admit to having something of the same addiction to interesting trivia as apparently Mr. Marmorstein does, so I thoroughly enjoyed slogging through this 450 page volume. But it seems clear that more rational folk than I could do with about a hundred fewer pages.

One gets the impression that Mr. Marmorstein has a great deal of difficulty leaving out anything he found in his research which interested him, whether it fits his narrative or even has anything to do with his subject.

In the midst of an otherwise fascinating chapter on Jumbo, the musical extravaganza for which Rodgers and Hart wrote the songs, Mr. Marmorstein spends a paragraph detailing a comment about musicals written by the legendary critic George Jean Nathan for no other apparent reason than that Nathan lived in a hotel 50 yards from the Hippodrome Theatre where Jumbo was performed.

In his discussion of By Jupiter he manages to explain that at the beginning of World War II packages of margarine had to be squeezed in order to mix up the ingredients. Later he informs us that novelist George Meredith wrote in 1881 that “Good work has a fair chance to be recognized in the end, and if not, what does it matter?” What made that quote matter is not clear.

Other items of trivia are more directly relevant and some are interesting indeed. Did you know that during the war the thirty-five-foot Douglas fir Christmas tree in Madison Square was bereft of its 3,500 lights? Or that Bing Crosby’s career was given a push by prohibition because saloons installed jukeboxes (25,000 sold by 1934, we learn) and his records on Brunswick (and later Decca) filled those jukeboxes?

In the equally fascinating chapter on the Rodgers and Hart show On Your Toes we learn that one of the members of the ensemble couldn’t take her eyes off of the choreographer’s nose. Who knows why?

But through it all, the mass of interesting asides and telling details results in a feeling that the reader actually knows Larry Hart. It is an accomplishment many theatrical biographies fail to achieve. They may provide the skeleton of a life in the theater but Marmorstein manages to put flesh on the bones and a real, live Larry Hart emerges.

A Ship Without a Sail
The Life of Lorenz Hart

by Gary Marmorstein
ISBN 978-1-4165-9426-0
527 pages including index, notes and bibliography
30 black and white photos

January 7, 2014