THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
October 22, 2016
Welcome, friends. This week’s post is a sad story, but it’s a story that needs to be told. At least I feel it should be told, and I humbly hope I’m up to the task of giving a proper tribute to Lorenz Hart, one of my favorite writers. I’ve been a fan of Hart’s since I first saw the movie “Words and Music,” when I was eight years old. Years later, when my first book was published, a murder mystery titled Play Melancholy Baby, I dedicated that book to Lorenz Hart. Years after that I learned that Hart died on my second birthday (which was one day before my father’s death). Hart was not technically a story writer, but some of his song lyrics have the necessary ingredients of story: character, plot, conflict. Consider “It Never Entered My Mind,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” or “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” They’re stories, almost as poignant as the story of Larry Hart’s life and death.
The Death of Lorenz Hart
“Thou Swell, Thou Witty,” besides being the title of one of his most popular and successful songs, is probably how Lorenz Hart would have wanted his tombstone engraved. The description suited him well. Larry Hart, along with his partner, Dick Rodgers, was swell, all right. They were, for twenty-four years, one of the most popular and successful songwriting duos writing for the American musical comedy stage. They wrote the scores for 28 shows, as well as a half-dozen movies, and they came up with 500 swell songs. Larry was a swell guy off the stage, too: always laughing, always pouring the drinks and picking up the tab. He was always puffing on a swell cigar, always rubbing his hands together with fevered enthusiasm.
And oh my, was Larry witty. Oscar Hammerstein II called Lorenz Hart the cleverest lyricist to come along since William S. Gilbert. Who else but Hart would dare rhyme “holler I choose a” with “lollapalooza,” or “fratricide” with “mattress-side”?
Not many knew, though, that beneath the thin veneer of manic gaiety, talent, and charm festered a self-destructive, self-loathing, self-pitying loser. Others heard only “thou swell, thou witty.” Larry himself was haunted for life by another line he wrote: “Unrequited love’s a bore, and I’ve got it pretty bad.” He also wrote these telling words: “Sometimes I think I’ve found my hero, but it’s a queer romance.”
It wasn’t enough that Larry Hart was an alcoholic, in and out of hospitals for temporary drying out. He also had bad lungs, and was in and out of hospitals to recover temporarily from pneumonia in an era before antibiotics; no doubt those expensive stogies didn’t do him any good. It wasn’t entirely because Larry was homosexual, although he was ashamed of his homosexuality and was not the least bit out and gay about it, unlike other songwriters of his era, such as Ivor Norvello, Noël Coward, and Cole Porter. True, Larry repeatedly fell in puppy love with glamorous leading ladies of the musical stage, including Helen Ford, Nanette Guilford, and Vivienne Segal; but his love for them was a futile denial of his true sexual orientation. Besides, his crushes were doomed to failure because of Lorenz Hart’s most crippling curse.
Lorenz Hart was short. Very short. He stood barely five feet tall, and that was in two-inch elevator shoes. He had to buy his clothes in the children’s department of clothing stores. Unfortunately, Larry wasn’t cute short like Mickey Rooney (who played him in the biopic “Words and Music”). With a head too large for his body, he was more gnome than pixie. He was grotesque, or at least he thought he was. Who knows? Maybe his obsessive generosity was caused by a need to seem tall. Maybe his size issues made him feel inadequate with women and contributed to his homosexuality. Maybe alcohol was the only way he could forget about being an ugly midget.
According to Richard Rodgers, his collaborator, his best friend, his business manager, and his imperious boss, Lorenz Hart was difficult to work with. He was never on time, he skipped meetings, he skipped town, he disappeared whenever it was imperative that the duo write songs together. And when Larry was eventually persuaded or corralled into working, he wrote fast and refused to change a single word once it was down on paper. It’s a wonder those two geniuses were able to produce such fine songs, and it’s a miracle their partnership lasted as long as it did.
Richard Rodgers, from the time he and Lorenz Hart joined forces in 1919, when Rodgers was only eighteen, seven years younger than Hart, was in charge of the finances and made most of the business decisions. Rodgers was a hard-driven taskmaster. Later in his career he joked that people in the business called him “the big son of a bitch” when he was partnered with Lorenz Hart; after Hart died and Rodgers teamed up with the tall Oscar Hammerstein, they called him, Rodgers, “the little son of a bitch.”
As a rule, Rodgers chose which shows the team of Rodgers and Hart would write songs for; and as a rule Larry went along with Dick’s choices. Late in their partnership, however, they disagreed about a job Rodgers wanted to do, a musical comedy adaptation of Green Grow the Lilacs, a 1930 play by Lynn Riggs. The property was available, and the Theatre Guild offered the assignment to Rodgers and Hart. The play had a western cowboy theme, and Hart, who had always been a bon-vivant city slicker (the first big Rodgers and Hart song hit had been “Manhattan” and the team’s last big hit show was Pal Joey) refused to do it. Dick Rodgers, the big son of a bitch, was furious, and when he heard that Oscar Hammerstein was interested in taking the project on and was considering Jerome Kern as the tunesmith (Hammerstein and Kern had collaborated on the groundbreaking Show Boat in 1927) Richard barged in and persuaded Oscar to dump Kern and team up with Dick.
Oscar agreed, a decision that changed American musical theatre forever.
Dick told Larry the news, and that was it for Rodgers and Hart. They had one more production in the works, a revival of their own 1927 smash hit play, A Connecticut Yankee. The revival was to star Vivienne Segal, with whom Larry had been smitten since she starred in Pal Joey. Larry wrote a song for Vivienne to sing in the revival, the last song he ever wrote, “To Keep My Love Alive.” A Connecticut Yankee also featured Larry Hart’s theme song, “Thou Swell, Thou Witty.” This revival was scheduled to open November 17, 1943. It should have been a sentimental curtain call, a fond farewell to a writing team that had made popular music history. But by that time, everyone in show business knew Rodgers and Hart were finished as a team. Richard Rodgers had a new partner.
On March 31, 1943, eight months before the revival of A Connecticut Yankee opened in New York, the Broadway curtain rose on the debut of the new team, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their musical version of Green Grow the Lilacs, now titled Oklahoma!, was an immediate success, destined to break attendance records and usher in a whole new era of musical plays, where the story line was intimately connected to the score. The golden age of American musical theatre began that night and lasted for twenty years.
Larry Hart was gracious about Oklahoma! He attended opening night, laughed and applauded loudly, and congratulated Dick and Oscar after the show. But the end of his own career had arrived, and he may have known that he would not recover emotionally or physically. His mother, Frieda Hart, died a week later. He had lived with his mother all his life, somehow hiding from her his homosexuality and downplaying his alcoholism. With her gone, Larry was desolate and dissolute. He was even more at the mercy of freeloaders, especially Milton “Doc” Bender, a dentist and would-be theatrical agent, who had been Larry’s pimp and Mephistopheles for years and who now took him on his last manic, sad ride.
On the rainy evening of November 17, the revival of A Connecticut Yankee opened on Broadway. It was Lorenz Hart’s last show. When he arrived with an entourage at the theatre, already drunk, he found that no tickets were waiting for him and his companions, who included Helen Ford. Larry waited in the foyer while Helen went backstage to find out from Dick Rodgers what was going on. Rodgers was furious that Hart had gotten into the building, because he had left clear instructions that Hart should be not allowed inside. Helen returned to the crowded foyer and found no Larry, although his overcoat was still hanging in the cloakroom. She learned from a doorman that Larry had gone into a bar across the street. Helen and the rest of Larry’s unwelcome cronies gave up and left the theatre and drifted away.
Larry, however, was determined to see his last show. After a few more drinks, he went back across the street and sneaked through a side entrance and past the usher into the back of the theatre, where he stood as the lights went dim, the orchestra played the overture, and the curtain finally rose.
He paced back and forth behind the last row and behaved himself, but when Vivienne Segal, in the role of Queen Morgan Le Fay, began to sing “To Keep My Love Alive,” the last song Larry ever wrote, he lost control and began singing along with the star, his voice getting louder and louder, until he was dragged out of the theatre by ushers and pushed through the front door, out into the cold rain, without his overcoat.
He somehow made it to the apartment of his younger brother, Teddy. Teddy and his wife, Dorothy, tried to keep him warm and comfortable, but he escaped into the night and took a cab to Delmonico’s, where he was living. Two days later, he checked himself into Doctors Hospital with critical pneumonia.
Lorenz Hart died November 22, 1943.
His lyrics live on.
Acknowledgments: This piece first appeared in Black Lamb. Most of the information in the article comes from Rodgers & Hart: Bewitched, Bothered and Bedeviled, by Samuel Marx and Jan Clayton; Thou Swell, Thou Witty: The Life and Lyrics of Lorenz Hart, by Dorothy Hart; and Musical Stages: An Autobiography, by Richard Rodgers. These three books, and particularly the first two, quote extensively from primary sources, mainly correspondence and articles written by people who knew Lorenz Hart. Sometimes their memories conflict, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of every fact I’ve written here. The opinions are my own.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for November’s 99-word story submissions is November 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for November 12, and will stay posted for a week.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
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1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
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THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by the following sentence: I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.…
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