Keeping up Appearances

Our most enigmatic songwriter has become so thoroughly documented that one book won't hold him anymore

This year is the centenary of Richard Rodgers's birth, so by the time you read this, you will most likely have been awash in his music for months. But it is entirely possible that you won't have noticed, because to a surprising extent we are always somewhat awash in Rodgers's music. He is, by best accounts, the most often played and heard composer in the world, but such was his sheer variety, melodic inventiveness, and lack of musical ego that his work keeps disappearing into the crowd of Great American Songs 1920-1960 like a huge anonymous donation.

If personal style is what one falls back on when one runs out of things to say, Rodgers had either no style or several—a different one for each show, in fact. So although his songs are seldom grating, they don't give much away either, and one reads a new book about the man behind them with an automatic, if mild, interest. Have they found the missing piece yet? Is there a missing piece? Would it help to know?

Not that Rodgers hasn't already been written about in God's plenty, but rarely has so much ink said so little. From his mid-twenties on his life seemed to consist entirely of working on this and being seen at that—the third face from the left, if anyone was counting. Like each of the other four classic songwriters that everyone has still heard of—Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin—Rodgers first made his mark in New York, in the golden age of newspaper publicity, which tapered off circa 1930, when movie stars suddenly began to be the only stars. But each of the others was also good copy and fun to read about, if the reporter was lucky enough to catch Kern at the track or Porter in his gondola. Rodgers alone seemed to convey no characteristics whatsoever, leaving all that up to his lyricist Lorenz Hart, who fortunately possessed enough color for two and for a lifetime. The hyperactive Hart not only could talk enough to fill whole newspapers at a sitting but also caroused so conspicuously between times that keeping his name out of the papers became the issue, and Rodgers came of age playing the sobering part of sometime guardian and straight man to one of New York's real characters.

Which had its advantages. Since Hart was going to get the story anyway, Rodgers figured he might as well carouse a bit too, as Meryle Secrest reveals. In fact, by the time Hart had died and been replaced by the much milder Oscar Hammerstein, Rodgers was doing so much carousing that covering up had become a necessity as his drinking gradually became less charming and more unpredictable, and one suddenly had a sense of two straight men working together with no top banana in sight. Rodgers's name, in particular, never seemed to go out by itself anymore, but invariably became RodgersandHammerstein at work and DickandDorothy at play; in sum, he seemed to be the most dedicated partner and thoroughly married man in show biz, and an ornament to the Eisenhower years.

Signing up with Hammerstein in the first place had been the artistic equivalent of moving to the suburbs, and Rodgers's literal move to the 'burbs that same year, 1943, would prove to be the perfect postwar blend of hypocrisy and wish fulfillment. On the one hand, his bi-location would permit his double life to go into overdrive—but, as I learned from a mutual friend, he also wasted several of his most celebrated years vainly trying to talk his way into a local country club that apparently didn't take Jews, or theater people, or whatever. So he doubled up on the blandness, and that's the version that "living memory" now remembers, and has until this book been stuck with.

Why, with genuine royalty virtually at his feet now, did Rodgers bother with the provincial nonentities at this ridiculous club? Well—his father would have understood. By 1902 Dr. William Rodgers had reached what might be called the awkward stage of American assimilation, and was almost too respectable. But he had mixed the signals for his two sons by raising the family in the home of his much richer and cruder in-laws, who embodied all the harshness, noise, and sense of overcrowding of an earlier time. And maybe the contrast nudged Richard's imagination on the eventual road to quiet lawns and empty rooms, and PTAs and country clubs. At any rate, that is where his Second Act found him, growing ever more remote and regal in his Bermuda shorts and even, like a regular mogul, writing a memoir, called Musical Stages, to hide behind forever. Later Joe Fox, his editor on that book, would confide his frustration at having to beg for a straight answer to the simplest personal question: "Was Larry Hart really a homosexual?" "I never noticed."

Gentlemen may not notice things like that, but Rodgers certainly did, and the good news is that his family has finally delivered on the second half of a one-two punch to Daddy's pretensions that began back in 1988, with the publication of Dick's breezy, sometimes bitchy, always talkative letters to his late wife, Dorothy, and culminates now with the memories and in-house gossip of his daughters, Mary and Linda, as incorporated into Secrest's workmanlike biography.

The result is rather like discovering that the Sphinx kept a diary. Just like that, our most enigmatic songwriter has become so thoroughly documented that one book won't hold him anymore. But this one at least gives the definitive view from the family, complete with its biases and insights.

In his memoir one finds that Rodgers can barely wait to tell us how impossible his family was to live with—a charge that rings strangely down the years, because in an introduction to a later edition of that book his daughter Mary made the same charge about him—not that he was bad (Secrest says he could be startlingly generous), just impossible. The one gift his whole gifted family lacked was apparently the smallest one for amiable chitchat. The first sounds that Richard's sensitive ears picked up in their city quarters were his grandmother's sarcastic tirades and his grandfather's defiant growls, broken only by his mother's occasional wistful piano playing between bouts—which may have given Dick his first, fatal taste for comfort music. His father, who might have taught him some adult alternatives, preferred to spend his family time in lofty, disapproving silence.

Never mind. In no time Richard Rodgers had struck the piano himself and had found with almost the first chord that it could solve practically everything, bringing peace even to his grandmother and enhancing his own status enormously—if he could just get to it before his envious brother Mort broke his fingers or set fire to the piano.

In Musical Stages, Rodgers introduced the piano right up front among the relatives, but it would turn out to be much more important than that, becoming with time also his imaginary friend and alter ego, to and through which he could say absolutely anything he wanted and explore his own outer limits of tenderness and wit while his impossible family looked on in admiring silence—or, at any rate, silence.

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