Essay April 2013

Rodgers and Hart's Dysfunctional Partnership

Richard was disciplined and controlling. Lorenz was undisciplined, uncontrollable, and often drunk. But it worked.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“It’s smooth! It’s smart!

It’s Rodgers! It’s Hart!”

It’s Cole Porter from DuBarry Was a Lady—the song, “Well, Did You Evah!”; the singers, Betty Grable and Charles Walters; the year, 1939. When the song was recycled for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in the 1956 movie High Society, this snatch of Porter’s lyric was gone, but smooth, smart Rodgers and Hart weren’t, and more than half a century later they’re still with us, on scores of CDs and on iTunes, their most famous songs the meat and potatoes (or maybe the caviar) of countless jazz and cabaret artists. The year before Porter’s DuBarry, R&H had triumphed with both I Married an Angel and The Boys From Syracuse. A slew of other hit shows lay in the past, and Pal Joey was coming up, with By Jupiter on its heels.

The quality of their work was at its peak, their fame and fortune at their height. Yet just a few years later, the partnership was over, and Larry Hart—at forty-eight—was dead, while Dick Rodgers, only forty-one, was launched on his even more triumphant partnership with Oscar Hammerstein. The story of the irresistible and tragic Lorenz Hart, of his collaboration with the more grounded and less exuberant Richard Rodgers, and of the Broadway musical comedy from the twenties to the forties is the subject of Gary Marmorstein’s new soup-to-nuts biography of Hart, A Ship Without a Sail.

The book begins at the end of the story—with Larry’s death, and the complicated and ugly fight over his will, and the way Teddy Hart, his beloved younger brother, and Teddy’s wife, Dorothy, were (or weren’t?) done out of their fair share of his money. There was a ruthless, perhaps dishonest manager, but to Marmorstein there was a more subtle villain: Richard Rodgers. Not that he grabbed money for himself—he was scrupulous in his business dealings—but, we’re told, “countering Teddy Hart’s accusation of undue influence on his brother, Rodgers tiptoed along the precipice of perjury.” In the lawsuits that followed, Marmorstein writes, “Teddy Hart lost one appeal after another. Rodgers secured what he’d wanted: control of the copyrights to those extraordinary songs.” So ended the exhilarating and rewarding collaboration of twenty-five years—in rage, in grief, and in court.

Larry Hart and Dick Rodgers were both bright Jewish boys from Manhattan who at one point or another went to Columbia, but there the similarity in their backgrounds ends. The Rodgerses were well-to-do, Dr. Rodgers a prominent physician who enjoyed an haute-bourgeois life—elegant apartment, good connections, conventional environment. Max Hart, Larry’s father, wasn’t prominent, elegant, or conventional. Known as the Old Man, he was short, coarse, with a thick accent, and his manners were less than genteel. (No one ever forgot that at least once, in a moment of impatience, he urinated out a window.) Max claimed he was in real estate, among other respectable things, but essentially he was a con man with strong Tammany associations, convicted once for grand larceny and another time for fraudulent use of the mails, but both times freed on appeal. He never appeared abashed, and Larry had fun telling people that his father was “a crook.” Fortunately for the family, Max was usually in funds, and he spent his money lavishly—mostly on them.

Nothing was too good for Frieda Hart—Momma—a tiny, open-minded, open-hearted woman everyone adored. And nothing was stinted when it came to Larry and Teddy: the best food, the best clothes, the best schools in town.

Throughout Larry’s high-school and college years, the Harts’ house was an almost abnormally hospitable gathering place for all the pals the two boys brought home: an endless flow of food, drink, laughter, warmth, and talk that was both serious and provocative. Max, who liked a good laugh, a good meal, a good drink, and a good dirty story, would often join in and be the life of the party, while Frieda smiled and provided. As Frederick Nolan wrote in his excellent 1994 biography of Hart, Frieda “didn’t seem to mind [the gang’s] stripping her front parlor of furniture and turning the room into a sort of debating hall where politics, literature, poetry, and girls were hotly discussed until dawn.” No one else had a family like Larry’s. Yes, the Harts were disreputable, but they were generous and lively and fun. Dick Rodgers, years later, would call them “unstable, sweet, lovely people.”

Even as a young adolescent, Larry was writing lyrics and sketches, and Max, who had theatrical friends like Lillian Russell, took his older son’s precocious talent seriously. He had started taking Larry to theater and vaudeville when he was six, and the kid soaked it all up. He was also reading voraciously, mastering languages, writing for the school paper, going to a series of summer camps that specialized in putting on plays, skits, and revues. By the time he was in his twenties, he was in charge of the entertainment, staging such musicals as Leave It to Jane, one of the most popular of the famous Jerome Kern–P. G. Wodehouse–Guy Bolton Princess Theatre shows that he revered.

From the first moment, there was no doubt that the two of them would work together: it was love at first sight. Larry was twenty-three, Dick not yet seventeen.

All of this was an invaluable training ground and apprenticeship as Larry started moving into semiprofessional areas of the theater, most significantly the annual Columbia University Varsity Shows, which would run for a week in places like the Hotel Astor. He got the job of adapting the songs for an English-language version of a German musical that played in Yorkville, its star named Mizi Gizi, its hit song “Meyer, Your Tights Are Tight.” Soon he was translating German plays for the Shubert brothers, at fifty dollars a week. Not that he needed to earn a lot of money—Max had more than enough, and Larry lived at home, sharing a bedroom with Teddy (which he went on doing until Teddy married, in 1938).

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Robert Gottlieb has been the editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, and is the dance critic for The New York Observer. His most recent book is Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens.

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