Keeping up Appearances

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

By Wilfrid Sheed

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.

The boy's precise relationship to the instrument would be defined still further by his parents' hobby of bringing sheet music home from new musicals and singing together at the piano while his mother played. This gave his gift a practical link with the outside world, and gave Rodgers himself a model of perfect happiness. Harmony at home, love on the stage, music everywhere. Hit me again. And again.

The most execrable child-raising can sometimes pan out—up to a point. Unfortunately, the piano never taught Rodgers a better way to cope with domestic situations than just to play something, or shut up like his father, or turn truculent like his grandfather. Any finer points, such as manners or conversation, he would have to learn from the stage, which had become his spiritual home by the age of twelve or so. And his parents don't really seem to matter again until they are sitting in the orchestra applauding their son—nice people after all, who, rare among artists' parents, thoroughly approved his chosen life: a life that he, perhaps in return, proceeded to keep as outwardly square as he possibly could, hiding his sins in the best Ivy League manner, eventually courting at full length a most suitable and ladylike young woman named Dorothy Feiner, and trying vociferously to be faithful to her at first.

Meanwhile, back in his real life, he had met the two most important elements in the early part of his career: the music of Jerome Kern, which combined for the first time the concepts "American," "classy," and "popular"—Eureka!; and the indispensable Larry Hart, with whom Rodgers, at sixteen, started to unwrap his extraordinary gift for melody.

In the matter of Larry Hart, who is easily her second most important character, Secrest winds up at least another book away from the last word—not because she isn't fair to him but because the weight of her material falls so heavily on his crack-up in his last years that it reinforces the conventional version of the funny-looking little guy who writes exquisite love songs but cannot find love himself, so naturally drinks himself to death. In the silly movie Words and Music (1948), Mickey Rooney hammered this image home by playing Hart as a lovelorn dwarf, so perhaps it's worth noting that Rooney himself married the likes of Ava Gardner and Martha Vickers, and that Larry Hart, too, could apparently look positively handsome with a wave of his wit and charm. Dwarves and near dwarves don't have to be lovelorn—although if, like Hart, they are also gay but keep proposing to girls anyway, they could have a problem.

But until the bills came due on his alcoholism, Hart also had an enormous capacity for enjoying himself, and Musical Stages gave no impression that the reader was about to meet a basket case when Rodgers first walked into the Hart apartment. On the contrary, Rodgers found that Hart had easily the richest and most entertaining mind he'd encountered so far, a mind stocked to the brim with both high culture and low—the German operettas that Hart had recently translated (he was also distantly related to Heine), and the latest word from the street (and below the street). Better still, it was a mind stocked with ideas about both songs and musicals which echoed and clarified Rodgers's own.

In later years Rodgers would sternly talk about "a statute of limitations on gratitude," but in this case there should have been none, because the Rodgers-in-the-piano had finally met his match: not only a friend he could talk to but one who could talk back, and who, while loving Rodgers unconditionally, would meet the first threat of his disabling musical sentimentality with the cold eye and sour tongue of a perpetual hangover, and would slap a derisive lyric on it like a STOP sign. So Rodgers would dig beyond his natural facility into parts unknown. Alter egos have inner lives too, and the Rodgers-in-the-piano proved to be as subtle and witty and even likeable as anyone else in American music. In her introduction to Musical Stages, Mary Rodgers talked of loving her father's songs and of that's being enough. But if so, it is also enough to make one love Larry Hart—along with his gemütlich mother and disreputable father, who in combination taught Rodgers that you could belong to a technically higher social class than his own without being the least bit respectable or bourgeois.

Unfortunately, the lesson lasted only as long as Hart did, and the faster the great songs began to come ("Manhattan," "Where or When," "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "With a Song in My Heart"—the list goes on and on), the faster the success and the dislocations of success came too, and in no time Hart's alcoholism was galloping toward the finish line in the manner of Dylan Thomas's and Brendan Behan's. Spurred on by a particularly disorienting trip to Hollywood in the mid-1930s, Hart started regularly disappearing for days on end, and scribbling his lyrics on envelopes and cocktail napkins, and fraying any enchantment the fussy Rodgers had ever felt for him, until probably the only thing keeping them together was the imperturbably high quality of the lyrics. "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" and "Falling in Love With Love"—the scores of Pal Joey and The Boys From Syracuse were dashed off during these nightmare years as if nothing were wrong, and as if to prove that the artist within Larry Hart was ultimately just as serious and indomitable as the one inside his partner.

Then it was over, and Hart had died after literally lying in a gutter, and Rodgers, who might have done more to help him, would never get that close to anyone else again. Instead the scene seems to change sharply from a 1930s tableau of kids putting on shows together to one of those slick 1950s offices from which Mr. Big, who is now Rodgers himself, emerges in time for the 5:25 to Scarsdale every day. Songwriters need to stay in tune with their times, and even the family Rodgers returns to at night is a perfect period piece, happy on the outside, rotten on the inside, and (as Secrest reveals more tellingly than she quite seems to know) an arena in which the latest ailments and prescription drugs can slug it out in human disguise while the children, who assume that the whole thing is really about them, can start work on their own Mommie Dearest. In the one corner we find Dorothy Rodgers (anorectic constipation), who has turned into a raging, capricious monster—as who would not? And in the other her husband (booze and tranquilizers), who seems permanently depressed and half stoned and who comes to life only one show at a time—just long enough to romance a new heroine, alienate the writer and the director, and kiss the whole chorus line good-bye before returning home to keep up appearances and to fail everyone all over again.

Like many tragedies, Richard Rodgers Part II is basically a soap opera with the stakes raised, the stakes in this case being nothing less than the future of the American musical. And the tragedy, if that's the right word, is that in the end Rodgers's lifelong attempt to merge music, words, dance, and even scenery into something like great art would be adjudged kitsch and hardly art at all. He was genuinely stunned to find that later generations preferred his earlier work with Hart. Wasn't Hammerstein supposed to be the revolutionary?

But Hammerstein, as Rodgers should have known, wasn't even facing in the right direction. Back in the 1920s, while Rodgers and Hart were already talking about a new kind of American musical, Hammerstein was still cheerfully dabbling in old-fashioned operettas like Rose Marie and The Desert Song. He obviously loved the form in all its artifice and sentimentality, and this taste would sabotage every later attempt to add realism. Are we meant to be in Iowa this time, or Oklahoma? "Durned if I know." The effects are gorgeously inauthentic, and the judgment of the sixties would be cruel.

Yet one can seldom be absolutely sure that a genius doesn't know what he's doing. Since Rodgers wasn't going to find another Hart to jam with anyway, why not try something quite different? Instead of concocting tunes for the other guy to chase, why not let him go first, as Hammerstein manifestly preferred, and see what that brings out in me? Any artist who wants to last as long as Rodgers did had better change his style at least once to keep the flow going; Hammerstein's proudly corny words tapped not only a genuine new side of Rodgers but also a new aspect of his talent. Even the fertile Jule Styne expressed amazement at the speed and sureness of Rodgers's response to other people's words. Just say something like "Bali Ha'i" or "Oh, what a beautiful morning," and out would pop the perfect tune.

Songs so coolly produced could never to my mind compete with Rodgers and Hart's masterpieces. "But look at the number of them," as Sam Spade would say, and if you can forget the comparison with Rodgers and Hart, look at the quality, too. In our current melodic drought everything Rodgers ever wrote has appreciated wildly in value, and the scores for shows such as Oklahoma! and The King and I now seem like sufficient cause for uncomplicated, wholehearted hundredth-birthday celebrations. As for Somewhere for Me, Rodgers himself never knew where the songs came from or why, so there's no reason to expect Meryle Secrest to; and she at least wisely avoids the generic mistake of printing out the plots of his old shows. There is nothing to be found there now. But there probably is something in his life, and she has made a useful start on it. Her book is not, as one might suppose, an exercise in sheer debunking. The street version of Rodgers is actually much worse than this. Bad drunks leave bad memories, and we currently know much more about the years when Rodgers was slipping than about his heights. Secrest has righted the balance but underlined a final irony. Larry Hart, like Scott Fitzgerald, went down in flames early, and has been unequivocally admired ever since. Rodgers, like Hemingway, lived longer and crashed slowly, and Secrest's book is only the first shovelful toward digging him out.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/02/keeping-up-appearances/302420/