Rodgers and Hart's Dysfunctional Partnership

Richard was disciplined and controlling. Lorenz was undisciplined, uncontrollable, and often drunk. But it worked.

Rodgers and Hart
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).

While Hart’s career was inching forward, Rodgers was growing up. By the time he was nine he was composing melodies at the family piano—they just poured out of him. As a teenager, Dick was good-looking, athletic, sociable, interested in girls, and as conventional as the rest of his family. He provided tunes for a few amateur shows—fund-raisers for The Sun Tobacco Fund and the Infants Relief Society—and people were knocked out by his gifts. But he badly needed a writing partner, and in the spring of 1919 a friend had an inspiration: Larry Hart! He led Dick to the Hart ménage, and after a few awkward moments, Dick started to play some of his melodies, at which point, as Marmorstein (unfortunately) puts it, “Larry’s ears pricked up like a startled deer’s.”

Then Larry began to talk. As Dick remembered it years later,

He knew a great deal about rhyming, about versification, and I thought he was wonderful. He felt that lyric writers didn’t go far enough, that what they were doing was fairly stupid and had no point, didn’t have enough wit, they were too cautious, and he felt that the boundaries could be pushed out a good deal.

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. “I left Hart’s house,” wrote Rodgers a lifetime later, “having acquired in one afternoon a career, a partner, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.”

The boys got an early break. Through a pal from summer camp, Herb Fields, they came to know the Fields family—Herb’s sister, Dorothy, who would herself become a brilliant lyricist, and their father, Lew Fields, a onetime great vaudeville star who was now a major force on Broadway. By hook or by crook—or just family pressure—Fields picked up a very early R&H number called “Any Old Place With You” and stuck it in a current show of his. The show ran for only another half-dozen weeks, and the song went nowhere, but there they were, Dick just turned seventeen, on Broadway!

It would be a long time before they were back. After six years of turning out (or churning out) songs and librettos for various amateur venues like the Park Avenue Synagogue—that one was called Temple Belles—they were in despair. Dick, despite unwavering support from his family, knew he had to start earning a living, and was seriously considering going into the children’s-underwear business. Larry was heading for thirty, apparently going nowhere.

And then lightning struck. In 1925, New York’s most prestigious production company, the Theatre Guild, decided to put on a low-cost revue to cover the price of a set of tapestries for its new theater. Through the Guild’s lawyer, who happened to be a patient of Dr. Rodgers’s, Dick and Larry were granted an audition with Theresa Helburn, one of its founders and directors. “When they came to the song ‘Manhattan,’ ” she would one day recall, “I sat up in delight. These lads had ability, wit, and a flair for a light sophisticated kind of song.” She gave the boys a $5,000 budget and a month to get The Garrick Gaieties on—for two performances only, on Sunday, May 17, 1925. Audiences and critics were so enthusiastic that the Guild scheduled half a dozen special matinee performances and, when its current Lunt-Fontanne show, The Guardsman, closed, turned the theater over full-time to The Gaieties. It ran for half a year, “Manhattan” was a smash, and Rodgers and Hart were on their way.

The next decade, despite the usual crises and disappointments that punctuate the life of the theater, was a fulfilling time of shows, movies, hit songs, and international recognition. Their first Broadway “book” show, Dearest Enemy, was a romantic comedy set during the American Revolution. A dozen or more shows in New York and London followed, plus some Hollywood musicals starring such performers as Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Al Jolson, and Bing Crosby. Life was easy on the Coast, and the money all too seductive, but their hearts belonged to Broadway. The roster of classic songs from this period includes “My Heart Stood Still,” “Blue Moon,” “With a Song in My Heart,” “Thou Swell,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” and “Lover.”

The turning point came in 1935 with Jumbo, a colossal circus musical that was the idea of the egomaniacal showman Billy Rose, who took over the famous and failing Hippodrome, touted as the largest theater in the world. (It took so long to get the theater ready and the show up and running that The New Yorker observed, “Well, they finally got Jumbo into the Hippodrome. Now all that remains is to complete the Triborough Bridge and enforce the sanctions against Italy.”) It had trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, clowns, Paul Whiteman, Jimmy Durante, and Rosie the elephant. Marmorstein remarks that numerous little boys were taken to Jumbo, one of them “the adopted son of vaudeville impresario E. F. Albee, a six-year-old named Edward” (actually, he was seven). Another of them was me—the first time I was ever in a theater. I can’t have been five, and all I remember is a vast space and, just maybe, an elephant.

Balanchine reported that Hart “always appeared happy and laughing. He was so full of fun and energy.” He didn’t mention Larry’s heavier and heavier drinking.

Jumbo was a spectacle. On Your Toes, the boys’ next show (starring hoofer Ray Bolger, three years before his Oz Scarecrow), was a revelation, and a landmark in the history of the modern musical: the first to center on a ballet—the marvelous “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” the creation of George Balanchine. It was through Larry that Balanchine was added to the mix—and he stayed in the mix: Babes in Arms, I Married an Angel, The Boys From Syracuse were to follow. Although the On Your Toes score included the usual hits, the music that made the biggest impact was Dick Rodgers’s score for “Slaughter,” which is still performed around the world as a stand-alone ballet.

Balanchine and Hart chummed around together, and Balanchine reported that Larry “always appeared happy and laughing. He was so full of fun and energy, throwing his money around. From every pocket would come money and he paid everyone’s bills wherever he went.” He didn’t mention Larry’s heavier and heavier drinking, preferring to remember that it was Larry who taught him how to speak proper English.

After Jumbo, everything changed. From then on it was Larry and Dick who came up with the concepts for their musicals and were in control of them; they were no longer journeymen for hire. It was they who decided that next up after On Your Toes would be something completely different: a bunch of kids putting on a show—no stars, no sophistication. The score of Babes in Arms, another major hit, may be their greatest: “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Where or When,” and the title song (most of which, in the great Hollywood tradition, were dropped from the Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney MGM musical).

On they went: I’d Rather Be Right, with the great George M. Cohan playing FDR (whom he despised); I Married an Angel, with Vera Zorina as an angel who descends from heaven to Budapest to marry a banker; The Boys From Syracuse—Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, with one of the Dromios played by Teddy Hart; Too Many Girls, a football musical that launched the career of Desi Arnaz, whom Larry had come upon in a Miami nightclub called La Conga.

By now, every Rodgers and Hart show was an event, and they themselves were celebrated figures—on the cover of Time, subjects of a two-part profile in The New Yorker. They were overdue for a flop, and they got one: something called Higher and Higher, which bombed, leaving nothing behind except the plangent “It Never Entered My Mind.”

But around the corner was Pal Joey, the most controversial, and influential, of all their shows. The book came from a series of stories John O’Hara had written for The New Yorker, about a seedy nightclub singer/emcee (Gene Kelly) and the women he seduces and abuses. It wasn’t a pretty story, and some critics, including the most important, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, found that its obvious virtues were undercut by its sordid story: “Although Pal Joey is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” When it was revived a dozen years later, it would be an even bigger success than it had been in 1940, and Atkinson took it all back, but by then, Larry, who had been devastated by that first review, was long since dead. Pal Joey’s songs retain their power and charm: “I Could Write a Book,” a first-rate romantic ballad; “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” a mordant masterpiece and a triumph for Larry’s favorite, Vivienne Segal (she sang it in the revival too); and “Zip,” a sublimely witty take on the “intellectual” stripper Gypsy Rose Lee:

Zip! Walter Lippmann wasn’t brilliant today.
Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?
Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night.
Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right.

There would be one more big hit—back to the ancients with By Jupiter, reuniting the boys with Bolger, in their third show to be directed by Joshua Logan. But by now Larry was essentially gone, succumbing to acute alcoholism. He couldn’t or wouldn’t take on a whole new show, but when Dick decided to revive their 1927 hit, A Connecticut Yankee, he managed to come up with some new lyrics, including one of his very wittiest, “To Keep My Love Alive” (for Vivienne, of course). When he was sober, his mind was as quick and clever as ever.

But he wasn’t sober often. On opening night of A Connecticut Yankee he turned up at the theater drunk, ill, and noisy. Teddy’s wife managed to get him home to their place, but by morning he had vanished into the ugly November weather and couldn’t be found. That night, a pal, searching for him, came upon him sitting shivering in the gutter outside a bar on Eighth Avenue. Nothing they could do at the hospital helped—neither the oxygen tent nor penicillin, the new wonder drug that Eleanor Roosevelt interceded with the War Production Board to procure. It was over. Lorenz Hart was dead of pneumonia, and “Rodgers and Hart” was dead as well. The fun-loving, generous, ebullient guy everybody loved—“the most lovable, cuddly, honey bear,” Josh Logan called him—had self-destructed in the most painful and public way, a desperate, irresponsible drunk no one could help, whose death seemed a relief if not a blessing.

How did Rodgers and Hart write their songs? This is how Larry characterized their work method to a reporter:

We map out the plot. Then Dick may have a catchy tune idea. He picks it out on the piano—I listen and suddenly an idea for a lyric comes. This happens often. On the other hand, I may think of a couple of verses that will fit into the show. I write them out and say them over to Dick. He sits down at the piano and improvises. I stick my oar in sometimes and before we know it, we have the tune to hang the verses on. It’s like that—simple!

Did they ever quarrel? In his introduction to The Rodgers and Hart Song Book, Dick wrote that Larry

loathed changing any word once it was written down. When the immovable object of his unwillingness to change came up against the irresistible force of my own drive for perfection, the noise could be heard all over the city. Our fights over words were furious, blasphemous, and frequent, but even in their hottest moments we both knew that we were arguing academically and not personally. I think I am quite safe in saying that Larry and I never had a single personal argument with each other.

They had differences, though. At first, Larry was the mentor, the semipro; Dick was a schoolboy. The age difference didn’t affect their work, but as time passed, their opposite approaches to life affected their relationship. Marmorstein writes:

Larry Hart never had much use for Café Society, High Society, or the so-called Four Hundred, except as a dartboard, its members largely figures of fun. But the teenage Dick Rodgers was fascinated by that world, which remained exclusive, open only to the wealthiest Americans of the “highest” (i.e., invariably Caucasian, usually with English derivation) pedigree.

His obsession with being classy never diminished. Max Hart described Dick’s apartment on West End Avenue as “like Frank Campbell’s Funeral Parlor, beautiful but dead!” In contrast, Larry, for all his erudition, reveled in the nightlife of Harlem and Damon Runyon’s Broadway—the “characters,” the bars, the seamy side. And he had no interest in money—it came and went, only important so that it could be quickly spent, usually on others.

From the start, Dick was focused on finances and business arrangements; in his later, post-Larry, years, he not only controlled those R&H copyrights but owned and ran, with Hammerstein, major production and music companies. Josh Logan’s theory was that Dick was “a bit embarrassed about the ease of writing music, as though it were too easy, too soft a thing for a man to do,” and was “only really happy making contracts, haggling about royalties, salaries or theatre leases.” It also seemed to Logan that Larry

envied and therefore hated Dick’s rugged self-discipline, his ability to be punctual, efficient and to bring a show in on time. It was agony for Larry to sit down to work. Perhaps it was his fear of being less than perfect or just the painful fact of being Larry.

One of Richard Rodgers’s strongest characteristics was his lifelong need to control, and unfortunately Larry Hart, from first to last, was uncontrollable, as chaotic in his work habits as his partner was disciplined. He was out drinking and partying late every night and never out of bed till midday, inevitably hungover; Dick was ready and eager to work hours earlier, frustrated by Larry’s no-shows. And then there were Larry’s broken promises about delivery of lyrics or dialogue. He was always remorseful, but what good did that do? Dick, so earnest and methodical in his work habits, grew into an angry taskmaster, the bad cop, and he more and more resented having to be one. Larry bitterly referred to Dick as “the principal” with “a sour-apple face”; Dick referred to Larry as “my favorite blight and partner.” The partnership made in heaven was turning into a working hell. Yet the two men had loved each other. (Some people believed Larry had been in love with Dick from the start. The unambiguously heterosexual Dick, however, both before and after his marriage to the beautiful, elegant, and difficult Dorothy Feiner, was widely known for his devotion to the girls.)

Although by the early 1940s Larry was disappearing for days at a time, his drunken binges more and more appalling, Dick proposed that they get to work on an offer from the Theatre Guild: turning the play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical. “I want you to have yourself admitted to a sanitarium,” he said. “I’ll get myself admitted, too. We’ll be there together and work together. But you’ve got to get off the street.” As Marmorstein relates, paraphrasing Rodgers’s autobiography, Larry

made it clear that he was not checking himself into any sanitarium—that he was on his way to Mexico.
“Larry, if you walk out now, someone else will do the show with me.”
“Anyone in mind?”
“Oscar will write the lyrics.”
“There’s no better man for the job,” Larry said. “I don’t know how you put up with me all these years. The best thing would be for you to forget about me.”

He walked out of their meeting, leaving Dick—and the show that became Oklahoma!—behind. “Alone in the boardroom Dick sighed, the burden of tolerating an increasingly truant, irresponsible partner over the course of twenty-four years having been lifted in an instant. And then he wept.” This, at any rate, was Dick’s conveniently touching version of their parting.

Years later, Rodgers would describe what Hart looked like to him at their first meeting. “His appearance was so incredible that I remember every single detail. The total man was hardly more than five feet tall.” He was unshaven, unkempt.

But that first look was misleading, for it missed the soft brown eyes, the straight nose, the good mouth, the even teeth and the strong chin. Feature for feature he had a handsome face, but it was set in a head that was a bit too large for his body and gave him a slightly gnome-like appearance.

He also had a vigorously receding hairline, and he usually had a cigar stuck in his mouth.

Gnome, pixie, troll, dwarf—that’s how Larry was seen by his world (Dick’s “shrimp” was affectionately mild). In public he was dignified about what he clearly saw as his deformity. Balanchine remembered, “There was never any mention of his height, though he called the built-up heels in his shoes ‘the two-inch liars.’ ” “The cost of his brave face, though,” writes Marmorstein, “would emerge over … twenty-five years in dozens of lyrics that were less about being small than about what it’s like to feel small—to be dismissed, excluded, denied admission, and left standing out in the cold.”

The generous, ebullient guy everybody loved—“the most lovable, cuddly, honey bear,” Josh Logan called him—had self-destructed in the most painful and public way.

Certainly he believed that no one, especially no woman, could love him. Frederick Nolan tells us that Larry was asked by a reporter about his love life. “ ‘Love life?’ Larry replied. ‘I haven’t any.’ Then he was a confirmed bachelor? ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Nobody would want me.’ ” Yet there were women in his life to whom he was seriously attached and to whom he proposed. Frances Manson was a story editor at Columbia Pictures who would later say, “I adored Larry … He was so dynamic and energetic, his presence was so magnetic, that I honestly never gave a thought to his being shorter than I was, though I am not at all tall.” Her reluctance to marry him came from her fear that she might end up drinking as much as he did. The popular young opera singer Nanette Guilford said, “He was absolutely adorable, and to know him was to love him. I loved him. But he never believed me. He didn’t believe any woman could fall in love with him.”

Undoubtedly the woman he cared for most was Vivienne Segal, who was clever, funny, sexy, with a fiery temperament. (Larry once said, “I would rather be caught dead wearing a suit I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing than weather one of Viv Segal’s storms.”) One account concludes,

Although everyone who cared for Larry believed him to be seriously in love with Vivienne Segal, it is our view that his admiration for her was an emotion that bordered on love but stopped short of sexual desire.

Still, he proposed more than once, and more than once she turned him down. Poor Frieda Hart—all she wanted was for her boy to settle down with Mrs. Right. One friend remembers sitting next to her listening to Larry singing “Have you heard, I married an angel” and Frieda whispering, “How I wish my Larry would marry an angel!” Instead, he shared a huge apartment with his angel mother until she died, only seven months before he did.

It’s taken for granted now that to the extent Larry Hart had a consistently active sex life, it was homosexual. But discreet. Marmorstein speculates about the where and when of Larry’s encounters with other men. Turkish baths? A hideaway hotel room? He seems to have preferred rough trade, going off to Miami or Mexico and enjoying himself with beach boys. (Balanchine reported to his assistant that on a trip the two men took together to London, he “got him out of brawls, when Larry would pick up sailors and get beat up.”) The homophobic Maurice Chevalier, for whom R&H were writing that unique movie Love Me Tonight, warned his young male assistant to stay away from Larry “or he’ll try to get into your pants.” According to Meryle Secrest, Rodgers’s most assiduous biographer, Hart brought an actor named Peter Garey home to the Hart apartment one night. Mrs. Hart “stood on the couch by the window and said, ‘If you go out with my son I am going to jump.’ ” (He did, and she didn’t.) A frequent guest at another louche Hart party reported,

Larry was more of a voyeur. I can remember going to parties and seeing his eyes glittering, watching this orgy going on. When it came to sex, Larry left an awful lot to be desired. I was one of his boys, and I know.

It’s easy to hear sly echoes of homosexuality in Hart’s lyrics (there would certainly be none in Oscar Hammerstein’s), but although his great subject was love, he didn’t write much about sex. The following, from On Your Toes, is just about as explicit as he gets:

Mother warned me my instincts to deny.
Yet I fail.
The male is frail.
The heart is quicker than the eye!
She said, “Love one time, Junior,
Look at the Lunts!”
I’ve fallen twice—with two at once.
Passion’s plaything—that’s me, oh me, oh my!
But at least
I’m quite a beast.
The heart is quicker than the eye!

This was remarkably confessional for the Broadway of 1936.

There were rumors about Larry while he was alive, but nothing about his sexuality ever appeared in print. One night in Los Angeles, in 1933, someone from a Hollywood trade magazine approached Dick at a party and said, “I’ve got to ask you something about Larry … Is it true Larry’s a fairy?” Dick grabbed him by the collar, Marmorstein recounts, and said, “I never heard that. And if you print it, I’ll kill you.” Time marches on. According to the memoirs of Diahann Carroll—who in 1962 starred in Dick’s No Strings—one night he sighed to her, “You can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to have written this score and not have to search all over the globe for the little fag.”

With his unfailing generosity, Larry embraced Dick at the opening-night party for Oklahoma! after its jubilant premiere and said, “This is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, and it’ll be playing twenty years from now!”

It seems likely that he understood how everything was changing—that a new era of musical plays rather than musical comedies had begun, and that the heartfelt moralistic values of wartime America, and of Oscar Hammerstein, were the future. It’s as inconceivable that Larry Hart could have written “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” as it is that Hammerstein could have written “Zip.” “Hart,” said the director George Abbott, “was a much more sophisticated writer than the mature, assured, poised Hammerstein. Hart saw everything fancifully. His tongue was in his cheek, his poetry was light and airy. He saw love dancing on the ceiling. Oscar saw it across a crowded room.”

For all his erudition, Hart reveled in the nightlife of Harlem and Broadway—the “characters,” the bars, the seamy side. And he had no interest in money.

The Rodgers and Hart shows have vanished (only On Your Toes and Pal Joey seem to be revivable; maybe A Connecticut Yankee), while the main Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are always with us. Hart would be a footnote to Broadway history if not for the songs. And they don’t die; they’re as viable today as they ever were, perfect conjunctions of words and music. (Words and Music, by the way, is the title of the ludicrous Hollywood biopic, with Mickey Rooney as Larry—well, they were both short—and Tom Drake and Janet Leigh as the Rodgerses.) They’re not as jazzy as the Gershwin songs, not as cannily grassroots as Berlin’s. They’re closest, perhaps, to Cole Porter’s in their combination of sophistication and melodic originality, but, as the songwriter Hugh Martin said, “Cole Porter was all about sex. Larry was about love.” The musical-comedy expert Ethan Mordden put it another way:

At bottom, the difference between Hart, the cleverest of the [era’s] lyricists, and Porter, the funniest, is that Hart saw the love plot in the shows as something worthy, almost unattainable, while Porter didn’t see love at all … The odd fact is that for all Hart’s jesting and all Porter’s lyricism, Hart was a romantic and Porter a satirist.

He was also sad. And as time passed he grew sadder, and more cynical. Remember: his career takes off in 1925 with a paean of praise for “Manhattan,” and only fourteen years later he’s telling the world:

Broadway’s turning into Coney,
Champagne Charlie’s drinking gin,
Old New York is new and phoney—
Give it back to the Indians.

His words reveal his self-doubt, his loneliness (“All alone, all at sea! / Why does nobody care for me?”), but he’s never angry, only rueful and disconsolate. As he sums it up in “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”: “The laugh’s on me.” It’s not for nothing that the playwright Jerome Lawrence named him “the poet laureate of masochism.”

And yet … the joy in invention, the sheer energy of a song like “The Lady Is a Tramp”! Who else could have topped himself again and again, frisking from

I like the free, fresh wind in my hair.
Life without care.
I’m broke—it’s oke


I like the green grass under my shoes.
What can I lose?
I’m flat! That’s that!


I like to hang my hat where I please.
Sail with the breeze.
No dough—heigh‑ho!

and landing up on

I like the sweet, fresh rain in my face.
Diamonds and lace,
No got—so what?

And who has written more tenderly of a beloved one than Hart does of his “funny valentine,” with his figure less than Greek and his mouth a little weak?

Then a sudden naughty strike, as in these throwaway lines from a throwaway song called “Harlemania”:

With the best of intentions,
Folks who used to be nice
Shake what nobody mentions,
Not once, but twice.

He could be everything but corny.

And he knew how good he was. “I’ve got a lot of talent, kid,” he told the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. “I probably could have been a genius. But I just don’t care.” Lerner concluded, “Somewhere along the line, there obviously did come a time when the joy of his professional success became drowned in the lost misery of his handicapped life.”

Gary Marmorstein has written a direct and ample—perhaps too ample—chronicle of that life, containing more professional detail and history than the average reader may want to absorb. Frederick Nolan’s book, now almost twenty years old, is less comprehensive, more fluent. Both biographers clearly have reservations about Richard Rodgers as a man; they both warmly celebrate Hart’s remarkable achievement; and they both express tremendous sympathy for Hart himself. And how could they not, given the combination of his generous and lovable nature with the tragic arc of his life? Max Hart, Larry’s rambunctious father, died saying, “I haven’t missed a thing.” How sad that the last words of Larry himself—this man who gave so much pleasure to so many—were “What have I lived for?”

By Gary Marmorstein

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.