The biographer’s chosen task is either difficult or impossible. Any competent researcher can amass a proliferation of facts, beginning with the subject’s grandparents and concluding with the coroner’s report. The more public the biographical subject, the easier the task, apparently.
But although readers want to know the facts of the subject’s many lives — creative, philosophical, emotional, quotidian — the questions we want answered are deeper. I think we ultimately want to know what it felt like to be the person under scrutiny; why did he behave as he did; what choices did he make; what drove him? And since most of us are puzzles even to ourselves, the answers to these questions are often beyond our reach.
These speculations are the result of my reading A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL: THE LIFE OF LORENZ HART, by Gary Marmorstein (Simon and Schuster), just published. Marmorstein does several things very well. For one, he has taken stock of everything written about Hart — a fourteen-page bibliography and hundreds of endnotes. He is admirably diligent and more thorough than the two Hart biographies that proceeded this book.
The book moves along at a swift pace, although Marmorstein has chosen often to show that he is as clever as his subject, as witty, as colloquial — often adopting his own version of Thirties slang, where a man gets punched in “the kisser” and a failing business goes “flooey.” I wish his editor had told the author that referring to the troubles Richard Rodgers had with his collaborator as “Hart-aches” was not wise. That same editor might have limited Marmorstein’s usage of “must,” as in “Larry must have reacted with a jolt” when watching the sound film THE JAZZ SINGER when there is no evidence to support the speculation.
To his credit, Marmorstein is more candid than his predecessors, although he does not dwell on scandal-mongering. He is fair to Hart’s collaborator, Richard Rodgers, who on one hand tried to protect Hart from himself and on the other, referred to him as “the shrimp” while Hart was alive and “that little fag” twenty years after Hart’s death. And where there is room for speculation, Marmorstein painstakingly balances opposing narratives. In these things, A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL seems ideal.
But Hart would not have been an easy subject under the best of circumstances, and the facts and myths of his brief life lend themselves to mythologizing. One such encapsulation of Hart’s hectic, creative, unhappy life is as (in Marmorstein’s coinage) the “lovelorn dwarf.” Hart was short, under five feet, and although he made and permitted jokes about his height, it was apparently not something he accepted, and it added to his perception of himself as irredeemably physically unattractive.
Hart was a gay man in a profession where homosexuality was more common, but he seems not to have had long-term emotional attachments He kept no diary and had a habit of disappearing — at night and other times. Biographers before Marmorstein have speculated where Larry Hart got to, and with whom . . . but all the people who might have told us stories are dead. Commendably, Marmorstein shuns ancient homophobic formulations, suggesting that Hart drank himself to death because his sexual preference made him miserable, or that Hart chose to be gay because he was unattractive to women.
Any book about Hart also must record his alcoholism, which ultimately contributed to his early death. But Hart was also incredibly creative — not just in terms of writing new lyrics for show after show, but being someone who could go off with an envelope and pencil and create two new choruses of lyrics while others were taking a break. (Hart’s creativity makes the author’s choice of title somewhat strange, ill-fitting.)
I was eager to read A SHIP WITHOUT A SAIL in hopes that it would be a satisfying synthesis. What would its author make of the combination of Hart’s creativity and unhappiness? What was it like to be a man in public view who thought of himself as unattractive? What was it like to be a gay man who wrote memorable paeans in praise of heterosexual romance, to be sung in public by men to women and vice versa? What might this book tell us about Hart’s apparently self-destructive behavior? Having recently read and admired Michael P. Zirpolo’s MR. TRUMPET, his biography of the alcoholic genius Bunny Berigan, dead at 33, where Zirpolo successfully puts forth plausible explanations of Berigan’s drinking, gently and ruefully, I hoped that Marmorstein would do the same and more.
Alas, the book ultimately is only a collection of engaging anecdotes in chronological sequence. One can learn what the Hart’s housekeeper and cook, Big Mary Campbell, said to Josephine Baker. One can read how Hart would not let anyone else pick up the check. One could buy Hart an overcoat in the boys’ department of Wanamaker’s. We learn the name of the nurse who might have been at his deathbed.
Famous loyalties — Hart for Vivienne Segal — and emnities — Rodgers and Hart versus George M. Cohan — are entertainingly delineated here. And the book rolls on, page after page, year after year, show after show, from Hart’s lyrics in summer camp to his final words on his deathbed, “What have I lived for?” But the reader, closing this well-documented book, may feel that Hart, elusive in life, took his secrets with him.
Ultimately, Mary Cleere Haran’s rendition of THIS FUNNY WORLD sums up Hart far better for me — searching, wise, grieving — than Marmorstein’s book:
May your happiness increase.