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Blue Rooms: The Sad, Slicing Lyrics of Lorenz Hart

IN 1962, ALMOST TWENTY years after the lyricist Lorenz Hart’s death, his melodist partner Richard Rodgers told Diahann Carroll that “you can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to have written this score and not have to search all over the globe for that little fag.” Ouch. And yet, as Gary Marmorstein’s thoroughgoing—if occasionally conjectural—biography makes clear, Hart seems to have thought even less of himself than Rodgers did. When he gave his blessing to Rodgers teaming up with Oscar Hammerstein on what would become Oklahoma!, Hart confessed to him that “I don’t know how you put up with me all these years.”

Rodgers put up with Hart because he recognized him, if not as a kindred spirit, then as a kindred talent. Just as Rodgers was and is America’s most varied melodist (as Lionel Trilling once said, “few men have given so much pleasure to so many”), so Hart was and is the country’s most varied lyricist. Cole Porter could be saucier, Johnny Mercer simpler, Irving Berlin cleverer, but for sheer range of emotion there is no one to touch Hart.

Sweet, sour, transported, tormented, feckless, furious—Hart’s songs sang true in all moods. Taking his inspiration from W.S. Gilbert’s wordplay for the Savoy Operas, he blended the Victorian’s mordant wit with a brittle, heartbroken yearning that was all his own. Next to Hart’s work, Hammerstein’s cozy homespun sentiments sound like moralizing schlock. Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra—all of them recorded songbook-style albums of Rodgers and Hart songs. No singer has granted Rodgers’s songs with Hammerstein the same honor. They are not in the same class.

They are not about the same class, either. Think of Rodgers and Hammerstein and you think of workers clad in denims and clambakes and straw hats. Think of Rodgers and Hart and you think of snap-brimmed and pinstriped city types necking colorful cocktails. Hart’s characters saw Manhattan as an “isle of joy.” Hammerstein’s saw Kansas City as a sex and science-sodden Sodom and Gomorrah. In “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” Hart wrote about the violence that underwrites physical love. In “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Hammerstein fantasized about the purity of adolescent crushes. Hart’s best songs were written during the Great Depression, Hammerstein’s in the altogether more settled Eisenhower years. Happiness, as usual, wrote white.

But as Marmorstein shows over and over again, Hart couldn’t have written white on a blackboard. He was a sad case from the start. At eighteen, when he took the Columbia Grammar School’s English prize for his essay on Falstaff, Hart had already seen through the dark void of his rapscallion hero and into his own misery. To be sure, wrote Hart in the essay, Falstaff was “fond of sack, of repartee, and the smile of a pretty lass,” but Shakespeare makes sure we know “that real love was impossible for … this blustering, boistering boy of Bacchus.” And so, far from bringing wisdom, the years merely confirmed what Marmorstein calls his “exquisitely self-torturing” take on the world. Hence songs such as “Glad to be Unhappy”:

Look at yourself,

If you had a sense of humor

You would laugh to beat the band.

Look at yourself,

Do you still believe the rumor

That romance is simply grand?

Since you took it right

On the chin

You have lost that bright

Toothpaste grin

Nobody talks like that on Bali Hai.

Talk was important to Hart. He wanted his lyrics to have nothing to do with the highfalutin’ rhetoric of operetta or, further back in time, courtly love. He thought songs should sound like speech. “Find something living,” he once told a reporter who was quizzing him on his craft, “a word everyone uses. People don’t go around talking about ‘love’ and ‘dove.’ They do talk about ‘blue rooms,’ so I wrote a song of that name.”

Since as well as its almost childishly simple, paroxytonic rhymes—“We’ll have a blue room/ A new room/ For two room”—“The Blue Room” also boasts an off-the-cuff high-culture triple rhyme—“You sew your trousseau/ And Robinson Crusoe”—I’m not sure the song entirely lives up to Hart’s slangy, naturalistic ideal. Still, unlike Stephen Sondheim, who, in his collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat, has the gall to call Hart “the laziest of the pre-eminent lyricists,” Hart was never too clever for his own good. Contrived though some of his lyrics must surely have been, they never feel over-crafted.

The trouble is that magical as so many Rodgers and Hart songs are, most of the productions they wrote turned out to be less than enduring. Even their best shows—Babes in Arms, Pal Joey, A Connecticut Yankee—are less than the sum of their considerable parts. Not that you would know this from reading the dogged Marmorstein, whose sugary prose is forever gumming itself up with one “boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy sings at girl and wins her back”-style plot synopsis after another.

But Marmorstein needs this stuff to bulk out what, set next to Frederick Nolan’s biography of Hart, from 1995, would otherwise look like a thin book. Merely by dint of the facts of life, Nolan would always have had an edge on Marmorstein. At the time he was writing, some of Hart’s friends and associates were still around to talk. Not so today, in what would have been Hart’s 117th year (and Rodgers’s 110th). One might, in fairness, point out that Marmorstein does a better job than Nolan of painting in the backdrop to the musicals that Rodgers and Hart wrote together. But one should also point out that the brush he uses is rather too big for the job. For every relevant detail he serves up, there are a dozen redundant ones.

The only section of the book where one really feels Marmorstein has something to add to the story is in his prologue, in which he does a fine job of unpicking the tangle of Hart’s will (from which his business manager, and Rodgers, did rather better than his family). To be sure, the facts are still not entirely clear. But anyone who concludes that the industrious Rodgers wanted not only to safeguard “control of the copyrights to those extraordinary songs,” but also to avenge himself against his frequently absent or drunken or hung over “little fag” of a writing partner, is surely not that wide of the mark.

For Rodgers was prodigious not only in his talent (“that man,” Noël Coward once said “just pees melody”), he was prodigious in his labors too—and critical of those who weren’t. Like Edison, he believed in sweating it. As early as 1927, only eight years into their partnership, Rodgers was chiding Hart for tardiness and laziness and not writing anything until the pressure of a fast-looming opening night forced him to. Since lyrics apparently poured out of Hart with Rodgers-like incontinence, it is hard to believe the grudge was anything but personal. Certainly Hart seems to have taken it personally, accepting Rodgers’s verdict as his own. “I probably could have been a genius,” he told the then budding lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, “but I just don’t care.” He didn’t need to. Being a genius, he had us to do it for him.

Christopher Bray is the biographer of Michael Caine and Sean Connery. He is at work on a history of British cultural change in the sixties.