You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Lonesome Road

Haunted Heart: A Biography of Susannah McCorkle By Linda Dahl

I cannot say I had the pleasure of hearing Susannah McCorkle sing. I heard her perform many times--at least a dozen, perhaps twenty times from the spring of 1981, when my late friend Roy Hemming, a pedigreed cabaret hound, first brought me to see her at Michael's Pub, to the autumn of 2000, when she had her final run at the Oak Room in the Algonquin. I went to three of her last ten shows. On all those occasions, I rarely drew from McCorkle mere pleasure, but derived many other things of value--illumination, wonderment, flashes of horror, and stimulation to self-reflection and doubt. I admired her deeply and cheered the bravery of her work, though all I ever wrote about her was a few sentences in 1991.

On one of those last nights at the Algonquin, I brought as my guest the singer Jane Monheit, who, at the age of twenty-two, was a rising sensation in jazz. I was working on a magazine piece about Monheit, and I wanted to see how the green young singer would respond to this veteran who embodied cloudy grays. (Monheit remarked, in the idiom of her generation, that McCorkle was "awesome. ") When I filed the story, I included a note about McCorkle to my editor:

McCorkle might be a great subject some day. Right now, she's in a weird lull. The room's half empty most nights. She's an acquired taste and hard to take sometimes. I think a lot of her own fans sort of take her for granted these days. But I think she's going to be one of those people who everybody rediscovers late in life.

I pictured McCorkle aging into a figure like Blossom Dearie, an odd bird revered after a long career as an endangered species.

About six months after that, McCorkle rendered moot my theory and all other theories about her future by leaping from the window of her sixteenth-floor apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. In the months to follow, the awful story of her death brought more attention to McCorkle than she had ever enjoyed in life. Encomia to McCorkle and her music appeared in Time, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker (by the literary editor of this magazine, who was her friend); and the writer Linda Dahl, author of two books on women in jazz-- Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams and Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen--began work on a biography. That book, called Haunted Heart, after the ballad by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz that McCorkle recorded on her final album, has now been published by the University of Michigan Press. Subtitled "The Secret Life and Tragic Death of a Great American Songbird," it is an intimate and blunt book, full of details about McCorkle's spicy romances, along with material on the creative work that makes her worthy of attention five years after her death.

McCorkle, who would have turned sixty this year, was a child of the rock era who sang the music of another generation--the Tin Pan Alley hits and theater songs of the first half of the twentieth century. The status of this material as a canon, the "Great American Songbook," was not yet solidified when McCorkle started singing, in the early 1970s. For some years, she made a specialty of tunes composed in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them sung originally by Billie Holiday, her first idol and vocal model, or by quasi-proto-feminists such as Mae West, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Mildred Bailey.

In Dahl's telling, McCorkle's choice of musical direction was a radical one that defied the hippie culture of the young singer's native Berkeley. But the history is more complicated. The Bay Area scene was infused with kitschy nostalgia for the 1920s and the early 1930s. While McCorkle was still in school, Janis Joplin was growling songs by Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton and releasing them on albums with cover art by Robert Crumb that captured the Haight-Ashbury aesthetic by appropriating the 1920s. Mama Cass made "Dream a Little Dream of Me" a hit in 1968. The Grateful Dead, a mutated jug band, would jam all night to old numbers like "Ain't Nobody's Business." For a Berkeley girl to turn to the early swing of the 1920s and 1930s was less a rejection of the music of her peers than a distillation of an element in its essence--a claim not to exceptionalism, but to purity.

When Paul McCartney manufactured his own vo-de-oh-do ditties for the Beatles, John Lennon mocked them as "granny music." He nailed both their ridiculousness and their power. What made songs such as "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Honey Pie" palatable, even appealing, to baby boomers was the fact that they skipped over a full generation. Whether or not they were granny music, they were not mommy- and-daddy music. So it was with McCorkle's early repertoire: she would do an old Rodgers and Hart tune such as "Manhattan," from 1925, but not Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," from her parents' record collection. She was not close to her mother or her father, and she would not trust a song under thirty, at least not until she had been performing for a few years and matured as an artist.

She began singing professionally at twenty-five, while living in Rome. A drifting expatriate, McCorkle had gone to Europe to write fiction and ended up falling under the sway of a group of continentals infatuated with vintage swing and the free, fun pre-war America that it evoked. She moved on to London, where other Americans such as the writer and cornet player Richard Sudhalter and the English pianist Keith Ingham were part of a cliquish swing revival. It was a parochial movement, rigid, zealous, almost a cult--and thus ideal for McCorkle at the time. She had attended fourteen schools before college, tugged around with her mother and two sisters as her father, who suffered from acute depression, bounced from job to job. Rootless and insecure, McCorkle no doubt found comfort in the impassioned surety of the swing revivalists.

As Dahl points out, McCorkle learned her craft by mimicking Billie Holiday. So did countless other singers inspired by Holiday; original voices frequently begin as imitations. My wife, who is a singer, admits to an early debt to Doris Day, who, she adds, started by imitating Ella Fitzgerald, who, she notes, began by emulating Connee Boswell. (No anxieties of influence here, just a lot of keen apprenticeships.) All of them found their own styles quickly, and so did McCorkle, who studied early jazz singers so assiduously that she probably knew who Boswell was copying. By the time I first saw McCorkle, just a few years after she had moved from London to build a career in Manhattan, the only traces of Holiday remained in the way she hung under a note--sometimes too far under-- and let her vibrato crumble at the end of a phrase for dramatic effect. She developed a singular approach, working from both her strengths and her weaknesses.

A good (though not great) writer of prose fiction and nonfiction, McCorkle wrote short stories and worked on drafts of novels until her last days. One story written in her twenties, "Ramona by the Sea," was awarded an O. Henry Prize and anthologized after its initial publication in Mademoiselle. As a singer she remained a storyteller, attentive not only to the meanings of individual words, phrases, and lines of lyrics, but also to the narrative contours of the song. At this McCorkle had few equals other than Mabel Mercer, Frank Sinatra, and Sylvia Syms. Her skill at finding the shape of a song--or molding a flat song into a form of her devising--is especially striking in "The Waters of March," the chant-like tune by Antonio Carlos Jobim that she made one of her signatures. (A former linguistics student and onetime translator, McCorkle was fluent in Portuguese and understood the fragility of Jobim's songs. ) Through the careful modulation of tone and the astute use of dynamics, she carries us with the spring waters from the death of winter to the new season's promise of rebirth. On her collection of Cole Porter tunes, Easy to Love, she even builds "Let's Do It," the listiest song on the composer's long list of listsongs, to a slyly referential climax.

McCorkle's most extraordinary gift as an artist was her command of the dark colors in the emotional spectrum. "I definitely became a singer in order to sing sad songs," Dahl quotes her as saying. She sought out music of heartbreak and loss, and she found it in varied quarters--in the blues of Bessie Smith and Mildred Bailey, naturally, and also in little-known theater songs from the teary scenes in forgotten shows, such as "This Funny World," a paean to futility from Rodgers and Hart's Betsy, a Broadway fizzle staged in 1926. McCorkle was uniquely adept at unearthing the melancholy parts of well-known songs--songs within the songs. Her masterpiece of internal excavation was surely her wrenching version of the hoary Irving Berlin anthem "There's No Business Like Show Business." She slowed the tempo nearly to a halt and clung to a few bittersweet phrases that most singers gloss over ("they smile when they are low," "brokenhearted, but you go on"), transforming a show-stopper into a piece that stops the heart. In the absence of sorrowful lyrics, McCorkle was content to upend whole songs through interpretation, as she did with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's tune for the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, "If I Only Had a Heart."

That is to say, she sought herself in the material. Ingham, her onetime mentor and second husband, groaned about this to Dahl. "By 1982 or so, every song had to relate to something totally in her own life somehow, everything had to be from a point of view that she agreed with or was about her, and she wouldn't sing many, many songs because she objected to them," he said, belittling McCorkle for being an artist rather than a professional. She was a tortured soul; Dahl reports that, in clinical terms, she suffered from bipolar II disorder. As an artist first and a psychiatric patient second, McCorkle gave voice to her torment in her music. After reading Dahl's book, I downloaded eight of McCorkle's CDs onto my iPod and listened to them closely for the first time in several years. I found the music more beautiful and sadder than I recalled. It is precious work of profound melancholy and hopeful--sometimes desperate--yearning entwined with a stark fatalism.

As several musicians mentioned to Dahl, McCorkle was self-centered and ambitious. Hel-lo! She was in show business. Her self-absorption was more conspicuous and out of place in her prose writing. McCorkle published several essays on her musical influences and interests, such as Ethel Waters, Mae West, and Irving Berlin, in American Heritage, and they are all a bit too much about Susannah McCorkle. In the piece ostensibly about Berlin, the word "I" appears twenty-four times in the first twenty sentences. The fiction of hers that I have seen, much the same, seems limited by its author's experience and not fully imagined; it reads like journal entries.

Speaking of which, I know McCorkle was a copious correspondent and journal-keeper. She wrote to me half a dozen times, and I scarcely knew her. Her journals, along with a vast archive of other materials--comprising nearly all her unpublished writings, her music, her business and personal records, even the contents of the hard drive on her computer--are in repository at the New York Public Library, a donation of McCorkle's estate. According to the librarian in charge of the archive, Dahl had access to much, but not all, of this material. (Many of the electronic files were damaged and unreadable until the library had them recovered.) Dahl's book renders McCorkle artfully, but incompletely. As one still hungry for more information to help unravel the enigma that Susannah McCorkle remains, I look forward to a second biography of her, drawing more fully on the archival materials. An additional book on McCorkle might also help extricate her from her dubious status as the singer who committed suicide.

When McCorkle died, I was in London with my wife. We had divvied up the sections of the International Herald Tribune to read over breakfast, and I heard Karen gasp when she saw a sizable photograph of McCorkle in the paper. "Good for Susannah!" she said. As soon as she realized that the photo was an illustration not for a profile of McCorkle, but for her obituary, Karen started to quake. McCorkle's death was very bad for many people--her admirers, of course, and also for a great many more who never heard her music and came to know her only as the suicide girl. Today, most of McCorkle's CDs are out of print, and her longtime label, Concord, is doing little to preserve her legacy. There should be a second book about McCorkle, and then others, if only to keep us thinking about her and returning to the dark well of her music.

This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.