“A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart”

by Michael B. Shavelson
A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart
By Gary Marmorstein
Simon & Schuster, 531 pages, $17
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A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz HartColumbia Journalism School dropout Lorenz Hart, one of the top-of-the-tree American lyricists, grew up in a rambunctious immigrant home on 119th Street. He was “gnomish,” homosexual, disheveled, overgenerous, alcoholic, and brilliant. He met Columbia College soon-to-be-dropout Richard Rodgers in 1919 — composer Rodgers was good-looking, heterosexual, dapper, and disciplined — and they collaborated on the 1920 Varsity Show. The partnership, though it became increasingly strained, created more than two dozen musicals, including A Connecticut Yankee, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, Pal Joey, and hundreds of songs, including “Manhattan,” “Spring Is Here,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

Hart’s alcoholic binges and disappearances worsened over the years, and Rodgers found his partner’s unreliability impossible to deal with. Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II ’16CC shortly before Hart died in 1943 at forty-eight, and, as Gary Marmorstein writes in his intensely researched and entirely enjoyable biography, Rodgers’s resentment had by then turned to revulsion.

Hart’s lyrics are lovely, his rhyme schemes unexpected, and his texts much closer to real speech than the songs of the early 1900s. His love songs are sweetly longing. Marmorstein hears in them the words of the outsider, the homely, closeted homosexual looking in at the party. Could be, or maybe he could just make words sing.

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