Book Reviews

Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre
by Jared Brown

Book Review by Bob Gutowski

Moss Hart: A Prince of the TheatreTo write a biography must be among the greatest challenges a writer can face. A lifetime may not play out in intrinsically fascinating little chapters as in a novel, and yet to write about a life marked by extreme highs and lows can be equally vexing. For me, the mark of a none-too-affecting biography is when I pick up the book after a pause, open it to where I've left my bookmark, and wryly note "Gee! So-and-so has only fifty-three pages left to live!" Jared Brown has done a technically proficient job of taking us through the truly amazing life of Moss Hart (1904 – 1961), yet I was less than pleased with the final product.

Brown's "prince of the theatre," as Kitty Carlisle Hart called her husband, was Manhattan born and bred and ridiculed as a schoolboy for his ease at public speaking. As with so many young Jewish men who later made their living in show business, he did his time as a
Kitty and Moss Get Married
August 11, 1946: Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle exchanging marriage vows before Justice of the Peace John Simon in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Kitty said she was nervous and a reporter described Hart as "jittery." Moss was forty-one, Kitty thirty-four. (Photo: Corbis)
"social director" at an upstate summer camp, Brown tells us:

" ... the burden of providing entertainment, of all sorts, at any time, for the guests – fell entirely on the shoulders of the social director and his staff. Entertainments might consist of songs and sketches, comic monologues, impressions of celebrated performers, or complete plays ... it meant maintaining a perpetual smile and always being ready with a funny remark offstage as well as on ... Hart was successful in his job, Edward Chodorov [later a playwright himself] remembered, because he was so popular and romantic looking, and a skilled player and singer."

This tradition tested and sharpened the talents of many future entertainers, including Phil Silvers and Danny Kaye. In Hart's case, his stint as a tummler (or tumler, from the Yiddish tumlen, "to make a racket"), as these jacks-of-all-trades were called, simply served to demonstrate his already remarkable range of abilities.

Brown conveys the excitement of Hart's early days as a budding playwright. With near limitless drive, Hart might be found up all night crafting the second act of a rip-off of something he'd seen a season ago and was attempting to sell under a pseudonym! Hart's can-do attitude was to lead to his teaming with the formidable curmudgeon George S. Kaufman. Together, they wrote some of the most successful and enduring plays of the early to mid-twentieth century, such as Once in a Lifetime, You Can't Take it With You, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. That the brilliant and intimidating Kaufman chose the younger Hart as a partner says much about Hart's talent and moxie. As years passed, Hart felt the need to take what he'd learned from the master and strike out for himself, and yet Kaufman was always a friend (if one whose emotions remained mostly cloaked, except for an occasional beautifully written and heartfelt note).

Lady in the Dark
Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1941 Broadway production of Moss Hart, Kurt Weill, and Ira Gershwin's groundbreaking play with music (as Hart always called it), Lady in the Dark. Hart said he "adored" Lawrence but told Julie Andrews that he often found her "maddening." (NYPL)
Hart was a sketch writer par excellence as well, and with composer Irving Berlin he was responsible for the smash 1933 Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer.  Skipping along through Hart's awe-inspiring credits, we also find him as the librettist of the strikingly original musical within a play, Lady in the Dark.  This groundbreaking production, starring the effervescent (if iron-willed) Gertrude Lawrence, was inspired by Hart's fascination (and experiences) with psychiatry, and was enriched by one of Kurt Weill's most beguiling scores, with trenchant and haunting lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

These achievements are merely the tip of the iceberg, and had Hart thrown the towel in right then, his place in theatre history would already have been assured. How impressive is it, then, that this same man was also eventually the director and guiding hand behind what many still consider to be the most perfect musical ever created, My Fair Lady? Or that he also scripted the fabled 1954 remake of the film A Star is Born?

However, there was a dark side to Hart's life. As a text-book Type A, high-living, binge-buying, hyper-creative dazzler, he was no stranger to depression, insomnia, and writer's block, especially in his later years. To complicate matters, there is the abiding question of Hart's possible bisexuality and what difficulties this may have caused him. While Arthur Laurents presents this matter as unquestioned fact, it may not be definitively addressed until Mrs. Hart's own reportedly scrupulously honest memoirs are published after her death.

Brown, who seems to me to prefer the idea of a heterosexual Hart, nevertheless fairly mentions in his notes various other sources which lend credence to the theory of bisexuality. Unfortunately, Brown cites two letters received by Hart, "both sent by men, [which] began ‘Well Darling' and ‘Moss Dear.'" Now, for a theatrical bon vivant of that (or any) time to receive effusive salutations such as these from other men signifies to me, a gay man, absolutely nothing, and I find their inclusion almost laughably naïve. Brown also overdoes it when, in the book's preface, he extols the virtues of Moss Hart's own celebrated 1959 autobiography, Act One:

"The present writer can only encourage readers to buy, borrow, or somehow obtain a copy of Act One ... the story of [Hart's] first twenty-five years will be told again in the first two chapters of this book – with additional details based on Hart's correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, and other items that he chose not to include in his autobiography."

First of all, let me assure you, based on my own wanderings, Act One can be found in virtually every used book store in the tri-state area (along with enough copies of Howard Teichmann's George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait with which to build a modest home for a family of six). What Brown doesn't tell us until page 20, in a footnote to a discussion of Hart's having neglected to credit a collaborator in his famous autobiography, is rather eye-opening:

" ... it is only one of many instances when the incidents described in Act One prove, upon close inspection, to have been so thoroughly embroidered that they offer only a distorted (or, at best, a partial) view of reality."

I find it sloppy, or worse, disingenuous to praise a particular piece of work and encourage a reader to seek it out without including such a crucial caveat as part of the referral. For this reason, I had trouble trusting Brown, as thorough as his research seemed to be. I also must quarrel with his appropriation of Hart's literary conceit at the very end of this book:

"As readers of Act One ... will recall, the book ends not with the words The End, but with the single word Intermission, signaling one or more installments to follow. Now, at the conclusion of Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre, it seems only appropriate to conclude this book with another word: CURTAIN."

A more fitting word, given this passage, might have been: "presumption." Still, by all means, read Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre, but don't believe that this volume is the last word on this magnificent overachiever.

Photos: From Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre by Jared Brown. Published by Back Stage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of VNU Business Media. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Available where books are sold

Moss Hart: Prince of the TheatreMoss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre
By Jared Brown
Hardcover. 452 pages, illustrated
Back Stage Books
Publishing date: June 2006
List Price: $27.95
ISBN: # 0823078906