Book Reviews

A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart
by Gary Marmorstein

Book Review by Alan Gomberg

A Ship Without a SailIt seems that any biographer of Lorenz Hart has to deal with a basic difficulty: relatively little is known about Hart's private life. Although his public life was well-documented, his private life was very private. It seems possible that Hart, generally referred to as Larry by his friends, may never have confided in anyone about whatever romantic and sexual life he had.

This lack of information is clearly something that Gary Marmorstein had to grapple with in his ambitious, mostly absorbing and sometimes frustrating A Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart. Before the publication of this book, Frederick W. Nolan's Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway had generally been the top recommendation for a biography of Hart. A Ship Without a Sail arrives with an endorsement from Nolan, who has declared it "the definitive biography of Larry Hart," while Marmorstein acknowledges having relied heavily on Nolan's book as a source, describing it as "masterful."

Marmorstein starts A Ship Without a Sail by recounting the tortuous legal battle that occurred, after Larry Hart's death, over the will that he had signed five months earlier. This conflict pitted Teddy Hart (Larry's brother) and Dorothy Hart (Teddy's wife) against Richard Rodgers and his accountant, Willy Kron. Kron had also been Larry's accountant, but he had been Rodgers's accountant for some years before that.

In some ways this makes for an arresting start, giving an initial impression of Rodgers that is anything but positive. Unfortunately, even at just 10 pages, it might have been profitably cut down a bit and it has some truly questionable aspects—surmises presented as fact and a lack of sources for a few statements—that raise doubts about Marmorstein's approach. But as the book goes on, it becomes clear that Marmorstein is a more reliable biographer than the first 10 pages might lead you to expect. Once past the battle over Hart's estate, the book moves into a chronological, mostly straightforward account of Hart's life, although there are a good many digressions intended to provide context for the events.

Marmorstein's style is generally unpretentious and clear, but his account of Hart's early years is slightly dull, if admirably thorough. When we reach The Garrick Gaities, the show that established Rodgers and Hart as an important team, A Ship Without a Sail becomes an absorbing, sometimes riveting account of the rest of Hart's life.

A Ship Without a Sail
Larry Hart and Richard Rodgers, probably at their favorite lunch spot, Dinty Moore, January 1938
If there are ways in which Hart cannot help but remain a bit of an enigma, Marmorstein does provide telling details and anecdotes that give us a strong picture of a man who was both gregarious and lonely, who was obsessed with never letting anyone else pick up a check, and who, at the age of 42, was still sharing a bedroom with his brother, which changed only when Teddy married Dorothy in January 1938. It's painful to read of the jokes made about Hart's diminutive size in articles about Rodgers and Hart and when they appeared together on the radio. Marmorstein does not shy away from discussing Hart's homosexuality, but (as noted earlier) nothing very specific seems to be known about his sexual life.

I'm not sure if there's any way for a serious biographer of Hart to avoid a degree of repetitiveness. We read repeatedly of Hart disappearing on drinking binges and of Rodgers's increasing lack of patience with him, not to mention all those checks he picked up. But all of this helps create the picture of a man of great talent who had limited options and who felt unloved. The account of Hart's last months is distressing and quite moving. Along the way, Marmorstein supplies stories and details that give you a good feel for the New York in which Hart lived.

If the book easily sustains interest once we reach The Garrick Gaities, there are also frustrations. Occasionally, Marmorstein's writing is unclear, and there are some questionable word usages. Some of the details intended to supply context are not given sufficient setup and come off as puzzling or even irrelevant rather than illuminating. On the other hand, truly important details are sometimes absent, and stories of uncertain accuracy are occasionally presented as fact.

As is often the case in biographies of musical theatre writers, there are some factual errors here. For example, it was Victor Morley, not Victor Moore, who was replaced during the tryout of Poor Little Ritz Girl. We're told that Charles Dillingham produced 200 shows on Broadway, but the correct number seems to have been around 110 (which is still extraordinary). Hart's friend Milton "Doc" Bender is reported to have been the model for Dr. Kitchell, the songwriting dentist in Bells Are Ringing, but every other source I can find states that Harold Karr was the inspiration for the character (and no source is given for the statement about Bender). Most of the errors are, like the ones mentioned here, of minor importance, but a bit more care could have transformed what seems to be a generally trustworthy book into a thoroughly trustworthy book.

One thing that I wish had been addressed: While many letters written by Richard Rodgers (mostly to his wife) are quoted, few if any letters from Hart are quoted. Did he not write letters? Are they in private hands? Does no one know? Some explanation or even just an acknowledgment of this absence would have been welcome.

Ultimately, I wouldn't go quite as far as Frederick Nolan in declaring this the definitive biography of Larry Hart, but it's a solid one that supplies a lot of information and makes for a very good read (once past the slightly dull beginning). Despite some missteps, A Ship Without a Sail effectively captures the excitement and sadness of Hart's life.

Photo: Courtesy Photofest. From A Ship Without a Sail by Gary Marmorstein. © 2012 by Gary Marmorstein. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Ship Without a Sail: Lorenz HartA Ship Without a Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart
Gary Marmorstein
Hardcover. 554 pages
Simon & Schuster
Publishing date: July 3, 2012
List Price: $30.0
ISBN: 978-1416594253
Discounted at Amazon: Hardcover Book and Kindle Edition