A Ship With­out A Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart

Gary Mar­morstein
  • Review
By – March 12, 2013

Although they would not come to know each oth­er until they had achieved pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess, Yip” Har­burg and Lorenz Hart were born with­in a year of each oth­er to Jew­ish immi­grant fam­i­lies in New York. Both attend­ed New York City pub­lic schools and went to col­lege in New York as well (Hart at Colum­bia, Har­burg at CCNY). They would go on to become two of the most suc­cess­ful lyri­cists of the gold­en era of the Amer­i­can pop­u­lar song, Hart col­lab­o­rat­ing exclu­sive­ly with the bril­liant Richard Rodgers, Har­burg with Harold Arlen, Bur­ton Lane, and oth­ers.

Despite their over­lap­ping back­grounds, Har­burg and Hart could hard­ly have been more dif­fer­ent. Hart was, of trag­ic neces­si­ty, intense­ly pri­vate, and his per­son­al life remains a closed book. As a gay man in the pre-Stonewall era, much of his life was lived in hushed shad­ows, and he died long before it became fash­ion­able for ex-lovers and oth­er con­fi­dants to rush tell-all mem­oirs into print. His lyrics, which are smart in the fullest sense of the word – clever, allu­sive, and high­ly pol­ished – are at their sophis­ti­cat­ed best when cel­e­brat­ing the pain of roman­tic love, requit­ed and oth­er­wise.

Har­burg, on the oth­er hand, was very much a pub­lic man, polit­i­cal­ly engaged and appar­ent­ly eager to talk about him­self and his work at the drop of a hat. His lyrics tend to be sim­pler than Hart’s, and he had a marked predilec­tion for treat­ing seri­ous ques­tions of social jus­tice in his shows. Harburg’s lib­er­al views led to his being black­list­ed dur­ing the McCarthy era, almost ten years after Hart had died from com­pli­ca­tions of alco­hol addic­tion.

Since few, if any, pri­ma­ry mate­ri­als sur­vive that would pro­vide deep­er insights into the pri­vate Hart, Gary Mar­morstein large­ly con­fines him­self to chron­i­cling the where’s and when’s of his life – where he lived, what he wrote where and for whom (and how much). Per­haps wise­ly, Mar­morstein refrains from spec­u­lat­ing about the fraught per­son­al rela­tion­ship between the errat­ic Hart and the dili­gent Rodgers. Hart rou­tine­ly referred to Rodgers as the prin­ci­pal”; twen­ty years on, Rodgers looked back on his deceased part­ner as that lit­tle cig­a­rette.” But the love-hate rela­tion­ship between the two was crit­i­cal to their suc­cess as a team. The songs Rodgers pro­duced with Hart had far more edge and depth than those he would go on to write with Oscar Ham­mer­stein II, whose per­son­al­i­ty was much more Rodgers’s cup of tea.

Har­ri­et Hyman Alonso’s biog­ra­phy of Har­burg is drawn almost exclu­sive­ly from a num­ber of inter­views and talks that Har­burg gave through­out his life. Most of it is told in Harburg’s own words, and the result­ing por­trait of his pro­fes­sion­al out­put is some­what jar­ring. Although he wrote the words for some of our great­est pop­u­lar songs, much of his work – jux­ta­pos­ing such seri­ous issues as women’s rights, nuclear arms, and racism with the antics of young lovers and lep­rechauns – is marked by a pecu­liar tone that Har­burg him­self saw as a virtue but that clear­ly puz­zled audi­ences.

Few of Harburg’s Broad­way shows met with com­mer­cial suc­cess; his biggest hit, Finian’s Rain­bow, is gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered in the sec­ond rank of clas­sic musi­cals, and his oth­er shows have large­ly been for­got­ten. Har­burg him­self attrib­uted this to a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors – the incom­pe­tence of pro­duc­ers and direc­tors; the mal­ice and stu­pid­i­ty of crit­ics; his own being ahead of his time. More objec­tive per­spec­tives on his oeu­vre would have been wel­come.

But any study of either of these lyri­cists must stand or fall by its treat­ment of their subject’s lyrics them­selves. Harburg’s dis­cus­sions of the craft of the lyri­cist, using his own songs as case stud­ies, are invalu­able. For exam­ple, he ini­tial­ly approached Over the Rain­bow” as a forth­right state­ment of inten­tion by the young Dorothy: I’ll go / Over the rain­bow .…” Only after many drafts did he hit upon the apt mode for the song as a wist­ful expres­sion of dis­ap­point­ment at not being able to live out a fan­ta­sy: Birds fly over the rain­bow, / Why, oh why can’t I?” Mar­morstein nev­er approach­es this lev­el of analy­sis in deal­ing with Hart’s lyrics, but hav­ing them in front of our eyes to con­tem­plate is a dis­tinct pleasure.

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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