Having recently read many biographies about Larry Hart and about Richard Rodgers, I’ve been wondering how Larry would have told his own story if he hadn’t died at age 48…
Richard Rodgers lived for 36 years after Hart’s heartbreakingly early death, and as a result he had many opportunities to share HIS memories of their often-times challenging creative collaboration.
But we have no hindsight from Larry to balance their biographical narrative.
We do, however, have the lyrics he wrote for 26 Broadway shows and several Hollywood movies.
They range from the simple and sincere — “With a Song In My Heart” — to the playfully brutal — “I Wish I Were In Love Again.”
Here’s a version of “I Wish I Were In Love Again” that Bobbi Carrey and I recorded with Doug Hammer at his great studio north of Boston (with extra musical input from Mike Callahan).
It is tempting to imagine that some clues to his life experiences are encoded into his lyrics.
For example, Larry writes at the end of “I Could Write a Book” from one of his later musicals, Pal Joey: “and the world discovers as my book ends how to make two lovers of friends.”
This lyric makes me wonder about his relationship with the actress and singer Vivienne Segal, one of the stars of Pal Joey who was also his friend and to whom he apparently proposed marriage more than once…
She respectfully declined each time — saying that she had had enough of marriage (she was divorced from a first husband). She was also well aware that Hart was an alcoholic and what we would now describe as a closeted gay man.
Yet Cole Porter, another closeted gay songwriter of the time, had a long, loving, committed marriage to divorcée and millionairess Linda Lee Thomas — while simultaneously carrying on a life-long stream of romantic and sexual liasons with other men.
Porter, like Hart, was also devoted to his mother — although Porter did not share a home with his family for almost his entire life as did Hart.
Lorenz Milton Hart was born on May 2, 1895 and grew up in a boisterous household in Harlem, NY (then a largely Jewish neighborhood) with a father who was well-connected within the Democratic Tammany Hall political establishment.
His father made a living doing a variety of business deals — for example, he was alleged to be an investor in a very popular brothel — and over the years the Hart’s family finances would ebb, when his mother’s jewelry would go to the local pawn shop, and flow, when her jewelry would come out of hock and Larry might be given a $100 bill so that he could take all of his friends out for a night on the town.
It was a tight-knit family.
Larry (or Lorry as he was called by his German-Jewish mother) shared a bedroom with his younger brother Teddy until they were both in their forties.
The Harts regularly hosted parties attended by friends, relatives, local politicians, and — as Larry’s fame mounted — an expanding cast of writers, composers, musicians, performers, stars, groupies and hangers-on.
Larry supported his family after his father died — and he was apparently hounded by people to whom his father owed money for many years afterwards.
Hart was acutely aware of his mother’s wish that he would get married like his brother Teddy, who was a performer and who finally got married in 1938.
But none of the women to whom Larry proposed said yes.
I am reminded of Hart’s lyric for the song “Glad To Be Unhappy” (which I once recorded with Doug on piano at his studio during a rehearsal).
“Fools rush in… so here I am, very glad to be unhappy. I can’t win… so here I am, more than glad to be unhappy. Unrequited love’s a bore, and I’ve got it pretty bad — but for someone you adore, it’s a pleasure to be sad.”
Hart seems to have buried or hidden much of his sadness behind a playful, generous, talkative, enthusiastic personality — as well as a thick haze of cigar smoke and LOTS of alcohol.
And Larry carried on his family’s tradition of hospitality and generosity — helping his father pay off debts and loans when he was still alive, lavishing gifts on friends, hosting endless parties, and picking up the tab when out on the town.
He was also generous with his time and creativity.
His sister-in-law Dorothy Hart claimed, “My brother-in-law wrote more lyrics without getting credit for more friends who were stumped or had songwriters’ block. He was very generous, not only with money, but also with his talents.”
About Larry’s death she says, “He was really, I think, a victim of burnout, and at the age of 48, the theater didn`t offer too much surprise for him, because he had done it all.”
I also wonder what effect the news from Europe during WWII had on his spirit.
Before his death — after Richard Rodgers had begun his new collaboration with their mutual lifelong friend Oscar Hammerstein — Larry had been working on a musical about the underground resistance movement in Paris with a composer who had recently escaped from Germany.
So he must have been very well-informed about recent developments in Germany — from which his parents had emigrated in the late 1800s and to which he had traveled as an adult — and Europe.
How did this excruciating information affect his mood? His spirit? His world view?
One of the last songs he wrote in partnership with Richard Rodgers was a witty tour de force for Vivienne Segal to sing in a 1943 revival — and updated version — of their 1927 hit show A Connecticut Yankee.
It is called “To Keep My Love Alive” and relates how the singer has remained faithful to a long list of husbands (“until death do us part”) by killing each of them in a different way.
One death occurs when the singer pushes her husband off a balcony.
Hart would surely have been aware that Richard Rodgers’ wife’s father had died a few years earlier as a result of a fall from the balcony of their NY penthouse apartment when Rodgers’ father-in-law was being treated for depression.
Might this have been a hidden — and ostensibly humorous — way for him to process some of his feelings about Rodgers having begun a new collaboration with their long-time mutual friend and colleague Oscar Hammerstein, II — the first fruits of which was the musical Oklahoma?
A way to needle Richard and his wife Dorothy under the cloak of music and rhyme?
A way for him to express how he might have felt about Vivienne’s declining to accept his marriage proposals?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mr Hart’s life story — and his lyrics — while I put together a program of songs and stories to perform with jazz pianist Joe Reid.
And my freely associative mind can’t help but see — or perhaps more accurately imagine — connections between Hart’s life and his work.
I am wildly grateful that he left such a rich and beautifully-crafted body of work for all of us to savor and sing for many years to come.
Rest in peace, dear Mr. Hart.