BOOKS: Pickled poet laureate of Manhattan

BY CHRISTOPHER HAWTREE
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The Independent Culture
ABSENT from Lorenz Hart's catalogue of places that turn Manhattan into an isle of joy was the children's clothing department at St Macy's. He was a frequent customer, particularly for overcoats. Erratic in everything but his lyrics, he was always losing his coats, and each visit to the children's dept, far from being a joyous experience, can only have worsened his sensitivity about his height.

Gregarious and depressive, a swarthy man about town, Hart maintained a secret life. Often disappearing for weeks at a time, he holed up in cheap hotels, a sexual world beyond a biographer's reach - not to mention that of Richard Rodgers, his patient collaborator. For the rest, it is a familiar story: an immigrant's propulsion to that fame which comes of a moment's thought, some jottings on a pad and copyrights now worth more than ever. (One publisher, on hearing the score which included "Manhattan", declared: "There's no-thing of value here.")

Nolan had amassed enough 20 years ago for a biography of Hart, "only to discover that [Hart's] sister-in-law, Dorothy, was already at work on a memoir of Larry... I turned over as much of my material to Mrs Hart as was of use to her." Replete with lyrics denied to Nolan, her Thou Swell, Thou Witty is a collection of memories, her own and others', amateur in method but less numbing than Nolan. Bereft of notes, his work appears to conflate a hefty chronicle of every Broadway season with an almanack of world events. "Other notable events of that springtime included the St Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago, the inauguration of President Herbert Hoover, and the publication of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel..." A subject is not brought to life by listing everything that might, or might not, have impinged upon his consciousness. (No Hemingway biographer mentions any of Hart's six 1926 shows.) One does not so much read Nolan as forage.

Hart's knack for transforming an overheard, popular phrase - my heart stood still, I didn't know what time it was - was shared by Ira Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Hart and Dorothy Fields. "Blue Moon" went though as many changes as The Waste Land. Nobody has quite matched Hart's allying of yearning phrases by unobtrusive, multiple, internal rhyme and enjambment. Little known, and unmentioned by Nolan, is one of his best, "This Funny World". Desolate and optimistic, it captures the spinning planet and is so neatly done that one cannot here hoik out a couplet or two (catch, live, Claire Martin's jazz version).

Most tantalising of all is Nolan's discovery of 20 previously unknown lyrics. Inclusion of these would have forgiven him much. As it is, one must hasten back to the fat, 1986 volume of lyrics. For an apparent degenerate, Hart left more behind than most worthy citizens. To think that he almost became a journalist and Rodgers the manager of a baby-clothing wholesaler's.

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