Fran Landesman: Poet, lyricist and performance artist famous for her jazz standards and infamous for her open marriage


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The Independent Online

Fran Landesman was a uniquely forthright fireball of innovative transatlantic songwriting and poetry performances. She was born Frances Deitsch in midtown Manhattan in 1927 to well-to-do business parents.

Her mother was a sharp-tongued lush who came down hard on her fat teenage daughter – she had put Fran on speed when she was only 12 to get her weight down. But she remained grateful to her mother for reading to her a lot and taking her to the theatre. Her dress manufacturer father co-founded New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

After private schools and studying textile design at art school, Fran was soon rebelling against her conformist background by hanging out with hipsters and beats in Greenwich Village, where she met her wildly Bohemian match in the form of randy playboy Jay Landesman.

Eight years her senior, Jay had launched Neurotica in 1948, a hip avant-garde magazine focused on the dark undersides of Middle American dreams. It featured early Beat Generation texts by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes. For Holmes the Fran of that period was "a girl who bore an astonishing resemblance to Zelda Fitzgerald – only lovelier, softer, more remote with a certain pang behind her intelligence and chic, her face luminous with the hip chick's soulfulness".

After a whirlwind romance, Fran and Jay got married in July 1950. Their "open house" parties in the Village which aspired to host "the most beautiful and neurotic people in the world" (Jay had changed his name from Irving in homage to Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby) set a pattern the Landesmans stuck with over the following six decades. It was clear from the start that neither partner was going into marriage to the exclusion of all others. Fran said of Jay's occupational womanising, "It meant I could have lovers too", and was at least as happy about the multiple infidelities indulged in their 61 years together as he was.

In 1951, with the magazine and the marriage falling apart, the couple upped sticks for Jay's home town of St Louis, Missouri, where with family backing he opened the Crystal Palace night club, which introduced Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen and their ilk to the Midwest. In 1952, partly inspired by her nightly absorption of these soon-to-be cabaret superstars, but mainly at the suggestion of the Palace's resident singer-songwriter-pianist, Tommy Wolf, Fran began developing her staggeringly original talent for versification.

One of her first lyrics, "Spring can really hang you up the most", a distillation of bebop-cadenced variations on TS Eliot's "April is the cruellest month / mixing memory and desire", quickly became a much-loved jazz standard, as did "Ballad of the Sad Young Men". Recorded and sung by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Roberta Flack, Tony Bennett, Mark Murphy, Gwyneth Herbert, and many others, these look to remain cult hits for decades to come.

Tommy Wolf, who wrote the scores for most of her early output, observed in 1956 how "Fran writes everywhere, with incredible speed in curious flashes of intense concentration ... a stenographer taking sudden, urgent dictation from a personal, omnipotent muse". Another collaborator was the sparky singer-pianist Bob Dorough, whose arrangement of Fran's "Nothing Like You" was recorded by Miles Davis, with Dorough singing, on the 1967 album Sorcerer. Bobby noted: "Fran's lyrics came first in perfect shape, crying for a melody. The composer's job couldn't have been easier for the privileged few of us who wrote those melodies".

The content of Landesman's two early hits was perfectly tuned to the Zeitgeist, yet perennial: "College boys are writing sonnets / In tender passion they're engrossed / But I'm on the shelf with last year's Easter bonnets / Spring can really hang you up the most". They articulate succinctly much of where the likes of Kerouac, Burroughs, Gregory Corso and their buddies were at. "All the sad young men / Drifting through the town / Drinking up the night / Trying not to drown" presaged those chronicled in Ginsberg's Howl ". . . dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix".

In 1964 Jay and Fran moved toLondon with sons Cosmo, then nine, and five-year-old Miles Davis Landesman in tow. The parents were soon clubbing, gigging, recording, publishing, partying and bedhopping withdiverse Swinging London glitteratiincluding Jeff Bernard, Elizabeth Smart, RD Laing, Annie Ross,Ronnie Scott, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Georgie Fame and Yoko Ono. Over the subsequent decades the couple remained incorrigibly anarchic, promiscuous, drug-happy teenagers at heart, as has punk songster-guitarist Miles. Cosmo's rebellion snuck up the opposite path to restraint and responsibility; he amazed his mom by becoming the Sunday Times's senior film critic ("If I'd known he was gonna be a critic I'd have strangled him at birth", she quipped).

I first encountered Fran's gruffly staccato banter on an ICA charter flight to New York in 1970, and soon after witnessed her first public performance of her lyrics, and also of her first "straight" (then again, not so straight) poems in the Crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Her spare, sassy, punchily pointed lines and conversational delivery made her an instant must-include in my jazz poetry productions, on Poetry Olympics stages and New Departures pages, from that day to this.

Few songwriter-poets can match the quantity or wide-ranging qualities of Fran's oeuvre. It reflects an extraordinary immersion in British and American literature in intuitive harmony with the American Songbook and the light verse-blues-jazz-folk-rock-pop-music hall continuum. She was equally at home adapting "Unforgettable" à la Nat King Cole ("Unforgivable, that's what you are . . ."), as Dowson's "Days of wine and roses" ("Farewell days of fun and flirting / So long sex – so glad we came / Now there's always something hurting / Hello specs and Zimmer frame ...").

Fran's performances in the UK and US were frequently accompanied by spirited vocal and guitar embellishments from Miles, which in turn provoked rollicking, singalong audience responses. An incantation the duo fine-tuned to perfection was Fran's surreal-real variation on the sadly ever-contemporary 'Strange Fruit' theme, "White Nightmare": "White people in their white room / White bodies in a white tomb / White pillows for their white hair / White nightmare / White country for a white race / No shadows in this white place / No hiding from the white glare / White nightmare. White night mare".

In 1986 Cosmo's first wife Julie Burchill gave birth to Jack Landesman, who became the apple of Fran's eye, prompting her laidback "Granny Franny" period, which entailed lotsof baby- and child-minding and afreshly exhilarated detachment from so continuously strutting her stuff, until the late 1990s. Of course it didn't stop her writing, notably from 1994 with her last main musical collaborator, the eclectic Welsh pianist-composer Simon Wallace.

Averaging one get-together a week, their 17-year friendship produced more than 400 songs. He recalled at Fran's funeral how she had at the very least one brand new lyric every time: "Words flowed out of her in a never-ending stream but she was ruthless in her editing, pruning away dead wood and polishing the final version till it shone". They put together several rip-roaring musicals based on the songs, and a catalogue of superb recordings is available via iTunes and Amazon, including different selections voiced by Nicki Leighton-Thomas, Clare Teal, Ian Shaw, Bob Dorough, Susannah McCorkle, as well as several beauties by Simon's wife Sarah Moule.

At least 15 not so slim volumes of Fran's lyrics and poems appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, roughly half of them from various Jay Landesman imprints, of which Invade My Privacy (1978), The Thorny Side of Love (1992) and Scars & Stripes (1997), afford a fairly representative introduction. Before Jay died aged 91 last February, Fran had assumed she wouldn't want to go on living without him. Over the last decade her eyesight had deteriorated dramatically, until she could hardly see to write or read. Nevertheless, despite other ailments attendant on being 83, her lifelines continued to be performing (completely from memory), and working on new material with Simon Wallace.

She went on introducing her live spots by asking anyone in the venue she was not recognising or greeting to understand that she suffered from "CRAFT Syndrome: Can't Remember A Fucking Thing"! Her friend Hanja Kochansky observed her just a few months ago trying to remember people she had known and saying frustratedly "Oh what was his name?", banging her head with her tight little fist and adding with a little-girl giggle: "You see, I can't name-drop any more, and I loved to name-drop!"

But she never forgot the hard stuff of her wordsounds, and invariably further enlivened it with ebullient ad-libs as of yore. Unlike Jay, she died quite unexpectedly in her sleep, only two mornings after a vintage gig at Rada, and only a few hours after completing another Friday evening's song-honing session with Simon Wallace, having, as countless times before, got zippily high on strawberries, ice cream and – her desert island luxury of choice – cannabis.

Frances Deitsch, songsmith, poet, cabaret performer: born New York City 21 October 1927; married 1950 Jay Landesman (died 2011; two sons); died 23 July 2011.