Dylan Jones: 'Moss Hart leaves you in no doubt as to the motivation that propelled him out of his predicament'

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My all-time favourite novel – Tom Wolfe's episodic masterpiece, The Bonfire of the Vanities – is set in New York, as is my favourite work of non-fiction, the heavily fictionalised Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan, which starts in Manhattan and reaches a counter-cultural climax in San Francisco. So it was a surprise to me and my bookshelves when both books were recently joined by another classic New York text, the autobiography of the theatrical impresario Moss Hart, Act One.

Hart's book had been recommended to me by my agent Ed Victor, a man for whom the copper-bottomed memoir is a thing of beauty as well as a thing of potentially good commerce. Act One was published in 1959, yet it remains a defining text of the 20th-century entertainment industry: "This is the best book on 'show business' as practised in this century in our time," wrote the man from The New York Times Book Review at the time; he wasn't wrong.

Moss Hart achieved his first major success with the 1930 George S Kaufman production, Once in a Lifetime, followed by The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take it With You, which won a Pulitzer Prize. He wrote the screenplays for Gentleman's Agreement and A Star is Born, and won praise for his direction of My Fair Lady in 1956. So it was something of a bonus for him to write such an influential memoir. Act One charts Hart's struggle to produce his first Broadway success as well as describing how he and his family coped with being poor in Brooklyn and the Bronx in the early part of the century. He never romanticises his plight, yet leaves you in no doubt as to the motivation that propelled him out of his predicament. "It seemed to me I had grasped one of the theatre's deepest secrets," he writes. "Survival. It is as prime a requisite for a theatrical career as talent itself, for with an ability to survive, everything is possible, and without it... nothing."

It is the sort of story that Woody Allen could have spun into something as memorable as Radio Days or Broadway Danny Rose, although the book is so evocative it has its own very particular – and very wonderful – cinematic sweep.E

Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'