Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
The day Richard Rodgers met Lorenz Hart…
A Poet on Broadway
A few days later, (Philip) Leavitt took young Richard Rodgers around to the Hart house. Larry Hart met them at the door. They were a study in opposites. Dick was fresh, tanned, athletic, handsome, a high school champion swimmer and tennis player. Larry was unshaven — according to Rodgers, Hart invariably looked like he needed a shave every five minutes after he’d had one — and wearing a bathrobe over an evening shirt and trousers, with carpet slippers on his feet. He was already talking — and doubtless puffing a cigar and rubbing his hands together as he invariably did — as his visitors climbed the steps, and kept going non-stop as he took them back to the overstuffed library, where there was a piano. Bridget, the cat, strolled in, and Hart introduced her an “old fencewalker.” That broke the ice.
It was all so simple. Dick sat down at the piano, and Lorry said, “What have you written?” and Dick played some of his music, and it was really love at first sight. All that had to be done was [for me to] sit, listen, and let nature take its course.
Puffing on the ever-present cigar, hands flying, brown eyes flashing with enthusiasm and energy, Hart expounded upon the craft of lyric writing, excoriating the intellectual poverty of simpleton writers who rhymed “slush” with “mush” while neglecting the possibilities inherent in double and triple rhymes, slant rhymes, fragmented rhymes, false rhymes, interior rhymes, feminine rhymes — but most of all, witty rhymes. Rodgers was captivated.
“I listened in rapt astonishment and as he launched into a diatribe against songwriters who had small intellectual equipment and less courage, and who failed to take every opportunity to inch a little further into territory hitherto unexplored in lyric writing. I was enchanted,” Rodgers recalled in what has become perhaps his most-quoted comment on his mercurial little partner. “Neither of us mentioned it, but we evidently knew we would work together, and I left Hart’s house having acquired in one afternoon a career, a best friend, and a source of permanent irritation.”
Elsewhere Rodgers has been quoted — more accurately, one feels — as saying he left the Hart house bubbling over with excitement, repeating over and over to himself, “I have a lyricist, I have a lyricist!” Ever since he had first heard Jerome Kern’s music, Dick had only wanted to do one thing, write songs. It takes no imagination to picture him walking down 119th Street that Sunday evening, sixteen years of age, elated, exhilarated, full of hope and anticipation.
Of Hart’s feelings there can equally be no doubt. As Philip Leavitt put it with such unwitting percipience, it was love at first sight.
“Poor Larry,” one of his close friends said. “What a shame he had to fall in love with Dick.”
A Poet on Broadway
From LORENZ HART: A POET ON BROADWAY, by Frederick Nolan, copyright — 1995 by Frederick Nolan. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.