Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood , by Arthur Laurents. Alfred A. Knopf. 436 pages, $30.
It’s not unusual for showbiz autobiographies to be sensational, revisionist, self-aggrandizing or just plain silly. Arthur Laurents’ Original Story By is faithful to the genre. But his memoir must be a first in one surprising respect: Of all the 82-year-old Mr. Laurents’ achievements, he’s clearly proudest of his considerable gay sex life.
The writer and director is best known for his librettos: West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). He also directed the Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles (1983) and wrote the screenplay for The Way We Were (1973). His play The Time of the Cuckoo (1952) is currently being revived at Lincoln Center Theater. For all that fine work, Mr. Laurents’ autobiography might as well be retitled, Exit, Pursued by a Boy .
Here he is in 1944 at a performance of Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free : “If, watching that ballet, I’d had a question about art, it might well have been, Is sex art? Because the reason I returned again and again was Harold Lang, one of the three sailors and the best sex I’d ever had. He was the sailor with the ingratiating boyish grin and the white pants molded to Nobel-worthy buttocks. How could the answer to ‘What is art?’ compare to Harold Lang’s ass?”
A good question. Mr. Laurents appears to be searching valiantly for the answer throughout the 436 pages of his book. The story of his Jewish upbringing in Flatbush begins traditionally enough–but he quickly moves on to how he lost his virginity at 14: “I was gone down on by a kid my age who went from house to house like the Avon lady, blowing everyone available and acquiescent on the block…. He grew up to be a respected professor at home and at the Sorbonne. Until recently, he taught at both places and was still on his knees, though less frequently.” Hardly surprising, since the good professor must be in his 80’s today.
We learn that during World War II, our hero made military training films while stationed in Astoria, Queens, where he was introduced to fellow privates George Cukor, Irwin Shaw and John Cheever. New York City, he tells us, “reeked of sex”; he adds, peculiarly, “water was a liquid that formed ice cubes to put in drinks that inevitably led to sex. I whirled in a blender of sex and booze.” The Army made Arthur Laurents a very happy man, whirling in his blender. It made his prose dizzy, too: “I was having and enjoying sex with those unremembered hundreds, more often than not I had one eye open for romance which, more often than not, is born of sex. That, too, I learned in the Army.” Examples follow: “We had sex in the bushes,” he writes of some G.I. “Afterwards, he cried and thanked me.”
All roads lead to the same place. Introduced to Hollywood by Irene Mayer Selznick, daughter of Louis B. Mayer and wife of David O. Selznick, Mr. Laurents meets Marlene Dietrich at a party. “She was all about sex,” he writes, then wonders, “Was it Marlene Dietrich who primed me to stop my car to pick up that trick on Sunset?” Onwards: Farley Granger, apple of Mr. Laurents’ eye (Mr. Laurents wrote the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope , in which Granger starred). “I barely had time to shower and shave before there he was, running through the door and then, there we were, rolling on the floor. On the shag rug in the living room of a sublet, on the wrong side of Doheny Drive in midafternoon, me and my movie star. Oh frabjous day!” Frabjous?
Mr. Laurents was never easy on his friends, and in his Hollywood section, he endlessly and mercilessly flays Sydney Pollack (producer of The Way We Were ), summing it up with: “What an asshole!” Barbra Streisand, star of that same film, was an old friend from early Broadway days. He calls her “a poster girl for Spinster Incarnate.” He’s bitchy about his “pal” Katharine Hepburn, saying she and Irene Selznick were “two women who were uncomfortable with being women,” and that Hepburn “shoplifted” the movie version of The Time of the Cuckoo from “her good friend” Shirley Booth. But Mr. Laurents saves the worst for George Cukor, his old wartime buddy. Cukor may have been a bright, cultured man who gave great parties, but Mr. Laurents turns on him anyway: “Apparently he had decided that if he was grand enough…he would rise above being an unattractive Jewish queer by becoming an elegant silver-and-china queen and a Republican.”
Mr. Laurents also attacks those he sees as anti-gay (among them Paddy Chayevsky, David Merrick and Gene Kelly, who, being a bad sport during a game of volleyball, shouted “faggots” at Mr. Laurents and his team); or anti-Semitic (T.S. Eliot, admen Young & Rubicam, his English professor at Cornell). As a Jewish homosexual, Mr. Laurents proudly adopts the morally superior stance of an outcast-outsider who has fought the system valiantly, a man who insistently refers to his refined sense of injustice. Justifiably proud of his refusal to name names during the Joe McCarthy-inspired “Hollywood Witch Hunt,” he relentlessly excoriates those who caved in: Budd Schulberg, Abe Burrows, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins. His disgust with the honorary Oscar Mr. Kazan received at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony is obviously sincere–but his explanation of how he later wound up working with both Mr. Kazan and Robbins is bizarre and unconvincing.
For musical freaks, Mr. Laurents saves the best–his account of the making of West Side Story and Gypsy –for the final chapter. It is weirdly subtitled, ” West Side Story , Gypsy and Tom” (Tom is his longtime, frabjous boyfriend). The backstage dish, and a glimpse at the high stakes of putting together a Broadway musical, make this chapter the best read in the book.
“There were only two things that Lenny Bernstein feared,” Mr. Laurents writes, “God and Jerome Robbins.” He pays tribute to Bernstein for “the most magnanimous act I ever heard of in the theater.” According to Mr. Laurents, Bernstein removed his name from the billing as co-author of the lyrics of West Side Story because “Steve (Sondheim) was just beginning his career, the credit was important to him.” Jerome Robbins doesn’t fare so well. “His disregard for the actors, the song, the moment, the show, for anything except the satisfaction of his ambition for his ballet, appalled the three of us”–that is, Bernstein, Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Laurents. Robbins died while Mr. Laurents was at work on these memoirs, and so earns an ungracious farewell: “Monsters erode your feelings until you no longer care. He was a brilliant choreographer, he was better at staging a musical than anyone: the ballet would miss him, the theater would miss him, I wouldn’t.”
By the end, you may well find Original Story By a disappointingly shoddy, unpleasant work. A final example of the author’s boundless narcissism: At work on the libretto for Gypsy in 1959, Mr. Laurents lets his friend Lena Horne read the script. According to him, she said, “This is going to make Ethel Merman a star.” Really?
Merman’s career was launched like a rocket in 1934 with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes; the Gershwins had numerous show-stopping hit songs with her, including “I Got Rhythm” in 1930; and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun made her a legend in 1946.