Moss Hart Stars in Act Two: A Charmed and Troubled Life

Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart , by Steven Bach. Alfred A. Knopf, 477 pages, $29.95.

Moss Hart’s warm and witty memoir of his first quarter-century, Act One , ended with the triumphant production of his play Once in a Lifetime . The memoir was itself a triumph: Published late in 1959, it quickly reached the top of the best-seller lists and remained on them for almost a year. It’s still in print. Now, 42 years later, comes Steven Bach, with Dazzler , to tell the rest of the story.

Although he was denied the cooperation of Hart’s family, Mr. Bach received enough support from other sources to give a firmly convincing account of Hart’s mature years. A natural-born hunter of information, he has assembled a vast store of minutiae on Hart’s private and public life. In the first five of his 28 chapters he goes over the territory covered in Act One , but offers enough addenda and corrigenda to keep the narrative fresh. The portrait of Hart that emerges is of a generously talented man, yet one who was seldom free of emotional torment.

Hart’s family were living in Manhattan when he was born, but moved to the Bronx when he was 7. Although they did not live in squalor, they were never far above the poverty line. But Hart’s aunt Kate, his mother’s pampered sister, managed to catch the occasional glimpse of a richer life–from a balcony seat at the theater. Sometimes she took her nephew along. These outings were Hart’s introduction to the world in which he would make his life. Like his aunt, he wanted something more than the Bronx had to offer.

It did not take him long to achieve it. Pushing on any door that would open onto a career in the theater, Hart in his teens and early 20′s served as a social director in adult summer camps, staged plays for amateur troupes, acted whenever he had the chance–and wrote. One of his early plays got as far as an out-of-town tryout tour. By the time he was 24, he had trained himself in all aspects of the theater.

His breakthrough came in part as the result of a meeting in 1927 with Joseph Hyman, a young businessman with a taste for theater who admired the writing Hart was turning out at an adult summer camp in Vermont. Hyman lent Hart $200 as an advance against his future writing. He also found work for Hart’s father and his brother Bernard, his only sibling, thus relieving Hart of responsibility for the family. Two more years of social-directing followed. At the end of the second, Hart took himself to the Brooklyn shore and sat down to write a comedy.

He had been paying close attention to the popular plays of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, and intended to use them as models. He had also been paying attention to the turmoil into which Hollywood was thrown by the advent of sound. The result was a fast and funny play about three small-time vaudevillians who get the bright idea of opening a school of elocution for the studios. But, clever though Hart’s first drafts were, the play needed work. After some frustrating detours, it reached the hands of Sam H. Harris, Kaufman’s own producer, who suggested that the master himself have a look at it. The full-fledged collaboration that resulted from the meeting of the two writers was not in Harris’ original plan, which was only that Kaufman might direct the play and make some suggestions for smoothing it out. In Mr. Bach’s retelling of the saga, it takes on somewhat more suspense than Hart himself achieved in Act One . Will the young playwright succeed? You hope so, and of course he does. When, after a troubled tryout tour, extensive revisions and changes in the cast, Once in a Lifetime finally reached Broadway, the critics cheered. Thus began a working partnership that would last for 10 years and a friendship that would last for 20 more, to the end of the writers’ lives.

Kaufman and Hart collaborated on eight major plays and a few short sketches. Once in a Lifetime , You Can’t Take It With You (1937; Pulitzer Prize) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) have become standards of the international repertory. Kaufman, the great collaborator whose writing partners included, among many others, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber and Ring Lardner, once described Hart to the press as his favorite of all. The two men shared a cynical view of life and the wit to embody it in sharply satiric comedy.

There, however, the resemblance stopped. Although the Kaufman family lived in great comfort, Kaufman’s personal tastes were austere. Well-tailored clothes provided the principal evidence that he was a man of means. Hart, on the other hand, had a liking for grandeur that, as soon as the royalties started coming in, led him to decorate his person with every gold accessory that caught his eye, and to rent a townhouse and hire a butler to run it. He made so many gifts to friends that they worried about his solvency. This fondness for the extravagant gesture was also reflected in his reach for the epic statement in drama, which prompted the creation of the team’s least satisfactory plays, Merrily We Roll Along (1934), a wordy melodrama on the corruption of youthful idealism, and The Fabulous Invalid (1938), an overwrought semi-documentary history of the American stage.

Another difference between their personalities lay in the day-to-day rhythm of their lives. Although Kaufman worried about his physical health and was sometimes moody, unlike Hart he was never subject to profound depression. So severe was Hart’s emotional state that years of psychoanalysis were of little benefit to him; toward the end of his life he was seeing an analyst twice a day. Mr. Bach convincingly suggests that Hart’s problems were exacerbated by the unhelpful direction he was given by his principal analyst, Lawrence S. Kubie.

This, Mr. Bach believes, had to do with Hart’s sexual orientation, of which Dr. Kubie disapproved. The only “revelation” in Dazzler is that Hart was, at least in his early manhood, gay. This has long been an open secret in theatrical circles, but may startle some of Mr. Bach’s readers. He draws on the comments of several men and women who knew Hart, including actors to whom Hart was attracted, but does not sensationalize the issue. It seems at least possible, if not altogether certain, that Hart’s periodic lows stemmed from his failure to adjust to this aspect of his personality. None of his friends thought it likely that he would ever marry. His relationship with the actress Edith Atwater, a frequent companion in the early 1940′s, once sparked his brother to observe, “There go Moss Hart and the future Miss Edith Atwater.” It was a remark echoed by many.

Hart’s failure to propose marriage to Atwater may have been conditioned by his sexual dilemma–but, if so, that was not the only reason. First was his close relationship with Beatrice Kaufman, his collaborator’s wife. This was not a sexual relationship, but a warm and loving one. Beatrice, 15 years Hart’s senior, was too young to be a surrogate mother, but she never failed him when he came to her for comfort and advice. It was unlikely that he would marry during her lifetime. She died in 1945; he married the actress-singer Kitty Carlisle the following year. Although he was not an observant Jew, it was doubtful, too, that he would marry any woman who, like Atwater, was not Jewish. Kitty, born Catherine Conn, was Jewish and near to him in age. Although the spells of depression continued to wrack him until his death, the marriage was successful. Two children were born of it.

In 1940, Hart made up his mind to dissolve the writing partnership with Kaufman. His intellectual development and his craving to gain respect as an independent talent required that he make the break. But Hart’s five post-Kaufman plays turned out to be a mixed lot of perishable material. The first, Lady in the Dark (1941), a lavishly mounted musical tribute to psychoanalysis, was his biggest hit as a solo playwright. Gertrude Lawrence starred as the editor of a fashion magazine who is brought out of deep doldrums after a mere three sessions on her analyst’s couch. Only the sumptuous score by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin remains fresh today. Light Up the Sky (1948), a rackety farce that Hart pretentiously described as “Shavian,” is occasionally revived, but chiefly before the undemanding audiences for dinner theater and summer stock. Hart’s other post-Kaufman plays are now virtually forgotten. He fared much better with his late screenplays, which included Gentleman’s Agreement (on anti-Semitism), Hans Christian Andersen and the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born .

The great theatrical achievement of Hart’s last years was his work as director of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956). Lerner and Loewe followed with Camelot (1960), again with Hart as director. His effort to improve its troubled book brought on a coronary thrombosis, his second, during the show’s tryout tour. Severely weakened, he never fully recovered. A third coronary, in December 1961, felled him. Kaufman, beset by a number of ailments, had died only six months earlier.

Mr. Bach has written Dazzler with good humor and due respect for his subject, but, as is virtually inevitable in a book of its scope, not without a few factual errors. I will point out three. David Burton, not Kaufman, staged Kaufman and Ferber’s The Royal Family . The late Mary Wickes would not be pleased to find herself described as a newcomer when she accepted the role of Miss Preen in The Man Who Came to Dinner . Although quite young, she was already a Broadway veteran; Kaufman and Hart wrote the part with her in mind. A more serious error concerns the order in which the authors’ names appear on the plays. After Once in a Lifetime , on which Hart’s name came first, they switched the billing with each successive play. For that reason, You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner are by “Hart and Kaufman,” not “Kaufman and Hart,” and not, as Mr. Bach writes, because Kaufman wished to honor his collaborator. These slips are unfortunate, but they do not detract from the importance of Dazzler , which ought to please anyone who has read Act One and hankered for more.

Malcolm Goldstein, a biographer of George S. Kaufman, is the author of Landscape With Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States (Oxford University Press).