Somewhere for Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgersby Meryle Secrest
(Applause Books). No American composer has been more widely celebrated, nor so consistently misunderstood as Richard Rodgers. Although he was one of America's most brilliant and prolific composers, whose credits include more than 900 published songs, 40 Broadway musicals and numerous films, Rodgers is widely believed to be the almost stolid opposite of who he
(Applause Books). No American composer has been more widely celebrated, nor so consistently misunderstood as Richard Rodgers. Although he was one of America's most brilliant and prolific composers, whose credits include more than 900 published songs, 40 Broadway musicals and numerous films, Rodgers is widely believed to be the almost stolid opposite of who he really was. Meryle Secrest shows us for the first time his complex nature and the inspiration for his art. Looking intensely at Rodger's unparalleled career, Secrest follows his close and fruitful working relationship with Lorenz Hart, a collaboration that resulted in more than thirty musicals but was ultimately undone by Hart's alcoholism. Moving on to Rodger's second collaborator, Secrest records the triumphs with the gifted and more stable Oscar Hammerstein, including Carousel , South Pacific and The King and I , along with many more. Rodgers' personal life is explored, as well. Secrest writes about the composer's childhood, and how, from an early age, he used music to escape. And she explores Rodgers' own battle with alcohol, as well as the deep tensions in his 49-year marriage to Dorothy Feiner. Somewhere for Me is both a vivid portrait of American musical theatre, and an illuminating examination of one of its greatest artists.
- Hal Leonard Corporation
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Read an Excerpt
Here comes Jacob Levy trotting along the street, a tiny little man in a neat black suit and fussy bow tie, carrying a cane and sporting a white panama with a surprisingly rakish brim. It is 1926, and Richard Rodgers's grandfather on his mother's side is spending the summer in Long Beach, New York, walking down an expanse of sidewalk bordered by identical lawns, a single Model T Ford parked behind him on that ramrod-straight, deserted street. Now here is Will, Dick's physician father, in the home movies Richard Rodgers began to take with his fancy new film camera, the one you wound up by hand. Will, too, is spending his summer in Long Beach, and stands on the steps of their cottage, red-haired, handsome, and blue-eyed, a smudge of moustache on his upper lip, in his starched-collar shirt and his suit with matching waistcoat, laughing uproariously at some forgotten joke. And here is Mamie, Dick's mother, with her flat, blunt nose, close-set eyes, pince-nez, and distinct gap between her front teeth. Even in those days of blurry and faded film one somehow knows it is a dusty afternoon in high summer, and only city folk get dressed up in hats and gloves to have their pictures taken.
Now the golden boy himself appears, towering (even though of modest height) over his tiny mother, his hair glistening in the sunlight, his lips parted in a curving smile, with his beautifully modeled forehead and the slight cleft in his chin, the kind of face to be found in magazine illustrations of the period advertising cigars, cognacs, Cadillacs, and crossings on the Cunard Line. His suit is something formal and dark and the shirt collar is fashionably stiff and confining, but his tie tells another story: it is daringly patterned with dots and can only be bright red. He leans solicitously over his mother and the tree under which they are posing throws a pattern of light on his cheekbones and the edge of his lapel.
Soon they are on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, whither they have come for the tryout of a new show. Here is Dick, the brim of his hat pulled down snappily over one eye, with his mother on his arm. She is in mourning for her father, lately dead, and looks, in her mountainous black hat, as solemn as an owl. Next to them, in a line advancing toward the camera, are Lew Fields, the famous comedian-turned-producer who backed so many of Rodgers's first shows, and Lew's son Herbert, Rodgers's collaborator on the books. At the far right is the impeccably dressed Lorenz Hart, Rodgers's brilliant lyricist, whose Homburg hat and perfectly tailored double-breasted coat only serve to underline the contrast between his manly head and stunted body. Now we are at the tennis courts, where the agile form of Richard Rodgers, in faultless white flannels, can be seen serving and volleying with the rapidity of a dragonfly. Next we are on a lake and he is lounging in a canoe, wearing a fashionable two-piece swimsuit (striped, sleeveless top, white belt, dark trunks), with his half-smile, his widow's peak of immaculate dark hair parted just off-center, the ever-present cigarette between his fingers. Or he is standing on the dock beside Bobbie Perkins, who sang "Mountain Greenery" in the Garrick Gaieties of 1926, his arm around her waist, a charming scene disrupted by his handsome older brother Mortimer. Morty interposes himself between them and triumphantly carries off the girl.
Next he is on a picnic in Canada, wearing a beret, eating sandwiches and drinking from a thermos flask, then proudly displaying the fish he has just caught. Or he is in Cannes, coming around the corner with a beauty on each arm. On one side is Corinne Griffith and on the other, Kendall Lee, then married to Jules Glaenzer, vice-president of Cartier's. Rodgers is on the Riviera to attend some kind of lavish party at the invitation of Glaenzer, youngish and handsome and wearing what looks like a silk kimono. For Richard Rodgers, ambitious young composer-about-town, has been taken up by café society and invited everywhere. And no wonder, since although he is only in his mid-twenties, he has had several hit musicals and has taken bachelor's quarters, three rooms on the nineteenth floor with a wrap-around terrace, in a deluxe apartment hotel called the Lombardy at 11 East Fifty-sixth Street, with its two-story-high Spanish Renaissance lobby and hand-modeled stucco walls with travertine quoins and jambs. There he has decorated his study as befits his status: light red draperies, cork walls (a daring touch), Moderne furniture, and the latest in Art Deco built-in bookcases. Writing to his future wife, Dorothy Feiner, he said that a divan and bookcase had just arrived and he was biting his nails with anxiety. "I suspect it's rather successful, but you'll know!" he wrote. Charles, his valet, who insisted on the French pronunciation of his name, did everything without being told. One night Rodgers brought home a congenial group after a prizefight, and they sat around singing songs and strolled about on his spacious terrace. Charles made sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and sausages and served champagne. He left the gathering at 4:30 a.m. and "showed up again at nine-thirty to give me breakfast, with the same smile," Rodgers wrote. "Dot, what a way to live! Expensive, but so nice."
The year was 1929, and a decade had gone by since that hot summer day when he and Larry Hart had traveled out to Rockaway to play some of their first tunes for Lew Fields. That same summer the two of them stood in the back of the Casino Theatre at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street to hear Eve Lynn and Alan Hale sing "Any Old Place with You." It was 1919, the musical was A Lonely Romeo, and Rodgers's first song had been heard on Broadway; he was just seventeen. Years of struggle followed until the big chance came with The Garrick Gaieties of 1925, and the writing team of Rodgers and Hart was launched. By the late 1920s newspapers were publishing drawings of Rodgers, the composer of such musicals as Peggy-Ann and A Connecticut Yankee and such songs as "My Heart Stood Still," "Manhattan," "Here in My Arms," "The Girl Friend," "Thou Swell," and "This Funny World." The headline was "The Young Master of Melody." A short film had even been made, with Rodgers and Hart as the stars, celebrating their rapid rise. And everyone was singing their songs.
We'll have a blue room,
A new room,
For two room,
Where ev'ry day's a holiday
Because you're married to me.
("The Blue Room") Spring of 1929 began, appropriately enough, with a February tryout for Spring Is Here at the Shubert Theatre, Philadelphia; it moved to the Alvin Theatre, New York, the following month. The musical was based on a book by Owen Davis, which he had adapted from his play Shotgun Wedding, and, like most confections of the period, told a forgettable story about a boy in love with a girl in love with somebody else until the last act. It ran for 104 performances, not a very prepossessing number, although the reviewers had been kind, and was notable for at least one wonderful melody, "With a Song in My Heart." It was also notable for its bevy of pretty girls, called "Ladies of the Ensemble" in the program, every one vivacious and charming and with perfect thighs. Rodgers lovingly photographed them all in their silk negligées or their garden outfits of white cloche hats and polka-dot dresses, or their Pierrette costumes-it was the moment for puffed sleeves and tiers of frills on skirts-in which they pouted, pirouetted, and drooped charmingly against doorways. The early home movies are full of such pretty girls, and Dorothy Rodgers, who later provided the commentary, was forbearing. "This is Bobbie Perkins," she announced as that particularly trim and lively girl appeared to take her bow. "Dick used to take her out a lot, and she and I became great friends."
Dorothy herself appeared in the films, her long brown hair loose around her face, swimming in the pool of the house in Tarrytown, New York, that her parents had rented for a year, or riding horseback with Herbert Fields, her ponytail bouncing along behind her, or posing against the doorway of the house in something clinging and low-cut, a dress one would have thought too sultry for a girl of seventeen. Or she is getting into Dick's chauffeur-driven Stutz Bearcat convertible, in an amazingly chic outfit, a belted two-piece with contrasting trim, and, in those days of the universal cloche hat, wearing what looks like a very becoming turban. There is an air of maturity about this young and pretty admirer, whose youthfulness is betrayed occasionally by a tremulous uncertainty in her smile. And, indeed, she was something of a sophisticate, the much-indulged daughter of wealthy parents, who had made the yearly pilgrimage to Europe since childhood. She knew, for instance, that one went to Egypt for perfume, to Turkey for star sapphires, to Naples for coral and tortoiseshell, to Rome for antiques, and to Florence for leather goods.
In Paris, she and her mother spent countless hours being fitted for clothes. It was, she wrote later, "an era of almost unimaginable luxury . . . French underwear, for example, was made of the sheerest pure silk ninon and trimmed with hand-run Alençon lace. Combinations called 'teddies,' slips, petticoats and nightgowns were designed to be knife-pleated-a process that had to be repeated by hand each time they were washed." Since American laundries would not perform this time-consuming work, Dorothy Feiner would take her dirty underwear to France on each transatlantic trip to be painstakingly repleated. Such close knowledge of the fine points of haute couture would stand her in good stead when she came to buy her trousseau, a year's worth of hats, coats, dresses, evening clothes, furs, shoes, and underwear -- everything, right down to the hand-pleated silk chiffon handkerchiefs.
By June of 1929 Rodgers was working on a new show, Me For You, later called Heads Up!, all about rum runners in yachts and true love winning through in the end. Rodgers had written a song, "A Ship Without a Sail," and thought it sounded "pretty hot." He had spent the weekend at the painter and illustrator Neysa McMein's and was touched by the flowers Dot had wired from Paris for his twenty-seventh birthday. As she traveled on to Vittel and Biarritz, his letters followed: optimistic predictions for the success of the show, a few lame jokes, and sporadic references to weekend parties in Westhampton (to celebrate Glaenzer's forty-seventh birthday), deep-sea fishing with friends off Montauk, telephone calls from Florenz Ziegfeld about his next show, Simple Simon, and offers from Paramount. "This is going to be a big year," he wrote with some prescience in the summer of 1929. They went through the tryouts of Heads Up! together. They got engaged during the New York run. Meanwhile, in that winter of the Depression, Simple Simon, starring Ed Wynn as the proprietor of a newspaper shop in Coney Island more at home with fairy tales than with newspaper headlines, made its way through a Boston tryout to the Ziegfeld Theatre early in 1930. When Dick married Dorothy, on March 5, he and Larry Hart had two shows on Broadway, but reviews had been mixed in both cases: Heads Up! closed ten days later and Simple Simon in mid-June.
Theirs was one of the weddings of the season, and Mrs. Richard Rodgers's photograph appeared a day later in the Social News section of the New York Times. She was married in her parents' home, the paper reported, at 270 Park Avenue. The apartment had been transformed into an outdoor garden with quantities of flowers and fruit blossoms. The bride chose a medieval gown of ivory-colored satin without any adornment, a simple tulle veil, mittens of old rose-point lace, and carried a sheaf of calla lilies. Her bride's book records one hundred and fifty gifts, neatly catalogued and described, checked to show that they had been acknowledged: a custom-made crystal bowl and plate; several traveling clocks of green leather; silver, crystal, and agate ashtrays; towels decorated with Milanese lace; a silver smoking set; silver bonbon dishes; crystal decanters; a breakfast set from Tiffany's; a silver bowl from Cartier's; a Lalique vase; an antique cigarette box; Wedgwood china from Tiffany's; bronze candelabra; ditto; rock crystal champagne glasses; lamps, vases, bowls, ornaments, tiles, earrings, silverware, and other miscellany, some returned. Dorothy's new mother- and father-in-law contributed a diamond bracelet. Her own parents gave her a baguette diamond watch bracelet.
There was a dinner for the wedding party at 270 Park Avenue, and the happy couple boarded the SS Roma that very evening, bound for Naples. "It was a lovely dinner," she recalled later, "but we ate nothing, we were so excited and nervous." By the time they were settled in their spacious suite -- there was a cabin just to hold their trunks and hand luggage -- it was close to midnight and Dorothy was finally hungry enough to eat a few dried-up sandwiches. Rodgers wrote, "That night we . . . retired with the heady thought of how romantic it would be to awaken . . . far out to sea. When we got up the next morning we found we were still tied up at the North River dock," because of engine problems. Dorothy's main memory of that morning was of being asked by the Italian stewardess what her husband would like for breakfast and being embarrassed that she did not know.
A honeymoon trip to Europe would be the least one could expect from a young husband with the income of a Richard Rodgers -- one family story has it that when he got married at the age of twenty-seven, he was making $75,000 a year -- but in a display of that practicality which would become a marked aspect of his character, he was combining business with pleasure. He and Larry Hart had been having discussions with the London producer Charles B. Cochran about an idea they had for a musical to be called Ever Green; it would star an exquisite young singer and dancer named Jessie Matthews. Rodgers and his bride would spend a few weeks in the Mediterranean and then join Larry Hart in London to begin work.Rodgers and Hart were familiar names in London, having had several productions there, including the British version of A Connecticut Yankee, retitled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, in 1929. In those days he and Hart had shared quarters cheerfully enough in a series of service flats, i.e., apartments with meals and maid service. But when Dick took Dorothy to inspect the flat on St. James's Street where they usually stayed, she was horrified: "It was run down, depressing and none too clean." Before she could think of a tactful objection, her husband quickly decided it would not do.
Meet the Author
Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and now lives in Washington, D.C. She has written biographies of Romaine Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, and Salvador Dalí, among others.
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