Stephen Sondheim: A Life

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Overview

The first and only full-scale and definitive biography of the most important composer-lyricist in musical theater today.
 
Drawing on personal conversations with Sondheim himself, as well as interviews with his friends, family, collaborators, and lovers, Secrest offers new insight into the enigmatic and very private Stephen Sondheim. Here, we learn about his childhood on New York’s Upper West Side, his parents’ devastating divorce, and ...
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Stephen Sondheim: A Life

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Overview

The first and only full-scale and definitive biography of the most important composer-lyricist in musical theater today.
 
Drawing on personal conversations with Sondheim himself, as well as interviews with his friends, family, collaborators, and lovers, Secrest offers new insight into the enigmatic and very private Stephen Sondheim. Here, we learn about his childhood on New York’s Upper West Side, his parents’ devastating divorce, and his ascent to the peaks of the Broadway musical. Secrest vividly recreates the energy, passion, and despair that went into each beloved show, from Sondheim’s fabled collaboration with Hal Prince on Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, to his disagreements with co-lyricist Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story. A fascinating and remarkable portrait of the man, the music, and the genius of Stephen Sondheim: star of his own fascinating and unfinished life.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A great read, magnificently reported and full of insights.” —USA Today

“An indispensable book.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Intriguing. . . . An evenhanded portrait of a sensitive but essentially solitary man.” —The New York Times
 
“Memorable. . . . Secrest’s biography of Sondheim brilliantly captures the uncertainties of a life in the theater.” —People 
 
“Even walking Sondheim encyclopedias will find news here. Secrest spent hours interviewing Sondheim, and he talked with unprecedented candor about his homosexuality, his unhappy childhood and his ‘snappish intolerance’ of others.” —Newsweek
 
“Admirable. . . . [Secrest] is clearly a tireless researcher and marathon interviewer. . . . Those with and those without a special interest in the musical theater are kept happy.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Impressively researched, eminently readable. . . . [Secrest] does a remarkable job of integrating the life and the work. The result is a portrait of a brilliant, deeply sensitive man.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Definitive. . . . Secrest has connected Sondheim the human being with Sondheim the genius.” —Houston Chronicle
 
“Fascinating. . . . Secrest’s book on Sondheim is so fascinating that anyone can enjoy it.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“A must-read for anyone interested in the musical theater. . . . In Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest sheds some light on the complex sensibility that grew out of a golden yet emotionally ragged childhood.” —New York
 
“What distinguishes Secrest’s work is her access to the very private, vulnerable and sometimes quite prickly composer himself, and through that, the first detailed study of his complex personal life.” —Chicago Tribune
 
“Meticulously researched. . . . A bonanza.” —The Denver Post
 
“Superb. . . . Garners our trust, seducing us into a delicious and uncommonly erudite show-biz read.” —Newsday
 
“A portrait of a complicated, contradictory and compelling artist. . . . Secrest does much to illuminate some of the darker corners of Sondheim’s life, as well as to describe his long years in the spotlight.” —The Miami Herald

Patrick J. Smith
Secrest's look at the man and his works is a valuable guide to understanding and appreciating one of our greatest musical-theater artist. -- Opera News
Mel Gussow
An intriguing biography. —The New York Times
Jeremy Gerard
A must-read for anyone interested in the musical theater.
New York Magazine
Newsweek
A major biography. Secrest spent dozens of hours iinterviewing Sondheim and he talks with unprecedented candor . . .Even walking Sondheim encyclopedias will find news here.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
. . .An incomparable peek into the genesis of such musicals as 'West Side Story,' 'Gypsy,' 'A Little Night Music' and 'Passion'. . .
Booknews
Veteran biographer Secrest presents a full-scale life of the contemporary American composer and lyricist who works in musical theater. She draws on conversations with Sondheim himself and interviews with his friends, family, collaborators, and lovers to portray both his artistic career and his private life. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
The New Yorker
An unanswered question lingers at the close of this brisk by revealing biography, written with considerable cooperation from its subject and his friends. The composer-lyricist's personal demons -- his overbearing mother, his intolerance of his homosexuality -- have darkened the tone of a brilliant series of American musicals, each of which is richly described. Sondheim has finally allowed a measure of contentment to come into his private life, but Secrest seems reluctant to make the obvious conclusion: that his recent work has lost some of his usual irony and complexity.
Jeremy Gerard
A must-read for anyone interested in the musical theater. -- New York Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
Like his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim has vehement detractors and vociferous defenders; Secrest is quite clearly in the latter group. Born in New York in 1930, Sondheim is the son of well-to-do German Jews. But when their marriage disintegrated while Stephen was still a child, the boy found himself a pawn in his mother's machinations. As Secrest makes clear, the scars from that experience stayed with Sondheim for a long time, occasionally finding their way into his creative work. Despite personal travails as a youth, Sondheim enjoyed a pretty nearly unbroken road to theatrical success, being virtually adopted by the Hammersteins, making his Broadway debut at 27 with the lyrics for 'West Side Story' and not actually having a failure until his second show as sole composer-lyricist, the legendary 'Anyone Can Whistle.' Secrest has had the great advantage of cooperation from her subject. More than any previous work on Sondheim, this book has the benefit of early reminiscences and access to its subject's apprentice work all the way back to his high-school years. Yet Sondheim remains a somewhat emotionally distant figure, not surprising since his guardedness seems to be one of his most prominent traits. Regrettably, although there is much material here to fascinate both Sondheim addicts and theater fans, Secrest fails to organize it coherently. Although there are some engaging stories about the creation of such classics as 'Company', 'Pacific Overtures', and 'Sunday in the Park with George, the book rambles with a ramshackle thrown-together feeling and with awkward run-on sentences. And not surprisingly given that her subject is still working hard at 68, Secrest's effort doesn't so muchend as stop abruptly.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307946843
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/4/2011
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 268,448
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of ten biographies and is the recipient of the 2006 National Humanities Medal.

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Read an Excerpt

Stephen Sondheim

A Life
By Meryle Secrest

Delta

Copyright © 1999 Meryle Secrest
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0385334125


Chapter One

An Institutionalized Child

    The San Remo apartment building on Central Park West, to which Stephen Joshua Sondheim was taken in 1930 when he was six months old, has been a landmark in New York City almost since the day it first opened that same year. Like the familiar view of the domes, spires, and towers of Whitehall as seen from the bridge of St. James's Park, London, the twin towers of the San Remo are distinctive for the silhouette they present when viewed from the Lake in Central Park. They rise serenely from the broken line of trees at their base, their genteel reflections trailing at the water's edge. The juxtaposition of such a sophisticated architectural style with a pastoral setting, of man living in harmony with nature, one as old as Arcadia, brings thoughts of Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones. By no accident Emery Roth, architect of the San Remo, was as dedicated as were his famous precursors to the study of Greek and Roman architecture; he was also a fervent adherent of the Italian Renaissance revival that swept the country at the turn of the century. Like other architects of the period, Roth saw his role less as the builder of gilded drawing rooms than as a calling: that of a high priest designing temporal cathedrals in the manner of those European counterparts who were expressing, they felt, the human links between art and habitation.

    However, one cannot take the analogy between these views of the London scene and the San Remo too far. The dreaming vistas of Whitehall have the same air of ancient splendor, but they are farther away and their outlines tend toward the horizontal. The emphasis is all on the foreground, the silhouettes of boats, a fountain in full flood: the bewitching promise of an oasis in the middle of a metropolis. As seen from Central Park, the San Remo commands as much awe as admiration. It is as if a citadel had soared into the air beside that urban refuge, one designed to defend and exclude: the emblem of prohibitive chic.

    That the parents of Stephen Sondheim, Herbert and Janet Sondheim, should have chosen such a background was perhaps no accident, since, like their architect, the Sondheims had dedicated themselves to "les arts de vivre" and were newly rich. Although Herbert Sondheim was only thirty-five when he moved into the San Remo, he had made a rapid advance from lowly beginnings in the garment trade to found his own dress house before he was thirty. Both husband and wife were involved in the firm, he as president--he had just become sole owner of the house he co-founded seven years before--and she as chief designer. Sondheim had begun at the very bottom of the ladder, but that he was destined to prosper seems unsurprising, given his paternal ancestors. He was the grandson of German Jewish immigrants. His grandfather, Isaac, born in Bessen-Darmstadt, emigrated to the United States in 1848 and settled with his wife, Rosa, on the Lower East Side. Family legend gives no clue to his occupation, but in the city directory of 1866 there is an Isaac Sondheim listed as a peddler; no doubt Rosa took in lodgers. Isaac died at the age of sixty-five in a freak accident. He was hit by a streetcar in his own neighborhood in 1883 and succumbed as the result of his injuries about two months later. His wife lived on in quiet obscurity until 1914, but by then she had moved to a much better address.

    Isaac and Rosa Sondheim had four sons. Three of them, Meyer, Joseph, and Abraham, died young, mute testimony perhaps to the conditions to which they had been exposed as children in the New York slums. The first-born, Simon (who became Samuel), survived and prospered. Before long he was in business for himself, making shirtwaists, or "waists," as they were called, the tailored blouses with starched collars and cuffs that were all the rage for working girls at the turn of the century. He had two locations, on Broadway and on East Thirty-eighth Street, and was soon well enough off to move his widowed mother to a better address just off Fifth Avenue, on East Eighty-eighth Street. His marriage to Bertha Guttenstein in the summer of 1894 in the fashionable Temple Emanu-El must have been a splendid affair. Quite soon thereafter they were living two blocks away from Rosa Sondheim, at 23 East Ninetieth Street. In due course three children arrived: Herbert, born on July 2, 1895; Walter, born a year later; and Edna, born in 1900.

    Family photographs of about 1905 show the two boys in starched collars, ties, belted jackets, and knickerbockers; Edna has a big bow in her hair; and their mother stands in the background, wearing a severe summer dress and a pale expression. If it was a privileged upbringing, it was an unbending one. Stephen Sondheim recalls his father saying that his grandparents were "strict German disciplinarians, you know, keep your hands folded and don't put your elbows on the table." There was also the fact that Samuel, who was almost forty by the time he married, soon took on a portly look and had, perhaps, the reactions of any middle-aged man, with pressing problems at the office and a heavy dinner inside him, when confronted with a roomful of boisterous children. All one can tell from his photograph is that he cut his hair very short, in the German style, wore a military mustache, and that if his views matched his eyebrows, they were most emphatic. His sons bore him no resemblance. As children they had heads as delicately modeled as Botticelli angels and faces as grave and unfathomable.

    Then, when Herbert was in his early teens, disaster struck. There was a run on the Knickerbocker Trust Company in Wall Street which led to a general bank panic. Some respectable companies collapsed in 1908; Samuel Sondheim's was one of them. The family was forced to move to a house on Elm Street in New Rochelle, a location they chose because, as everyone knew, one could live there comfortably on much less than one could in Manhattan. By 1910 he had a business in men's hats. Or perhaps he was just a salesman; no one was quite sure. There could be no thought of further education for Herbert; he was fifteen and went to work. He began by pushing carts in the garment district and graduated to carrying the packing trunks of salesmen.

    That Herbert Sondheim advanced at such a rapid pace in the rough and tumble of the garment district must have had something to do with his appearance. In adulthood he had acquired his father's strongly marked brows, which punctuated his otherwise unremarkable features and gave his face a certain distinction. An air of natural gentility was perhaps emphasized by the sleek head, hair flattened in the fashionable twenties style, a fondness for well-tailored suits, beautiful manners, and a way of standing with a quizzical smile, developed a decade before Clark Gable discovered its virtues--it is said that ladies found Herbert very attractive. He had a "wonderful, sly sense of humor," his son Stephen said, an aptitude for business and an elusive something else that must have aided his ascent. Perhaps it was the virtue of resourcefulness; at any rate, he demonstrated this at an early stage when he decided to start a dance studio in the evenings. As luck would have it, one night his pupil was a dress manufacturer, who naturally saw all sorts of promise in Herbert and gave him a job. All that pushing and carrying was over; from now on, Herbert was a dress salesman and young man about town.

    By 1923, when he was twenty-eight, Herbert Sondheim had become president of the Sondheim-Levy Company, with offices on West Thirty-ninth Street; and by 1930, at the height of the Depression, he had bought out his partner. He was established as a manufacturer of beautifully made clothes of marked style and taste, selling to select stores. Still, nothing quite explains the rapid transformation of this poorly educated, penniless young man into a position on Seventh Avenue, if not quite that of haute-couturier, certainly far above his peers, who were turning out cheap dresses in the thousands, a man who knew what his particular client wanted almost before she did herself. The mystery about his rise is equaled by an enigmatic aspect to his personality. Behind the energy and persuasive charm was someone whose gentle manner concealed a melancholic view of life, and whose emotions were as elusive as his smile; when he was faced with an unpleasant confrontation, his solution was to slide away.

    If the picture of Herbert Sondheim's personality is blurred--people who met him later in life often dismissed him as a "good, gray businessman"--the same cannot be said of his wife. Here was someone with whom you immediately came to grips, for good or ill, a sprawling personality who escaped ordinary definitions, the kind of person who came crashing into your life and left some kind of mark--usually a scar--before she crashed out again. Janet Fox had the same penurious upbringing as her husband; she shared his ambitious dreams and, like him, had a special gift that had catapulted her up the fashion ladder.

    There, however, the resemblance ends. Whilst the Sondheims had long since made the transition from working poor to genteel middle class, and from immigrant status to that of native born, the Foxes were new arrivals with rough manners, still fighting for a foothold in the New World, unsure of themselves and struggling to acquire, sometimes with comical results, the veneer of savoir faire that would mark their transition into the bourgeoisie. Janet Fox, always called "Foxy," was the fifth child of Joseph M. and Bessie Fox. They were Lithuanian Jews from Vilna who had arrived in the United States by a circuitous route. The family's history is sketchy, and no one knows what Joseph Fox's name was originally--it certainly was not Fox. But it is believed that he and his wife, Bessie, had their first two children, Anna Leah (1883) and Rose Sarah (1890), in Vilna, before emigrating to England, where they had relatives in Nottingham. They stayed there for a decade, and two more children were born, Frances (1892) and Victor (1894). In 1895 they emigrated again, to Fall River, Massachusetts, where one of Bessie's brothers was already established. There the last two children arrived. Etta Janet was born on March 13, 1897, followed by Marienne Gladys in 1900. Six children, the financial demands of two major migrations, the need for shoes, coats, plates, pans, mattresses, blankets, and piano lessons--one wonders how any man, even one who is being helped by his relatives, could have survived. The one photograph that exists of Joseph Fox gives a certain clue. He stands, hat on the back of his head, as if momentarily arrested from the grinding daily round, like a man who has discovered how tired he is. In one hand a traveling bag, in the other a steel box: these were the tools of his trade, since he dealt in precious stones. His granddaughter Joan Barnet recalled that he traveled constantly. She thought he had fled from Vilna to evade conscription in the Russian army. He and his wife were members of the Hasidim and, when they were living on Sherwood Rise, a hilly section near Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, they had sent their children to Hebrew school. When a father is hardly ever at home, perhaps it does not matter so much that he is mean-tempered and unpleasant; even so, that is the only thing that is said about Joseph. Their grandchildren have kinder things to say about Bessie. Like all the Fox women, she was tiny and slim-hipped, with a generous bosom. She kept a kosher household and wore a wig like other Hasidic women, speaking in Yiddish or heavily accented English, and the grandchildren all remember how tender she was, how generous with her gestures, and forgiving.

    Several of the girls turned out to be artistic. Rose painted on china; Frances (Frankie) played the piano beautifully; and Foxy showed a precocious interest in fashion design. Anna was the Latinist and family scholar, who completed a four-year college course in three at Brown and went on to get a master's degree in education. Victor was the one to whom no one paid much attention. But there were certain disconnections, certain fault lines running through the family that must have shown themselves before they all became adults and drifted away. Anna and Rose had grown up in the Pale of Settlement and had to learn a new language and new, foreign ways in Nottingham; Frances and Victor had grown up in Nottingham and then had to make their own adjustments to an industrial American city. Etta Janet and Marienne would not have understood any of these psychic shocks. As adults they were concerned about each other in a businesslike kind of way, but if they felt warmth they did not show it.

    Anna, as oldest, was perhaps the most involved with the fates of her brother and sisters. "She cared about everybody," her daughter Joan Barnet recalled. "She was the regretter in the family." Frankie was the pretty one; her daughter, Myra Berzoff, recalled, "Anna was the smart one, Foxy was artistic, but my mother was absolutely beautiful." She was also unreliable. "She told elaborate Little Women stories about skating on the pond and hot chocolate, but she lied so much that I never knew what to believe. It was self-fulfilling, self-gratifying; a way to make herself look better." Mrs. Berzoff's brother, Arthur Persky, said his mother was like all the Fox women. "All of them considered themselves superior. My mother was a New England Scarlett O'Hara who never raised a finger and was quite above doing anything considered work, and the world's worst cook. She couldn't boil water." A clue to the evolving aspirations of Stephen Sondheim's mother can be gleaned from a photograph taken in 1913, when Etta Janet, who soon dropped her first name, no doubt for aesthetic reasons, was about sixteen and her sister Marienne in her early teens. Their fond mother looks benevolently at the camera, signaling her approval while Foxy, with some kind of flower garland in her hair, and wearing a dress in the "artistic" style that could have been her own design, takes center stage. These were girls whose father dealt in small objects of great beauty and value, and who had given Anna a present of a diamond surrounded by sapphires, even if the diamond was flawed and one he therefore could not sell. Joan Barnet said, "Look at Herman Wouk's portrait of Marjorie Morningstar. The values are what you wear and how you look."

    At some point the Fox family moved to New York and were living in Harlem in the days when it was a Jewish neighborhood. Foxy went to Parsons, the famous design school. While there, she made friends with a young woman destined to become even more successful than she was: Jo Copeland. Her daughter, the novelist Lois Gould, recalled that Jo Copeland had achieved such success by the age of seventeen that she was able to put her brother through Harvard Law School. They were "young women traveling together," Gould said. Stephen Sondheim said, "Jo Copeland was very commanding. When she came into the room, you knew she was a dress designer. When my mother came in, it was this woman who had good taste in clothes."

    Foxy might have looked demure--her son suspected that in certain situations she could even be quite shy--but no one who knew her was misled. Myra Berzoff said, "Stephen's mother was a doozie. The most pretentious, self-centered, narcissistic woman I have ever known in my life. My father [Robert Persky] adored Herbert and couldn't bear her. She was a snob who didn't like the fact that she came from a working-class background. She was a very brilliant designer, very successful, one who falsified her background and assumed a false accent. She was pretentious beyond belief."

    Joan Barnet thought Foxy was capable of generous gestures, even affectionate, although "one never got a real feeling of warmth. She was vain. I remember seeing twenty little hats in her wardrobe and twenty little bottles of perfume, everything in order and very elegant. She could be so generous. She would bring me lots of presents, things like exquisite little doll's carriages from Paris. And she was very good to her mother; I think that Bessie's apartment on West Eighty-first Street was underwritten by Foxy after my grandfather died." She particularly recalls a photograph of herself as a little girl being hugged by Foxy, who was wearing a flapper hat, and the memory made her feel sad. "That is my warmest memory of her. I think she must have been very hurt to become so tough." That was before Foxy had her prominent nose reconfigured. Being the plain one in a family so concerned with personal appearance must have been a trial, which could have partly explained her meticulous interest in such matters, although it was one more reason for others to find her wanting. The novelist Jill Robinson, who met her on the West Coast in the early 1950s, took a charitable view. She said, "I remember her as very stylish and aloof in that 1940s way, wearing cocked hats with veils. Someone who could walk well in high heels and handle a cigarette with style. She was probably an Anna Wintour sort of person, full of guts and gumption," which was her misfortune. "In those days a lot of women who were ambitious, comic, raunchy, and sexy were considered bitchy, because they weren't sexy-cute. A woman could be self-destructive sexy, like Marilyn, or reserved sexy, like Gloria Swanson, or icy sexy, like Grace Kelly, but she could not be aggressive, bawdy sexy. She could not be comic sexy. That was dangerous."

Stephen Sondheim thought his father had married his mother for practical reasons. "I think--this is my opinion--that it was a bargain. I think my mother was in love with my father, and he was not in love with her, but needed a designer. That's a guess." Nevertheless, there were other reasons why Foxy might have seemed an ideal wife. For someone as emotionally distant and evasive as Herbert, Foxy's ability to blurt out every thought that came into her head, good or bad, to express her views forthrightly (as he might have thought), might have seemed an attractive quality, at least at first. She might even have been giving voice to some of the things he longed to say himself but had been thoroughly inhibited from expressing. To him she might have looked like a rough, gutsy character, full of life and high spirits. She had a knack for gathering people around her, and a staggering amount of chutzpah; Susan Blanchard, Oscar Hammerstein's stepdaughter, said she was the kind of person who could talk a jeweler like Van Cleef and Arpels into lending her a priceless necklace and matching earrings to wear for the evening; perhaps that was something else her husband admired. "She invented herself," another friend commented. The writer Dominick Dunne liked her gift of the riposte most of all: it was true she could be cutting, but she was also very funny, he said. She could be charming. She loved parties, and any fashion designer has to become a relentless social climber. In the days when even the Sears catalogue was using the names of Loretta Young, Joan Marsh, and Fay Wray to promote its evening gowns, hats, and handbags, every fashion house needed a retinue of actresses and film stars. Foxy had already befriended Florence Desmond, Glenda Farrell, Colleen Moore, Helen Kane (the baby-faced "boop-boop-a-doop" girl), and many others. She was always seeking to add to her collection and was an indefatigable first-nighter at Broadway shows. All this made her very useful if one were selling a line of expensive clothes.

    One can easily see why Foxy Sondheim had decided that the San Remo was the perfect background for the kind of sophisticated life she wanted to have. The new apartment building, which was to occupy a whole block between West Seventy-fourth and Seventy-fifth Streets, had been in the news since 1928, when a building syndicate had announced plans to buy the hotel of the same name that was on the site and erect a splendid edifice of twenty-seven floors, placing it among the city's tallest apartment buildings at the time.

    Roth's ingenious interior plan dispensed with the usual long, echoing corridors, making use of semiprivate elevators to carry tenants to within a few feet of their own front doors, which was considered a great improvement. The San Remo's lobbies were richly detailed with large terrazzo-square floors, marble walls in various subtle shades, and dark beige marble panels. In terms of design, the San Remo was a transitional building, and Art Moderne details were making their appearance beside the Beaux-Arts bas reliefs and ceiling vaultings. The average rent was two hundred dollars a month, in days when a sales clerk at Woolworth's made seven dollars a week and scores of the homeless were living in Central Park in a shanty-town "Hooverville" erected on the Great Lawn between Seventy-ninth and Eighty-sixth Streets, just five blocks away.

    Herbert and Foxy could not afford the grandest apartments of all, the duplexes in the south tower, which consisted of fourteen rooms, including seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and a library--those were among the finest apartments in the city. Nor could they afford to live on the park, which did not prevent them from entering their apartment from either of the two splendid lobbies on Central Park West as well as from a relatively obscure one on Seventy-fifth Street. Nevertheless, they had the comfort of knowing that their neighbors were all well-heeled and influential.

    Herbert and Foxy's first and only child was born on March 22, 1930, while they were waiting to take possession of their new quarters. In the interim, they lived in a hotel.

    As a mother, Foxy took the kind of progressive position one would expect of someone whose livelihood depended on being absolutely up to the minute, if not in front of it. If fashion decreed that a baby's skin should have lavish doses of sunlight, the infant Stephen must be divested of his clothes and paraded about in his carriage. "I was strolled naked!" he said, his tone conveying the helplessness of someone whose life was being organized by a determined woman, an image reinforced by an early photograph in which the two-year-old is standing between his mother's knees, each tiny hand imprisoned at arm's length, looking like a puzzled puppet. He had a nurse, a Miss Daly, whom he does not remember at all, and at the age of four he was enrolled in a prekindergarten class. The school chosen for him was twelve blocks to the south on Central Park West. It had been founded by Felix Adler, a nineteenth-century social reformer who had begun life as a rabbinical student but who had decided that religion was inadequate to deal with the problems of the modern world. Being born into an observant household seemed to have left no mark on Etta Janet, or rather, seemed to have convinced her that she wanted nothing more to do with it. She declared on numerous occasions that she had been educated in a convent, a claim her son considered too preposterous to be believed, adding to his suspicion that she was ashamed of being Jewish. If this were the case, the Ethical Culture School was the ideal solution for parents uneasily poised between a strict adherence to old dogmas and atheism: although it was considered a radical school, it might have looked to both Sondheims as the only alternative. As for religious instruction, Stephen Joshua Sondheim received none at all. He never had a bar mitzvah ceremony, he knew nothing about the observances of the Jewish calendar, and he did not enter a synagogue until he was nineteen years old.

    While Mommy and Daddy were at their office at 530 Seventh Avenue, Stephen, often called Stevie or Sonny, had to be kept occupied. He remembers going to Miss Mabel Walker's prekindergarten class, then skipping kindergarten and entering first grade in 1935, at the age of five, taught by Mrs. Esther Burnham. He took second grade with Miss Marian Stevens and third grade with Miss Louise Welles. After school every day he would go looking for his friends Henry ("Skippy") and Felicia Steiner, who lived a few floors below him at 146 Central Park West. Their parents, Ethel and Howard Steiner, were friendly with the Sondheims. They would all play games in the Steiner apartment or various forms of skip ball on the street. Six o'clock was suppertime, and Stephen would listen to the radio until his father got home from work. He has no memory at all of his mother in those days. "My father would come into my bedroom every night, and often he would hold out his hand and I could touch his hand and I might get a quarter out of it, or something like that," he said. "Little bribes."

    On Saturdays he went to "something called Group, which was a way of parents getting rid of their kids. And Group would either be in Central Park or Van Cortlandt Park [in the Bronx]. Mostly Jewish kids, and mostly from the West Side. It started at nine in the morning and went until six in the evening, and we'd do games like Hare and Hounds and stuff like that. So those were my Saturdays." Sunday mornings would be spent breakfasting with his parents; in the afternoons his father might take him to a football or baseball game on the Polo Grounds or at Yankee Stadium.

    He enjoyed school. "One of the reasons I love teachers, obviously, is that where I felt great was in school, because ... whether there was competition with my peers or not, I didn't feel any backlash from it. The teachers obviously thought I was terrific because I was smart. And then I had Skippy and Felicia for fun after school, and so, who should complain? And I loved Group. It wasn't that I thought, Oh, I wish I could be with Mommy and Daddy. I loved running around the park, you know, looking for clues and doing chasing games. I thought it was swell!"

    Those long summer holidays were another problem Foxy tackled with her usual determination and panache. She chose Camp Androscoggin, a famous all-boys' camp in Wayne, Maine, where campers lived in simple cabins in the pine woods beside a large lake. It was, said Robert W. Bloch, who also went there, patronized by prominent German-Jewish families from the New York area and emphasized athletics from dawn to dusk: archery, tennis, boating, swimming, basketball, soccer, gymnastics. Each hour of the day was closely supervised. Bloch remembers that Stephen was a member of the Milk Squad, comprised of children who were considered to need extra nutrition, and early photographs do show him as one of the smaller boys, in the front row, looking forlorn. Bloch disliked Camp Androscoggin, but Sondheim has only warm memories of the five summers he spent there which, to him, were an extension of Saturdays with the Group, deliciously and endlessly prolonged. Bloch remembers that once they all went to be fitted for gray wool tops bearing large letter A's, and how swamped Stephen looked in his new top, standing out there by himself on the soccer field.

    Although at home he was almost entirely cared for by servants, Sondheim remembers them as benevolent presences. There was an Irish cook named Mary, whose husband, Paddy, was a doorman at the Beresford six blocks north, the other luxury apartment building on Central Park West designed by Emery Roth during the same period. Paddy was on duty at the side entrance on Eighty-first Street, and once school was out Stephen would be allowed to open the door for people as a special treat. Paddy also taught him to play chess, and Stephen promptly gave lessons to Skippy. A great deal of his young life was spent listening to the radio (Fred Allen and Charlie McCarthy--"I was brought up on those") and sending away for such things as Little Orphan Annie rings. "So my parents would have to put up with a box of ... whatever cereal it was, because it came with a decoder ring. I think I was a very ordinary kid."

    When he was sick in bed, his mother's cousin Peggy Schlesinger would leave her job to sit with him and play games, something his mother never did. He was healthy as a youngster, but he did have asthma, which later would disqualify him for military service. There was a great emphasis on manners. "You are polite, you look people in the eye, you get up when a woman comes into the room.... I was brought up in a genteel, upper-middle-class way," he said. As a toddler he was dressed in knitted two-piece outfits, a fashion that survives to this day for small French boys, usually accompanied by nautical stripes. Or he might be photographed with the family dog, whose name was Scotty, in front of the family fireplace, graced with Oriental urns, wearing suits with short pants and Little Lord Fauntleroy collars. At this age he bore a strong resemblance to his father, with the same delicate features and finely modeled head.

    Sondheim learned to read at an early age. He remembers that, in those days, children at the Ethical Culture School were taught to sound out words by syllables, a method he mastered so well that, at the age of five, he used to stand in front of his first-grade class reading the New York Times. Thanks to this method, he could even pronounce the hard words he could not possibly be expected to know with some success. But even before he could read he had mastered the ability to identify record albums simply by recognizing the pattern that the words made on the spine, and his parents would trot him out in the evenings to demonstrate this parlor trick before the guests. It is significant that words and music should have been closely allied so soon, although he says he became interested in the music because he was fascinated by a phonograph player they had at the time, a Capehart.

    "A Capehart was a wonderful invention with a console record player, and what it did was play both sides of a record. The gimmick was, if you're looking at it, and it was glass-fronted, there is a sort of rim around the turntable, and then there is what looked like a music stand, so you pile your records onto that, you press the button, and the record slides down, and when that side is over, this rim thing picks up the record and does it ... like that," he said, almost tying his arms in knots in an effort to demonstrate how the ingenious mechanism performed this feat. "Now the record slides down on the second side! And when that's done it spits it out someplace and the next record comes in." He remembers an old 78 of Fats Waller singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" and a collection of show albums on ten-inch records that had been put out by Liberty Records. He would lie on the floor, listening to the music and watching the Capehart turning the records over and over.

    There were always show tunes in the house, because Herbert Sondheim's favorite form of recreation was playing the piano. He was entirely self-taught and had mastered, his son said, seven or eight basic chords, which worked perfectly well for most popular tunes; less well for composers who used more inventive harmonies. Perhaps it was his willingness to sit down and play, combined with his charm of manner, but Sondheim the couturier who also performed became a familiar figure on Seventh Avenue. Alice Crouthers, who was formerly the buyer for the exclusive Wedgwood Room of F. & R. Lazarus & Co. in Columbus, Ohio, said that one of the highlights of a fashion show by Sondheim was his willingness to play Broadway numbers at the end of the program. An advertisement for some of his summer dresses, which was printed in the 1940s and widely reproduced, was decorated with drawings of musicians playing violins, drums, and double bass, along with an impressionistic sketch of the great man himself in the lower right-hand corner. The headline was "The Sondheim Straw Hat Chorus," which seems prescient.

    Sondheim had a group of cronies who saw each other on Thursday nights and went to sports events on weekends, but one of his closest friends was Lloyd Weill, also in the dress business and living in the San Remo. Weill, who was a natural tenor, was a clever lyricist who would write parody lyrics to a popular song for a specific occasion; Sondheim would learn the accompaniment, and they would perform the song for charity. They made numerous appearances for the New York and Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and other organizations such as the young Museum of Costume Art, one of Sondheim's special interests. They became so well known that they were called "the Rodgers and Hart of Seventh Avenue." Curiously enough, another friend of Sondheim's was Dorothy Fields, the famous lyricist. Her father, Lew Fields, once part of the famous vaudeville comedy team of Weber and Fields, later became a producer and launched the careers of Rodgers and Hart, among others. Dorothy Fields worked with a wide range of composers, from Fritz Kreisler to Jerome Kern, and she and Kern won an Academy Award in 1936 for "The Way You Look Tonight." Sondheim said that his father introduced another of his close friends, Eli Lahm, to Dorothy Fields and "made a shiddach," i.e., a match. After they married and had children, Aunt Dorothy was at their apartment constantly, but Sondheim had no idea what she did until he became an adolescent.

    Musical evenings were a large part of the Sondheim entertaining at home. Felicia Steiner Lemonick remembers grown-up parties when Lloyd Weill sang--"he was outgoing and fun and crazy"--and hearing Herbert Sondheim play the piano, and her Father as well, since he was also a part-time musician and composer. A group of parents went to dinner parties at each other's apartments, and sometimes Skippy would be trotted out to play a duet with his father, while his nurse waited in the background. And so would Stephen.

    He started to take piano lessons from the age of about seven, studying with a Mrs. Moss, who had a small studio on West Eighty-fourth Street just off Central Park West. "My father would sit me at the piano bench and have me put my hand on his little finger, which played the melody over the top," and that led to weekly piano lessons. "At the end of each year we would have to give recitals for all the little kids. I had a very fleet right hand, so one of the first pieces I would play was 'The Flight of the Bumblebee' by Rimsky-Korsakov. My father and mother used to take me out of bed at cocktail time if they had clients, they'd drag me out in my pajamas to play 'The Flight of the Bumblebee.' I took lessons for about two years. I don't remember why I stopped, but I am very right-handed and at the piano my left hand is really a lump, very difficult to make work except for oompah, oompah."

    He did not recall having any marked interest in music. He did concede, "I can't remember when I didn't go around humming things," but dismissed the idea that this was in any way indicative of special talent. All children had similar gifts, he believed, but their interests were not allowed to develop, or were even discouraged by misguided parents and teachers. He could just have easily been a mathematician, and was "very strongly attracted" by the idea. He had no interest in art and poetry, and his inability to conjure up a visual image remains striking. When asked to describe his mother, he said helplessly, "You'll have to see pictures of her." As the description of the Capehart phonograph would indicate, he was intensely interested in how things worked, and once took a slot machine apart--it took him three days--because it had jammed and he wanted to solve the puzzle. He was taken to the movies--he vividly remembers seeing Disney's Snow White--and to the theatre on rare occasions. He saw his first live theatre at age six, Benatzky's operetta White Horse Inn. He remembers seeing Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse, which opened on Broadway in the late fall of 1938, and Oscar Hammerstein II's Very Warm for May the following year. He also met the great man himself that year but remembers nothing about it.

    He moved to the Ethical Culture's Fieldston campus in Riverdale, a bus ride away, when he was in fourth grade, although he does not remember why. "What I remember most is that they were teaching you how to take care of yourself financially. You were issued a checkbook and you'd go to the canteen and make a check out for five cents for a pack of gum, or something. You had a bank account of, say, a dollar fifty, and you had to balance your account. I loved that. That was great. That's what I mostly remember about Fieldston."

    His lack of any memory of his mother at that period, even though she was seldom at home, seems unusual. When he came to undertake analysis in adulthood, the paucity of these early memories caused his therapist to wonder whether some painful memories were being repressed. It was finally concluded that this was not the case.

    "I don't remember my mother at all during those years ... I don't think she was around. I don't think she cared. I think my father wanted to share things with me; I think my mother did not. I have no memory of my mother doing anything with me. And my father, it was only on occasional Sundays that we would go to ball games. Otherwise I was what they call an institutionalized child, meaning one who has no contact with any kind of family. You're in, though it's luxurious, you're in an environment that supplies you with everything but human contact. No brothers and sisters, no parents, and yet plenty to eat, and friends to play with, and a warm bed, you know? And a radio."

    Felicia Lemonick had a sad memory of visiting him. "Because he just didn't have the affection, attention, and love that other children had. I thought of him as a child pressing his nose against the glass." Myra Berzoff thought he was "a truly neglected child emotionally, left with governesses and servants and badly abused." Joan Barnet went to visit the Sondheims when she was about fourteen and Stephen around eight years old. "He was a very beautiful boy dressed in English clothes. I remember him in their large living room with this piano and servants and a dog, and how lonely he seemed."

    Sondheim said, "You will find people who will say, 'Gee, he was an unhappy kid.' Because I've heard that. And so obviously people could look at me from the outside ... but I don't remember it. I really don't. I didn't cry myself to sleep ... And I was very popular in school, and I remember being happy there; and since most of my life was spent in school and camp, where, again, I was popular and accomplished, eighty percent of my waking hours I was being supported. I didn't know that I was missing my parents."

    Then one night when he was ten years old, his whole world came apart.

    He was awakened by the sound of sobbing coming from his mother's room. "A rainy night, a sudden awakening," he wrote later, "a voice sobbing loudly, incessantly, a frightened voice, a lonely voice." His mother took him into her bedroom and "wept all over me and clung to me and held me all night and that's how I found out. I don't remember how I felt. I guess I was just upset for her. I didn't make any judgments or recriminations."

    Herbert Sondheim had written a note, packed up his clothes, and walked out.

Continues...


Excerpted from Stephen Sondheim by Meryle Secrest Copyright © 1999 by Meryle Secrest. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. An Institutionalized Child 3
2. Children Will Listen 23
3. The Brass Goddess 44
4. No Sad Songs 61
5. Climbing High 84
6. One Good Break 111
7. Coming Up Roses 128
8. Comedy Tonight 144
9. Anyone Can Whistle 159
10. Being Alive 183
11. Broadway Baby 203
12. The Boy in the Bubble 225
13. Applause for the Clowns 244
14. Someone in a Tree 263
15. Dies Irae 285
16. Old Friends 303
17. Finishing the Hat 322
18. No More 342
19. Hit After Hit 358
20. And That I Learned from You 376
21. I'm Still Here 395
Acknowledgments 409
Notes 413
Index 445
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2000

    A Thorough and Insightful Composer Biography--Minus the Music

    It is evident from the first page of Stephen Sondheim: A Life, that the author is a seasoned biographer possessing an eye for detail, a penchant for uncovering and presenting all available facts, and the right kind of insight that can bring these facts together to provide the reader with a glimpse of the subject both as a person and the creative mind within. And having already to her credit the biographies of such creative geniuses as Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright and Leonard Bernstein, Meryle Secrest has clearly mastered the intricacies of biographical research, which involve first and foremost the gaining of intimate trust of the subject, together with an exhaustive search of contacts, undertaking endless interviews, dealing with ethical issues that are of concern to all contributors of information, and organizing the masses of material into a coherent whole that engages the reader. I was entirely engrossed in this book from the moment I picked it up. It is written lucidly and unpretentiously in straightforward language, and generously illustrated with nearly 100 photographs placed accurately throughout the book at precisely where one would wish to see them as they relate to the text. The life story is told in linear fashion, presenting a clear chronology from Sondheim's parentage, through his birth and childhood, studies, early career, and his gradual rise (with both triumphs and a share of disappointments) to become the foremost figure in American musical theater today. We also learn of his personal life concerning his family, friends and loves. While following Secrest's journey of Sondheim's life and meteoric career, I soon began to ask myself what constitutes greatness in artists such as Sondheim. In reading Secrest's account, one can certainly observe how he arrived at his stature of pre-eminence as a composer, but I was still left with a question as to why he was able to do so. To gain this perception, we need to examine the art itself. While Secrest does cite several excerpts from Sondheim's lyrics, they are discussed mainly in relation to events in Sondheim's personal life, but do not receive any kind of critical treatment that is necessary to explore the creative achievement. My biggest objection to the book, however, is that it contains not one single musical example. Is this because the author does not have sufficient musical background to discuss the music? If not, why undertake a composer biography, where discussion of musical examples is crucial to the understanding of the subject on a personal and professional level? This reservation aside, I recommend this book to anyone interested in American musical theater, and in the shaping of an American master.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 19, 2012

    read any other biography of Stephen Sondheim, not this one.

    This book is so poorly written that I was groaning on almost every page. Really, why are we subjected to the author's outdated speculations on Sondheim's' underlying psychology? Anyone that has to explain that " Jeopardy" is a game show is a totally plodding and plebian author. I am sorry I purchased this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    Ken

    *facedesk*

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2013

    Brooke

    Talk to her about why you think yall are arguing. Explain to her where you think the relationship is and what you think of it

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2012

    Tori

    Im on

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2012

    Steven

    Ive gtg ttyl ily bye

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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