There’s a photograph of me with the family dog, maud. a wire haired terrier who seems to be laughing, Maud sits to my right on the brick stairs leading up to our front door. The house on La Brea Terrace has been rented for a year. It’s a snug little place with a front lawn and no backyard, atop La Brea, just a bit into the Hollywood Hills. It is December 7, 1941. In short pants, suspenders, a white short-sleeve shirt, and black high shoes, I look bathed and scrubbed for the Sunday to be. It is morning, perhaps ten. My father, ever the photographer, is taking his time. “No, hold it right there. Hold it. Now. One more.” My face does not reflect irritation. That would come years later. In fact, I appear to be happy, smiling in the sunshine, with Maud, the “smartest dog who ever lived”—my mother’s view of Maud, always—right there next to me. The smartest dog, the smartest boy—me. The best movie, the most delicious piece of pie, the most succulent pear, the most wonderful, the most beautiful, the most thrilling, the greatest. Katherine Carrington Schwartz, a natural hyperbolist, was also inclined to the malaprop. “My, how time passes so fly.” And always that strong clear speaking voice, with a song inside. Katherine had been an ingenue on the Broadway stage. Arthur Schwartz had spotted her in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Music in the Air singing “I’ve Told Every Little Star” to a young Walter Slezak. My father had attended the opening on election night 1932, a secondary event to FDR’s first plurality but not secondary to the composer of “Dancing in the Dark.” He sought out the ingenue almost before the curtain went down. I’ve occasionally imagined him, oh so eager, leaping upon the stage midway through the second act. “Good evening, I’m Arthur Schwartz,” he might have said. Katherine, still in character, might have attempted to incorporate him. “Well, hello,” she might have replied. “We’ve all been waiting for you.” She might have extended her arm to the rest of the bewildered cast. The orchestra, trying to cover the disruption, would almost certainly have struck up “The Song Is You,” a ballad in the score, while Arthur was hustled away by stagehands, his friends and peers Kern and Hammerstein in the back of the theater, burying their faces in their hands.
In the year to follow, Arthur leapt upon every stage that Katherine traversed. Here was a blond woman with a white round face, a curvaceous form, a delightful laugh, and a clarion voice with a song inside. Arthur played her everything he’d ever written. He began to compose for her. She sang his songs, to his great satisfaction. Upon occasion, at George Gershwin’s Riverside Drive apartment, George would play the piano and then invite Kay and Arthur up. My father at the keyboard was fluent and unafraid, and always generous to other composers, especially Richard Rodgers, who was frequently present. Kay sang “Lover,” her favorite Rodgers. Dick was greatly satisfied. Kay sang “With a Song in My Heart,” Rodgers’s favorite of his own making—he told me that, many years later. Arthur played Gershwin and then some of his own things, melodies that Kay had inspired.
It turned out that she had been first married as a very young woman. The boy, Clifford Dowdey, whose name is still recognized by scholars, wrote voluminously (and I mean voluminously) on the Civil War, a man possessed, pausing momentarily to marry a girl from Toms River, New Jersey, just about twenty-two years old, a looker, but oh, the noise! Poor Dowdey, who was onto new material, fascinating brand-new stuff about Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry; and in the other room in a small New York City apartment, the soprano rang out with pop songs, not the Bach of Dowdey’s delight. “Jerome Kern is a trifle,” he told his wife. Kern was the reason that Kay had crossed the Hudson River to where the songs were written. Instead she had been diverted by the historian and had accepted his proposal of marriage. Perhaps it was his erudition; Kay had none. Perhaps his reputation; Kay had none. It doesn’t seem possible that it was his humor: look him up, Dowdey, Clifford.
Kay and Arthur were married in 1934 amid the theater’s elite. A photograph from around that time reveals a slim young man, dark-complexioned, dark-haired, handsome, sitting on the grass in front of a country house with his arm around a beautiful round-faced, light-skinned girl—young woman—exhibiting a thoughtful smile. I can only imagine that Dowdey’s arm was never so comforting. As a matter of fact, I know of no photo of the two, though many years later, picking out one of his books at the Strand Bookstore, I found the inscription “For my darling Katherine.” Dowdey had written those words in blue ink, possibly, I felt, with a quill pen. And how odd, I thought, to imagine my mother as someone else’s darling.
Maud, laughing and leaping that Sunday, must have seen the commotion as some sort of game. The phone rang nonstop. My mother went upstairs to bed, where she was supposed to be most of the time. My father roamed the front lawn, holding my hand. Restlessly, I broke away and ran across the grass to fetch my blue tricycle.
Don Loper came over, a pale man in a white suit, a wisp of a guy, as soft as a pillow, a prominent interior designer; the Beverly Hills Hotel was a Loper marvel. I loved it when he came around. It was as if a white leaf had blown into our house. I called him “Don in the sky,” and it stuck. Guess who’s coming for dinner. Don in the sky, that’s who.
Yipper was there that day, tossing me around a little and then “meeting” with Arthur and Loper in the study. Yipper was Yip Harburg, the lyricist, his Wizard of Oz only two years old. I could get him to sing “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” anytime I wanted.
But now Yipper was in a meeting behind closed doors, discussing Pearl Harbor. When they all came out, Don in the sky looked ashen. So haunted were his eyes, so radically altered, that he scared me. The white leaf had flown away, and I cried. Arthur gathered me up in his arms. “What’s the matter, Jonno boy?” he asked. “Don in the sky’s killed,” I said.