The Jews who made America sing: Virtues of ‘A Fine Romance’ far outweigh its flaws

May 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 15, 2014

A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs is a strange gem of a book. This entertaining work by poet David Lehman is a hybrid. Most of the relatively slender volume — the main text runs 222 pages, followed by a timeline and end notes (but no index, alas) — chronicles the lives and work of Jewish-American composers and lyricists who enjoyed huge success from the 1920s through the early 1960s.

Lehman appreciates the work of these musicians on multiple levels. For instance, he praises this clever couplet from Lorenz Hart’s “Mountain Greenery”:

While you love your lover let 
Blue skies be your coverlet.

The “incredibly clever and uniquely sad” Hart, Lehman writes, also hit upon such polysyllabic rhymes as Yonkers–conquers, Crusoe–trousseau, and “sing to him”–“worship the trousers that cling to him.”

But just as importantly, Lehman puts the compositions in their social and artistic context. Take, for instance, this consideration of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 hit, Show Boat:

When the show opened, at the end of the year in which Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic and Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs, it marked the emergence of the Broadway musical as a popular art form that would generate material for several other art forms (jazz, popular vocals, big band music) and would meet criteria set by drama and music critics on the one hand and by the ticket-paying public on the other. Show Boat was the consummate blending of narrative and song, the plot neither fatuous nor absurd, the score full of marvelous tunes that could be abstracted from their dramatic context for dancers to dance to and singers to sing. There are no fewer than five romantic couples in the plot. Two of the relationships fail; spouses desert heartbroken mates. When Julie, the leading lady of the show boat troupe, is revealed to have Negro blood, the consequences are nasty, and neither her marriage nor her vocation can survive the shock of the injustice. This was grown-up stuff — proclaiming love at first sight, vows of eternal fealty, and the efficacy of fantasy, and then proceeding to debunk these very central tenets of Broadway musical romance. I have seen Show Boat performed many times, and I love it the way gangsters in a Brian de Palma movie love Puccini arias. I cry shamelessly. Cotton Blossom, Captain Andy, only make-believe. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. There’s an old man called the Mississippi. Life upon the wicked stage ain’t ever what a girl supposes. Why do I love you? Because he’s just my Bill.

Here we also see the other major component of this book: Lehman’s personal associations and memories, which often charm but sometimes puzzle.

The problem is not how Lehman writes, nor his subject; it is his mixing of fact and fiction. Quoting Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Lehman calls A Fine Romance “mostly a true book, with some stretchers.” The exaggerations and/or inventions, he notes, “occur principally in the narrator’s autobiography and in accounts of his relatives and friends.”

Lehman conveys details from his (or from the narrator’s?) childhood in a Northern Manhattan enclave of Jewish immigrants, a number of them Holocaust escapees, and their American-born children. Lehman writes that he only learned German because it was the language his parents used when they wanted the conversation to be secret from him and his sisters. Once, he recalls, his parents each accused the other of speaking English with an accent. When they turned to their son to adjudicate, he said that neither had an accent.

This may sound diplomatic, even gallant, but I heard no accent; I heard the voice of my father and the voice of my mother. Not until years after my father’s death, when I heard his voice on tape, did I realize how thick his German accent was when he spoke English.

Is any of this true? I would like to believe so, just as I would like to think that Lehman actually did interview Richard Rodgers for the Columbia Spectator, and that Lehman and his childhood friend Noah Rosenblatt missed their camp curfew when they drove six hours each way in a rickety car to hear Bob Dylan’s historic debut with electric instruments at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. (My attempts to find a story about Rodgers by Lehman in the newspaper’s archives failed, alas.)

Lehman asserts, however, that the details he shares about the songwriters’ lives are accurate to the best of his knowledge, and his end notes seem scrupulous enough. And what details these are!

At age 18, the musically inclined Kern went to work for his father’s merchandising business in New York. “What happened next illustrated Freud’s then-novel notion that our mistakes give us away, big-time: Jerry messed up an order for two pianos and ordered two hundred instead.” The family made lemons into lemonade, turning a profit despite Kern’s gross miscue. Kern was often quite fortunate, in fact. The composer, despite long being ridiculed (and, arguably, swindled) by dealers of first-edition books and autograph letters, made a fortune selling his collection months before the 1929 stock market crash triggered the Great Depression. Some 14 years earlier, Kern overslept his scheduled departure and wasn’t aboard the doomed Lusitania when she began her last Atlantic crossing.

George Gershwin was a bon vivant and palled around with Fred Astaire. He never married, but was had lots of girlfriends and was especially close to the pianist and composer Kay Swift, who wrote “Can’t We Be Friends?” Once, when the couple entered the room, Oscar Levant quipped, “Here comes George Gershwin with the future Miss Kay Swift.”

Gershwin was infamous for monopolizing the piano, but it was hard to stay mad at him because he played so well. He apprenticed with Kern. When Gershwin suddenly keeled over dead at age 38 because of an undiagnosed brain tumor, Ockie — that’d be Hammerstein, Kern’s lyricist for Show Boat and Rodgers’ co-writer on Oklahoma!South Pacific and The King and I — tried to keep the news from Kern, who was recuperating from a heart attack. “But Jerry figured out what had happened when he turned on the radio that July day in 1937 and all the stations were playing Gershwin songs,” Lehman writes.

Bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw eventually married Kern’s daughter, Betty, and for a time they lived with her parents. He would tell Kern “what was wrong with his songs — try and top that for chutzpah,” songwriter Sammy Cahn wrote in his memoir. Of course, Shaw had had plenty of success on his own, even outside of music; he was an expert fly-fisher and at one point was ranked the fourth-best sharpshooter in the nation. He also bedded plenty of famous women, among them Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Betty Grable. When Shaw signed Billie Holiday to a contract, he was the first white bandleader to hire a full-time black female singer.

There’s plenty more in A Fine Romance, including an examination of how these songwriters’ work reflected the experience of immigration and integration and a comparison of the African-American and Jewish-American experiences. Lehman also explains why Oklahoma!, which opened on the same March 1943 day as the second crematorium at Auschwitz, provided the perfect tonic of sunshine, optimism and nationalism during a somber stretch of World War II. In short, A Fine Romance is packed with interesting and insightful details about an incomparable set of songwriters and their work.

I wish that Lehman hadn’t felt the need to take liberties by fictionalizing his own life. But even these passages struck a chord (if you’ll forgive the metaphor) with me: The immigrant adults of Lehman’s neighborhood awed the child, who was fascinated by their recollections of World War II. Lehman’s about a generation older than me, but like him, I was fascinated by adults who had survived this historic cataclysm — by people who today are no longer around to share their stories. It’s fair to say that A Fine Romance made me feel a certain amount of nostalgia, even though I’m not half as passionate about this music as is the author.

Those who do love these shows and these songs should definitely read this book, as should people intrigued by the Jewish-American experience. A Fine Romance has its peccadillos, but these are far outweighed by its virtues.

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