'Act One': Autobiography of Broadway Playwright Moss Hart Still Boffo 50 Years Later

Moss Hart's 1959 autobiography was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year.
Moss Hart's 1959 autobiography was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year. (Associated Press)
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By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, December 1, 2008

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Moss Hart had one of the most spectacular show business careers of the 20th century. Born in New York City in 1904 to parents who existed at or barely above the poverty line, he had his first hit show, "Once in a Lifetime," written with George S. Kaufman, shortly before his 26th birthday. He and Kaufman wrote five other hits, two of which -- "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" -- are still mainstays of the amateur and professional repertoire. On his own he wrote "Lady in the Dark," with haunting music by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, and the screenplay for Judy Garland's finest movie, "A Star Is Born." He was, to boot, the director of the most successful musical in Broadway history, "My Fair Lady," and of "Camelot."

On top of all that, his autobiography, "Act One," published in 1959 -- two years before his sudden death from a heart attack -- was, according to his biographer Steven Bach, "a runaway bestseller on the New York Times list for almost a year and number one for twenty-two weeks." Yet today, nearly half a century after his death, Hart seems almost completely forgotten outside theater circles. Perhaps this is because, unlike his contemporaries and friends Noel Coward, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, he wrote only words, not music that can be sung, hummed and remembered. Perhaps it is because even the best and most durable of his plays have, today, a touch of the period piece. Whatever the explanation, it is a great injustice, for as a re-reading of "Act One" reminds me, he was an amazing man with an amazing story -- a "Dazzler," to use the title of Bach's superb book.

When "Act One" came out I had just turned 20 and was in the grip of an infatuation with show business that has never quite gone away, though I've never acted on it in any significant way beyond buying too many original-cast Broadway recordings. I don't recall what steered me to the book. It might have been my mother, but it certainly wasn't my father, who loathed showbiz. Probably it was the Modern Library volume "Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart," which I'd read over and over and have kept to this day, through more moves and library purges than I care to recall.

Whatever got me to "Act One," it knocked me out when I first read it, and it knocks me out now. Many people knowledgeable about such matters regard it as the finest of all 20th-century theatrical memoirs; I'd say its only competition is "Present Indicative," by Noel Coward. A thoroughgoing showbiz veteran by the time he wrote it in the 1950s, Hart knew how to play the emotions of readers just as he knew how to play those of an audience, and he plays mine to a fare-thee-well. I admit without the slightest embarrassment that in its closing pages "my eyes were blurred," as Hart's were when, at the opening night of "Once in a Lifetime," his celebrated collaborator went onstage to say, "I would like this audience to know that eighty per cent of this play is Moss Hart." Hart writes:

"I stood staring at the stage and at George Kaufman. Generosity does not flower easily or often in the rocky soil of the theatre. Few are uncorrupted by its ceaseless warfare over credit and billing, its jealousies and envies, its constant temptations toward pettiness and mean-spiritedness. It is not only a hard and exacting profession but the most public one as well. It does not breed magnanimity, and unselfishness is not one of its strong points. Not often is a young playwright welcomed into it with a beau geste as gallant and selfless as the one that had just come over those footlights."

That paragraph, touching though it most certainly is, comes toward the end, but we must begin at the beginning, which occurs with Hart's birth in a tenement at 74 E. 105th St., a fashionable neighborhood now but then, as Bach reports, one "of dray wagons, pushcarts, and immigrants." His father was a feckless and rather shiftless cigarmaker with whom he was often impatient, and Hart quite actively disliked his mother, though he plays down these sentiments in "Act One," whether out of kindness to their memories or some less elevated motive, I do not know. The most important people in his early life were his grandfather, "the black sheep of a large and quite wealthy family of English Jews" who "towered over my first seven years like an Everest of Victorian tyranny," and his Aunt Kate, a "touching combination of the sane and the ludicrous along with some secret splendor within herself," who did him the great favor of his life by introducing him to the theater and encouraging his interest in it.

Hart came to believe "that the theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child," who "perceives that his secret goal is attainable -- to be himself and yet be somebody else, and in the very act of doing so, to be loved and admired; to stand gloriously in a spotlight undimmed by the rivalry of brothers or sisters and to be relieved of his sense of guilt by the waves of applause that roll over the footlights to those wonderful creatures on the stage." No doubt there is much truth to this. Not merely was Hart oppressed by the poverty in which he grew up, but two other conditions weighed heavily on him; he was tormented by doubts about his sexual identity -- a subject he does not explore in "Act One" but was common knowledge in his circle, though eventually he had a happy marriage to Kitty Carlisle -- and by what we now know as bipolar disorder, which led to fits of depression that afflicted him to the end of his life. Poverty, though, was what tormented him most, as he recalls of a point in his teens when he secured a night job:

"The mere idea, little enough in itself, of not returning home each evening and walking those four flights up the grimy stairway to our apartment, filled me with an almost unbearable sense of exhilaration and freedom such as I had never before known. It is hard to describe or to explain concisely the overwhelming and suffocating boredom that is the essence of being poor. A great deal has been written about the barren drudgery of poverty; but I do not recall that the numbing effect of its boredom has been much written or talked about. Yet boredom is the keynote of poverty -- of all its indignities, it is perhaps the hardest of all to live with -- for where there is no money there is no change of any kind, not of scene or of routine. To be able to break out of its dark brown sameness, out of the boredom of a world without movement or change, filled me with a deep excitement."

By then Hart had begun spending his summers as an actor and social director at a succession of summer camps, in what eventually became known as the Borscht Belt. He claims to have done this for six years and mostly to have hated it mightily, but Bach says the ordeal lasted only four summers and wasn't really quite so awful as Hart depicts it. Even Hart acknowledges that "some of the lessons I learned at camp served me very well later on in the professional theatre, for certain absolutes obtain in the amateur as well as in the professional theatre," among them that "talent by itself is not enough," that talent must be translated into performance, that exhaustion is inevitable in the theater and must be dealt with as a matter of professionalism.

Summer camp also taught him that he wasn't good enough as an actor to make it on Broadway, that "the only way for me to get past a stage door again was to write a play," which he proceeded to do each winter. His efforts, all of them serious if not downright solemn, were repeatedly rejected. One producer suggested he write a comedy, which he resisted because "I was a full-blown snob so far as comedy was concerned," yet soon he began writing a satire of Hollywood, and the words positively flew across the page; the play "was finished in something under three weeks' time." Being new to comedy, he had no idea whether it was any good, but he soon found himself welcomed by the universally beloved producer Sam Harris, who saw great potential in it, took it to Kaufman in the hopes of persuading him to collaborate, and put Hart on the path to theatrical stardom.

The story of the evolution of "Once in a Lifetime" is a classic of theater lore, played out by Hart herein for everything it's worth. Collaborating with Kaufman wasn't always easy, but the two quickly clicked and Hart came to understand the decidedly quirky habits of his partner, who was 15 years older and one of the most established presences in the American theater. Hart learned that "the process of collaboration is exactly what the dictionary says it is: a union of two people working in agreement on a common project," and that "it requires no special gift except the necessary patience to accommodate one's own working method harmoniously to that of one's collaborator."

We know how the story ends, but Hart still manages to build suspense as he and Kaufman lurch toward that night at New York's Music Box Theatre. The play starts out with a solid first act, half of a second act and not a word of a third. The drama takes on "Perils of Pauline" dimensions as one rewrite after another fails to deliver the goods, and only at the last minute is Hart struck by an inspired solution that enables the collaborators to fix the play. Along the way he gives the reader an unparalleled look inside the theater world, at how it really works, at how much failure and heartbreak go into even the most successful plays and musicals.

For proof, read Bach's account of the making of "My Fair Lady." At its opening in March 1956 it seemed sheer perfection, seamless in every way, but the road to perfection was long and hard. You'll want to read Bach anyway, because at the end of "Act One" you'll be eager to know the rest of the story. Hart, consummate pro that he was, knew to leave the audience wanting more. That is just what he does at the end of "Act One," which itself comes not far short of perfection and over half a century has lost absolutely none of its glow.

"Act One" is available in a St. Martin's Griffin paperback ($17.95).Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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