THE BOOK SHELF: Moss Hart's "Act One" and Dorothy Gallagher's "Lillian Hellman"

By Steven Suskin
February 2, 2014

This month's column looks at Moss Hart's classic "Act One" and Dorothy Gallagher's examination of one of Broadway's most noted playwrights of the mid-20th century, "Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life."



 *

Two or three generations of theatrefolk have been inspired and encouraged by "Act One" [St. Martin's Griffin], Moss Hart's memoir of his journey from poverty in the Bronx to riches on Broadway. Hart — the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such plays as You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner, screenwriter of "Gentleman's Agreement" and the Judy Garland vehicle "A Star Is Born," and Tony Award-winning director of My Fair Lady — knew of what he spoke. The book, which Hart wrote before undertaking Camelot, was published in 1959 and became a quick bestseller. (And when was the last time that a theatre-related book made it to the bestseller list?) A proposed "Act Two" was never to be; Hart suffered a near-fatal heart attack during the 1960 Camelot tryout and died in 1961 at the age of 57.

Republication of the book — introduced by a new foreword from the author's now-grown son, Christopher — comes in conjunction with the upcoming Lincoln Center Theater stage adaptation by James Lapine, which opens April 17 at the Vivian Beaumont, and which, as it happens, lends its artwork to the reprinted "Act One." And nifty artwork it is, by the long-time LCT artist James McMullan, with a 1920s youngster standing across from a fanciful depiction of the Music Box Theatre (which is central to the story).

Hart came to Broadway in 1923, as office boy to producer Augustus Pitou. The office was at the crossroads of show business — in the New Amsterdam Theatre building, just off Times Square — but Pitou's productions were far from Broadway. He was one of those producers who sent out a stream of second-rate shows featuring second-rate actors to play one-nighters in small towns across the land. For Hart, though, this was show business, and he was galvanized to realize that being one of the cadre of theatrical office boys got him free tickets to just about every play in town. The flops, anyway.

Hart views it all with wide-eyed innocence and boundless enthusiasm, which I suppose is what makes "Act One," even today, so appealing to stagestruck readers like ourselves. Hart's tale is a rollercoaster of exhilarating ups and discouraging downs. He tells of how he writes — over the course of a week, using a pseudonym — a claptrap melodrama which Pitou immediately produces. The Beloved Bandit, as he calls it, opens in Rochester and immediately dies in Chicago, after only two weeks. Making the defeat worse, Pitou, who retained the pseudonym after learning of Hart's authorship, fires his office boy on the train back from Chicago. Thus, the author of "Act One" takes us to the brink of success, only to sink quickly into ruins.

This makes for wonderful reading, yes, but the account puzzled me somewhat — solely because I happen to have a piece of sheet music on the shelf from The Beloved Bandit — starring someone called Gerald Griffin, rather than Joseph Regan (who Hart features as the bumbling star in his book) — and with the name Moss Hart clearly billed as author. This sent me to the bookshelf to find Stephen Bach's "Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart." I had recalled vaguely that Bach, in his comprehensive 2001 biography, suggested that Hart had a tendency to sculpt the truth for more effective storytelling.

Bach explains that The Hold-Up Man, by "Robert Arnold Conrad," closed in December 1924 in Chicago, after playing four cities. Hart was not, then, fired; he went back to Pitou's office in the New Amsterdam and rewrote the play for the following season. And thus it was that the newly-titled Beloved Bandit, credited to Moss Hart and starring the aforesaid Griffin, opened in Youngstown, Ohio in September 1925. Hart, in "Act One," goes so far as to include a damning review from Chicago's premiere drama critic Ashton Stevens, who didn't, in fact, even see the show. On the other hand, he omits all mention of the fact that the play, which he says was written late at night on his kitchen table in the Bronx, had a co-author. Edward Eliscu, who went on to write lyrics for ten Broadway musicals (and whose catalogue includes the immortal "More Than You Know," "Without a Song" and "Great Day"), gets a mere mention in passing by Hart — but not in connection with The Beloved Bandit. None of this detracts from the power, enjoyment and enchantment of "Act One;" I wouldn't even have questioned Hart's account had I not remembered his name appearing on the sheet music.

Hart weaves a magical tale of breaking into show business, 1925-31, and one that I don't expect is likely to be supplanted. The action builds to the triumphant opening of Once in a Lifetime, the play which made Hart famous. The creation of this comedy takes up almost half the book. After turning down an offer to have it turned into an Irving Berlin musical, Hart accepts director George S. Kaufman as collaborator. Kaufman was at the time already a Broadway legend, but the Kaufman and Hart partnership over the next decade was to bring some of Kaufman's finest work. Kaufman was quite a character, and Hart's portrayal of him in these pages is as well-illustrated as Dickens' Mr. Micawber.

After two separate disappointing tryouts, Once in a Lifetime was pulled from the brink of folding by a last-minute burst of inspiration by Hart and an all-night writing session — according to Hart in "Act One," that is, although Mr. Bach gives us reason to wonder. Hart tells us how he spent the spring of 1930 slaving away in Kaufman's townhouse, dashing off at night to fulfill prior commitments as director of amateur groups in Brooklyn and Newark (which is how he supported his family).

Hart-the-memoirist neglects any mention of the fact that at the very same time that he was rewriting the play with Kaufman, he also wrote a Broadway musical which opened that same April, after a month of tryouts in Washington and Philadelphia, which Hart surely attended. So there is something off in the representation of this starry-eyed newcomer, struggling and starving in Kaufman's garret.

But hart was apparently not looking to write a literal autobiography (although the book is officially titled "Act One: An Autobiography"). He was looking to weave a magical and compelling tale of theatrical life, circa 1930, and he succeeded in leaving a treasure for all of us who have followed.

*

If Moss Hart seems to have embellished the facts in his autobiography "Act One" — the better to build an engrossing story — Lillian Hellman, in her three books of memoirs, seems to have determinedly made up facts of her own, as found in Dorothy Gallagher's "Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life" [Yale]. Gallagher turns out to be a fine guide to her subject.

cover art
 

"Hellman was a woman of enormous energy," she writes in her prologue, "talented, ambitious, restless, audacious, highly sexual, funny, generous, avaricious, mendacious, demanding, greedy, contemptuous, dogmatic, irritable, mean, jealous, self-righteous, angry." The author then sifts through Hellman's writings — countered by contradictory evidence from various sources — to prove her hypothesis. What we get is the best of Hellman and the worst of Hellman, presented in what seems to be a fair and balanced manner.

What does Gallagher mean by making up facts? Take Julia, whose story — originally told in Hellman's 1973 memoir "Pentimento" — formed the basis of the popular 1977 film which won Oscars for Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards. Julia, a childhood friend of Lillian, becomes a Socialist and convinces Hellman to smuggle money into Germany to fight the Nazis. This is all well and good, and makes Hellman look altogether heroic. The problem, Gallagher concludes, is that Julia seems not to have existed. Rather, there was a real-life counterpart — who had, indeed, studied with Freud in Vienna just like "Julia" did — but she didn't die in Germany in 1937; she outlived the playwright. Hellman apparently got biographical details from her lawyer, who was a housemate of the real-life Julia. But she never met Hellman, which suggests that Lillian's whole chronicle of smuggling money into Germany to fight the Nazis is baloney.

Hellman the memoirist tells us that when her long-time lover Dashiell Hammett was imprisoned, she sent a message to him from his lawyers that it would be better for her not to visit him and to quickly leave the country. She did so — although the lawyers didn't recall any such note, and Hammett was "surprised and hurt" by Hellman's desertion. (Goodman also explains how Hellman, as Hammett's executor, auctioned off his valuable copyrights — and bought them herself for a pittance, cutting out Hammett's daughter.)

There is also the matter of Hellman's vehement disavowal of ever having been a member of the Communist Party — which Gallagher counters with a letter from Hellman to her lawyer conclusively admitting that she had been a member. This denial is, of course, understandable, given the circumstances. But it indicates how Hellman's method was to create her own truth, write it up, and later cite is as proof of her veracity.

"An Imperious Life" is not a comprehensive biography; the author selects 15 subjects for discussion, and offers her findings in a straightforward manner. Even so, Gallagher in roughly 140 pages gives us an illuminating and convincing portrait of Lillian Hellman, the real one and the heroically fanciful one.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)