Sample text for Dazzler : the life and times of Moss Hart / Steven Bach.

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Broadway Baby

The residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky. --E. B. White

"I was born on Fifth Avenue," Moss Hart liked to say. Then, when eyebrows had gone up all over the room, he would ricochet the very notion with a punch line: "The wrong end!" The joke always worked, but was never as self-deprecating as it sounded; he wanted you to know how far he'd come.

Wherever he was--in the precincts of the Shuberts and Ziegfelds or the playgrounds of the Thalbergs and Zanucks, on croquet lawns or in paneled drawing rooms--was Broadway. When he walked into the room, people say, the party got better, and because it did he loved to call himself "the Darling of Everyone there," no matter where "there" was. But the airy witticism floated oh so casually over cocktails or at Sardi's had been as carefully rehearsed in the shaving mirror as any actor's speech on any stage. He had a performer's timing and need for applause and a style so theatrical no mere actor would have dared pull it off. What made his grand manner easy to like was his unabashed love for the Broadway he came to personify. Even when his ardor for it was unrequited, he couldn't wait to entertain you with tales of his rejection, hilarious or heart-rending or both.

He was not born on any end of Fifth Avenue, but in a tenement at 74 East 105th Street, a neighborhood not of carriages and hansom cabs, but of dray wagons, pushcarts, and immigrants. It was an uptown version of the Lower East Side and not much farther from Broadway, he liked to quip, than, say, Yakima, Washington.

The tenement he was born in fell long ago to the wrecker's ball. In its place stands the DeWitt Clinton housing project, just where East 105th Street is interrupted by a hard-packed urban playground behind a chain-link fence. Aromas in the air today are not from the shtetl, but from the islands. Neighborhood wisdom comes not from rabbis, but from psychics and palm readers who hang neon promises in storefront windows. One suspects that few of them know or care that just a few blocks away a museum dedicated to the city of New York celebrates Hart as a son of this very neighborhood. What remains of him uptown is mostly behind glass: some glossy eight-by-tens, a tarnishing cigarette case, and dog-eared contracts that hint at the terms and conditions of fame and fortune on Broadway.

On the day Hart was born--October 24, 1904--this part of town was dominated not by nearby Central Park, but by the New York Central Railroad roaring north and rattling fire escapes all the way to the East River. The trains rumbled through a tunnel beneath what we now call Park Avenue and emerged into daylight, as it does today, at Ninety-sixth Street, where the tracks climb above ground to run in the channel of a stone viaduct. Those massive walls built to protect Upper East Siders from the railroad--and vice versa--must have looked like the walls of a prison in 1904. They still do, but modernity and mobility were popular issues early in the century and, to prove it, three days after Moss was born the New York subway system opened for business.

Hart's birthplace on East 105th Street drifted with railroad soot and smelled of failure and cigars. "Shabby gentility," he called it, though it was closer to bare subsistence. The flat was ruled by his grandfather Solomon, whose daughter Lillie was Moss's mother. Barnett--"Barney"--Solomon was a cigarmaker born in London in 1833, a man of "enormous vitality, color and salt" according to his grandson. He was also vain and a tyrant and a thwarted visionary outraged by life's injustices, so many of them aimed at him. He had confounded immigrant clich? by working his way not up but down from comfortable respectability in England to near-penury in New York. For the rest of his life he fulminated with bitter tales of the wealthy and distinguished family he had left behind, and the stories were true.

The Solomons he came from were a generation removed from Holland, where they had been silversmiths in Amsterdam. The original spelling had been Salamon or Salaman. In England, Barney's older brother Joseph, a less mercurial and more prudent Solomon, worked his way from apprenticeship in a leather factory in Bermondsey to ownership of one of his own. He grew so affluent that he established night classes for his workers in keeping with his fervor for moral uplift and self-improvement. He improved himself into a London town house designed by John Nash, who had built Regent Street, Trafalgar Square, and Buckingham Palace. There he founded a small dynasty of Solomon sons (seven) and daughters (five), who would pursue and achieve distinction in the arts and professions even as his brother Barney raged at the social order that bestowed wealth on Joseph and hardship on himself. Just as well, perhaps, that Barney didn't live to know that a granddaughter of Joseph would play violin at Albert Hall with Mischa Elman; or that a painter son, grandly named Solomon J. Solomon, would become the second Jewish member of the Royal Academy, exhibiting his portraits of Members of Parliament and the aristocracy, and even of Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for whom Shaw wrote Eliza Doolittle, a character to return to these pages.

A Shavian family note was apt in any event, for Joseph Solomon declared himself a Shaw disciple and liked to quote the playwright's definition of a gentleman as one who tried "to put at least as much into life as [he] took out of it." Solomon put more Solomons into life, some of them eccentrics, including suffragettes, Zionists, and at least one hotair balloonist. When young Moss was growing up in humble American obscurity, a British writer was noting among the Solomons in England "such a surprising number of persons who have won eminence in Art, Music, and the Drama as has probably created a record!" Their eccentricities would--much later and much Americanized--find life on Broadway, as they pursued their individual creative talents or whims without a worry in the world because, as one of them would put it, you can't take it with you.

On East 105th Street, by contrast, there was nothing but resentment and grievance, for Barney Solomon had never shared his brother's diligence and piety. Even as a youth he was deemed a "ne'er do well," a firebrand and malcontent. In his thirties he was "cast off to El Dorado," a family member recalled, to pursue his personal crusades out of sight and out of mind.

His bride, Rose Lewis, was not only uncultivated, she was illiterate. She may have been non-Jewish as well, a factor that probably did not recommend her to Joseph Solomon, by now a warden at London's Bayswater Synagogue. Whatever her shortcomings, by the time of Barney's expulsion from the family circle Rose had presented him with a family of his own: daughters Kate in 1868 and Lillie in 1870. Shortly thereafter the family set sail for America.

In El Dorado Barney pursued cigarmaking, which provided him with a job, a friend, and a cause. Samuel Gompers was London-born, too, and a fellow cigarmaker rolling tobacco leaves (family legend has it) at the very next bench. Gompers was unburdened by wife or family and had only the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor to worry about, a social club with ambitions to become a trade union. Gompers's slogan--"Reward Your Friends and Punish Your Enemies"--was just the sort of incendiary cry to appeal to Barney's own sense of injury and injustice.

Gompers was elected president of the American Federation of Labor in 1886, but if Barney was at his side he left no traces on union history, though family apocrypha had him marching with Gompers and even rivaling him for leadership. The story Moss told had something to do with who got to carry a briefcase into union meetings. In fact, Barney's reward as Gompers's friend was the picket line, where he and the other faithful punished Gompers's enemies (and themselves) with a thousand strikes a year until the end of the century.

Sometimes Barney was a passionate crusader and sometimes he merely sulked in the cramped quarters he shared with his wife and daughters. On occasions of nostalgia for England, when not locked in his private world of rage or depression, he used storytelling as an antidote to the dispiriting realities of the Land of Liberty. Moss wrote that the defeated cigarmaker read aloud serial installments of Dickens's latest novel (though Dickens had died in 1870, making them very back numbers indeed), thrilling his daughters with Victorian cliff-hangers and tutoring Rose with the only education she was ever to receive. When he detected or imagined flagging attention, he refused to continue reading, locked Dickens in the closet, and brooded in ominous silence for days on end. He would bequeath his love of stories and his unpredictable moods to his grandson.

During the strikes of 1892, which halted the production of iron and steel as well as cigars, Rose revealed that she had somehow salted away enough pennies to finance a family excursion back to England. Her husband, idle for months, erupted at the treachery of wherewithal withheld, before agreeing that an ocean voyage might relieve the frustrations of striking and brighten his mood, maybe even his prospects.

Rose may have had family assistance in mind, but Barney's hat would be on his head, not in his hand. He appropriated funds from her hoard to indulge a fit of extravagance and vanity. He dyed hair, mustache, and goatee jet-black, the better to set off the Panama hat and bravado with which he crowned the whole ensemble.

Joseph Solomon's children thought his sartorial pretensions "touchingly transparent," but they and some grandchildren named Bentwich and Montagu took a friendly interest in shy young Lillie, who was twenty-two and "buxom." Haughty young Kate, who was twenty-four and prematurely "wizened," took an interest in them.

She surveyed their comfort, culture, and the cornucopia of plenty that accomplishment had put on the table, and decided she had ripened on the wrong branch of the family tree. For the rest of her life she valiantly redressed fate's error by taking on airs and never again--or almost never--lifting a finger except to turn the pages of a novel or a theater program.

While Kate accustomed herself to a style of life to which her birthright should have entitled her, the more practical Lillie made friends with Solomons, Bentwiches, Montagus, and with working-class companions who gathered around her father. Among them was a bachelor seven years older than she who bore her father's first name and the surname Hart.

Born in London in 1863, Barnett Hart was a cigarmaker, too. He looked on Barney Solomon as a mentor who knew an old trade in a new world and shared not only his name but also his interest in trade unionism. Hart was a welcome acolyte to Barney, and his mild and passive manner may have attracted Lillie from the start. That and his jauntily ignored vulnerability, for he was lame, born with a bad leg.

Whatever warmth flickered between them dimmed as funds dwindled, dictating that Barney bundle his brood back to America. Barnett Hart proved a cautious suitor. It would take a full year before he mustered courage?or passage?to follow his future.

When the thirty-one-year-old Hart finally arrived in New York in 1894, he found the cigarmaker's trade as depressed as it had been in England. Workbenches not idled by strikes and boycotts were being removed to make room for machines. To further dampen his welcome, he discovered that Rose had died shortly after the family's return to New York. Lillie had taken her place as housekeeper for her father and as handmaiden to Kate, whose airs had grown loftier than ever in the absence of the illiterate mother whose very presence had been a denial of grandeur and a brake on delusion. If Hart felt romantic ardor for Lillie it was inhibited by his realization that her father had no intention of trading a diligent housekeeper for an indigent son-in-law.

Lillie continued with the cooking, laundry, and housecleaning, and had little leftover energy or time for Hart. The newcomer accepted this for most of a decade with no apparent loss of good humor before finally claiming the hand that, in the meantime, kept her father in clean collars and her sister in the loftier reaches of fantasy and pretension.

Barnett was thirty-eight in 1901 when he finally married thirty-one-year-old Lillie. The long courtship speaks feebly of passion or forcefully of patience. Whatever the case, it appears likely that Lillie's motivation for marriage was partly to get out of her father's domain and into lodgings of her own. The newlyweds set up housekeeping on West 118th Street until Lillie became pregnant two years later.

Left alone and to their own devices, Barney and Kate mixed with predictable volatility. Shortly before Lillie's delivery came due, Barney demanded that the Harts leave the West Side for his own dwelling in order to prevent his killing Kate or himself. The Harts did as they were told, which is how and why their first son was born within earshot of the New York Central's roar on East 105th Street.

They named him Moss, after his father's father.

Lillie was a caretaker because she had no choice. Marriage merely shifted the caretaking focus from one set of dependents to another. Barnet--like his father-in-law--subsisted mainly on vain hopes and the dole, and even that would vanish as union coffers emptied and industrialization further eroded his trade.

Barney Solomon grew more volatile, accumulating rage with years. When Lillie gave birth at thirty-four, Barney was past seventy and "monstrous," his grandson reported.

Moss's arrival changed everything from the family dynamic to the family address. They moved into lodgings a few blocks away at 14 East 107th Street, where Barney and Barnett seem to have shared superintendent chores and extra rooms were rented to boarders to supplement what income there was. Lillie cooked and cleaned and laundered for strangers in addition to caring for father, husband, sister, and an infant son who required more than routine attention.

The first year of Moss Hart's life was marked by eczema that required constant vigilance and a pharmacopoeia of remedies. It was a persistent, unsightly condition and until it went away Lillie smothered her son with creams and lotions and body wraps. She may have smothered him, too, with her own anxieties. Or maybe she withdrew into cold drudgery that substituted order for warmth. Maybe the food on the table, however meager, was easier to provide than other forms of nourishment.

Barnett Hart had already withdrawn. The birth of a son when he was past forty modulated hopes for the future into the resignations of middle age that he bore with what his son later called "unruffled self-preservation." His ship might come in, or not, or perhaps it already had and this was it. He would allow Lillie's hand to rock the cradle and steer circumstance by whatever rudder she could grab onto.

Moss was less his mother's or father's child than his grandfather's. He was "his sole and jealously guarded possession" who awakened an old man's exuberance. Barney chased butterflies in the park for his grandson, trying to snare them in his Panama hat as onlookers jeered. He unlocked the closet to retrieve the precious installments of David Copperfield or Great Expectations. He taught the boy to hear the spoken word, to memorize and recite.

Moss's later version was that before he saw the inside of any school he was awakened at night, hoisted from his crib by his grandfather, and deposited in the middle of the kitchen table to rub his eyes in the glow of a gas lamp, or candlelight if the meter had run out. Surrounded by the indulgent faces of Barney's Friday Evening Literary Society, Moss recited texts drilled into him by the old man--a passage from A Christmas Carol, perhaps, or even Shakespeare. His adult memory would credit his introduction to theater to another champion at another time and place, but surely it was there on that kitchen table--so very like a stage--that he first felt the warmth of approval by pretending to be someone he was not: Tiny Tim or Puck or Bottom.

The rest of what he remembered was an "unending drabness" in an "atmosphere of unrelieved poverty." It was not to be dispelled by the two Barnetts, rolling cigars in leather cuffs at the very kitchen table where Lillie prepared food for boarders. They cobbled together a newsstand and when that failed they tried selling cigars door-to-door and when that failed there was more injustice collecting and sulking and cursing of Fate and that failed, too.

Finally, in 1910, the seventy-seven-year-old despot and patriarch emerged from one of his depressions and stirred with a final burst of energy. He demanded funds from Lillie, heedless that they came from the bottom of the barrel, and herded his court--Lillie, Barnett, Aunt Kate, and six-year-old Moss--all the way to Brooklyn, to Brighton Beach.

It may have been literally mad, this excursion to the shore, but for Moss, whose memory this is, there was magic to it. The old man squandered the family capital on boardwalk vistas and music-hall tunes that maybe only he saw and heard, but Moss thought, looking back on it, that all the thunder and lightning had been "a cry from the heart." His grandfather was preposterous and a failure, a bully and a ne'er-do-well, but he rejected the humdrum, the prudent, the cautious, the joyless, and sometimes the foolish and often the wise. He defied his lot and his grandson would, too.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Hart, Moss, -- 1904-1961.
Dramatists, American -- 20th century -- Biography.
Theatrical producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
Screenwriters -- United States -- Biography.