Between the world wars, style was in ascendance and musical comedy was so central to popular culture that a composer’s name could sum up an attitude toward life. This was particularly true of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, and not just because they wrote words as well as music. They were the supreme practitioners of the era’s “advanced” wit–and also, in their lives, the best advertisements for it. Both were too hot not to cool down; they lived to see their era fade, as insouciance went out of fashion after World War II. In musical theatre, that shift was marked as much by the earthy textures of Oklahoma! as by the postwar world itself. Only after some years did the timelessness of their best work, the elegance and sting that are deeper than topical, become clear.
George Gershwin was spared these changes by dying young never a bad thing for the development of a legend. Beyond that, since he was responsive to aesthetic currents as Coward and Porter never were, his achievement was more broadly rooted. Convincingly straddling the line between popular and “serious” music, he established himself even during his life as an avatar of American culture, though many classical composers refused to be impressed. If he had lived, it’s likely he would have been less outpaced by the times than Coward or Porter.
Frank Loesser, admired for a small number of marvelous scores, is a far less canonical figure; a recent dewy remembrance by his daughter, Susan Loesser, is the first biography devoted to him. His status has as much to do with the fortunes of Broadway as with his own output. By the time of Loesser’s heydey in the ’50s, Broadway was no longer the main source of American popular music and was about to be completely eclipsed by rock-and-roll. Headstrong, disinclined to collaborate, Loesser didn’t find it easy to come up with successful or sometimes even finished–pieces of work. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, his biggest and last hit, made him feel he had yielded too much artistic sovereignty to the box office. But this hardly means he was anti-commercial. By the mid-’60s he put most of his energy into managing (sometimes unscrupulously) his and other people’s songs. He seems to have ended up more a self-made corporation than an artist.
By arranging the lives of Coward and Porter in alternating chapters, The Sophisticates, a dual biography by Stephen Citron, allows us to compare the ebb and flow of their careers and to observe their many similarities and their intersecting social circles. A word of warning: This is a musical biography, so it lacks the customary massive quotient of gossip. The book is straightforward and full of valuable information, especially its analysis of a great many songs, standard and obscure. There are some lapses (may one say that Porter’s songs “never revealed his characters in the way they illuminated himself” on page 74, and then define the lyrics of Kiss Me, Kate as “Porterian . . . clearly helping to define the characters who are singing, not . . . rhyming dizzily to show the lyricist’s erudition” on page 218?), but the book is certainly worth having around and, on the whole, trustworthy.
That can’t be said for The Memory of All That. Joan Peyser, who got some attention a few years ago for a trashy biography of Leonard Bernstein, here works her magic on Gershwin. She turns up at least two illegitimate children, intimates that Gershwin’s sister-in-law hastened his death and declares Ira’s lyrics a “cryptobiography” of his brother’s life. George Gershwin has often been depicted as grasping and coarse, but Peyser (abetted by Ira) emphasizes his vulnerable side. The author favors a tangy blend of musicology and psychoanalysis: “Stanley Adams, former president of ASCAP, who knew George, recently described him as a ‘composer with balls,'” Peyser writes, oozing scintillation. “The aggression and drive Gershwin often conveyed by his use of small melodic fragments and his love for the repeated note contribute to the sense of virility to which Adams referred.” In making her most explosive arguments those dealing with the composer’s ostensible children Peyser doesn’t bother with facts. She relies on bald assertions and, when all else fails, heavy suggesting.
Susan Loesser’s A Most Remarkable Fella isn’t so exotic in its ambitions. Children-of-the-famous books generally break down into two categories: the hagiography and the expose. This one seeks a middle ground. The Loesser family life, characterized by very late nights with a house full of abrasive personalities, is told from the perspective of someone looking down at the action from between the banisters. This is interesting, in a depressing sort of way. While Loesser is meticulous about recording her father’s unpleasant characteristics (he was self-centered, prone to tantrums and grotesque practical jokes, and also smoked, drank and cursed too much), reverence wins out over distaste to the point where Loesser reproduces several pages of the great man’s doodles. That’s no real surprise: The book’s title tips us off that her heart isn’t in trash.
It’s never easy for a biography to reconcile an artist’s life, as flawed as anyone else’s, with the work that issues from it. In Loesser’s book we get a double split: between the obnoxious businessman and the composer of deeply felt music, and between the show-biz brat who hung out at the sandbox with Liza Minnelli and the suburban mom-turned-author who’s breathless at actually being related to an eminence of Hollywood and Broadway. Her accumulation of reminiscences may have its appeal, but it doesn’t equal a life. All we know is that between the drinks, the cigars, the swimming pools and the screwing around, a lot of nice music got written.