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Somewhere for Me

A Biography of Richard Rogers

by Meryle Secrest

Paperback, 457 pages, Hal Leonard Corp, List Price: $18.95 |


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A Biography of Richard Rogers
Meryle Secrest

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Excerpt: Somewhere For Me

Somewhere for Me

A Biography of Richard Rodgers

Applause Theatre & Cinema Book Publishers

Copyright © 2002 Meryle Secrest
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781557835819

Chapter One


Here comes Jacob Levy trotting along the street, a tiny little man in a neatblack suit and fussy bow tie, carrying a cane and sporting a white panama with asurprisingly rakish brim. It is 1926, and Richard Rodgers's grandfather on hismother's side is spending the summer in Long Beach, New York, walking down anexpanse of sidewalk bordered by identical lawns, a single Model T Ford parkedbehind him on that ramrod-straight, deserted street. Now here is Will, Dick'sphysician father, in the home movies Richard Rodgers began to take with hisfancy new film camera, the one you wound up by hand. Will, too, is spending hissummer in Long Beach, and stands on the steps of their cottage, red-haired,handsome, and blue-eyed, a smudge of moustache on his upper lip, in hisstarched-collar shirt and his suit with matching waistcoat, laughinguproariously at some forgotten joke. And here is Mamie, Dick's mother, with herflat, blunt nose, close-set eyes, pince-nez, and distinct gap between her frontteeth. Even in those days of blurry and faded film one somehow knows it is adusty afternoon in high summer, and only city folk get dressed up in hats andgloves to have their pictures taken.

Now the golden boy himself appears, towering (even though of modest height) overhis tiny mother, his hair glistening in the sunlight, his lips parted in acurving smile, with his beautifully modeled forehead and the slight cleft in hischin, the kind of face to be found in magazine illustrations of the periodadvertising cigars, cognacs, Cadillacs, and crossings on the Cunard Line. Hissuit is something formal and dark and the shirt collar is fashionably stiff andconfining, but his tie tells another story: it is daringly patterned with dotsand can only be bright red. He leans solicitously over his mother and the treeunder which they are posing throws a pattern of light on his cheekbones and theedge of his lapel.

Soon they are on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, whither they have come for thetryout of a new show. Here is Dick, the brim of his hat pulled down snappilyover one eye, with his mother on his arm. She is in mourning for her father,lately dead, and looks, in her mountainous black hat, as solemn as an owl. Nextto them, in a line advancing toward the camera, are Lew Fields, the famouscomedian-turned-producer who backed so many of Rodgers's first shows, and Lew'sson Herbert, Rodgers's collaborator on the books. At the far right is theimpeccably dressed Lorenz Hart, Rodgers's brilliant lyricist, whose Homburg hatand perfectly tailored double-breasted coat only serve to underline the contrastbetween his manly head and stunted body. Now we are at the tennis courts, wherethe agile form of Richard Rodgers, in faultless white flannels, can be seenserving and volleying with the rapidity of a dragonfly. Next we are on a lakeand he is lounging in a canoe, wearing a fashionable two-piece swimsuit(striped, sleeveless top, white belt, dark trunks), with his half-smile, hiswidow's peak of immaculate dark hair parted just off-center, the ever-presentcigarette between his fingers. Or he is standing on the dock beside BobbiePerkins, who sang "Mountain Greenery" in the Garrick Gaietiesof 1926, his arm around her waist, a charming scene disrupted by his handsomeolder brother Mortimer. Morty interposes himself between them and triumphantlycarries off the girl.

Next he is on a picnic in Canada, wearing a beret, eating sandwiches anddrinking from a thermos flask, then proudly displaying the fish he has justcaught. Or he is in Cannes, coming around the corner with a beauty on each arm.On one side is Corinne Griffith and on the other, Kendall Lee, then married toJules Glaenzer, vice-president of Cartier's. Rodgers is on the Riviera to attendsome kind of lavish party at the invitation of Glaenzer, youngish and handsomeand wearing what looks like a silk kimono. For Richard Rodgers, ambitious youngcomposer-about-town, has been taken up by café society and invitedeverywhere. And no wonder, since although he is only in his mid-twenties, he hashad several hit musicals and has taken bachelor's quarters, three rooms on thenineteenth floor with a wrap-around terrace, in a deluxe apartment hotel calledthe Lombardy at 11 East Fifty-sixth Street, with its two-story-high SpanishRenaissance lobby and hand-modeled stucco walls with travertine quoins andjambs. There he has decorated his study as befits his status: light reddraperies, cork walls (a daring touch), Moderne furniture, and the latest in ArtDeco built-in bookcases. Writing to his future wife, Dorothy Feiner, he saidthat a divan and bookcase had just arrived and he was biting his nails withanxiety. "I suspect it's rather successful, but you'll know!"he wrote. Charles, his valet, who insisted on the French pronunciation of hisname, did everything without being told. One night Rodgers brought home acongenial group after a prizefight, and they sat around singing songs andstrolled about on his spacious terrace. Charles made sandwiches, scrambled eggs,and sausages and served champagne. He left the gathering at 4:30 a.m. and"showed up again at nine-thirty to give me breakfast, with the samesmile," Rodgers wrote. "Dot, what a way to live! Expensive, butso nice."

The year was 1929, and a decade had gone by since that hot summer day when heand Larry Hart had traveled out to Rockaway to play some of their first tunesfor Lew Fields. That same summer the two of them stood in the back of the CasinoTheatre at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street to hear Eve Lynn and Alan Hale sing"Any Old Place with You." It was 1919, the musical was A LonelyRomeo, and Rodgers's first song had been heard on Broadway; he was justseventeen. Years of struggle followed until the big chance came with The GarrickGaieties of 1925, and the writing team of Rodgers and Hart was launched. By thelate 1920s newspapers were publishing drawings of Rodgers, the composer of suchmusicals as Peggy-Ann and A Connecticut Yankee and such songs as"My Heart Stood Still," "Manhattan," "Here in MyArms," "The Girl Friend," "Thou Swell," and "ThisFunny World." The headline was "The Young Master of Melody." Ashort film had even been made, with Rodgers and Hart as the stars, celebratingtheir rapid rise. And everyone was singing their songs.

We'll have a blue room,
A new room,
For two room,
Where ev'ry day's a holiday
Because you're married to me.

("The Blue Room")

Spring of 1929 began, appropriately enough, with a February tryout forSpring Is Here at the Shubert Theatre, Philadelphia; it moved to theAlvin Theatre, New York, the following month. The musical was based on a book byOwen Davis, which he had adapted from his play Shotgun Wedding, and,like most confections of the period, told a forgettable story about a boy inlove with a girl in love with somebody else until the last act. It ran for 104performances, not a very prepossessing number, although the reviewers had beenkind, and was notable for at least one wonderful melody, "With a Song in MyHeart." It was also notable for its bevy of pretty girls, called"Ladies of the Ensemble" in the program, every one vivacious andcharming and with perfect thighs. Rodgers lovingly photographed them all intheir silk negligées or their garden outfits of white cloche hats andpolka-dot dresses, or their Pierrette costumes—it was the moment for puffedsleeves and tiers of frills on skirts—in which they pouted, pirouetted, anddrooped charmingly against doorways. The early home movies are full of suchpretty girls, and Dorothy Rodgers, who later provided the commentary, wasforbearing. "This is Bobbie Perkins," she announced as thatparticularly trim and lively girl appeared to take her bow. "Dick used totake her out a lot, and she and I became great friends."

Dorothy herself appeared in the films, her long brown hair loose around herface, swimming in the pool of the house in Tarrytown, New York, that her parentshad rented for a year, or riding horseback with Herbert Fields, her ponytailbouncing along behind her, or posing against the doorway of the house insomething clinging and low-cut, a dress one would have thought too sultry for agirl of seventeen. Or she is getting into Dick's chauffeur-driven Stutz Bearcatconvertible, in an amazingly chic outfit, a belted two-piece with contrastingtrim, and, in those days of the universal cloche hat, wearing what looks like avery becoming turban. There is an air of maturity about this young and prettyadmirer, whose youthfulness is betrayed occasionally by a tremulous uncertaintyin her smile. And, indeed, she was something of a sophisticate, themuch-indulged daughter of wealthy parents, who had made the yearly pilgrimage toEurope since childhood. She knew, for instance, that one went to Egypt forperfume, to Turkey for star sapphires, to Naples for coral and tortoiseshell, toRome for antiques, and to Florence for leather goods.

In Paris, she and her mother spent countless hours being fitted for clothes. Itwas, she wrote later, "an era of almost unimaginable luxury . . . Frenchunderwear, for example, was made of the sheerest pure silk ninon and trimmedwith hand-run Alençon lace. Combinations called 'teddies,' slips,petticoats and nightgowns were designed to be knife-pleated—a process that hadto be repeated by hand each time they were washed." Since Americanlaundries would not perform this time-consuming work, Dorothy Feiner would takeher dirty underwear to France on each transatlantic trip to be painstakinglyrepleated. Such close knowledge of the fine points of haute couture would standher in good stead when she came to buy her trousseau, a year's worth of hats,coats, dresses, evening clothes, furs, shoes, and underwear—everything, rightdown to the hand-pleated silk chiffon handkerchiefs.

By June of 1929 Rodgers was working on a new show, Me For You, latercalled Heads Up!, all about rum runners in yachts and true love winningthrough in the end. Rodgers had written a song, "A Ship Without aSail," and thought it sounded "pretty hot." He had spent theweekend at the painter and illustrator Neysa McMein's and was touched by theflowers Dot had wired from Paris for his twenty-seventh birthday. As shetraveled on to Vittel and Biarritz, his letters followed: optimistic predictionsfor the success of the show, a few lame jokes, and sporadic references toweekend parties in Westhampton (to celebrate Glaenzer's forty-seventh birthday),deep-sea fishing with friends off Montauk, telephone calls from Florenz Ziegfeldabout his next show, Simple Simon, and offers from Paramount. "Thisis going to be a big year," he wrote with some prescience in the summer of1929. They went through the tryouts of Heads Up! together. They gotengaged during the New York run. Meanwhile, in that winter of the Depression,Simple Simon, starring Ed Wynn as the proprietor of a newspaper shop inConey Island more at home with fairy tales than with newspaper headlines, madeits way through a Boston tryout to the Ziegfeld Theatre early in 1930. When Dickmarried Dorothy, on March 5, he and Larry Hart had two shows on Broadway, butreviews had been mixed in both cases: Heads Up! closed ten days laterand Simple Simon in mid-June.

Theirs was one of the weddings of the season, and Mrs. Richard Rodgers'sphotograph appeared a day later in the Social News section of the New YorkTimes. She was married in her parents' home, the paper reported, at 270 ParkAvenue. The apartment had been transformed into an outdoor garden withquantities of flowers and fruit blossoms. The bride chose a medieval gown ofivory-colored satin without any adornment, a simple tulle veil, mittens of oldrose-point lace, and carried a sheaf of calla lilies. Her bride's book recordsone hundred and fifty gifts, neatly catalogued and described, checked to showthat they had been acknowledged: a custom-made crystal bowl and plate; severaltraveling clocks of green leather; silver, crystal, and agate ashtrays; towelsdecorated with Milanese lace; a silver smoking set; silver bonbon dishes;crystal decanters; a breakfast set from Tiffany's; a silver bowl from Cartier's;a Lalique vase; an antique cigarette box; Wedgwood china from Tiffany's; bronzecandelabra; ditto; rock crystal champagne glasses; lamps, vases, bowls,ornaments, tiles, earrings, silverware, and other miscellany, some returned.Dorothy's new mother- and father-in-law contributed a diamond bracelet. Her ownparents gave her a baguette diamond watch bracelet.

There was a dinner for the wedding party at 270 Park Avenue, and the happycouple boarded the SS Roma that very evening, bound for Naples. "Itwas a lovely dinner," she recalled later, "but we ate nothing, we wereso excited and nervous." By the time they were settled in their spacioussuite—there was a cabin just to hold their trunks and hand luggage—it was closeto midnight and Dorothy was finally hungry enough to eat a few dried-upsandwiches. Rodgers wrote, "That night we . . . retired with the headythought of how romantic it would be to awaken . . . far out to sea. When we gotup the next morning we found we were still tied up at the North Riverdock," because of engine problems. Dorothy's main memory of that morningwas of being asked by the Italian stewardess what her husband would like forbreakfast and being embarrassed that she did not know.

A honeymoon trip to Europe would be the least one could expect from a younghusband with the income of a Richard Rodgers—one family story has it that whenhe got married at the age of twenty-seven, he was making $75,000 a year—but in adisplay of that practicality which would become a marked aspect of hischaracter, he was combining business with pleasure. He and Larry Hart had beenhaving discussions with the London producer Charles B. Cochran about an ideathey had for a musical to be called Ever Green; it would star anexquisite young singer and dancer named Jessie Matthews. Rodgers and his bridewould spend a few weeks in the Mediterranean and then join Larry Hart in Londonto begin work.Rodgers and Hart were familiar names in London, having had severalproductions there, including the British version of A ConnecticutYankee, retitled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, in 1929. Inthose days he and Hart had shared quarters cheerfully enough in a series ofservice flats, i.e., apartments with meals and maid service. But when Dick tookDorothy to inspect the flat on St. James's Street where they usually stayed, shewas horrified: "It was run down, depressing and none too clean."Before she could think of a tactful objection, her husband quickly decided itwould not do.