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Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.

Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart * Steven Bach * Knopf * $29.95

Steven Bach, the author of Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart, had a hard act to follow. Hart penned his own life story--or a lively portion of it, at any rate--in Act One, a book that is widely considered to be one of the best ever written about life in the theater. It's still in print more than four decades after it was first published, even as most of Hart's theatrical output, with the exception of his classic collaborations with George S. Kaufman, has drifted into obscurity.

Act One is a dazzling book all right--a love letter to the theater that retains all of its heady perfume--but autobiographies never really tell the whole story, and a Hart biography is long overdue. The reason behind the literary silence on the subject of one of the leading lights of the American theater's golden age is not hard to discover: It's the discouraging presence of his widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart, who remains a notable adornment of New York showbiz society and an occasional participant in the business itself. (You may remember her from her game show days: red lips, cultured poise, a swirl of perfectly coiffed black hair.)

The widow Hart declined to cooperate with Bach and reportedly implored friends to do likewise. The reason for her disapproval is not hard to discover either: Although he fathered two children and was happily married for the last years of his life, for the first few decades of his career Hart was considered by most of his theatrical cronies to be gay. Bach documents this aspect of his life with the same scrupulous--and sensitive--attention he brings to the rest of it.

Readers expecting a series of salacious revelations will be disappointed, however; they'd be better advised to reread Arthur Laurents's lust-drenched autobiography. Bach's fine previous books are Final Cut--the best-selling story of his days as a United Artists film exec and the debacle of Heaven's Gate--and a biography of Marlene Dietrich, and he's far more interested in chronicling Hart's astonishingly fertile career than his sexual history.

The author doesn't dwell long on Hart's grim childhood in the Bronx; he's presumably aware that anyone interested in reading his book will have read Act One at least once, and nobody could tell the story of Hart's upbringing with the wit and charm he does. He does note where Hart distorted the facts: His aunt Kate, the eccentric who first took him to the theater as a child, was benevolently dispatched in Act One. The stranger truth is that after a rift she became an embittered wraith who tormented the family and at one point even set fires in a Broadway theater housing one of Hart's plays.

There were a few years of struggle as Hart honed his craft--or, rather, his crafts--but success came early and it came big. With Once in a Lifetime, the Hollywood spoof that was his first collaboration with Kaufman, Hart, at just 26, gained instant entree to the world he'd been dreaming of since childhood, and he never left it. There followed the more indelible Kaufman collaborations (and a Pulitzer for You Can't Take It With You); friendships with the Algonquin Round Table (Edna Ferber in particular); success as a librettist with Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, Rodgers and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right, and Lady in the Dark (music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin); and screenwriting pay dirt with Gentleman's Agreement and the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born. Hart's success as a writer was almost eclipsed by his late-career directorial triumph with My Fair Lady, which went on to outrun Oklahoma! and become the longest-running musical in Broadway history to that time.

There were, of course, failures along the way, and Bach is an astute assessor of his subject's artistic output. He gives full credit to the still-golden comedies but makes no bones about the slender merits of Hart's more ambitious plays, which tended to be overproduced and sodden: Titles like The Great Waltz (a hit anyway) and The American Way (not) say it all.

And for every champagne-soaked opening night, there were more than a few sleepless ones. Hart traveled in circles where homosexuality was acknowledged and accepted, if not discussed, but he was never comfortable with his attraction to men. His intense attachment to psychoanalysts who saw homosexuality as a curable condition didn't help, although Bach can only speculate that Hart's discomfort with his sexual identity was one of the primary causes of both his lifelong dependence on therapy and his recurring depressions.

Bach frankly discusses Hart's affairs with men and quotes sources who aver that Hart was not above reaping the benefits of the casting couch. Gordon Merrick, an actor who later went on to fame as a gay pulp novelist, based the (homo)sexually manipulative playwright Meyer Rapper in his novel The Lord Won't Mind on Hart. But sex and even love remain supporting players in the drama of Hart's life, at least in Bach's perspective. This is, to a degree, a flaw in the book. Bach paints a colorful and always compelling portrait of the public Hart, but the inner workings of the private man often remain obscure.

This is certainly partly due to lack of access to letters and private documents (correspondence with film exec Dore Schary figures prominently, pointing up the lack of other direct sources). But it also may derive from the subject himself: Hart was always more concerned with showbiz success than artistic achievement, and this no doubt reflected the makeup of his character. He was a man of canny intelligence and powerful charm but perhaps not an artist or thinker of the first rank. As with even his best plays, a dazzling surface distracted from a lack of substance underneath.

Isherwood is chief theater critic for Variety.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Isherwood, Charles
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 17, 2001
Words:985
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