It’s a book I could not put down despite its adult girth when my mother gave me her Book of the Month Club edition to read, at age 10, in the year of its publication. Even then, Act One was a period piece. Set in the dozen or so years before the Great Depression, it unfolds against a show-business backdrop still not free of vaudeville and hokey stage melodramas—already a distant world in 1959. Since then, the book has survived despite the fading of Hart’s fame, despite later revelations that some elements of Act One were either fictionalized or pure myth, and despite the gradual emergence of the fuller, no less compelling Hart story that his widow tried to suppress until her death at age 96 in 2007. The more we learn about the truth of Moss Hart, it turns out, the more powerful Act One becomes, not just as a book but as a heroic act of generosity from a man whose heart and mind were breaking down even as he was writing it.
Act One was pointedly titled, since it told the story of only the first act of Hart’s life, culminating in 1930, when his first Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime, opened at the Music Box. (Still extant on 45th Street, the theater currently houses Pippin.) He concludes the book with “Intermission” rather than “The End.” But it was the end. Just two years after its publication, Moss Hart dropped dead outside his new home in Palm Springs, California, at the age of 57. Yet his is one American life that has had an unexpectedly dramatic and productive, if posthumous, second act.
The first act was pure Horatio Alger. Hart was born in 1904 in what is now Spanish Harlem to immigrant English Jewish parents. It was “an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty”: His father’s marginal income evaporated when his menial profession of cigar rolling was mechanized. In the “bewildering battlefield of conflicting loyalties” that was his childhood, Moss was equally distant from his tyrannical mother, his defeated father, and a brother whom he regarded as an alien even though they shared a bed until Moss left home. His one soul mate was his aunt Kate, an unmarried eccentric with Blanche DuBois–like delusions of grandeur who would save her few pennies to buy theater tickets in the upper balcony for herself and, eventually, her young nephew. Kate, Hart writes, “always got to the theater early enough to stand in the lobby and watch the audience go in—in order, as she expressed it, to get all there was to get!” She bequeathed that passion to Moss. His “fantasies and speculations” were “always of Broadway,” he writes, even though he would not emerge from the subway to see Times Square with his own eyes until he was 12, an indelible coming-of-age tableau that opens Act One. When the quarrelsome Kate is later evicted from the household following a savage fight with Moss’s father, her banishment hits both Moss and the reader as the end of the world. The image of the aunt “dropping her beloved programs from trembling hands all over the floor” as she is cast out into homelessness and, ultimately, an untimely death is as rending as any leave-taking in Dickens.
Like his aunt, Hart loved books as well as the theater. To ingratiate himself with the tough boys in the neighborhood, he regaled them with the plots of favorite novels like David Copperfield and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, whose heroine, not so incidentally, flees small-town Wisconsin as a teenager and wins theatrical stardom later in New York. Hart dropped out of school after seventh grade. To contribute to the family’s meager coffers, he worked long hours in a fur-storage vault that left him reeking on the long ride home underground each night, Broadway tantalizingly out of reach above. But for all the deprivation Hart suffered—of finances and emotional sustenance—Act One, like David Copperfield, is laced with humor. He introduces us to one memorable comic gargoyle after another, from “The Mad Cossack” (the horse-riding proprietor of an insolvent adults’ camp in Vermont where Moss works one summer) to the producer Gus Pitou, mocked as the “King of the One-Night Stands” because of his ingenuity at exploiting the Railway Guide to maximize hinterland tours of threadbare plays with bargain-basement “stars.” It’s Pitou’s hiring of Moss as an office boy at the New Amsterdam Theatre (now Disney’s domain, then Florenz Ziegfeld’s) that sets off the exhilarating chain of events leading Hart to his unlikely collision with the book’s most arresting supporting player, Kaufman, 15 years his senior and the leading commercial Broadway playwright of his day. For all Kaufman’s reputation as a public wit, he was in close-up awkward and eccentric, not to mention fearful of the most modest forms of human intimacy, whether handshakes or basic small talk. But he proved a true mentor, serving as Hart’s entrée not only to the theater industry but also to the epicenter of a New York literary scene ruled by Kaufman’s coterie at the Algonquin Round Table. Even so, Kaufman and Hart’s collaboration on Once in a Lifetime, a satire of Hollywood’s conversion to talkies that anticipates the film Singin’ in the Rain by more than two decades, was riddled with reversals and catastrophes. The play’s Perils of Pauline journey to Broadway triumph remains suspenseful no matter how many times you reread it.