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The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written

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Two years later, a slapdash film adaptation of Act One, written and directed by an old Hart friend, Dore Schary, with George Hamilton as Moss, sank without a trace. (There’s zero chance its jokey tone will resurface in the stage adaptation envisioned by Lapine, whose previous stage portrait of an artist as a young man was his libretto for Sunday in the Park With George.) Moss Hart’s cultural footprint started to shrink rapidly, though not that of Kitty, whom he married in 1946 and with whom he had two children, only 13 and 11 at the time of his death. Herself something of a self-invention—she had been born Catherine Conn to a Jewish family in New Orleans—Kitty Carlisle was an elegant singer who, before she connected with Moss, played the ingénue in the Marx Brothers’ 1935 classic, A Night at the Opera, co-written by Kaufman. In her long post-Moss iteration, she became a minor celebrity as a panelist on a prime-time game show, To Tell the Truth, and performed a nostalgic cabaret act into her 90s. But those of us who wanted to learn more about the husband whose autobiography had changed our lives could get nowhere with her. Some of Moss Hart’s papers, which had been deposited at the Wisconsin Historical Society, were embargoed for her lifetime. When profiling Kitty Hart for The New Yorker in 1993 during her tenure running the New York Council on the Arts, the writer Marie Brenner asked her, “Why have you never allowed anyone to write a biography of your husband?” Kitty answered, “He wrote his own,” as if Act One, whose final chapter took place 31 years before Moss’s death, told all. When Brenner raised rumors that Hart might have been gay, Kitty said that she had asked him point-blank during their courtship, “Are you homosexual?” and he had answered, “Absolutely not.” Kitty said that she “never gave it another thought.”

Speculation about Hart’s sexuality—of a sort that circled nearly every man in the theater in an era when homosexuality was criminalized and often closeted—had been common among his friends and colleagues for years. And Kitty’s defensiveness to Brenner only fueled the rumors. Among the items off-limits in Wisconsin was a yearlong diary Moss kept during their marriage, in 1953–54.

After Brenner’s profile was published, a writer named Steven Bach contacted me, seeking my help as a former Times drama critic in finding possible sources on Hart. He had decided to pursue a biography despite Kitty Hart’s roadblocks. I introduced him to my friend Arthur Gelb, a retired Times editor who had known and covered Moss when he was a deputy to Atkinson in the paper’s drama department in the 1950s. Arthur called a few surviving mutual acquaintances of the Harts, but Kitty had shut down every source she could.

Bach was himself a survivor of show-business turmoil and not one to retreat easily. He was the final production head of United Artists, the Hollywood studio that during his tenure released Annie Hall, Network, Apocalypse Now, and Raging Bull, only to be brought down in 1980 by an epic flop he championed, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. His Hollywood career over, Bach became an author and a professor of film whose biographical subjects would also include Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl, before his death in 2009. His first book, the 1985 Final Cut, an inside account of the Heaven’s Gate fiasco, is fittingly described by the critic David Thomson as “the best book ever written about the making of a movie.” Bach’s biography of Hart, titled Dazzler and published in 2001, would prove one of the best books ever written about Broadway, yet it is little known. Kitty Hart’s successful four-decade effort to thwart other would-be Hart biographers had the unintended consequence of further diminishing her husband’s cultural status and, with that, public appetite for a biography. While Dazzler received respectful reviews, they tended to patronize its subject as an anachronism not worthy of the effort.

Bach’s motive in writing Dazzler could speak for many Hart admirers: “I was a student growing up in the dreary middle of a drearier nowhere and felt life suddenly given color and light by the pages of Hart’s best-selling book, Act One.” His tireless reportage paints an even bleaker portrait of Moss’s childhood than Moss did. The young Hart was “a scrawny boy with bad teeth, a funny name, an odd way of talking, a father and brother who were crippled.” (They had, respectively, a withered leg and arm, neither mentioned in Act One.) Aunt Kate was not a colorful, poignant eccentric so much as a destructive psychotic. Contrary to Act One’s narrative, she lived on long after her eviction from the Hart household and resurfaced in a spiteful criminal incident aimed at Moss after he achieved success. Bach also discovered that Once in a Lifetime was not Hart’s first do-or-die Broadway break, as breathlessly presented in the book, but had been preceded in 1930 by a failed musical and, before that, by a Broadway-bound play, Oscar Wilde, whose announced production had been derailed by its producer’s death.


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