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The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written

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Hart’s private views about his circle and his career are almost entirely antithetical to what would emerge in his autobiography five years later. In the diary, he is in an almost perpetual rage at the producer Joe Hyman, who is presented as his most loyal friend in Act One, and is nearly as angry at Kaufman, with whom he was still locked in a neurotic son-father relationship. The same Moss who in Act One will write with awe about his first encounter with his cultural idols at a Kaufman-townhouse tea party in the late 1920s—Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, Alfred Lunt, Dorothy Parker, et al.—writes venomously of these figures and their successors in his diary of the 1950s. Hart often couldn’t abide Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Rodgers or Hammerstein. Describing a New York party for Cukor at which “all the regular faces” included Audrey Hepburn (who “looked anything but dazzling that afternoon”), Truman Capote (“in a constant state of ill temper”), and Greta Garbo (“very pinched and old”), Hart concluded: “Here are the people mentioned in the newspapers and magazines of the world and how silly and shallow they seemed compared to the people I really admire.” But in 156 pages, Hart expresses admiration for almost no one beyond his immediate family. His bitchiness toward some of the Harts’ closest friends may in the end have been Kitty’s biggest motive for keeping the diary secret.

The words that dominate the entries are “depressing” and “depressed,” as in sentences like “I wander through the days in a haze of depression and inertia, unable to think or write a word.” Describing a walk down the thoroughfare he glorifies in Act One, he writes, “Broadway, God knows, is tawdry enough on a brisk autumn or winter evening, but on a hot summer night, it is almost intolerably ugly.” When he starts to pursue a project in the still newish medium of television, he is quickly discouraged. “Once again, it is fully apparent,” Hart writes, “that there is no aspect of show business that isn’t pure hell.”

You’d think that to reread Act One in the context of this diary and Dazzler would be disillusioning for anyone who has spent much of a lifetime admiring the “Moss Hart” of his memoir. But that’s not the case. While Hart sometimes fictionalized his own story, “it didn’t matter if it was literally true,” as Bach wisely concluded, because the book’s core is true. Hart’s self-mythologizing is within a long-established tradition of American letters dating back to the mythmaking of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Clemens’s reinvention of himself as Mark Twain. Such fictionalization can be taken too far—Lillian Hellman’s appropriation of another person’s life in Pentimento—but Hart’s improvements, like those in the autobiographies of Americans as diverse as, say, Lincoln Steffens, Malcolm X, and, more recently, Barack Obama, are not so much to mislead or self-aggrandize as to pump up the drama in a fable of difficult struggle and ultimate redemption. As D. H. Lawrence once observed, Americans “revel in subterfuge,” preferring that truth be “swaddled in an ark of bullrushes, and deposited among the reeds until some friendly Egyptian princess comes to rescue the babe.”

That Hart wrote a book showing that it was possible to escape so horrific a childhood—at least until Intermission—is a gift to lonely and troubled kids everywhere. And it was not an easy gift to deliver, since it required him to quarantine the sadness of his second act to keep it from contaminating his genuine joy and pride in his escape at the end of the first. Adult readers, if not young ones, will recognize that the happy ending is by definition provisional anyway. No one can escape the scars of childhood simply by slamming the door. But that’s another story.

Indeed, it’s hard to read Act One without thinking of an earlier, darker, fictional variation on its tale—the 1905 Willa Cather story “Paul’s Case,” which has so many echoes in Hart’s book that it seems likely that at some point he read it and absorbed it. “Paul’s Case” is the Act One he might have written had he wanted to succumb to his depression. It tells of a lonely, opera-loving high-school student in Pittsburgh whose only joy is working nights as an usher at that city’s Carnegie Hall and whose only friend is a young actor at a local stock company. Paul’s nocturnal love affair with the opera and the theater, Cather writes, was his “fairy tale, and it had for him all the allurement of a secret love.” When, after work, he stands before the glittering hotel that houses “all the actors and singers,” he wonders whether he’s “destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it.” And so Paul steals some cash and runs away to New York, where he sets out on what can only be described as a Moss Hart binge: He shops for a flashy new wardrobe, buys a scarf pin at Tiffany’s, secures a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, and falls in with a Yale undergrad, “a wild San Francisco boy,” with whom he stays out until dawn. Paul is psychologically fragile (“his eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy”) and, like Cather, he may well be gay (“there was something about the boy which none of them understood”), but in any case he is doomed. Even a writer as farsighted as Cather could see no way out for her lost boy in a story first published in McClure’s magazine the year after Moss was born.

It’s a long way from “Paul’s Case” to a contemporary coming-of-age tale like Better Nate Than Ever, in which a probably gay eighth-grade theater geek runs away from Pittsburgh to Broadway and finds that there is a place he can feel at home after all. That’s a cultural sea change that has played out in America over a century. As a large new audience of theatergoers and readers may soon discover, the rocky road between then and now was never illuminated with greater sympathy or at greater cost than by Moss Hart, both by how he lived his life and how he chose to tell his story in the radiant pages of Act One.


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