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Where’s the Melody?

Meryle Secrest, who has chronicled the lives of Romaine Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Salvador Dalí, Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim, prefaces Somewhere for Me, her biography of Richard Rodgers, with a statement of her current modus operandi:

After more than two decades of writing biographies my interest in the genre is as vivid as ever, but my approach increasingly selective. I am looking for the pertinent fact, one that will open up unsuspected insights. In my mind’s eye I am walking over a beach covered with millions of pebbles, looking for those few remarkable stones that will begin to form a design. What makes the work even more exasperating is that I do not know what the pebble looks like until I have found it.

Sondheim handed Secrest the pebble that distinguished her last book by himself disclosing his homosexuality to her. In gratitude, the author handled this disclosure as gingerly as she would an envelope emitting white powder. This time out, the pebble was provided by the late Rodgers’ two daughters, Mary Rodgers Guettel and Linda Rodgers Emory. According to them, their father, beneath his public mask of rectitude, was a mean-spirited, philandering alcoholic, capable of expressing tenderness only in his music. This revelation alone makes Secrest’s work more valuable than William G. Hyland’s deadly 1998 Richard Rodgers, a biography drawn almost entirely from previously published material, which reads like a student research paper. The problem with Secrest’s book is that she encases her pebble in silt—recycled theatrical anecdotes, inconsequential details, and glib psychoanalysis.

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Although Secrest presumably chose to write about Rodgers because he was one of the most resourceful and resilient creators of American theater music, she has surprisingly little to say about his work. When commenting on individual songs, she generally focuses on the lyrics supplied by Rodgers’ major collaborators, the brilliant, tormented Lorenz Hart and the optimistic, sentimental Oscar Hammerstein II. In those infrequent instances when she feels compelled to include some discussion of Rodgers’ music, she patches in cryptic excerpts from Alec Wilder’s 1972 American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950. (Although Wilder’s book was influential, reviving interest in pre-rock songwriters at a time when their work had gone out of favor, it’s a fragmented, highly subjective, sometimes inscrutable study, cobbled together from tapes made of Wilder’s offhand responses as he listened to the works of leading composers.)

When Secrest dares to analyze Rodgers’ songs in her own voice, her observations are unenlightening and often wrongheaded. (She perplexingly characterizes “You Are Too Beautiful” as “a song that insinuates itself on the ear rather than immediately engages it.” Huh?) In the book’s final chapter, she includes a list of some of Rodgers’ best-known songs: “The Blue Room,” “Little Girl Blue,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Where or When,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Falling in Love With Love,” “My Heart Stood Still,” “People Will Say We’re in Love.” She then observes, “Such songs could be described as the aural equivalent of Norman Rockwell’s art.” That’s true of some of the titles she cites, but hardly “Little Girl Blue,” a portrait of abject melancholy, and surely not “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” a celebration of

carnal abandon (“Vexed again/Perplexed again/Thank God I can be oversexed again”).

Filling space that might better have been devoted to anatomizing Rodgers’ art, Secrest walks us through his life and career—a journey already taken by David Ewen’s Richard Rodgers (1957); the composer’s autobiography, Musical Stages (1975); and Hyland’s biography. Born in 1902, the son of a physician, Rodgers joined forces in 1919 with lyricist Hart, seven years his senior, and that same year, their first song, the sprightly “Any Old Place With You,” was performed on Broadway. After scoring successes in New York and London, in 1930 Rodgers married Dorothy Feiner, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family. His collaboration with Hart, complicated by the lyricist’s increasing dependency on alcohol and consequent unreliability, reached its apogee with 1940’s Pal Joey. Shortly thereafter, Rodgers began writing with Hammerstein—a partnership that produced a string of hit musical plays, notably Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Following Hammerstein’s death in 1960, Rodgers tried his hand at writing his own lyrics for No Strings, then worked with other lyricists on four unsuccessful shows. Having survived alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, cancer, a stroke, and a heart attack, he died, of undetermined causes, in 1979.

Secrest doggedly slogs through Rodgers’ Broadway musicals and film and television scores without casting any fresh light on these productions. All that leavens the torpor are brief reflections by his collaborators, including actors Theodore Bikel and Barbara Cook, lyricists Sheldon Harnick and Martin Charnin, and producer Alexander Cohen. Most of Secrest’s energies are devoted to investigating the composer’s private life, piling up testimonies about his contradictory psyche. Some witnesses describe him as remote, dour, and cruel. (Librettist Peter Stone admits, “I could never figure him out. The image I always had was, how could beauty come out of this morass of anger?”) Others pay tribute to his intelligence, professionalism, sense of humor, and generosity. (He supported the then-impoverished soprano Shirley Verrett through Juilliard, paying her housing and wardrobe expenses, until she established herself as an opera star.) Secrest’s cursory explanation of Rodgers’ complexity—he grew up in a home filled with angry silences—fails to integrate the composer’s many facets into a coherent psychological profile.

Secrest’s writing style is less than compelling. She sprinkles her largely utilitarian prose with what she takes to be genteel flourishes. (“Sympathique” and “eschew” decorate her opening pages.) At times, she weaves fantasies about her subjects (“Rodgers must have been just a little bit chagrined as he sat in New York with his wife, now eight months pregnant, and imagined some of the parties with dear Bea, dear Gertie, dear Noël, and dear Prince George”). At one point, she even casts Richard and Dorothy Rodgers as Nick and Nora Charles in a remake of The Thin Man (“For the most part, one imagines her, like Myrna Loy, greeting guests at the door in another amazing hostess gown, taking telephone messages with matter-of-fact aplomb, the receiver held slightly away from the ear, and passing out martinis with a practiced hand”).

Relegated to a supporting role in this workmanlike tome is a person who engages Secrest’s interest far more than her subject. The author connects with Dorothy Feiner Rodgers on a more profound level than with her celebrated husband, lovingly cataloguing her expensive wedding gifts and meticulously detailing the furnishings of the homes and apartments she decorated. (One can almost hear the writer smacking her lips over Dorothy Rodgers’ ritzy lace-trimmed silk lingerie, which had to be hand-pleated with every washing: “Since American laundries would not perform this time-consuming work, Dorothy Feiner would take her dirty underwear to France on each transatlantic trip to be painstaking repleated.”) Dorothy Rodgers responded to her husband’s ill-concealed dalliances with actresses and chorus girls by transforming herself into a compulsively perfectionist homemaker and hostess, the Martha Stewart of her era. She opened a successful business called Repairs, Inc., dedicated to reconditioning damaged homes and apartments, and invented, among other things, the Jonny-Mop, a disposable implement for cleaning toilets; a universal, reusable dress pattern; and a wristband refrigerant for keeping cool. She parlayed her flair for stylish interior design and sumptuous meals into influential books, notably My Favorite Things (1964) and A Personal Book (1977).

Dorothy Rodgers’ determination to become a peerless upscale domestic engineer appears to have been her oblique revenge for her husband’s humiliating infidelities. (She also suffered from chronic illnesses, some perhaps psychosomatic, throughout their marriage.) Although her husband professed his devotion to her, he pursued other women until his failing health betrayed him. Guettel says of her parents’ relationship, “When he got over admiring how pretty she was and all of her various talents, he must have found that he had fallen in love with a straitjacket.” Sondheim, who unhappily collaborated with Rodgers on one of his last shows, is even more blunt, commenting on her homophobia: “Dorothy Rodgers is one of the real monsters of the world. And unlike my mother you can’t tell funny stories about her. My mother was crazy. I don’t think Dorothy was crazy. I think she was genuinely an awful person.”

Given Secrest’s evident indifference to music and theater, she would have been wiser to have written about this imperious, embittered woman. Their shared fondness for luxury and aspirations to refinement could have yielded a more intriguing book than this far-from-definitive biography, which fails to capture or comprehend the grandeur of its subject’s art. CP