March 9, 2010


by Moss Hart

456 pages, St. Martin's Griffin
Review by Maria Bustillos

The relative oldsters among us may recall that Mr. Hart was married to Kitty Carlisle, the star of “What's My Line” and other bizarre 60s TV shows. This rare and wonderful book is dedicated to her, “the book that she asked for.”

Mr. Hart confines this hefty work to the very first chapter of his illustrious career, and it reads more like an Indiana Jones cliffhanger than it does a stage autobiography. Living in abject poverty in Brooklyn with his family, he struggles manfully through play after rejected play; supporting them all by working as a stage manager in summer Catskills resorts of the kind depicted in (yuck!) Brighton Beach Memoirs. Mr. Hart evokes this world with painterly vividness. An exhausted producer suggests to him that he might try his hand at comedy (something that hasn't yet occurred to the twentysomething Hart, so enamored is he of the Theatre and Ibsen and Shaw and stuff like that.) Next thing you know, he is sitting at the feet of his hero, George S. Kaufman, hobnobbing with the likes of Harpo Marx, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. His chance at The Big Time has arrived: a collaboration with Kaufman. But there is a serious snag ...

They made a movie of this with George Hamilton in the lead role; I haven’t seen it, but I can’t imagine that Hamilton was the right guy, because it would take someone whose soul is starving and blazing at the same time, and surely Hamilton has spent his whole life in a glossily handsome and laid-back state(?) So, here is another wonderful book crying out for a new movie version.

Hart may have been more famous as a playwright than as the author of this book, but his prose is simply divine, sparkling, so full of energy and wit; as a memoirist he is perfect, too; his candor is engaging but not too much; he is modest about his triumphs, but not too modest; he whines just the right amount when things go wrong. He becomes your friend, confides in you, and shares the most exciting rags-to-riches story I think I've ever read.

Recent biographies have reported that Hart was gay, and unhappily so; he spent many years in therapy struggling with his homosexuality. These revelations add a terrible poignancy to Act One. You can sense a lot of depths in this troubled man that remain unplumbed in the book, but the way he’s chosen to tell his own story speaks to so many interesting questions of personality; what we can and cannot choose to be. It's a very noble work, written by a great-spirited and troubled man.

I shan't give any more away. I hardly remembered to breathe during the last hundred pages. One of the best things about this book is that an awful lot of people agreed with me about how great it is when it was first published in 1959. It came out in a huge book club edition, and I think every thrift store in the US must have at least two copies.

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