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BOOK REVIEW ROUNDUP: A Ship Without a Sail and Two More Page-Turners

Reports on the new biography of Lorenz Hart, plus Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters and Showbiz: A Novel.

By New York City
The opening passages of Gary Marmorstein's new biography of Lorenz Hart, A Ship Without A Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster) read like a murder mystery, with executors and beneficiaries gathering in a sepulchral bank to read the late lyricist's last will and testament. While no one is guilty of killing Hart but Hart -- who died at 48 after a lifetime of alcoholism -- this does not stop Marmorstein from speculating about the will and its fidelity to Hart's true intentions, a recurring theme throughout this exhaustively-researched and thoroughly-enjoyable book.

Hart's arrival on the musical scene definitely marked a turning-point for American songwriting. Along with his writing partner of over 25 years, the late Richard Rodgers, he helped craft some of the most enduring entries in the Great American Songbook, including "Blue Moon, "The Lady is a Tramp," and "My Funny Valentine."

Yet despite such professional success and acclaim, Hart led a deeply-troubling personal life, in part because he was a closeted homosexual. In addition, Hart was denied entry into the U.S. Military during World War I (arguably the defining conflict of his generation) on account of his height (5'0").

His diminutive stature, perceived unattractiveness, and secretive lifestyle have often been attributed as the source of his most intimately romantic, yet devastatingly heartbreaking lyrics and Marmorstein does not resist this connection, speculating as much as he can about Hart's love life without straining credulity.

Still, Marmorstein deftly balances these sensational personal details with a shrewd analysis of Hart's canon of work, with Marmorstein often interjecting to explicate an important cultural phenomenon or historical event. The result is a vivid look into the special age of American entertainment in which Rodgers and Hart thrived.

Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters (Skyhorse Publishing) is an exhaustive collection of the late actor's correspondence starting from his schoolboy days in 1912 all the way up through 1999, the year before his death. The early letters are often addressed to his beloved mother, but the reader is introduced to an ever-expanding cast of characters as the author becomes older and his life richer.

Gielgud is a witty and occasionally acerbic writer with a keen sense of his craft, a subject that is always at the center of his thoughts. Indeed, the first 200 pages are dominated by theatrical shop-talk -- who is playing what, the problems with the house, the evening's take. It is an enlightening read for students of historical producing, but likely a bit dull for anyone else.

If you can make it past the war years however, Gielgud's letters become far racier. One gets the impression that he had a sexual renaissance in mid-life, or at least became more brazen about committing his exploits to ink. (Reading about Gielgud's time cruising the beaches of Italy for sex is a real treat!) Moreover, through that brazenness the reader is introduced to the secretive world of globe-trotting gay men pre-Stonewall, a complicated network of friendships (often with benefits) and open, transnational relationships.

There are dark aspects to this world as well: Gielgud and his friends are repeatedly subject to blackmail and threats of exposure, a fact that the author is inexplicably all-too-ready to write about to his pen-pals; this is certainly a testament to the faith he had in his companions (not to mention the fidelity of the Royal Mail). It all makes for a remarkably candid and occasionally thrilling read in the later chapters.

For his part, Editor Richard Mangan takes a hands-off approach, preferring to let Gielgud tell his story for himself, only occasionally butting-in to place a bolded road marker in the subject's career. Still, one is left wanting more in the way of context for these fascinating letters.

Author Ruby Preston (the pen name of an alleged real-life "young Broadway producer" who wishes to remain anonymous) opens her Broadway thriller Showbiz, A Novel (Dress Circle Publishing) with news reports that Ken Kanter, chief theater critic for the New York Banner was found dead in his townhouse an apparent suicide. What follows in this light and engaging page-turner is no less fantastical than the idea of a millionaire theater critic -- but certainly just as entertaining.

Preston introduces us to young associate producer Scarlett Savoy, ruled over by her boss Margolies, a David Merrick-esque "King of Broadway." Margolies is on the cusp of opening his greatest project to date, the $50 million spectacular Olympus and he needs all the good press he can get.

Meanwhile, Scarlett falls for an up-and-coming gossip columnist, Reilly Mitchell, who is hot on the trail of the story of his career, a bribery scandal involving cash for good reviews that threatens to shake the industry to its core. Everyone gets swept up in the fever pitch of backstage drama as careers, reputations, and lives are put on the line.

Preston wisely chooses to tell her story in an alternating limited third person narrative (think A Song of Ice and Fire), allowing her readers to really get into the heads of her larger-than-life characters. It also maintains the "fog-of-war" in this Broadway cloak-and-dagger, adding to the suspense for the reader. Indeed, Showbiz, A Novel is a fun and quick read, ideally suited for the end of summer, and will have you dreaming of Broadway, even if you're miles and miles away.


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