A Hart-Earned Lesson
Deprived of royalties from his uncle's body of work, Lorenz Hart's nephew says: ''Show me the money!''
Hart II is the nephew of Lorenz Hart, who, with Richard Rodgers, wrote lyrics to so many landmark '20s,' 30s, and '40s musicals. His father was Teddy Hart, an actor who appeared in the original casts of such '30s smashes as Three Men on a Horse, Room Service, and The Boys from Syracuse--the last of which his brother Lorenz wrote the lyrics for. Like his daddy and uncle, Hart II is a diminutive man, 5'4", and he's had a great love for musicals ever since his folks took him to Peter Pan (the Bernstein one). He started collecting most every Broadway cast album that was released and then he became a child actor, understudying the role of the son in A Hole in the Head on Broadway and taking over the part when that show went to Los Angeles..."where David Burns," he says of the Tony-winner from The Music Man and A Funny Thing Happened, "taught me the facts of life backstage."
Contrary to Irving Berlin's claim in regard to show business, everything about it has not been appealing for Hart II. He alleges that, because of his uncle's alcoholism and inability to make his own financial decisions, the Hart heirs have been denied a financial fortune. "We are no longer beneficiaries of the Hart estate," he says morosely. "We have no financial connection to the songs, and they're still used in so many movies and TV commercials." He estimates the value of the Hart estate to be about $8 million, with income in the $500,000-$700,000 range annually. But not for him.
The problem, Hart II says, is that there was a profound difference between the will that his uncle made in 1929 and the one he drafted shortly before his death in 1943. The former stipulated that Hart's mother and brother Teddy would be his beneficiaries. The latter suddenly appointed as executors Richard Rodgers and Willy Kron, the business manager Rodgers installed for Hart. (Kron managed Dorothy Rodgers finances, too.) According to Hart II, the new will not only gave the two functional control over the copyrights but also gave Kron's children and grandchildren a 30% share of principle and income in perpetuity. Teddy and his wife Dorothy received a 70% share--but only for their lifetimes. The remaining funds would go to the Jewish Federation of Charities (now the United Jewish Appeal), in which "Dorothy Rodgers was prominently active," Hart II says.
If there was a rift between the brothers that caused the change in the will, no one has ever said anything about it or written about it, alleges Hart II. "My uncle had dinner with my grandmother every Sunday right to the end," he says, "and my father would join them whenever he was in town." So Hart II thinks it pretty bizarre that the 1943 will anticipated heirs--pretty stock language in a will--for the Krons but not the Harts, especially since Lorenz Hart II was born shortly thereafter. He suspects that his famous uncle was inebriated when he made out the new will or that something funny happened in the interim, for the first and last pages of the document have his handwriting on them but the dozen pages in between do not.
Hart II also takes issue with Rodgers' claims in his autobiography Musical Stages that he and Kron went to great lengths to safeguard Lorenz Hart's money, scattering it in bonds and banks around New York City. The fruits of those supposedly altruistic and successful efforts were nowhere to be found when Hart died; his nephew says that his uncle's personal possessions had to be sold at auction to help pay for funeral expenses. Most significantly, he suspects that Rodgers actively suppressed the Rodgers & Hart canon during his celebrated collaboration with Hammerstein. He says that Rodgers neither encouraged Jule Styne to produce the Broadway revival of Pal Joey, nor was he enthusiastic about Styne's plans to produce a musical revue celebrating Rodgers and Hart.
He acknowledges that matters improved remarkably after Richard Rodgers' death, once Ted Chapin took the reigns at Rodgers & Hammerstein, for Chapin made a concerted effort to promote the works of Rodgers & Hart. Hart II is also happy with Mary Rodgers, whom he says he loves, and he's glad that the acrimony felt by the previous generation of Rodgers and Harts no longer exists. "But please, writers," he tells today's youngsters, "make your wills correctly and be absolutely sure as to what you're saying in them. I'd hate to see what happened to my family happen to anyone else."
All these years later, the will in question is probably beyond contest, but Hart II is still awaiting an accounting of the Lorenz Hart estate up to the time of his mother's death. He has been told that it is delayed because some documents are missing or were destroyed. What he now hopes is that his uncle's manuscripts can be returned to the family. More than anything else, he'd like to set up a Lorenz Hart Foundation to help budding lyricists; anyone who wishes to become involved in this project may e-mail [email protected] That way, Tim Acito, Sammy Buck, Michael C. Mitnick, Justin Murphy, John Thomas Oaks, and Brian Vinero just might have an easier time getting their shows produced.