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Good Times and Bum Times

Charles Wright assesses All in Good Time, a new memoir by the popular radio personality Jonathan Schwartz. logo
The radio personality, saloon singer, and sometime fiction writer Jonathan Schwartz is an acquired taste. On Saturdays and Sundays, from noon till four o'clock (ET), he holds court on New York's WNYC-FM, 93.9, and now nationwide via XM Satellite radio. Schwartz programs show tunes, jazz, blues, classical pieces, and a little rock as he ruminates about whatever comes to mind. In a masculine purr that often dwindles to a raspy murmur, he talks about musicians (especially his father, the composer Arthur Schwartz, and his hero, Frank Sinatra); goings on around New York (he's ecstatic over the revival of Wonderful Town, a favorite musical of his ever since, at age 15, he attended its 1953 premiere); whatever he has been reading (in 2000, he talked for weeks about a New York Times Magazine cover story marking Stephen Sondheim's 70th birthday); and baseball (he's a Boston Red Sox fanatic).

Schwartz is grating when he natters and comical when he mispronounces words. His digressions, which can be perplexing, sometimes get in the way of the music. But with prolonged exposure to his weekly radio franchises -- The Saturday Show, The Sunday Show, and Sinatra on Sunday -- a listener is likely to find this celebrity disc jockey's eccentricities endearing. What's important is Schwartz's musical taste, which is at once impeccable and catholic. He spins the best of the past and the most promising of the new, placing what he plays in historical context with a combination of humor and high seriousness. His earnest radio persona has an air of extemporaneity but his manner implies that what he's saying is terribly important. Many, perhaps most, of his regular listeners will agree that what Schwartz says is important because he's the flame-keeper -- or, better, the "recording secretary" -- of that precious legacy, the great American songbook.

Just published is Schwartz's All in Good Time: A Memoir (Random House, 290 pages, $24.95), which concerns, among other things, his life-long attraction to radio and the sense of identity it has accorded him. By age 11, he was broadcasting via a contraption called the Electronic Baby-Sitter -- an early form of infant monitor -- to the receivers in his family's Upper East Side apartment building. If All in Good Time can be believed, Schwartz's on-air style -- personable, rambling, and confessional -- was already intact when, at 20, he made his professional debut on New York's progressive WBAI-FM. "I felt then, and I still do, far more comfortable making stories up as I go along," writes Schwartz. During his first professional broadcast, he told an unhurried yarn, reminiscent of Salinger, about mailing a letter to a girl at Bennington. (It was his childhood friend Lucy Simon, daughter of publisher Richard L. Simon of Simon and Schuster and older sister of Carly.)

"I read and reread the letter any number of times until I was satisfied that it eloquently expressed my deepest feelings about Lucy being away," Schwartz told his listeners. He mailed the letter late on a snowy night, walked home and then, hours later, got out of bed to reread a carbon copy of what he had sent. To his dismay, he spied a misspelling -- "lonly" instead of "lonely," the most important word in the document. Fueled by post-adolescent angst, his imagination ran riot: "Lucy would show that letter around Bennington. 'You see the word "lonely?" Ha ha. You'd think he'd know better.'"

The story, as reconstructed by Schwartz in All in Good Time, wends its way unhurriedly toward a climax: Despite blizzard conditions, he returned to the mailbox to await the morning's first collection in hopes of recovering the letter. He loitered there a couple of hours before a postman appeared and refused to give him the envelope. Schwartz proceeded to the post office that had jurisdiction over the box, where he waited for the mailman to arrive with the bag containing the letter to Lucy. When the postman arrived, Schwartz discovered that the man in charge of the branch was equally adamant about not returning the letter.

"I told him that I could identify everything in the letter, that it was a love letter that I'd had second thoughts about, and that he...was welcome to open the letter and read it for himself....I showed him my Social Security card and a check to me, signed by the composer Arthur Schwartz. 'Do you know the song "Dancing in the Dark"?' I asked. 'My father, the man who signed this check, wrote that song.'


"'Look, we are honest people. I'm a good young man who has made a mistake....Open it! Read it!'"

Eventually, the clerk did open the letter. "I know he would have done it only during a blizzard," Schwartz recounts. The postal clerk "kept reading. Then he looked up at me. 'You misspelled "lonely."' He gave the letter back to Schwartz, who winds up the story this way: "I shoved my father's check to [the clerk] under the bars as a gift. He wouldn't take it. He told me there'd be no next time. I believed him, you know."

This is echt Schwartz -- tangential, unhurried, concluding with a dying fall. It's a theatrical performance that casts Schwartz as awkward but unabashed and comfortable with his neurotic ticks. The conceit is that, despite his multitude of auditors, Schwartz's talk is confidential, brave, unchecked by any internal editorial mechanism. All in Good Time is filled with tales like the ones he tells on-air, seemingly off-the-cuff yet beautifully structured and, at times, so cringe-inducing that the reader suspects he thrives on public confession. There's the one about his capitulation, at 17, to the predatory blandishments of an older man, a clerk in a music shop, in exchange for 50 brand-new record albums. (This account ends with Schwartz, whose autobiography includes no other same-sex encounters, slinking home in remorse but first pausing to discard one of the albums in a street-corner garbage can -- perhaps because it was titled The Boyfriend.) Elsewhere in the book, there are anecdotes about catastrophic consequences of drinking binges (Schwartz eventually spent four weeks in rehab at the Betty Ford Center) and others concerning uneasy affairs with women who were considerably older, married, or otherwise inappropriate.

Schwartz was reared in privilege by neglectful though not unloving parents. His father, a gifted melodist, wrote songs that have become standards of popular music, such as "Alone Together," "You and the Night and the Music," and "Haunted Heart." Arthur Schwartz also collaborated with Howard Dietz on scores for a number of successful revues, including Three's a Crowd and The Band Wagon. By the time Jonathan came along, Arthur's glory days on Broadway were past; for much of the son's childhood, the father worked as a movie producer, pining for another crack at the Rialto. Jonathan's mother was hypertense and in fragile health. When she died, Arthur married the woman with whom he had been having an affair. As a stepmother, she was worthy of the Brothers Grimm, belittling Jonathan and doing all in her power to sour the relationship between father and son.

The author recalls himself as a "furious little boy," constantly in the care of maids and sitters. Disregarded by his parents, he "acted out" by sneaking into other families' homes in Beverly Hills, where his family lived for several during his developmental years. In strangers' houses, he hid for hours at a time and engaged in a sort of weird, asexual voyeurism, observing domestic routines and rituals while puzzling over the mysteries of his own family's dynamics. Schwartz addressed the emotional chaos of his situation by organizing obsessively the material world around him -- maintaining his cherished record collection, for instance, in perfect order and exact alignment. He also swiped liquor from his parents' cabinets, finding frequent comfort therein even as a prepubescent.

Jonathan Schwartz
All in Good Time chronicles the emergence of FM radio, which coincided with the beginning of Schwartz's career, as well as significant episodes of theater and Hollywood history that he has witnessed. A sparkling stream of famous personalities runs through the story -- Richard Rodgers (Jonathan's godfather), Ira Gershwin, "Yip" Harburg, Harold Arlen, Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Harry Cohn, Judy Garland, Bennett Cerf, George S. Kaufman, Danny Kaye, Jackie Robinson, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alan J. Lerner, Charles Jackson, Joe Raposo, and so on. But Schwartz's focus is always on his own emotional development and disintegration. His progression from troubled childhood to troubled adolescence and troubled adulthood is reconstructed -- sometimes seemingly relived -- with verisimilitude and emotional precision. To conjure his sense of distance or alienation from the rest of the world, Schwartz frequently writes about himself in the third person and occasionally in the second, and he also uses the passive voice. He's as adept as any American memoirist in recent memory at capturing disappointment, depression, even suicidal desperation in lean, moody prose.

It's hard to imagine why, in a fairly brief book, Schwartz hauls particular skeletons out of his cluttered psychological closet. His recollection of waking in a remote stretch of desert after a whopping bender, face down in his own vomit and with his lower quarters bathed in excrement, is a particularly noisome scene that another writer might have reserved for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. But in the section about his stay at the Betty Ford Center, Schwartz makes clear that, while he respects AA as an institution, he has no personal use for it. Ultimately, his reasons for including the incidents he does are irrelevant; his atmospheric writing, the universality of much of his account, and the skillful way in which he assembles particular episodes that resonate with each other and contribute to his thematic purpose ensure that All in Good Time is more than a public confession. Despite being unrelentingly dire, the book is never whiny or concertedly self-justifying. It's about survival, redemption, and defying obstacles.

For Schwartz, the damaged child, salvation has come in many forms: the discipline of writing; a little time in therapy; that visit to Betty Ford (despite his ambivalence about it); relationships with supportive women (especially his ex-wife and friend, Marie Brenner, and his wife Elinor Renfield). Of course, there's also the inspiration of his aesthetic hero, Frank Sinatra. As Schwartz's radio listeners know, Frank is a significant motif in Schwartz's life. Schwartz has been a devotee since hearing "Birth of the Blues" on a jukebox in the mid-1950s. His familiarity with Sinatra's biography and achievements is encyclopedic and he has promoted the singer's work on the air waves throughout his radio career, from WBAI to WNEW, WQEW, and now at WNYC. Schwartz treasures Sinatra as an ideal of talent, originality, and style -- and, in his own phrase, as a "father figure." Against all odds, Schwartz has managed to keep Ol' Blue Eyes on a pedestal.

He had met Sinatra earlier but was really introduced into the orbit of the Chairman of the Board in the 1970s by an old friend of Arthur's: the songwriter James Van Heusen, who wrote a number of hit songs for Sinatra and also served frequently as his procurer. The portrait of Sinatra in All in Good Time is consistent with the descriptions of the singer's volatility and gaucherie in Kitty Kelley's unauthorized biography His Way and the recently published Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra by George Jacobs (Sinatra's one-time valet) and William Stadiem. But, because Schwartz has never overcome his awe of Sinatra the artist, his novelistic gifts fail him in this section of the book and his characterization is perfunctory. Schwartz alludes to but plays down the incident that caused him to become persona non grata in Sinatra's circle: In 1980, he played cuts from Trilogy on the air before the album's release date and voiced critical reservations about the third record of the set. Sinatra was infuriated and his complaints to WNEW-AM management resulted in Schwartz being retired to the bench for a time.

All in Good Time is an admirable, compelling recollection of bad times and the agonies of being human. It's a testament to how little comfort is to be had from glamour and privilege on their own. Also, it's a tribute to the things that, for the author, make bad times tolerable: the genius of a Sinatra or a Nancy LaMott, the excitement of baseball, etc. Any reader who's part of Schwartz's radio constituency is bound to feel that the anecdotes in the book cry out for the disc jockey's low-key yet highly dramatic delivery; there's no question that his vocal flair would enhance the "payoff" in every instance. Still, All in Good Time stands on its own as an emotionally engaging portrait of a man with a haunted heart.

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