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Lives in the Theater

Charles Wright enjoys new books about Kim Stanley, Eileen Heckart, and Moss Hart. logo
At a time when mainstream publishers have all but abandoned theater topics as uneconomical, Mark Glubke of Back Stage Books is stuffing the beach bags of stage aficionados with summertime treats and curiosities. Only an editor with an eye glued to the long shot would gamble on Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley by Jon Krampner (382pp, $24.95), Just Outside the Spotlight: Growing Up with Eileen Heckart by her son, Luke Yankee (320pp, $24.95) and Jared Brown's Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (442 pp, $27.95). These new volumes are a reminder that, just as publishing once was a more adventuresome business, Broadway used to support a larger community of artists who could count on making a living -- and sometimes a killing -- on the Main Stem.

The stage career of Stanley, who died in 2001, was relatively brief and fraught with bad luck, but Stanley was a darling of Broadway critics throughout the 1950s. She created the role of the "chantoosie" Cherie in William Inge's Bus Stop and played Maggie in the London premiere of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Stanley was a member of The Actors Studio and a protégée of Lee Strasberg, though late in life she repudiated his influence. A deeply reflective actress, she lived in fear that, during the run of a play, her characterization would go stale. As a result, she seldom if ever gave the same performance twice.

Her off-stage saga is a cautionary cocktail of booze, pills, and neurosis that could have been mixed by Jacqueline Susann. In middle age, Stanley gave up the stage and became increasingly reclusive, though she appeared sporadically on television and in movies to pay the bills. Those who remember her offer tantalizing accounts of her psychologically detailed performances. Forty-two years after her final appearance on a New York stage, as Masha in Strasberg's production of The Three Sisters, she remains a cherished example of that great cliché, the "actor's actor."

Krampner, the author of a biography of television producer Fred Coe, researched Stanley and her professional life for more than four years. He has smoked out facts that contradict the fictions she disseminated about her origins and her early career. Female Brando is filled with interesting information, much of it horribly sad. Although Krampner's odds and ends of data don't add up to a cohesive portrait, the book is important for its first-hand descriptions of this extraordinary actress by peers who understood her gifts and her value.

In the original production of Picnic (1953), Stanley shared the stage with Heckart, an Ohio native six years her senior. Heckart's gravelly voice and tough-broad demeanor ran counter, in an arresting way, to her lady-next-door looks. She played the distraught mom of a murdered schoolboy in The Bad Seed on stage and screen; the steely, domineering Mrs. Baker in the Broadway and movie versions of Butterflies Are Free (for which she won an Academy Award); and Aunt Flo on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

By the 1960s, Heckart's face -- not to mention that voice -- had become integral to American pop culture. If Stanley was a mythic mess, Heckie (as she was known in the theater community) was the consummate professional. She won the prizes that eluded Stanley -- not only an Oscar but also the Tony, Drama Desk, Emmy, and Golden Globe awards.

Yankee is a performer and director; among his credits, he directed his mother in Driving Miss Daisy late in her career. This memoir evolved from a one-man show that he put together after her death and continues to perform in various venues. The material would have benefited from a stronger editorial hand or, perhaps, a ghostwriter to steer Yankee clear of grammatical errors, infelicities of diction, and malapropisms. But let's not quibble. A natural raconteur, Yankee moves from anecdote to anecdote with a narrative energy that many smoother stylists will envy. He's adept at vivid character sketches: Marlene Dietrich lecturing Heckie on how to behave like a star; Ethel Merman teaching the author, age 10, to mix a martini; and so on.

What's best, though, is his depiction of his domestic life. For 53 years, Heckart was married to an insurance executive who had been her college sweetheart. Yankee brings verisimilitude to his account of their family circle; it's a contented scene, with recognizable ups and downs. Most touching, perhaps, is the author's account of his parents and two brothers coming to terms with the news that he's gay and, finally, inviting his long-term partner into the clan. In the end, Just Outside the Spotlight is more noteworthy as family memoir than as celebrity biography -- but it succeeds as both.

Moss Hart -- dramatist, director, producer, and play doctor -- was still going strong when Heckart and Stanley began working on Broadway. His career included a Pulitzer Prize for You Can't Take It with You (written with George S. Kaufman), an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of Gentleman's Agreement (based on a novel by Laura Z. Hobson), and a Tony for directing My Fair Lady. He also wrote Lady in the Dark, a play with musical sequences (by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin) about its heroine's successful psychoanalysis. Hart was almost as famous for his own analysis as for his plays; it was widely known among his contemporaries in the theater that he struggled with depression and sometimes visited his psychoanalyst twice a day.

In 2001 (almost 40 years after his death), Hart became the subject of one of the finest theater biographies of the past decade, Steven Bach's Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart. Bach reportedly antagonized Hart's widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and their two children by pursuing the long-lurking rumor that Hart's romantic attachments included men as well as women. Dazzler includes spicy insight from Bach's interview with a man who ostensibly shared Hart's pre-Carlisle domestic life and who later, as a psychoanalyst, treated a largely gay clientele.

Jared Brown's new profile, Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre, seems supererogatory so soon after Bach's book; but it's well done, if hardly on a par with Dazzler, and therefore welcome. As for the question of Hart's sexual appetites, Brown acknowledges the persistent rumors but circumnavigates the issue, skirting most of the evidence that Bach marshaled. Bach's perspective is more historical than Brown's; Brown's thrust is more literary-critical than Bach's. Brown, who previously wrote admirable biographies of Zero Mostel and the Lunts, aims to establish Hart's place in the distinguished tradition of American humor. "All too often," Brown laments, "theatrical historians have dismissed American playwrights who have primarily written comedies and farces as insignificant, trivial, mere commercial hacks." For Moss Hart, this new biography should go a long way toward righting that imbalance.

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