The House That George Built
Random House, $11.95, 335 pp.
On October 24, 1937, Cole Porter was riding with Countess Edith di Zoppola and Duke de Verdura at the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, New York, when his horse stumbled, rolled over him, and crushed both his legs. He never had a day without pain thereafter. Sometimes he could ease the agony with alcohol or opioids, but he relied mainly on pride, will power, work, and company to see him through. Wilfrid Sheed, who served as Commonweal’s drama critic and book-review editor from 1964 to 1971 and who died of uremia last January, also had a leg problem, the result of childhood polio, and, as recounted in his lucid and engrossing 1995 memoir, In Love with Daylight, he too wrestled with booze and pills. Spunk, style, wit, guts, talent, and industry sustained both these prolific American artists. They often worked in the same vein: sassy diction, syncopated rhythm, mordant viewpoint, and a gestalt of being in the know.
The House That George Built, Sheed’s final book, was published in 2007, but was not reviewed in these pages. The editors have decided at long last to rectify that oversight. Deeply researched but breezy and readable, The House That George Built is the culmination of many years’ work, an unstinting celebration of the Great American Songbook by a lifelong enthusiast and connoisseur. Sheed read everything he could get on the subject and...