Last Dance

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 personally interviewed an astonishing roster of informants: Yip Harburg, Burton Lane, Harold Arlen, Arthur Schwartz, Comden and Green, Stephen Sondheim, et al. Although piano-playing didn’t come easy to him, Sheed owned the sheet music for innumerable standards, had worked his way through them, and seems to have known scores, if not hundreds, by heart. It is our good luck that he lived long and strong enough to complete what he called “my contribution to the great bull session in the sky.”

The story he tells takes place mostly in New York and Hollywood—despite obligatory references to New Orleans, the Mississippi, etc.—in the first half of the twentieth century. Its two great heroes are Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, but Sheed is thorough—strategically systematic and tactically digressive—so that House is a model of inclusiveness.

Sheed was a consummate professional writer: novels, memoirs, essays, reviews, criticism. He could do it all (see “Readers Will Always Be Grateful: Remembering Wilfrid Sheed,” by Peter Steinfels and Daniel Callahan, February 25, 2011). He demonstrates his mastery in House by accomplishing a difficult design that required him to merge individual biography, sociocultural history, and evocation of particular songs so that fifty years of American music become a single coherent narrative. The transition from stereotyped and unsyncopated turn-of-the-century operettas to the jazzy Broadway musicals of the twenties and thirties, for instance, he personifies in the reluctant creative odyssey of Jerome Kern and such songs as “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Lovely to Look At,” and “All the Things You Are.” So averse was Kern to all things jazzy that Fred Astaire found his original score for Swing Time undanceable, “No syncopation at all.” But once Fred and Dorothy Fields had exerted their influence, Kern produced things as danceable as “Pick Yourself Up.” Watch Fred and Ginger dance it. See if you smile.

According to Sheed, Irving Berlin’s role in twentieth-century American music approximates that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in twentieth-century Turkey. Composer, lyricist, publisher, exemplar, mentor, friend, inspiration, he is said to have produced some three thousand songs. This big-hearted, peppy little fellow who played piano as badly, apparently, as Sheed, looms as large in these pages as do “God Bless America” and “White Christmas” in the annals of American popular song.

But Sheed’s heart belongs to George Gershwin. Pianist, song-plugger, golfer, tennis player, womanizer, partygoer, Gershwin had almost manic energy and winning sociability, which seemed elementally linked to his genius. His person and his music had the same inspiriting effect on people, and Sheed was no exception. “You can subtract any other great name from the story, and it would be basically the same story. Without Gershwin, or his godfather, Irving Berlin, it would be unrecognizably different.” 

In almost every case Sheed illuminates a connection between the songwriter’s life story and temperament and the sort of music he creates. Hoagy Carmichael was, like many Americans, a divided soul, part nomad and part homebody, who seemed a little bit at home everywhere, but was probably more so someplace else, if he could just find it. In fact, you’ll still see him on Greyhound buses, either hoping to change his luck in the next county or heading back after failing to. Yes, one might add, and Georgia seemed definitely on his mind.

The depth of Sheed’s grasp of his subject is conspicuous throughout House. Of Harold Arlen’s collaborators, he writes that Yip Harburg (“It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Over the Rainbow”) “was the most literary,” Johnny Mercer (“Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine”) “was the flashiest and most with it,” whereas Ted Kohler (“Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love”) “wrote closest to the gut, to the essence of Arlen.”

In Sheed’s view of songwriting, composers supply the genius, and lyricists are sort of there to help. He argues his case strongly. “If there had been no George, the odds seem good that [his lyricist brother] Ira would have become an English teacher with a sideline in light verse.” To those who esteem the great lyricists, there’s a daunting plausibility to this caustic judgment, but it may say more about Ira’s personality than his work. The feisty Johnny Mercer clung to no particular composer’s coattails, and Arlen, one supposes, wouldn’t have wanted to do without Johnny’s contribution to “That Old Black Magic.”

Sheed’s preference is for songs he deems discernibly American: jazzy, syncopated tunes that sound as unlike Sigmund Romberg and Rudolph Friml as possible. Cole Porter’s sensational success is said to have begun after he announced his intent to write “Jewish music.” Sheed explains this to mean “jazzy, bluesy songs; minor keys and innate melancholy.” In his view as long as Richard Rodgers was working with Lorenz (“Larry”) Hart, things were fine. Hart’s sardonic bite expelled sentimentality, and his rhythmic, swinging lyrics conduced to jazzy arrangements. Even a waltz like “Falling in Love with Love,” which one could readily imagine hearing in an operetta, has often been made to swing.

But Sheed views Oscar Hammerstein’s influence with a jaundiced eye. While respecting the craftsmanship, Sheed can’t forgive Hammerstein’s schmaltzy backward longing for the stale confections of European operetta. He hasn’t much good to say about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s renowned musicals, which he dismisses as “kitsch, and hardly art at all,” and toward Rodgers himself Sheed exhibits an unexplained and mean-spirited animus completely absent in the rest of the book. He describes Rodgers and his family as “ridiculous” and “rotten,” and suggests that Rodgers’s wife, Dorothy, was “anorexic, constipated...a raging, capricious monster.” Rodgers himself was said to have been “boozed, tranquillized...permanently depressed, and half-stoned.” Sheed appears to blame Rodgers for Larry Hart’s death: “Dick ordered their respective box offices not to let him in. So Larry went outside to lie down in his gutter, acquiring pneumonia from which he never recovered.”

Sheed’s tepid appreciation of Rodgers and Hammerstein is the twilight of his tale, and he hasn’t much to say about the popular music of the past sixty years. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, et al., have innumerable articulate champions, and there’s no point discussing the book Sheed didn’t write. Many now follow Stephen Sondheim’s work with keen approval, but few walk out whistling his tunes.

Those of us whose consolation is in the stardust of a song seem to become fewer every day. So I propose yet one more toast to our incomparable spokesperson, Wilfrid Sheed. God rest his syncopated soul.

Related: A selection of Sheed's writing for Commonweal

Published in the 2011-12-02 issue: 

Barry Gault is a psychiatrist in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts.

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