Ship Without a Sail: Book Reviews

Last week, Simon & Schuster released A Ship Without a Sail to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The new book from entertainment journalist Gary Marmorstein is being called the definitive biography of lyricist Lorenz Hart, the brilliant but troubled writing partner of composer Richard Rodgers, whose prolific collaboration lasted some 25 years, generating a groundwork of songs in the Great American Songbook as well as the landmark musical Pal Joey.

Dan Conway (Publishers Weekly): Journalist Marmorstein resists the temptation to psychoanalyze and instead explores Hart’s personality mainly through shrewd readings of his lyrics as they veer between “enthralling new romance and a lonely, unforgiving desolation.” He holds to a middle-distance perspective, organizing the narrative around lively accounts of Rodgers and Hart’s Broadway and Hollywood musical projects, with Hart’s self-destructive excesses surfacing in matter-of-fact vignettes amid the showbiz swirl. Along the way, he paints a vivid panorama of pre-WWII musical theater and the efflorescence of Jewish-American tune- and word-smithing that created it. Marmorstein’s take on his subject’s life feels like a Rodgers and Hart show, nicely balanced between exhilarating spectacle and pithy revelations of character.

John Fleming (Tampa Bay Times): Hart has his shining hour in a new biography by Gary Marmorstein. … It’s the absorbing story of a sparkling but tormented artist and a rich slice of show business history. … What most defines his portrait of this tragic figure is Hart’s alcoholism, which runs through the biography like a streak. It destroyed his relationship with Rodgers and finally killed him. A Ship Without a Sail quotes liberally from Hart’s lyrics, and Marmorstein’s analysis is always interesting and often revelatory. … Marmorstein’s exhaustive treatment of virtually every stage show and film with a score by Rodgers and Hart is both a valuable asset and an occasionally tedious shortfall. … Perhaps the best thing about this biography is that it makes you eager to hear the songs of Rodgers and Hart. In a “highly idiosyncratic” discography, Marmorstein supplies a selection of recordings that includes such delightful renditions as a lively duet of “The Lady Is a Tramp” by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

J.D. McClathy (Wall St. Journal): Gary Marmorstein’s new book easily supplants Frederick Nolan’s ardent but choppy 1994 biography. If he is a bit prolix at times, he knows the period and its players inside out and along the way offers wonderful cameos of many minor figures in the story, from the director George Abbott to the dancer Vera Zorina. More important, he brings to the task just the right precision instruments for dissecting Larry Hart – panache, sympathy and smarts. The very title of his book goes to the heart of the tortured story he tells so well.

Bruce R. Schueneman (Library Journal): In this readable and thorough book, Marmorstein explores Hart’s ultimately destructive lifestyle as well as his complex relationship with Rodgers. The author examines a large slice of American popular culture of the period, especially theater, including material on George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Florenz Ziegfeld, Ed Wynn, and George Balanchine, among many others. … Though not a complete replacement of Frederick Nolan’s 1994 Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway, which is based on extensive oral interviews, Marmorstein’s book has the advantage of copyright permission to reprint many Hart lyrics (which was denied to Nolan). This book is a worthy addition to the literature on the great American songbook. Recommended.

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