Monday, August 02, 2010

Moss Hart

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

It's probably not a good idea to confess this on my employer's blog, but now and then I call in late so I can finish a book. It doesn't happen often. Even with the welter of books published these days, one that I literally cannot put down is rare. But I found one the other day, and I couldn't get to the end in time for work, so I called in late. I had to finish Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One.

Hart wrote and/or directed You Can't Take it with You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, A Star is Born, and My Fair Lady, but you won't hear much about those smashing successes in his book. Act One is about Hart's early years and his struggle out of poverty; about his working without food, sleep, encouragement, and sometimes pay, until he'd made a place for himself in New York theater.

Hart spent summers at holiday camps in the Catskills working as a social director so that he could spend winters writing plays. Six winters, six plays, six rejections. As the seventh winter began, taking up his regular writing spot on the beach (it was quieter than his parents' house in the Bronx), Hart shuffled through last winter's rejection slips. On one of them was written some advice: the funny parts are good; why don't you try comedy?

The second half of Act One is the story of the herculean work that went into writing, selling, and staging that comedy, the Kaufman/Hart play Once in a Lifetime. Hart tells how the play evolves, from first draft through rewrites, through out-of-town runs and rewrites, through hope and despair and more rewrites, and failure and rewrites and another chance and rewrites and last-minute rewrites, to opening night on Broadway.

The story is as funny, entertaining, and suspenseful as any I've read, and Hart has important things to say about hard work and perserverance and luck. A well-written book about showbiz is a rare thing. The critics loved Act One when it came out in 1959 and it holds up today. If you liked Russell Baker's Growing Up, put Moss Hart's Act One on your reading list.

Kitty: An Autobiography by Kitty Carlisle Hart (Mrs. Moss)

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