SHY: Mary Rodgers’ Disturbing Candid Memoirs
Written by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 480 pages, $35.00
MAri Rodgers’ posthumous biography is a tumultuous, outrageous, and entertaining journey into its author’s life. Mary (1931-2014) was the daughter of Richard Rodgers – unforgettable as a builder Oklahoma! And the South Pacifictwo of the most celebrated musicals in the history of American theater—and for his wife, Dorothy, who the less talked about, the better.
Derived from interviews and conversations with Mary, the memoir is revived by her interlocutor, The New York Times Senior theater critic Jesse Green, friend of the author for 20 years. Green fills the early chapters with illuminating and sometimes distracting footnotes that explain the history of the theater, identify the people mentioned in the text, or soften some of Mary’s audacity. The result is a fascinating life story and a sharp, often confusing look at the talented, complex, and often problematic men and women who dominated the American musical scene for most of the twentieth century.
Not surprisingly, Broadway has a Jewish cultural and religious sensibility. Yiddish theatre, which emerged in the late 19th century in Europe, blended Purim skits, Cantor songs, and Jewish vocalist performances with European literary and theatrical traditions. Giants of American musical theater did the same, using small strings to express feelings and adapting comic metaphors to themes such as poverty, tradition, and social anxiety.
They were wealthy and successful, but these famous artists reflected in their daily lives the fears of ordinary Jews about belonging. For several years, Mary Rodgers wrote, many of them refused to live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side because he was “too Jewish,” and chose the wealthier WASPier East Side for his chances of moving up the social ladder. Judaism was such a realm of musical theater that Ethel Merman, often thought of as Jewish, went to great lengths to assert her episcopal identity. In a footnote, Green tells the story of how Merman, who was invited to Easter dinner by writer-producer Jules Stein, brought her a ham sandwich in case she hated the food.
Mary, a poor and rich girl, grew up in this world amidst a paradoxical mixture of patriarchal constraints and neglect. Her sharp wit and sharp tongue concealed the immense mischief of her childhood and helped her navigate a perilous personal and professional life. Her first husband was physically and emotionally abusive while she was in the prime of her music career; Later, insecure about her own talent, she becomes easy prey for jealous competitors who assert that her work was written by her father. “Why in the world would my father want me to write my music?” I wrote. “He doesn’t even want that Listen to her. “
Eventually, she became a successful author and lyricist. Once upon a rankHer comic fairy tale show, The Princess and the PeaIt was a Broadway victory and a resounding financial success. She was married twice and was the mother of six children. Five of them are alive today, successful in their chosen careers and relationships.
Opens a chapter entitled “Enmities” Timid With an account of the scary games her family plays – games designed to teach competing players how to win, or how to protect themselves with sharp language and funny stories when they lose. Family stories are woven in and out of the narrative, which is clouded by the rage and often hilarious vulnerabilities of the rich and famous. She begins with Lorenz Hart, her father’s first partner, followed by Oscar Hammerstein. Hal Prince, the Broadway producer with whom she had an early affair; Woody Allen, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Judy Holiday, Barbra Streisand… You get the point.
Mary spared none of them, including herself. Sometimes, admittedly she means, she pisses off initial criticism with deeper insight. She initially describes Baba as an alcoholic, a womanizer and a man who “hates wasting his time with intangible things like passion.” This view of her father struck me, so at odds with the man his audience adores—the man whose musicals defended unexpected unions, spoke out against racism and emphasized the romantic view of love that was, for better or worse, a common currency of the post-war era.
Over the years, Mary recognized her father and forgave him. Her love for him reflects an increasingly intimate relationship in their shared passion for music, her appreciation for his practical and musical advice, and his growing pride in her talent. She wrote, “He gave me music,” and later “taught me love.”
“Why in the world would my dad want to write my music? He doesn’t even want to. Listen to her. “
She is less tolerant of her cold and distant mother, whom she calls Miss Perfecta, a nickname used by their servants and even some close friends. Dorothy Rodgers was at one time an entrepreneur, writer, and inventor who cared more about the condition of her home than the happiness of Mary and her sister Linda. “The mummy was wonderful and horrific,” Mary wrote. Dorothy, the unloved victim of her childhood, envied Mary’s musical relations with Richard and constantly sought to undermine them. Mary and her mother never reconciled in that childhood relationship.
The two daughters were highly competitive – at least in part because Dorothy was constantly pitting them against each other. In defense, the sisters eventually allied themselves against her and remained close, although they did not stop competing. At the end of their lives, they bet on who would die first. Mary won that bet, two months after her sister’s death.
Amid all the personal and professional turmoil, one star lit up the darkened skies of her imagination: Stephen Sondheim. She fell in love with him at 11, when they first met. This love never died, through separation and argument, and they remained close friends until her death at the age of 83. She writes that the couple considered “marriage” – in part out of mutual affection, and possibly also to help Sondheim conceal his identity. Homosexuality. Being gay in the 1940s and 1950s was a cardinal sin that could cost you your career. Sin or not, many of Mary’s friends (and one of her husbands) were gay. She is outspoken and honest about these relationships that seem to have satisfied her need for warmth and emotional connection absent in her family.
Her stories of unhappiness amidst the fortune and excitement of Broadway offer us the undeniable pleasures of schadenfreude. But there is a deeper satisfaction in reading this book. Mary’s life story is very different from what I had imagined, given her fame and prestige, and much like the lives of many other women who grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century. We may have had more caring families or fewer possessions, but we also invested our emotions in fairytale love stories, didn’t feel comfortable with our looks (Mary’s mother always called her “fat” even though she had worn a size 8 most of her life) and fake careers. In the face of male dominance and religious and social prejudice. We, too, have managed to juggle motherhood with work and hide deep fears behind pranks, jokes, and sometimes rebellious behavior.
Bolder than most of us, Mary dared to speak the truth, often the shocking truth, about herself and those who created the golden age of musical theatre. Oh, Mary – how I wish I knew you!
Gloria Levitas is a cultural anthropologist.
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