Moss Hart loved the theater from the day he was whisked away from his grade school studies by a demented aunt to attend a production at the Bronx Opera House. In the shows he would later write and direct, he never strayed far from the theater for his subject matter. Born into an impoverished and largely dysfunctional family in 1904, Hart dropped out of school just before his 15th birthday. By the time he was 20, he had co-written and acted in his first professional production.

In his fascinating new biography Dazzler, Steven Bach, author of Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend takes the reader on a virtual week-by-week journey through Hart's busy and glamorous life. In the process, he adds details, corrects errors and provides alternative interpretations to the events Hart described in his best-selling 1959 autobiography, Act One. Without drawing more sweeping conclusions than he can document, Bach points out what he sees as Hart's conflicting sexual urges, a matter that appears to have been resolved when, at the age of 41, he married actress Kitty Carlisle. Bach also sheds light on the writer/director's bouts with depression, which, while severe, never seemed to sideline him for long. Throughout his adult life, Hart sought the counsel of psychotherapists, a habit Bach meticulously chronicles.

Although Dazzler covers every known play and screenplay Hart wrote or directed, the book is especially valuable for its descriptions of the often arduous creation of such cultural gems as The Man Who Came to Dinner, which Hart wrote with George S. Kaufman, and the stage versions of My Fair Lady and Camelot, both of which Hart directed. In constructing these tales, Bach draws amusing sketches of dozens of famous folk, among them Cole Porter, Rex Harrison, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin and Julie Andrews.

"Your last play shows up in your next electrocardiogram," Hart once said in a moment of grim whimsy. In December 1961, just a few months after he had finally whipped Camelot into champion shape, he suffered his third heart attack and died.

Hart's widow declined to be interviewed for this book, and many of his closest friends and collaborators were dead by the time Bach began his project. Yet his book is thorough, and what he does exceedingly well is bring to life Broadway's Golden Age and many of the giants who made it shine so brightly.

Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.

 

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