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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

American Rhapsody

Writers, Musicians, Movie Stars, and One Great Building

Claudia Roth Pierpont

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



American Rhapsody was George Gershwin’s original title for the revolutionary work that his brother Ira persuaded him to name, instead, Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin wanted to call his jazzy masterpiece “American” because he’d conceived it as “a musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” And, musically speaking, a “rhapsody” is a sequence of distinctive parts, not as formally structured as a symphony but held together, in Gershwin’s case, by recurring themes; it was a form that left the composer room for spontaneity and digression within the story he had to tell. Gershwin’s work also fulfills the celebratory promise that the nonmusical idea of rhapsodizing holds for us. His kaleidoscopic America reflects all the romance and bright innocence that the young musical genius could summon in 1924, when both he and the country were coming into their own. A true melting-pot portrait, the Rhapsody mixes jazz and Rachmaninoff and Tin Pan Alley with unself-conscious freedom. It’s the creation of an American as proud and grateful and ecstatically wondering as only a child of immigrants could be.

The immigrant’s exaltation of America is a well-known, even common component of our national story (quite apart from the genius that Gershwin brought to it). My grandmother, a Polish Jewish immigrant, used to tell of the journey she made across Europe, from Krakow to Cherbourg, alone, in the early 1920s. Her train arrived late at the French port city, and, in a panic, without a word of French, all she could do in the hope of finding the ship on which she had booked passage was to run through the streets near the port, shouting, “America?!” For the rest of her life, she spoke in a way that could undoubtedly be called rhapsodic about the country that had saved her. Gershwin’s father, a penniless immigrant from St. Petersburg, began his American life in the 1890s, working in a shoe factory in New York City. He had gone through a number of occupations—the alternatives seemed endless—by the time that, in 1910, he and his wife bought a piano for the family’s Lower East Side apartment. More than a musical instrument, it was a symbol of the opportunities they had made possible for their sons.

But there are, of course, very different kinds of American stories. James Baldwin’s stepfather, the son of a slave, came north from New Orleans in the 1920s, another sort of immigrant. The Harlem community into which Baldwin was born, in the year of Rhapsody in Blue, was a haven only when compared with the violent racial nightmare of the “old country” his stepfather had escaped. There has never been any doubt that it is possible for two people of different races or conditions to live in the same time and more or less the same place and yet inhabit two different Americas. It is possible even for one person to inhabit two Americas: Peggy Guggenheim grew up on New York’s wealthy Upper East Side, but her family was turned out of a hotel in Vermont for being Jewish no less firmly than Baldwin was turned away from a New Jersey diner for being black. Guggenheim eventually helped establish the canon of modern American art, and Baldwin, with his vision of a shared and mutually beneficial future, helped sustain a belief in the country through the racial traumas of the sixties. Yet both Guggenheim and Baldwin ultimately left America for good, as did several others whose stories constitute the cultural history chronicled in this book.

It came as a surprise, when I surveyed the completed book, that figures who emerged from backgrounds of immigrant success (including F. Scott Fitzgerald, on his Irish Catholic mother’s side; and Guggenheim, through both of her German Jewish grandfathers) contrasted not only with long-settled Yankees and Midwesterners (Katharine Hepburn, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando) but with Americans who fled the country with something like the desperation of those who had traveled half the world to get here and then stayed away for the rest of their lives. Edith Wharton and Nina Simone, this collection’s chronological bookends, were as different as two women could be, and so were their reasons for leaving. Setting off for France in 1906, Wharton, a wealthy novelist from East Coast aristocracy, was escaping the social and cultural backwardness of American society. Simone, a Southern-born black musician, moved to France some seventy years later to escape the racial prejudice of the country that she called “the United Snakes of America.” And there are others, temporary exiles, for whom leaving the country was the only way to see it clearly or to do the kind of work that seemed prohibited by American provincialism or economics. Fitzgerald also fled to France, on the counsel of his friend Edmund Wilson, to write the serious book he could never manage on these shores—it turned out to be The Great Gatsby, the ultimate portrait of the American dream gone awry—and Orson Welles, drummed out of Hollywood, made his two greatest Shakespeare films overseas. Considering the number of figures here who fled or did their finest work elsewhere, this collection might have been named not for Gershwin’s Rhapsody but for one of Baldwin’s novels, Another Country.

And yet this country is the place where these individuals became who they were. And they reflected this country in so much of what they did: its optimism, its energy, its ruthlessness. If this book is not always a celebration, it is nevertheless a rhapsody in the sense that its stories are linked by recurring themes and problems, forming sequences and cycles and sometimes even marking progress. Not that I began with any master plan, beyond the exercise of certain interests and instincts in the choice of subjects—subjects that, as the book progressed, came to seem like individual plants connected by systems of underground roots. The shattered gentility of so many of Edith Wharton’s early twentieth-century heroines, for example, caught between familiar if confining customs and the rising demands for personal happiness and sexual freedom, leads within a generation to the flapper hedonism of Zelda Fitzgerald, and is transformed further, in the thirties and forties, into the movie-screen-sized command of Hepburn and the dangerous dames of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled world—where women are wholly free and wholly terrifying. The process then starts all over with the domestic absolutes of the 1950s, which made even Hepburn into a timorous spinster, in Summertime, released in 1955, by which time Hepburn herself could not find any Hepburn roles to play.

Other sequences: the changes in American language as the homegrown novel took up new spheres of experience, from Fitzgerald to Hammett to Baldwin; the first modern American school of painting coming into focus at the same time as the first-ever American school of acting—Jackson Pollock, Marlon Brando—and together producing a new style of artistic masculinity; the recurring hope for an American classical theater, and how its failure may relate to this new style of acting. There is also sustained and undeniable progress from the segregated turn-of-the-twentieth-century theater in which Bert Williams began his career and the humiliating screen roles, decades later, that made Stepin Fetchit a byword for racial pandering, to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the outspokenness of Baldwin and Simone. The essays about these four figures inevitably deal with the growth of the civil rights movement. A related historical thread runs through them, too, about the race riots that have plagued the country, including the widespread attacks by white mobs during the early decades of the century—in New York City, in 1900, Bert Williams’s theatrical partner, George Walker, was dragged off a streetcar and beaten—through what Baldwin called the “slave rebellions” of the sixties, when Nina Simone stood on a stage in Detroit, just two weeks after a five-day riot had left the city in ruins, and told an enthusiastic concert crowd, “Detroit, you did it … I love you, Detroit—you did it!”

All these pieces were published in The New Yorker, although many have been subject to considerable revision, updating, and amplification; the piece on Bert Williams is almost entirely new. Williams, the first black American celebrity entertainer, is the least known figure in the book. He has received a great deal of scholarly attention since I first wrote about him, in 2005, and an important early film of his has been discovered. His life seems to me revelatory in terms of the ways that African Americans moved onto the national stage—literally and metaphorically—in the years when the country was becoming recognizably modern, and his career laid the groundwork for those of Baldwin and Simone. By happenstance, this book contains a larger number of male subjects than female, one Englishman—Laurence Olivier—allowed in for comparative purposes on the subject of acting and directing Shakespeare, and one essay about an enormous inanimate object, the Chrysler Building. The only skyscraper ever to be viewed as distinctly female, the Chrysler may somewhat redress the gender imbalance, and also add to the book’s series of paradigmatic American couples: Scott and Zelda, Tracy and Hepburn, Hammett and Lillian Hellman, the Chrysler and the Empire State Building.

Writing about the Chrysler Building was an extraordinary experience. At the time, in 2002, there was not a single book available on the world-famous building aside from the volume of photographs that was the occasion for this essay, and no book or any serious work on its architect, William Van Alen. (There was a fine biography of its patron, Walter Chrysler.) This mysterious neglect became part of the story, for which my primary sources were contemporary accounts in newspapers and architectural journals. But this is not what made the experience unique. At a fairly late point in my research, I found myself caught between countering claims: the Art Deco Society of New York announced that the building’s owner, Tishman Speyer, had destroyed the once-glorious triplex Cloud Club on floors sixty-six through sixty-eight, within the Chrysler’s silvered crown; Tishman Speyer claimed that the space was untouched but closed to the press, and a leading architectural critic claimed it “partly survived.” Whom to believe?

In The New Yorker’s traditional division of forces, I am a critic rather than a reporter, but here I was compelled to change hats, because I couldn’t bear to tell readers that I’d heard contradictory reports and didn’t know the truth. Security in the building that fall was high. Pretending to myself that I was some mixture of Brenda Starr and Janet Malcolm, I interviewed building tenants and learned of a single place where it might be possible to gain access to the fire stairs. Loitering discreetly until I was alone; pushing a door and being suddenly inside; climbing madly, fueled by so much adrenaline that at first I went right past my goal; and then pushing another couple of doors … The answer to what I found is contained in the essay. But, as many mountain climbers say, by the time I came down I felt I had been transformed. Unlike most mountain climbers, however, I was also grateful not to have been arrested.

I received some informative responses to these pieces when they first appeared. A whiskey-voiced woman who’d been “Dash’s secretary” called to let me know that “Lillian” hadn’t lifted a finger to get Hammett out of jail and that, in her experience, she was even worse than people said. I heard from Shirin Devrim, the Turkish actress who had met James Baldwin at a party in Istanbul, on the first weary night of his arrival, in 1961, and in whose lap he had fallen asleep. Devrim was ninety-three when she wrote to me and was living on Beekman Place, in New York City, where I was lucky to have tea with her and hear her memories of Baldwin and Istanbul. On the other hand, a number of surprisingly angry letters arrived when I identified Nick and Nora’s dog Asta, in The Thin Man, as a schnauzer. Here, at last, I get to present the evidence in the opening of Hammett’s chapter 4: “This afternoon I took Asta for a walk,” Nick relates, and “explained to two people that she was a Schnauzer and not a cross between a Scottie and an Irish terrier.” It is not entirely clear what deep-seated Hollywood prejudice led to the role of Asta being played on the screen by a wire fox terrier, but what is clear is that Americans are crazy about their dogs. Nothing else I’ve written has come close to earning me such scorn.

In sum, this book is about ideals and ambition and alcohol and heartbreak and hard work and a great open expanse of country that promised everything even when delivering bloody intolerance. Orson Welles believed, not unreasonably, that Shakespeare was, in his soul, an American; Baldwin wondered if the red earth of Georgia was produced by the blood of the bodies of the black men hanged there. These essays are inevitably about the joy and profit of being an invented and a heterogeneous people, and the immense difficulty of this human experiment, too. The subjects of race and ethnicity kept surfacing while I was writing, in often unexpected and involuted ways: Virgil Thomson accuses Porgy and Bess of being racially offensive while employing anti-Semitic insults about Gershwin; Nina Simone’s most innocent hit, the joyous “My Baby Just Cares for Me”—surely, I thought, no racial issues here—turns out to have been introduced by Eddie Cantor wearing blackface in the 1930 movie Whoopee!, a cowboy musical about a forbidden romance between a white girl and an Indian (who turns out really to be white); Olivier’s heavily blacked-up performance as Othello, released on film in 1965, the year of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, was almost unwatchable to a number of people because Olivier so resembled what The New York Times called “an end man in an American minstrel show.” There is no way of getting around our history.

But this book is also about individuals who overcame tremendous odds, many of them internal, to create works that have lasted: books and songs and films and architecture that have become the common air we breathe and that we call a culture. There is genius here but also failure, and plenty of it. These figures are embedded, as we are, in the continuing struggle to live up to our ideals and failing and beginning again and again from a position just a little closer to the American rhapsody that Gershwin imagined.


Copyright © 2016 by Claudia Roth Pierpont