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Sunday, March 27, 2022


ABOVE: “‘It didn’t get popular,’ said Hart, ‘because Verdi didn’t know rhythm.’” Illustration by American artist J. W. McGurk (1886–1939), for Ring Lardner’s story “Rhythm” in the March 1926 issue of Cosmopolitan. 

                                    A Short Story from the public domain. 

GUEST BLOG / By Ring Lardner, Sr.—This story is slightly immoral, but so, I guess, are all stories based on truth. It concerns, principally, Harry Hart, whose frankness and naturalness were the traits that endeared him to fellow members of the Friars’ Club and all red-blooded she-girls who met him in and out of show business. 

 Music writers have never been noted for self-loathing and Harry was a refreshing exception to the general run. That was before “Upsy Daisy” began its year’s tenancy of the Casino. You can judge what sort of person he was by listening in on a talk he had at the club one night with Sam Rose, lyricist of “Nora’s Nightie,” “Sheila’s Shirt” and a hundred popular songs. 

They were sitting alone at the table nearest the senile piano. “Sam,” said Harry, “I was wondering if they’s a chance of you and I getting together.” 

“What’s happened to Kane?” asked Sam. 

“It’s off between he and I,” Harry replied. “That dame ruined him. I guess she married him to make an honest man of him. Anyways, he got so honest that I couldn’t stand it no more. You know how I am, Sam—live and let live. I don’t question nobody’s ethics or whatever you call them, as long as they don’t question mine. We’re all trying to get along; that’s the way I look at it. At that, I’ve heard better lyrics than he wrote for those two rhythm numbers of mine in ‘Lottie’; in fact, between you and I, I thought he made a bum out of those two numbers. They sold like hymns, so I was really able to bear up when we reached the parting of the ways. 

 “But I’ll tell you the climax just to show you how silly a guy can get. You remember our ‘Yes, Yes, Eulalie.’ Well, they was a spot for a swell love duet near the end of the first act and I had a tune for it that was a smash. You know I’m not bragging when I say that; I don’t claim it as my tune, but it was and is a smash. I mean the ‘Catch Me’ number.” 

“I’ll say it’s a smash!” agreed Sam. 

 “But a smash in spite of the words,” said Harry. 

“You’re right,” said Sam. “Well, the first time I played this tune for him, he went nuts over it and I gave him a lead sheet and he showed it to his wife. It seems she plays piano a little and she played this melody and she told him I had stole it from some opera; she thought it was ‘Gioconda,’ but she wasn’t sure. So the next day Kane spoke to me about it and I told him it wasn’t ‘Gioconda’; it was Donizetti’s ‘Linda di Chamounix.’ 

Well, he said he didn’t feel like it was right to work on a melody that had been swiped from somewhere. 

So I said, ‘Ain’t it kind of late for you to be having all those scruples?’ 

So he said, ‘Maybe it is, but better late than never.’ 

So I said, ‘Listen, Benny—this is your wife talking, not you.’ 

And he said, ‘Let’s leave her out of this,"

And I said, ‘I wished to heaven we could.’ “I said, ‘Benny, you’ll admit that’s a pretty melody,’ and he said yes, he admitted it. So I said: ‘Well, how many of the dumb-bells that goes to our shows has ever heard “Linda di Chamounix” or ever will hear it? When I put this melody in our troupe I’m doing a million people a favor; I’m giving them a chance to hear a beautiful piece of music that they wouldn’t never hear otherwise. Not only that, but they’ll hear it at its best because I’ve improved it.’ 

So Benny said, ‘The first four bars is exactly the same and that’s where people will notice.’ 

 “So then I said: ‘Now listen here, Benny—up to the present you haven’t never criticized my music and I haven’t criticized your lyrics. But now you say I’m a tune thief. I don’t deny it, but if I wasn’t, you’d of had a sweet time making a living for yourself, let alone get married. However, laying that to one side, I was over to my sister’s house the other night and she had a soprano singer there and she sung a song something about “I love you, I love you; ’tis all my heart can say.” It was a mighty pretty song and it come out about twenty or thirty years ago.’ 

 “So then Benny said, ‘What of it?’ So I said, ‘Just this: I can recall four or five lyrics of yours where “I love you” comes in and I bet you’ve used the words “heart” and “say” and “all” at least twice apiece during your remarkable career as a song writer. Well, did you make those words up or did you hear them somewhere?’ That’s what I said to him and of course he was stopped. But his ethics was ravaged just the same and it was understood we’d split up right after ‘Eulalie.’ And as I say, his words wasn’t no help to my Donizetti number; they’d of slayed it if it could of been slayed.” 

“Well?” said Sam. 

 “Well,” said Harry, “Conrad Green wired me yesterday to come and see him, so I was up there today. He’s so dumb that he thinks I’m better than Friml. And he’s got a book by Jack Prendergast that he wanted Kane and I to work on. So I told him I wouldn’t work with Kane and he said to get who I wanted. So that’s why I gave you a ring.” 

 “It sounds good to me,” said Sam. “How is the book?” “I only skimmed it through, but I guess it’s all right. It’s based on ‘Cinderella,’ so what with that idea combined with your lyrics and my tunes, it looks like we ought to give the public a novelty at least.” “Have you got any new tunes?” 

“New?” Hart laughed. “I’m dirty with them.” He sat down at the piano. “Get this rhythm number. If it ain’t a smash, I’m Gatti-Casazza! He played it, beautifully, first in F sharp—a catchy refrain that seemed to be waltz time in the right hand and two-four in the left. “It’s pretty down here, too,” he said, and played it again, just as surely, in B natural, a key whose mere mention is henbane to the average pianist. 

“A wow!” enthused Sam Rose. “What is it?” 

 “Don’t you know?” 

 “The Volga boat song.” 

 “No,” said Hart. “It’s part of Aïda’s number when she finds out the fella is going to war. And nobody that comes to our shows will spot it except maybe Deems Taylor and Alma Gluck.” 

 “It’s so pretty,” said Sam, “that it’s a wonder it never goes popular.” 

CRONIES. Sportswriters Grantland Rice (2nd from left and Ring Lardner (2nd from right) pose with U.S. President Warren G. Harding (far left) and Harding’s Under Secretary of State Henry P. Fletcher (far right).

“The answer is that Verdi didn’t know rhythm!” said Hart. 

Or go back and observe our hero at the Bucks’ house on Long Island. Several of the boys and girls were there and thrilled to hear that Harry Hart was coming. He hardly had time to taste his first cocktail before they were after him to play something. “Something of your own!” pleaded the enraptured Helen Morse. “If you mean something I made up,” he replied with engaging frankness, “why, that’s impossible; not exactly impossible, but it would be the homeliest tune you ever listened to. However, my name is signed to some mighty pretty things and I’ll play you one or two of those.” 

 Thus, without the conventional show of reluctance, Harry played the two “rhythm numbers” and the love-song that were making Conrad Green’s “Upsy Daisy” the hit of the season. And he was starting in on another, a thing his informal audience did not recognize, when he overheard his hostess introducing somebody to Mr. Rudolph Friml. “Good night!” exclaimed Hart. “Let somebody play that can play!” 

And he resigned his seat at the piano to the newcomer and moved to a far corner of the room. “I hope Friml didn’t hear me,” he confided to a Miss Silloh. “I was playing a thing he wrote himself and letting you people believe it was mine.” Or catch him in the old days at a football game with Rita Marlowe of Goldwyn. One of the college bands was playing “Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby!” “Walter Donaldson. There’s the boy that can write the hits!” said Hart. 

“Just as if you couldn’t!” said his companion. “I don’t class with him,” replied her modest escort. 

 Later on, Rita remarked that he must have been recognized by people in the crowd. Many had stared. “Let’s not kid ourselves, girlie,” he said. “They’re staring at you, not me.” Still later, on the way home from the game, he told her he had saved over $25,000 and expected to average at least $40,000 a year income while his vogue lasted. 

 “I’m good as long as I don’t run out of pretty tunes,” he said, “and they’s no reason why I should with all those old masters to draw from. I’m telling you my financial status because—well, I guess you know why.” 

 Rita did know, and it was the general opinion, shared by the two principals, that she and Harry were engaged. When “Upsy Daisy” had been running two months and its hit numbers were being sung, played, and whistled almost to cloyment, Hart was discovered by Spencer Deal. That he was the pioneer in a new American jazz, that his rhythms would revolutionize our music—these things and many more were set forth by Deal in a four-thousand-word article called “Harry Hart, Harbinger,” printed by the erudite Webster’s Weekly. And Harry ate it up, though some of the words nearly choked him. Interesting people were wont to grace Peggy Leech’s drawing-room on Sunday afternoons. Max Reinhardt had been there. Reinald Werrenrath had been there. So had Heifetz and Jeritza and Michael Arlen, and Noel Coward and Dudley Malone. And Charlie Chaplin, and Gene Tunney. 

In fact, Peggy’s Sunday afternoons could be spoken of as salons and her apartment as a hot-bed of culture. It was to Peggy’s that Spencer Deal escorted Hart a few weeks after the appearance of the article in Webster’s. Deal, in presenting him, announced that he was at work on a “blue” symphony that would make George Gershwin’s ultra rhythms and near dissonants sound like the doxology. 

“Oh!” exclaimed pretty Myra Hampton. “Will he play some of it for us?” “Play, play, play!” said Hart querulously. “Don’t you think I ever want a rest! Last night it was a party at Broun’s and they kept after me and wouldn’t take ‘No’ and finally I played just as rotten as I could, to learn them a lesson. But they didn’t even know it was rotten. What do you do for a living?” 

 “I’m an actress,” confessed the embarrassed young lady. “Well, would you like it if, every time you went anywhere socially, people asked you to act?” 

 “Yes,” she answered, but he had moved away. He seemed to be seeking seclusion; sat down as far as possible from the crowd and looked hurt. He accepted a highball proffered by his hostess, but neglected to thank her. Not a bit discouraged, she brought him Signor Parelli of the Metropolitan. 

 “Mr. Hart,” she said, “this is Mr. Parelli, one of the Metropolitan’s conductors.” “Yay?” said Hart. “Perhaps some day Mr. Parelli will conduct one of your operas.” “I hope so,” said the polite Parelli. “Do you?” said Hart. “Well, if I ever write an opera, I’ll conduct it myself, or at least I won’t take no chance of having it ruined by a foreigner.” The late war increased people’s capacity for punishment and in about twenty minutes Peggy’s guests began to act as if they would live in spite of Harry’s refusal to perform. In fact, one of them, Roy Lattimer, full of Scotch courage and not so full of musical ability, went to the piano himself and began to play. 

 “Began” is all, for he had not completed four bars before Hart plunged across the room and jostled him off the bench. “I hope you don’t call yourself a pianist!” he said, pronouncing it as if it meant a cultivator of, or dealer in, peonies. And for two hours, during which everybody but Spencer Deal and the unfortunate hostess walked out on him, Harry played and played and played. Nor in all that time did he play anything by Kern, Gershwin, Stephen Jones, or Isham Jones, Samuels, Youmans, Friml, Stamper, Tours, Berlin, Tierney, Hubbell, Hein, or Gitz-Rice. 

 It was during this epoch that Harry had occasion one day to walk up Fifth Avenue from Forty-fifth Street to the Plaza. He noticed that almost everyone he passed on the line of march gazed at him intently. He recalled that his picture had been in two rotogravure sections the previous Sunday. It must have been a better likeness than he had thought. New York was burning soft coal that winter and when Hart arrived in the Plaza wash-room he discovered a smudge on the left side of his upper lip. It made him look as if he had had a mustache, had decided to get it removed and then had changed his mind when the barber was half through. Harry’s date at the Plaza was with Rita Marlowe. He had put it off as long as he could. If the girl had any pride or sense, she’d have taken a hint. Why should he waste his time on a second-rate picture actress when he was hobnobbing with women like Elinor Deal and Thelma Warren and was promised an introduction to Mrs. Wallace Gerard? Girls ought to know that when a fella who has been taking them out three and four times a week and giving them a ring every morning, night and noon between whiles—they ought to know that when a fella stops calling them up and taking them out and won’t even talk to them when they call up, there is only one possible answer. 

Yet this dame insists on you meeting her and probably having a scene. Well, she’ll get a scene. No, she won’t. No use being brutal. Just make it apparent in a nice way that things ain’t like they used to be and get it over as quick as possible. “Where can we go?” asked Rita. “I mean, to talk.” 

 “Nowheres that’ll take much time,” said Harry. 

“I’ve got a date with Paul Whiteman to look over part of my symphony.” “I don’t want to interrupt your work,” said Rita. “Maybe it would be better if you came up to the house tonight.” 

 “I can’t tonight,” he told her. 

 “When can you?” 

 “I’ll give you a ring. It’s hard to get away. You see——” 

 “I think I do,” said Rita, and left him. 

 “About time,” said Harry to himself. His symphony went over fairly “big.” The critics seemed less impressed than with the modern compositions of Gershwin and Deems Taylor. “But then,” Harry reflected, “Gershwin was ahead of me and of course Taylor has friends on the paper.” 

 A party instigated by Spencer Deal followed the concert and Harry met Mrs. Wallace Gerard, who took a great interest in young composers and had been known to give them substantial aid. 

Hart accepted an invitation to play to her at her Park Avenue apartment. He made the mistake of thinking she wanted to be petted, not played to, and his first visit was his last. 

 He had been engaged by Conrad Green to do the music for a new show, with a book by Guy Bolton. He balked at working again with Sam Rose, whose lyrics were hopelessly proletarian. 

Green told him to pick his own lyricist and Harry chose Spencer Deal. The result of the collaboration was a score that required a new signature at the beginning of each bar, and a collection of six-syllable rhymes that has as much chance of being unriddled, let alone sung, by chorus girls as a pandect on biotaxy by Ernest Boyd. 

 “Terrible!” was Green’s comment on advice of his musical adviser, Frank Tours. 

 “You’re a fine judge!” said Hart. “But it don’t make no difference what you think. Our contract with you is to write music and lyrics for this show and that’s what we’ve done. If you don’t like it, you can talk to my lawyer.” 

 “Your lawyer is probably one of mine, too,” replied Green. “He must be if he practises in New York. But that is neither here or there. If you think you can compel me to accept a score which Tours tells me that if it was orchestrated, Stokowski himself couldn’t even read the triangle part, to say nothing of lyrics which you would have to ring up every night at seven o’clock to get the words in the opening chorus all pronounced in time for Bayside people to catch the one-twenty train—well, Hart, go along home now, because you and I are going to see each other in court every day for the next forty years.” 

 A year or so later, Harry’s total cash on hand and in bank amounted to $214.60, including the $56 he had cleaned up on the sale of sheet music and mechanical records of his symphony. He read in the Sunday papers that Otto Harbach had undertaken a book for Willis Merwin and the latter was looking around for a composer. 

Merwin was one of the younger producers and had been a pal of Harry’s at the Friars’. Hart sought him there. 

He found Merwin and came to the point at once. “It’s too late,” said the young entrepreneur. “I did consider you at first, but—well, I didn’t think you were interested now in anything short of oratorio. The stuff you used to write would have been great, but this piece couldn’t stand the ponderous junk you’ve been turning out lately. It needs light treatment and I’ve signed Donaldson and Gus Kahn.” 

 “Maybe I could interpolate——” Harry began. 

 “I don’t believe so,” Merwin interrupted. “I don’t recall a spot where we could use either a fugue or a dirge.” 

 On his way out, Hart saw Benny Kane, his collaborator of other years. Benny made as if to get up and greet him, but changed his mind and sank back in his sequestered chair. “He don’t look as cocky as he used to,” thought Harry, and wished that Kane had been more cordial. “What I’ll have to do is turn out a hit song, just to tide me over. Of course I can write the words myself, but Benny had good idears once in a while.” Hart stopped in at his old publishers’ where, in the halcyon days, he had been as welcome as more beer at the Pastry Cooks’ Ball. He had left them for a more esthetic firm at the suggestion of Spencer Deal. 

 “Well, Harry,” said Max Wise, one of the partners, “you’re quite a stranger. We don’t hear much of you lately.” “Maybe you will again,” said Hart. “What would you say if I was to write another smash?” 

 “I’d say,” replied Wise, “that it wasn’t any too soon.” 

 “How would you like to have me back here?” 

 “With a smash, yes. Go get one and you’ll find the door wide open. Who are you working with?” 

 “I haven’t nobody.” 

 “You could do a lot worse,” said Wise, “than team up again with Benny Kane. You and him parting company was like separating Baltimore and Ohio or pork and beans.” “He hasn’t done nothing since he left me,” said Hart. 

 “No,” replied Wise, “but you can’t hardly claim to have been glutting the country with sensations yourself!” 

 Hart went back to his hotel and wished there was no such thing as pride. He’d like to give Benny a ring. He answered the telephone and recognized Benny’s voice. “I seen you at the Friars’ today,” said Benny, “and it reminded me of an idea. Where could we get together?” 

 “At the club,” Harry replied. “I’ll be there in a half-hour.” 

 “I was thinking,” said Benny, when they were seated at the table near the piano, “that nobody has wrote a rhythm song lately about ‘I love you’; that is, not in the last two or three months. And one time you was telling me about being over to your sister’s and they was a soprano there that sung a song that went ‘I love you, I love you; ’tis all my heart can say.’ ” 

 “What of it?” 

 “Well,” said Benny, “let’s take that song and I’ll just fix up the words a little and you can take the tune and put it into your rhythm and we’re all set. That is, if the tune’s o. k. What is it like?” 

 “Oh, ‘Arcady’ and ‘Marcheta’ and maybe that ‘Buzz Around’ song of Dave Stamper’s. But then, what ain’t?” 

 “Well, let’s go to it.” 

 “Where is your ethics?” 

 “Listen,” said Benny Kane—“I and Rae was talking this afternoon, and we didn’t disgust ethics. She was just saying she thought that all God’s children had shoes except her.” 

 “All right,” said Hart. “I can remember enough of the tune. But I’ll look the song up tomorrow and give it to you and you can rewrite the words.” 

 “Fine! And now how about putting on the feed bag?” 

 “No,” said Harry. “I promised to call up a dame.” Whereupon he kept his ancient promise. 

 “You’ve got a lot of nerve,” said Rita at the other end of the wire, “imagining a girl would wait for you this long. And I’d say ‘No’ and say it good and loud, except that my piano has just been tuned and you’ve never played me your symphony.” 

 “I ain’t going to, neither,” said Harry. “But I want to try out a new rhythm number that ought to be a smash. It starts off ‘I love you, I love you.’ ” 

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