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The Man That Got Away

The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Man That Got Away
    Book Description:

    "Over the Rainbow," "Stormy Weather," and "One for My Baby" are just a few of Harold Arlen's well-loved compositions. Yet his name is hardly known--except to the musicians who venerate him. At a gathering of songwriters George Gershwin called him "the best of us." Irving Berlin agreed. Paul McCartney sent him a fan letter and became his publisher. Bob Dylan wrote of his fascination with Arlen's "bittersweet, lonely world." A cantor's son, Arlen believed his music was from a place outside himself, a place that also sent tragedy. When his wife became mentally ill and was institutionalized he turned to alcohol. It nearly killed him. But the beautiful songs kept coming: "Blues in the Night," "My Shining Hour," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "The Man That Got Away." Walter Rimler drew on interviews with friends and associates of Arlen and on newly available archives to write this intimate portrait of a genius whose work is a pillar of the Great American Songbook.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09757-7
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
    (pp. 1-4)

    In October 1984, Harold Arlen was in his eightieth year, a widower, sick with Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer and unable, without assistance, to leave his apartment in the San Remo building on New York’s Central Park West. Formerly lively and gregarious, he was spending these last days—and sometimes nights, as well—watching TV from a lounge chair, his social life limited to visits from his friend and biographer Edward Jablonski, his brother Jerry, and Jerry’s wife, Rita, and phone conversations with Irving Berlin. Berlin, in his nineties, placed a daily call to check up on him, commiserate with...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Buffalo, NY
    (pp. 5-9)

    He came to music through his father, Samuel Arluck, who was a cantor in Buffalo, New York. The elder Arluck thought enough of his son’s singing to give him a spot in the synagogue choir, where the boy made his debut at age seven. Shortly after that he performed his first solo, which he nearly botched due to an attack of stage fright—a problem his father solved by stepping on his foot.

    Samuel Arluck was a no-nonsense fellow. By the age of twenty he’d already begun his career, singing in a small congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. When another job...

  5. CHAPTER 2 New York, NY
    (pp. 10-15)

    In 1924 Cantor Arluck was offered a position with a prestigious synagogue, Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, New York, and he, Celia, and Udie moved to a house near Syracuse University. Not long afterward, the Buffalodians were booked by their agent into a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, and then it was on to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and, in the spring of 1925, New York City.

    Harold, who had only recently been excited by downtown Buffalo, was now playing the Palace Theatre in Times Square. The Buffalodians were booked there for two weeks and then moved to Gallagher’s Monte Carlo Restaurant at...

  6. CHAPTER 3 “Get Happy”
    (pp. 16-19)

    “Get Happy” was accepted by Koehler’s publisher, who offered Arlen fifty dollars a week if he would bring his future songs to them. This money allowed him to get a place of his own—a first-floor apartment in the fifteen-story Croydon Hotel on East 86th Street. It also let him bow out ofGreat Day!, which had received terrible reviews in Philadelphia and more bad notices on Long Island. After a rocky start on Broadway, it would be finished off by the Wall Street crash.

    Arlen, in contrast, was doing well. Each day he’d take a two-mile walk from 86th...

  7. CHAPTER 4 The Cotton Club
    (pp. 20-26)

    By 1930, the days when Tin Pan Alley publishers sold their songs to traveling entertainers were coming to an end. Vaudeville was nearly finished. Radio wasn’t yet a dependable hit-making medium—in fact, writers and publishers were wary of broadcasting, believing it adversely affected record sales by giving away what the audience should have been paying for. Hollywood musicals had been a passing fad and, although their second heyday was coming, it was still several years away. So the best chance for a song’s success was to be in a well-received stage show. From there it could make its way...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Anya
    (pp. 27-30)

    Although Anya appeared onstage in flimsy outfits and modeled for photographers in leopard-skin tops with plunging necklines, she was shy. She dreamed of show business fame but didn’t train as an actress or try out for parts. She’d taken ballet but never danced professionally, not even when she was in a chorus line, except to do a step or two or sway back and forth. She liked to sing, but not in a nightclub or to a theater audience. Her best moments as a performer came at parties, when Harold and his songwriter friends listened as she vocalized in a...

  9. CHAPTER 6 “Stormy Weather”
    (pp. 31-39)

    In early 1933, Anya, having just turned eighteen, moved in with Harold at the Croydon. It wasn’t common in those days for unmarried couples to live together, not even among Arlen’s permissive set. There was a greater stigma in this than in marrying, divorcing, and marrying again—the more usual route taken by show people. It seems certain that Anya would have said yes had Harold asked her to marry him. She was devoted to him, and he to her. He would never again fall in love with another woman. Composer Johnny Green “doubted that Arlen ever had a date...

  10. CHAPTER 7 On Broadway with Ira and Yip
    (pp. 40-44)

    After the January 4, 1934, premiere of theZiegfeld Follies of 1934, Yip Harburg wanted to take some time off. He’d been laboring at a breakneck pace on show after show for nearly five years. Adding to his fatigue was an unsettled and complicated private life. His marriage, which had failed nearly a decade earlier, was only now moving toward divorce. His young son and daughter were living a confused existence far from him on the West Coast, their mother having handed them off to an unenthusiastic aunt and uncle. He and Edelaine Gorney continued their affair, yet she remained...

  11. CHAPTER 8 “Last Night When We Were Young”
    (pp. 45-49)

    AfterLife Begins at 8:40’s successful debut, Ira Gershwin joined his brother and DuBose Heyward to work onPorgy and Bess, Yip Harburg took an offer from Universal Studios to go to Hollywood and produce a movie musical, and Harold Arlen was asked to compose a work for orchestra.

    The commission came from former bandleader Frank Black, who was NBC’s musical director and had a radio program,The General Motors Symphony Hour, that featured popular and classical pieces. Arlen was pleased by the request but didn’t know how to write for a symphony orchestra. It was only when Robert Russell...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Marriage
    (pp. 50-55)

    In the fall of 1935, Arlen and Harburg signed a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. They wouldn’t be writing for Astaire and Rogers, whose films were the brass ring for songwriters. Rather, they would work on second-tier movies. The first wasThe Singing Kid, starring Al Jolson. Jolson had made his name with weepy ballads such as “My Mammy” and “Sonny Boy” and rhythm numbers with rudimentary lyrics like “Swanee” and “California Here I Come.” Now his career was fading.

    Oddly enough, Jolson—the most prominent purveyor of minstrel-style blackface—had been one of the first on Broadway to push...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Death of Gershwin
    (pp. 56-61)

    Harold and Anya returned to California in January 1937. They rented a two-story home on Lookout Mountain Avenue in Laurel Canyon, six miles from Beverly Hills, and went back to the lives they’d been leading, except now they were husband and wife. They made a handsome couple: he determinedly debonair, always fastidiously attired—a look that now included a pipe jutting assertively from his lips; she dressed primly, favoring belted skirts and high button blouses topped by lace collars. They liked to take their two dogs—a springer spaniel named Stormy and a Dalmatian named Pan—to the beach. In...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Hooray for What!
    (pp. 62-67)

    Songwriters preferred Broadway to Hollywood because they could be more in control of their work there and more involved in shaping a show. The other side of the coin was greater wear and tear on their psyches as they invested themselves in these shows. Having worked on Youmans’sGreat Day!, Arlen knew how badly things could go preparing a stage musical and how one might end up with something very different from what had been imagined.

    Problems plaguedHooray for What!from the start, beginning with a period of inertia for its songwriters as they mourned Gershwin. Then came a...

  15. CHAPTER 12 The Wizard of Oz
    (pp. 68-75)

    For a long time now,The New Yorker’s capsule review ofThe Wizard of Ozhas been just one word: “Heavenly.” But when the film debuted, their movie critic, Russell Maloney, wrote, “I sat cringing before MGM’s Technicolor production of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ which displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.’” More succinctly, he called the film a “stinkeroo.”¹

    Had it not been for Arthur Freed, there’s a good chance that “stinkeroo” would be the correct judgment. He wasn’t the film’s producer—he was still a staff songwriter—but he was lobbying Mayer to make him a...

  16. CHAPTER 13 An Itinerant Songwriter
    (pp. 76-81)

    The songs written forThe Wizard of Ozmarked the culmination of a decade in which the American popular song became an art form. It seems in retrospect that such an achievement ought to have ushered in the day when the careers of songwriters were taken as seriously as those of symphonic composers, novelists, and painters. But that didn’t happen. Despite all the great popular songs of the 1930s, no songwriter was looked on as an artist whose body of work could be assessed as an oeuvre. No one was asking, “What will Arlen do next?”

    Songwriters had limited and...

  17. CHAPTER 14 Writing with Johnny Mercer
    (pp. 82-87)

    With no opportunity to follow up on his pioneering work forThe Wizard of Ozor do an innovative stage show, Arlen continued to drift from assignment to assignment, accepting what came along, no matter how mundane. In mid-1941 Warner Bros. asked him to write the songs for a low-budget movie about a much-discussed topic of the time: how can you tell if you’re hearing real jazz? Earlier that year Paramount had made a successful picture on this subject,The Birth of the Blues, starring Bing Crosby. Warner Bros. wanted to do one, too, so they hired Arlen for the...

  18. CHAPTER 15 “One for My Baby”
    (pp. 88-96)

    The military draft went into effect in September 1940, more than a year before the United States entered the war. Men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five were required to register. Arlen, thirty-five at the time, wasn’t called up and didn’t volunteer. Jerry was drafted in 1942 when he was thirty, passed the physical, and joined the Army Air Forces. Of the approximately five million American Jews at the time, about half a million entered the military and eleven thousand would be killed in action. Samuel Arluck, afraid, “unleashed a torrent of letters from Syracuse demanding that Harold do...

  19. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  20. CHAPTER 16 “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”
    (pp. 97-101)

    In early 1943, a Hollywood costume designer named Lilith James was researching women’s clothing styles and came upon a fashion item from the past calledbloomers—puffy pantaloons designed in the 1850s by a women’s-rights champion and antislavery activist named Elizabeth Smith Miller. Miller was closely associated with fellow activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Amelia Bloomer. Bloomer took to wearing the apparel with the hope it would become a popular alternative to uncomfortable hoop skirts, which were petticoats made like harnesses, usually from whalebones. She gained nothing from these efforts except ridicule and her name in the...

  21. CHAPTER 17 St. Louis Woman
    (pp. 102-107)

    By the summer of 1945, Arlen was ready to write his second big Broadway book musical. As always, he left the plot, script, and everything but the music to others. For him, music was the beginning and the end. Projects were always in progress when he joined them.

    Rodgers and Hammerstein worked differently. In 1940 they had both seen a Broadway revival of the 1909 playLiliom, by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár. It is the story of a carnival barker who falls for a trusting young woman, marries her, and turns into an abusive husband. When she becomes pregnant, he—...

  22. CHAPTER 18 Descent into Misery
    (pp. 108-113)

    Arlen returned to Beverly Hills in mid-1946 with no prospects for work. The studios were making fewer musicals in the postwar years, and those they did make tended to rely on songs that were already well known. It was the era of the songwriter biopic. Lesser-known writers like Arlen and Warren weren’t in the running for such pictures, but Kern, Porter, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart were all portrayed in films that were inaccurate as biographies but filled with their music, often elegantly staged. This helped establish in the public mind a roster of those who’d made the songwriter pantheon....

  23. CHAPTER 19 “She Was Sweet and Adorable and Then She Went Mad”
    (pp. 114-119)

    Casbahwas the only collaboration between Arlen and Robin. After completing this job, the lyricist traveled east, where he and composer Jule Styne wrote the songs forGentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was another in what had become a steady flow of classic Broadway book musicals:On the Townin 1944, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green;Annie Get Your Gunin 1946, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin;Finian’s Rainbowin 1947, by Lane and Harburg;Brigadoonin 1947, by Lerner and Loewe;Kiss Me Katein 1948, with music and lyrics...

  24. CHAPTER 20 A Star Is Born
    (pp. 120-126)

    Although Harold Arlen had been Judy Garland’s favorite composer even beforeThe Wizard of Oz, and even though his music in that movie did so much to launch her career, they didn’t work together in the decade that followed—the 1940s—which was a period of great achievement for both of them. She was under contract to MGM, where Arthur Freed, himself an Arlen admirer, was in charge of musicals, but the studio didn’t bring Arlen in to work with her again. No great Arlen song of the 1940s was written for her.

    Disparate in age, temperament, and fame, they...

  25. CHAPTER 21 House of Flowers
    (pp. 127-135)

    By 1954, Harburg hadn’t worked with Arlen in ten years, not sinceBloomer Girl. After asking Harold to writeFinian’s Rainbowwith him in 1947, he invited him to work onFlahooleyin 1951, but Arlen turned him down both times because the shows were too political and because he’d learned that working with Harburg on Broadway could be a nerve-wracking experience. When Yip was in charge of a production he tended to become confrontational and demanding, although never toward Arlen, whom he always treated with friendship and respect—even tenderness. In 1952 he brought Harold another idea, this one...

  26. CHAPTER 22 In Search of Fame
    (pp. 136-139)

    Just afterHouse of Flowers’ 165th and final performance on May 21, 1955, Pearl Bailey stepped in front of the curtain and addressed the audience. She spoke about the musical’s failure and about rumors of discord among its cast and crew. Whatever troubles there’d been, she said, had been family squabbles, all of them resolved. Then she surprised Arlen by asking him to join her onstage, and he stood diffidently beside her as she extolled his talent, recited a list of his best-known songs, and led the audience in a sing-along that filled the house with the emotion and energy...

  27. CHAPTER 23 An Opera
    (pp. 140-147)

    Robert S. Breen was a theatrical producer who in association with millionaire philanthropist and producer Blevins Davis formed Everyman Opera in 1952. Its sole purpose was to mount the first operatic presentation ofPorgy and Besssince the original 1935–36 production. With the backing of the State Department, they took the show to London, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. Breen was eager to follow this success with another opera, and he came up with the idea of finding a composer to write a piece that could alternate withPorgyin performances by a repertory troupe. At first he was inclined...

  28. CHAPTER 24 Two Debacles
    (pp. 148-151)

    Soon after Anya’s return, she and Harold went to Los Angeles, where they checked into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Harold had two exciting job prospects.

    One was an animated musical version of Dickens’sA Christmas Carol. The idea had originated with two Londoners: graphic artist Ronald Searle and playwright Christopher Fry. When Fry said he wanted to give lyric writing a try, Harold explained that this was a specialized art and suggested they call Ira Gershwin. But Ira said no. He was annotating his brother’s papers for the Library of Congress and simultaneously writing humorous backstories and glosses for a...

  29. CHAPTER 25 The 1960s
    (pp. 152-163)

    Work assignments were now so sporadic that Arlen was unwillingly becoming a composer emeritus. His 1960 output consisted of two piano pieces,OdeandBon-Bon, each improvisational in style, neither written for any particular occasion or premiered or recorded. In 1961 there was a lone composition, a song written to mark the publication of Jablonski’sHappy with the Blues, bearing that title with lyrics by Peggy Lee. This was also the title of an episode of NBC Television’sThe DuPont Show of the Week, which aired in September and featured Arlen, Peggy Lee, Vic Damone, and Bing Crosby.

    That program...

  30. CHAPTER 26 Waiting
    (pp. 164-178)

    In the late 1960s, Harold hired a housekeeper, Mrs. Geri Owens, a stout, middle-aged African American woman whose presence made him feel better about all the time he was spending outside the house. He didn’t go to bars or golf courses this time; instead, he took long walks, usually from Central Park West to the Midtown theater district. There he would chat with Abe Berman and whoever happened to be in the lawyer/agent’s office. Another stop was his barber’s for a shave—a luxury he loved because it gave him another place to shoot the breeze. Also on his itinerary...

    (pp. 179-180)
  32. NOTES
    (pp. 181-196)
  33. INDEX
    (pp. 197-210)
  34. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-220)