I have a book to recommend to you – a grown up tale, and true – that has every bit as much cruelty, wonder and suspense as you find in the world of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka.
“I grew up in an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty, with … ‘the dark brown taste of being poor’ forever in my mouth and the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my nose. It was not, as may be gathered, a very happy childhood and the atmosphere was not improved by the family cast of characters,” writes Moss Hart in his memoir, Act One. Hart would go on to become one of the most celebrated playwrights and directors of the Golden Age of Broadway, winning the Pulitzer in 1938 (with George S. Kaufman) for “You Can’t Take it With You” and directing “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot” (among many other shows).
Hart grew up in the Bronx in rented rooms with his tyrannical grandfather, meek parents, younger brother, and daffy Aunt Kate. Hart’s grandfather loomed large in his early life, the black sheep of a “large and quite wealthy family of English Jews… a man of considerable personal charm, with an alert and inquiring mind, but since he was always superior to the life he was forced to live, it served to further sour a nature already steeped in arrogance and gall.” A cigarmaker, he lived out his days in the new country in bitterness and cold despair. After his death, the family’s finances – always precarious – declined even further. Hart’s father was sickly and his mother a martyr, and they increasingly depended on Hart’s meager earnings as a teenager to support them and his younger brother.
Some boys would have lost themselves in various ways in this life of penury and stress. One imagines the life of grinding work, alcoholism, or crime that could have lay ahead. Hart turned to the theatre as an escape, due in no small part to his crazy aunt, herself obsessed with it. He coveted a job as an office boy every bit as much as Charlie ever yearned for a Golden Ticket – but those jobs were desperately hard to come by. For two and a half years, working in the dark vault of a furrier after school, Hart dreamed and schemed of how to get into a Broadway office. When a neighbor boy quit just such a job, Hart saw his main chance, and thus began his unlikely journey.
Don Winston, a Nashville native, knows a thing or two about life in the theatre. After Princeton, he followed the bright lights to New York City for a career on the stage. He starred in an off-Broadway musical and also acted in “All My Children”; years later, he’s now in Los Angeles writing screenplays and novels. His latest novel – The Gristmill Playhouse: A Nightmare in Three Acts – was recently selected by Nashville’s Bookman/Bookwoman as one of their top picks for the summer! Don loved Act One as much as I did:
“Hart found his calling early and organically. That was the easy part. Then the struggles hit, and they seemed endless. He didn’t overthink or intellectualize his passion, he just threw himself into the deep end with the fearless and blessed stupidity of youth. No net, no Plan B. But as he writes about his most important lesson after a string of failures and near-misses: ‘I had grasped one of the theatre’s deepest secrets. Survival.
Like the best of the genre, Hart’s memoir is a story of that survival. In addition to describing the countless obstacles of his young journey, he plumbs the creative challenges – and mandatory loneliness – of writing, with a surgeon’s precision and without complaint or self-pity. He’s a charming and candid guide through this glittery, long-ago world, and surprisingly egoless (rare, to be sure, in show business.) He is simultaneously breezy, introspective, and grounded. On each page, hart embodies the happy warrior on his chosen, cherished battlefield.
It’s a must-read for anyone curious about the majesty and nuts-and-bolts of the Golden Age of Broadway, which we’ll never see again. Hart shows us how the sausage was made, especially the fitful beginnings of his now-legendary career. My main regret is the lack of an “Act Two.” And “Three.” Fortunately, Hart left behind a trove of his other theatre work, all built upon the life and early career lessons he generously shares with us in this treasure of a memoir. He grabbed the baton from the titans who came before and thankfully passes it off to the rest of us.”
* * *
For more on Don Winston, please check out earlier Bacon posts and his website, donwinston.com. He’ll be in town September 22nd for an event at the Mad Platter and then will return for the Southern Festival of Books the weekend of October 9th.
You can find Ann Patchett at Parnassus some days and at annpatchett.com.
Jennifer, thank you for this book recommendation (and for sending it to me). This gem is highly recommended.
I loved being able to compare notes on it with you! Thank you so much for reading it, Don!