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Alan Jay Lerner : a biography /

Main Author: Jablonski, Edward.
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : H. Holt and Co., 1996
Edition: 1st ed.
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Chapter One "THE CHILD WHO BECAME THE FATHER" NO OEDIPAL ANXIETIES distressed the early, affluent, formative years of Alan Jay Lerner. He loved, admired, and respected his father and strongly believed that Joseph J. Lerner "created the child who became the father of the man." He was the middle of three sons born to Edith Adelson and Joseph Lerner; the oldest was named Richard Martin, and the youngest Robert Warren. The father made no effort to conceal his favoritism, which made Alan's life among his siblings "very difficult." Nor did his father's bias endear Alan to his mother. Joseph Lerner ran his household as he did his business-autocratically, uncompromisingly, with a decisive firm hand and closed mind. He was the most important influence on Alan's life and career, but not on his character There were many issues on which father and son did not agree. Lerner senior was politically conservative, a ruthless businessman, cultured, and caustic of tongue. He was also a bon vivant, a wit, a misogynistic womanizer, a courageous man (his last seventeen years were scourged by a particularly vicious oral cancer), and very, very rich. Joseph J. Lerner was born on January 23, 1887, to Sophia and Charles Lerner of Philadelphia, a comfortably off, middle-class Republican couple. By 1903 the family had moved to Brooklyn, where Joseph attended the Boys' High School for exceptional students. From there he enrolled, in 1906, in the Pennsylvania Dental School; three years later he began practicing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, famous for its Boardwalk, its saltwater taffy, and the Miss America Pageant--and convenient to both New York and Philadelphia. "While still in his twenties," Lerner later wrote, "[my father] had the good sense to realize that among his many talents, dentistry was not one of them, and before World War I he became the founder of a highly successful chain of stores that still bears his name." Joseph was actually only one of the founders: In 1917 he established the Lorraine Stores Corporation with his brothers Michael and Samuel. With success came expansion and a new name: Lerner Stores Corporation, specializing in quality clothing for women at reasonable prices. The chain grew and prospered during the profiteering twenties and even during the Depression thirties. The Lerner shops continue to do business today, but Joseph Lerner sold out his share in the early fifties, by which time the cancer that had been consuming him since 1937 ending his life. Lerner recalled his father as an "almost handsome man, firmly built, of medium height, [with] brownish-blonde hair. . . a ruddy complexion, and very large sky blue eyes." Alan's mother, for her part, remains a somewhat shadowy figure. In his book Lerner wrote, "My Pappy was rich and my Ma was good lookin"'--the latter a slight exaggeration, to judge from an early photograph in which Edith Adelson Lerner appears rather more formidable than handsome. Lerner devoted little space to her in his book, and neither his father nor he thought to mention her in their Who's Who entries, a curious convergence of omission. Joseph and Edith probably met in Philadelphia and were married around 1916. They soon had a son, Richard, but according to their second child, Alan, their marriage was in shambles by the time of his birth, in 1918. Even so, a third son, Robert, was born in 1921. Lerner recalled the constant bickering, the separations and reunions, and the final separation after Joseph Lerner was discovered in an infidelity one Friday night in the late 1920s when he was supposed to be attending a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. When his wife asked him the next morning who had won the main bout, Lerner senior took a wild--and wrong-guess, as he soon learned from that morning's New York Times. Later, from his office, he called the maid and asked her to pack his clothes and send them to the Waldorf. Whether this upset his mother, Alan never said, but he and his brothers remained with her until they went off to school. Even though he lived with his mother, Lerner was not close to her. She did all the right things, as was expected of a Park Avenue resident--the travels, the clothes, the schools (in whose choice Joseph Lerner's was the dominant voice)--but affection was not given, and she was intimidating. Even as an adult, Lerner was smaller than she. The marriage that began so romantically soured quickly. Within a year of the founding of the Lorraine Corporation, the Lerners occupied a spacious (seventeen-room) apartment on Park Avenue, with a necessary staff of servants to please the madame and master Alan Jay Lerner was bon1 into this luxurious but unloving environment on Saturday; August 31, 1918. For weeks he was nameless. That his parents could not agree on w hat to call the baby is hardly surprising; by this time, the! agreed on very little. The sybaritic Joseph tended to avoid his home, instead spending much of his time at the theater and with theater people (an affection he would later pass on to his temporarily nameless son). One night, while ranging the better night spots, Lerner had a drink with the then powerful drama critic Alan Hale, characterized by a colleague, Brooks Atkinson, as the "insolent critic for the Hearst papers." Joseph Lerner liked the ring of the name Alan and felt it would go well with his surname. His son later dryly observed that "it was as if Napoleon had a son and named him after Wellington." Alan would eventually come to loathe critics, maintaining that theN exercised by dancing on the graves of shows, especially musicals. The origin of Alan Lerner's middle name is not known for certain; it may merely represent the spelling-out of his father's middle initial. When Alan Jay was five, he began to study the piano, and around the same time, his father took him to see his first musical. This introduction would coincide with the flowering of the musical theater during the 1920s. Lerner never specified which shows he saw as a youngster; even at six, he would be unlikely to recall much about them. But his seventh year saw the production of the Gershwins' Lady, Be Cood!, Kern's Sitting Pretty, and Berlin's Music Box Revue, among others. Lerner was enthralled by the fantasy of it all, by the songs and dances, the costumes, the magic, and the inevitable happy ending. "By the age of twelve," he wrote, "I had only one ambition and that was to be involved, someday, somehow, in the musical theatre." (Since his father took him to virtually every musical that played, that year he may also have seen Rodgers's Simple Simon, Kay Swift's Fine and Daddy, the Gershwins' Girl Crazy, and Cole Porter's The New Yorkers; the following year his father invested in Harold Arlen's first musical, You Said It.) Meanwhile, Alan was receiving another kind of education under his mother's supervision. Enrolled in the West Side's Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, he arrived for classes in a chauffeur-driven limousine. When he was in the third grade, aged ten, he dutifully attended Sunday dancing classes, wearing the mandatory white gloves (to which he would return years later). His most vivid memory of dancing school involved his infatuation with the "prettiest girl in class." The fact that she was also the most popular girl aggravated his natural shyness and rendered him speechless. Hoping to catch her alone, away from his more self-possessed classmates, he learned that she lived on Fifth Avenue, and for several Saturdays he kept vigil on a park bench adjacent to Central Park, across the street from her apartment house. His plan was, as soon as he spotted her, to bound across the avenue and confess his feelings. It was not to be; he had the wrong address. Joseph Lerner, who spoke four languages, loved English and was determined that his sons should speak and write it properly. (He later constantly criticized his writer son's vocabulary and syntax, both of which he considered inadequate for a man of his profession.) To this end, young Alan was shipped off at twelve to have his English burnished at the Bedales School in the smallish town of Petersfield, in Hampshire, England. There the boy discovered another interest, in the occult, extrasensory perception, reincarnation, and other psychic phenomena. This fascination had been unwittingly instigated by his father, when, two years earlier, Alan had asked him where people went when they died. Joseph Lerner, though born into the Jewish faith, was an unbeliever, and he answered, "Nowhere. And if anyone ever tells you differently, he's lying to you." "Stunned" by this revelation, Alan had stoically remained silent. When you die, his father concluded, "you go to sleep and never wake up." For several weeks after that, Alan had trouble sleeping and was afraid to close his eyes. By the time he got to Bedales, the boy was preoccupied by the concept of life after death, unable to accept that death was the ultimate end. He wanted somehow to prove his father wrong. One Sunday, while reading the London Times (a weekly school assignment), Alan learned that one of his favorite authors, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was scheduled to deliver a speech to the British Psychic Society entitled "The Nature and Existence of God." (A trained physician, Doyle had turned to spiritualism after the death of his son in the First World War.) Excited and impatient, Lerner waited for subsequent issues of the Times, only to learn that within weeks after the announcement about the lecture, Doyle had died. The boy was certain that the creator of Sherlock Holmes had "solved the mystery, but [that] God did not want him to tell anyone"--a sentiment his father would find foolish. Disappointed, Alan wrote to the society to inquire whether a copy of the speech existed. None did, but he was invited to become a member anyway; and regularly received issues of the organization's journal, the contents of which were rather arcane for a twelve-year-old. Nonetheless, a stray sentence or two, even a paragraph, made sense to him, convincing him at an early age that "all the answers were not in," and that his father was probably wrong on this point. He never discussed this revelation with Joseph, wary as he was of the acerbic commentaries that skeptic was likely to offer on such surrealisms. Lerner senior was a nonromantic realist who could not abide belief in the occult or even in organized religions; his son, however, clung to his feelings and would one day draw on them for his work. After a single semester at Bedales, Alan returned to Manhattan and attended Columbia Grammar from 1931 through 1935 (sixth through ninth grade). Even though the Lerners' marriage was practically nonexistent, they fulfilled certain expected responsibilities. Joseph paid the bills and saw to other matters; when school closed for the summer, Edith Lerner took her sons to Europe for cultural polishing in the museums, the cathedrals, the concert halls of England, France, Italy, Austria, and so on. Edith's husband preferred less cultural pursuits, notably his business, his prizefights, the "heater, and dabbling in stocks. When his sons were still in their teens, sometime during the Depression, Lerner senior made all investment in a poor investment era, buying shares in a gold mil1e in the boys' names, with the proviso that none could sell his shares before he reached the age of twenty-one. Gold-mine stock was a rare commodity in the thirties, but when Lerner recalled it, long after he fumed twenty-one, it proved to be a godsend, financing a return trip to Britain that would have pleased his father. In his teens, while still a student at Columbia Grammar, Alan began tinkering at the keyboard, with an occasional resultant song, revealing an interest in a curious, impractical occupation. His father did not mind this useless but entertaining activity, confident that his son would outgrow it and attend to the serious business of preparing himself for a real profession. Lerner's next educational step was at the exclusive Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1934. This was a most solid step in Joseph Lerner's plans for his son's education: After Choate, he would move on to the Sorbonne, in Paris, then to Spain, to Italy, and finally to Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., where he would prepare for a career in the foreign service. As it happened, it was at Choate that Alan Jay Lerner himself would take the first step--on the wrong foot, according to school regulations-toward a career in the "heater. As he later frequently recounted, this came about because of three separate but related events: "a cigarette on a golf course, a left hook to the side of the head, and a wrong turn on the way to the men's room." The first of these incidents occurred on Choate's golf course. Seventeen at the time--a male adult, he felt-Lerner was on the green with his sticks, out of sight of the school, when he lighted a cigarette (at Choate, smokers, if caught, were expelled). He was caught and, in the middle of his final term, placed on a train to face his father's wrath. "This flagrant act of disobedience," he recalled, "so enraged my father that he cancelled my diplomatic career and sentenced me to four years of hard labor at an American university, which was a little like punishing a prisoner by kicking him out of jail." He had been doing well at Choate and had attended his share of debutante parties in white tie and tails, "unaware of the unintentional cruelty of my presence as I passed men on street corners selling apples." Park Avenue and Choate were a world away from the Depression's sting. As the train approached New York, he looked back on the good times at Choate-the sports, the writing he so loved, and his stint as co-editor of the Choate yearbook with a student from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Saved from a European education, he considered the alternatives Princeton (Scott Fitzgerald's alma mater) seemed attractive and was close to Broadway. He talked it over with one of his golfing companions from Westchester. John Paul Austin was then a junior at Harvard and spoke well of his school, its fine faculty, the clubs, the sports--and as Lerner well knew, practically every musical that eventually made it to Broadway first had to suffer its out-of-town tryout in Boston. Harvard was also known for its smart, annual Hasty Pudding musicals. So Harvard it was. "Thus it was," Lerner would later write, "that in September, 1936, instead of living la vie de boheme along the Boulevard St. Germain, I found myself more provincially ensconced at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, twenty-eight hundred miles closer to Times Square." Copyright © 1996 Edward Jablonski. All rights reserved.