JEROME KERN by Michael Freedland


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Enjoyable but undistinguished biography of the testy composer of ""Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,"" ""All the Things You Are,"" ""01' Man River"" and ""Look for the Silver Lining""; first published in Britain in 1978. Kern was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and kept it there until falling into a fatal coma (at Park Avenue and 57th Street) at 60 years of age. Even then, when he was taken to nearby City Hospital on Welfare Island, his daughter quickly had him removed from the company of bums and drunks to a private room at Doctors Hospital. ""She was afraid of his waking up in an institution and finding himself surrounded by the sort of men with whom he would never have mixed in his life."" This incident tells a lot about Kern, who was a fastidious Anglophile, book collector (his collection brought nearly $2 million at auction), and writer of tunes derived mainly from the lilting sweetness of Viennese operetta. Which is not to say that Kern's tunes were saccharine or excessively kitschy, especially when married to lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields or P.G. Wodehouse. Kern began at 17, writing songs for inserts into European imports, and generally helping dress up Broadway shows. Soon his unstoppable melodiousness found him composing his own musicals, sometimes mounting six or seven full-dress shows a year--year after year--featuring such glories as ""Who. . .Stole My Heart Away?"" and ""They Didn't Believe Me."" He ever strove to fit the songs to the book, a goal utterly unheard of before him. His greatest success was a masterpiece of integrated song and plot, Show Boat, written with Hammerstein. For decades, Kern partied until dawn and slept past noon. He was ready to fire a singer for inserting even a ""Well. . ."" into one of his lyrics, and though he stood only 5 feet 6, he seemed 6 feet 5 and ornamented with gold braid. After thinking; about it for months, he wrote ""01' Man River"" in five minutes, a song many people still think is a Negro folk tune. When his beloved piano was slightly injured when being shipped between coasts, he was felled (not fatally) by a massive heart attack and stroke. Kern deserves more lavish treatment than he gets here, but Freedland's a readable trot through his life and career--and keeps the flame lighted.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Parkwest (P.O. Box A-10, Cathedral Station, New York, NY 10025)