Has a composer’s private life ever inspired a great playwright? Apparently not. Did Aeschylus, Shakespeare, or Ibsen ever tragedize a composer? It would seem that dramatizations of composers are stuck either with the low maudlinism of Hollywood biopics or the high metaphysics of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus and Adrian Leverkühn, its fictionalized Schoenberg. But wait—author Joan Peyser demurs. The former Musical Quarterly editor, NY Times A&L writer, and controversial psycho-biographer of Boulez, Bernstein, and George Gershwin, has just published a revision of her 1993 Gershwin bio, The Memory of All That. In her revision (Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007), Peyser makes a sensational new claim: that Lillian Hellman closely modeled the rapacious behavior of the Hubbard family in her 1939 play The Little Foxes on her up-close-and-personal observation of Gershwin’s family in the months leading up to the composer’s death of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937—almost exactly seventy years ago.
“When I researched Gershwin’s last months, the spring and early summer of 1937, and looked through photographs and home movies, I often saw Lillian Hellman by the pool at the house on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills,” writes Peyser. “It puzzled me even more to learn that when Ira and Leonore [Ira’s wife] brought George’s body to New York for the funeral, they did not stay with either of their families but with Hellman.” According to Peyser, Leonore, a notoriously greedy, controlling woman, took charge of George’s medical care in his last months in Los Angeles. Peyser adds that when she saw the 1941 film version of the play again recently, she was struck by parallels between Regina Giddens’s (and her brothers Oscar and Ben Hubbards’s) swinish, money-grubbing behavior toward her ailing husband Horace and “Leonore’s aggressive neglect of George’s symptoms, her refusal to have him consult a neurosurgeon, her exiling him, without family or friends, to a small cottage belonging to Yip Harburg….Watching Regina Hubbard in The Little Foxes refuse to give her husband the pills that could save his life brought to mind Leonore’s neglect of George.” Hellman’s Regina Giddens literally steps over the body of her dying husband Horace; Peyser reminds the reader that Edward Jablonski’s 1987 Gershwin biography tells of the terminally ill Gershwin collapsing from a dizzy spell on the sidewalk in front of the Brown Derby restaurant in early 1937 with his sister-in-law Leonore sniping, “Leave him there, all he wants is attention.”
At a time when Howard Pollack’s splendid encyclopedic biography of Gershwin is newly available, it’s interesting to take a fresh look back at Peyser’s bracing, fearlessly iconoclastic account. Some readers will no doubt scoff at Peyser’s theory, asking “What about Hellman’s 1946 prequel to The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest? Do its younger Hubbards of twenty years earlier  also crypticize the Gershwin family?” But the philosophical issue Peyser poses—that artists freely raid their friends’ private unhappinesses, and even their own, for their art—is inescapable. (As Tosca put it best, Vissi d’arte.) After all, Leonard Bernstein mined his own family’s dysfunctions in creating his librettos for Trouble in Tahiti and (with Stephen Wadsworth) A Quiet Place. And Lillian Hellman and George Gershwin shared the same psychiatrist, Gregory Zilboorg, so Hellman might well have had insights into Gershwin she could unleash only in roman à clef form. (Hellman presumably approved the screen crawl prologue to the 1941 William Wyler film version that elbows the viewer thus: “Little Foxes have lived in all times, in all places. This family happened to live in the Deep South in the year 1900.”)
There are plenty of skeletons in the closets of art we need skeleton keys for. In concert music we have Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Schumann’s Carnaval‘s Sphinxes. The secret love scenarios of Bartók for Steffi Geyer, Janacek for Kamila Stosslova, or even Alban Berg for Manon Gropius may be encrypted in the scores, auditory romans à clef. In our legitimate theatre the Tyrone family is an open secret as Eugene O’Neill’s roman à clef family, yet barely known is that Max Bialystock in The Producers is loosely drawn on a forgotten actual producer of the 1930s and 1940s, Arthur J. Beckhard, who in 1933 was convicted for negligent homicide in the Beverly Hills traffic deaths of the nephew of film director Clarence Brown and the nephew’s female companion. As for internecine family bickering creating universal drama, look no further than the 1959 musical Gypsy: the offstage family feud between Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister June Havoc over the portrayal of their mother during that musical’s gestation undoubtedly energized the splendor of the final creation.
Unlike Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were barely friendly outside their theatrical collaborations, Hellman, Marc Blitzstein, and Leonard Bernstein not only worked together on theater projects at various times but also regularly socialized and had the same Marxist-leftist politics. And look at the long trail of artistic incest the Gershwins’s dysfunctions may have spawned among them: Blitzstein composed the incidental music to Another Part of the Forest and then adapted The Little Foxes into his 1949 Broadway opera Regina, now a staple of opera companies; Hellman herself wrote the book to the original Broadway version of Bernstein’s Candide in 1956; Bernstein became a famous interpreter of Gershwin’s music, and a troubled inheritor of his role as all-American “crossover” composer; and Bernstein shamelessly borrowed a tune from Blitzstein’s Regina score for his own use in West Side Story—his “Maria” is virtually the same as an underscoring melody in Regina‘s first act.
So watch what you’re yakking into your cellphone when in public: a latent Lillian Hellman may be eavesdropping nearby, ready to impale you in deathless art.