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The Unimportance of Being Oscar

For those who like to take things to extremes, Oscar Levant was a hero. Before he died in 1972, he had completed a great arc of self-destruction that ruined his career as a pianist, a radio and film star, and that had put him into a series of hospitals to be treated for drug addiction and mental illness. In his last years, he often appeared on television, where he boasted of his “boss-hating attitude” and impertinence, and gained a reputation for insulting his hosts and sponsors. His impertinence extended into his private relations—or perhaps it originated there—in a remarkable way. When his ex-wife married the theater owner Arthur Loew, he telephoned them at two AM on their wedding night and asked her, “What’s playing at Loew’s State tonight and when does the feature go on?” His phobias and superstitions were carefully recorded by his friends. They knew of streets he refused to walk on because of the bad associations they evoked, and how he would run out of a room if he saw Scriabin’s music on the piano. Pigeons flying west, a discarded Butterfinger’s wrapper, or more than two extinguished cigarettes in an ashtray were evil signs for him. His great friend S.N. Behrman described him as “a character who, if he did not exist, could not be imagined.”

This was certainly true of his appearance. When I first met him at his house in Beverly Hills, he looked as if he had just undergone a police interrogation. His face was puffy, pockmarked, with threatening black eyebrows and an exceedingly wide mouth. He shuffled his large body around the room as if he were looking for a place to sleep, and then crumbled onto a long sofa. I don’t recall that he said very much except to explain that he had been in a sanitarium for the past few months. But every so often he would break into half a smile—thereby revealing cigarette-stained teeth and becoming even more unattractive—and mutter an authoritative appraisal of his situation: “My home is a nice place to visit, but I’d sure hate to live here.”

Levant wrote three books, parts of which are well worth the efforts of an enterprising publisher to bring together in a single volume. The first and best of these, A Smattering of Ignorance, published in 1940, recounts his childhood and his early career as a composer and pianist, as well as his friendships with George Gershwin and Harpo Marx. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1906. He not only learned very early to play the piano but also to play different kinds of music, so that although he acquired a classical training he was able to make money playing with dance bands. He also wrote popular songs, some of which, like “Blame It On My Youth,” a ballad with a somewhat indecisive melody, were hits. He tells us in a memoir entitled “Leaves of Trash” that when he came to New York in the late Twenties to play the piano with dance bands he fell in with a set of Broadway showgirls, gangsters, and songwriters. The songwriters, he says, would gather around the pianos in publishers’ offices to play new songs like Billy Rose’s “Love Is Like a Punch In The Nose” or Gershwin’s “There’s More To A Kiss Than A…” (followed by the sound of three kisses). He saw so much of Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and other gangsters that he later complained that Senator Kefauver “ruined my social life.”

During this time, however, he continued to study music composition with the hope of one day composing distinctively American music. But this, he explains, was very difficult to do in the Twenties. His friend George Gershwin held out a hope, as did Aaron Copland, but, he says,

American music itself was in complete disrepute. It is questionable, indeed, if disrepute is the right word—there was no public awareness that such music existed. From time to time and for purely chauvinistic reasons, some pseudo American work might be produced for a Washington’s Birthday or an Independence Day program, but it was, invariably, ideologically hyphenated: German-American, as in the case of Chadwick and Hadley, Scandinavian-American, as MacDowell’s, French-American (Loeffler and Griffes), and even in the lighter species, Irish-German-American, as Victor Herbert’s.

(He tells us elsewhere his opinion of Herbert. When a publisher asked him whether he could be induced to write a biography of Herbert, he replied, “Write one? I couldn’t even read one.”)

There were no important critics, he says, to promote the cause of young composers like Carl Ruggles or Henry Cowell or Edgar Varèse. Many of these young men felt obliged to go abroad to study music and when they returned they were “dislocated.” With the exception of Serge Koussevitsky, who Oscar says was “unparalleled in the performance of Russian music, whether it is by Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss, Wagner, or Aaron Copland,” orchestras did not wish to play their music. The League of Composers, founded by Copland and others in 1923, did something to further American music, but Oscar found the policies of the league impractical. At the American Music Festival at Yaddo in 1932, when Copland spoke to composers of the need to impose a system of fees for performance rights on orchestras, choral organizations, and even recitalists using American material, Oscar found it “paradoxical” that composers should be demanding fees when conductors and audiences did not want to play or hear their music. Although he had been asked to the festival by Copland to play his sonatina for piano, Levant felt like an “interloper from Broadway.” “The air was full of jeers for everything and everyone outside the closed shop of those present,” he wrote, and one of the pieces performed, a string quartet by Marc Blitzstein, was made up of slow movements and reminded him of “a meal consisting entirely of stained glass, with different dressings.” He abruptly left Yaddo, instructing the cab driver, “To the next festival, please!”

Levant remained eager to compose and even went so far as to study with Arnold Schoenberg in the Thirties, when Schoenberg was teaching music at UCLA and Levant was visiting Harpo Marx in Hollywood. Schoenberg was haughty, distant. His command of English was imperfect—when Levant told him that the twelve-tone system did not work for him, he responded, “That’s the beauty of it—it never works!”—and his life was continually marked by absurd collisions between the customs and manners of Vienna and those of MGM, the Farmer’s Market, and Hollywood Boulevard. He allowed himself to be asked by Irving Thalberg to write the music for The Good Earth, but when he demanded too much—a colossal fee, together with the understanding that the characters played by Paul Muni and Luise Rainer communicate in Sprechstimme—the offer was withdrawn.

When Levant induced Harpo Marx to ask Schoenberg to dinner, he was surprised to find that the only other guests were Beatrice Lillie and Fanny Brice. “To make conversation,” he writes, “Brice inquired what ‘hits’ Schoenberg had written; and after dinner she kept coaxing Schoenberg with ‘C’mon professor, play us a tune.’ I never found out whether she expected him to provide her with a successor to ‘My Man’ or possibly a comedy song like ‘I’m An Indian.’ ” Oscar felt déraciné in Los Angeles, too, especially so when a movie producer announced to him that “the greatest piece of music ever written is Humoreske,” or when a woman seated next to him at a dinner party told him: “I prefer your Schnabel to your Beethoven.”

Schoenberg was imperious—Oscar calls their relationship “exchanging his ideas with him”—but he also seems to have wanted to help. Levant says that Schoenberg asked him to become his assistant at UCLA, but he refused. When he wrote a string quartet in 1937, Schoenberg tried to interest the conductor Otto Klemperer in it by having it performed in his own house. “The first movement,” Levant writes,

went quite well. After the opening of the second movement, a four-note ostinato, Schoenberg interrupted the players and said to me didactically, “Those four notes should be played by a bassoon.” As he had been very aware of the contents of my quartet, this came as an unnecessary intrusion. The performance was aborted by a heated debate about true string writing. Schoenberg pointed out that Mozart’s string quartets were unsurpassed in conception—he maintained that the Brahms quartets, although musically beyond cavil, nevertheless were composed for two pianos first, and then transcribed into string writing. These polemics about orchestral composition were further illustrated by Schoenberg’s contention that Ravel, who was still alive and had a special fame as a brilliant orchestrator, wrote first for piano and then orchestrated. In the meantime, because of this discussion, my string quartet was completely abandoned.

Schoenberg tried to interest Klemperer in Oscar’s work on a second occasion. The conductor was asked to the house of Schoenberg’s friend Salka Viertel, and at a prearranged time Schoenberg asked Oscar to play his piano concerto. It was, Oscar writes, “the opportunity that would have meant so much to me.” Inexplicably, he sat at the piano and played “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”

While in Hollywood, Levant tried to make money by writing music for films like Charlie Chan at the Opera, but, for reasons he makes clear, he dropped this career very quickly. In the Thirties, he explains, the pay taken home by a composer was determined by the number of minutes of music used by the producer. Film music was written according to unvarying formulas and had to fit into categories like “main titles” or “inserts.” Oscar writes that all train music was based on Honegger Pacific 231. Carousel music was derived from the fair scene in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, and walks in the garden from Delius. There were, he says, “several species of fog music”: ordinary fogs were “Ravel-Debussy, with the element of the latter derived from his Fêtes” (the muted trumpets); special kinds of fogs, “for prison breaks or bank robberies,” draw on “a few of the recondite figurations from Dukas’s L’Apprenti Sorcier.”

Composers like Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, and Erich Korngold competed to write the most memorable “main titles.” These were typically, he writes, “a harp glissando, ascending-scale passages for the violins—fortissmo—as well as for the woodwinds, all topped by a cymbal clash on the first beat, after which, grandiose tuttis. “Different composers with entirely different skills and musical knowledge worked on the same films, and often the result made little sense.” Levant describes a montage which was supposed to show how a singer (played by Jeanette Macdonald) became a great star by presenting in rapid succession opera bills from Monte Carlo, Berlin, Paris, Budapest, Covent Garden. The musical background, however, contained themes from The Barber of Seville, Tristan, Don Giovanni, and Der Rosenkavalier, “suggesting that Macdonald could sing anything from Isolde to Violetta, from Rosina to Donna Anna.” Again, he says that “it was with more than a slight feeling of surprise that I listened to the pattern of Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ as the background to a brilliant treatment of a Cole Porter song in Rosalie.”

Fortunately, Oscar found great success as a concert pianist in the Forties. After Gershwin died in 1938, he became widely known as an interpreter of the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F. Around this time, too, he was invited to join the “experts” panel on the radio program Information Please. He displayed a prodigious knowledge of music and sports, and after some of the jokes he made on the program were reported in the press, he realized that his “impertinence had become a salable product.” He suggested to Schoenberg that he write a piano concerto, which the composer (but not Oscar) apparently understood as a commission—Schoenberg, Oscar writes, may have inserted an anagram of Oscar’s name in the tone row of the composition. Levant says he did not perform the piece because he wasn’t “prepared” for it, but it seems that in the end he did pay for it. He later recorded Schoenberg’s Six Pieces for Piano, but he was so concerned to play the last chord as Schoenberg had intended—pianissimo piano—that no sound emerged at all and the record was never released.

During the late Forties and early Fifties, he found his largest audiences in films, the most famous of which were musicals like An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, The Band Wagon, and The Barkleys of Broadway. In these and other films he usually played an impudent sidekick of the male lead. These characters conveniently combined the talents Oscar possessed in life. It must be obvious to anyone who saw these films that he had no appreciable talent as an actor. He therefore was usually given only two things to do: play short, spectacular pieces like the Sabre Dance and make insulting remarks, most of which he wrote himself. When a girl annoyed him, he would say, “What I like about you is that you are unfettered by the slavery of talent.” Or he would tell a rich man what he had said when he was introduced to the banker Eugene Meyer: “I’d like to trade trust funds with you.” These characters were so implausible that the producers of his movies explained them by saying that he was playing himself.

To keep up with an onerous schedule of movies, concerts, radio programs, he began to take pills, and a little while later, after he suffered a heart attack, he became addicted to phenobarbital and Demerol. His concert career languished. He was increasingly bored by concerts, he writes: “It is not only the same uniform of white tie and tails, the same inadequate instruments, the same unperceptive audiences—but it is the all-embracing boredom of the act.” When he was given an unfavorable review by a well-known Chicago music critic, he rang her up and thanked her, saying that he loathed appearing in public and could use her review to cancel the rest of his tour. (He canceled performances so often that he said that he could send out a flyer announcing that he was “open for a limited number of cancellations.”) In Washington, he was accused by a local critic of indulging in “impudent raillery” during his performance with some young people sitting in a box.

In the summer of 1952, he lost his coordination during a performance at the Lewisohn stadium in New York. (He attributed this to “unbearable neurotic hysteria which included a psychogenic paralysis.”) Around the same time, he was thrown out of the musician’s union for snubbing its chief, James Petrillo, who wanted him to back the union in a local dispute. The following year he had a nervous breakdown and entered the first of a succession of hospitals and sanitariums. Doctors there made him withdraw from Demerol—synthetic heroin—in solitary confinement; at another hospital, doctors gave him shock treatments to overcome depression. Whenever he was released from one of these hospitals, he would at once start to take drugs again. His wife would implore all the doctors she knew to refuse him prescriptions. But one doctor would call at his house while she was asleep and administer injections of Demerol in his parked car. When she caught him, he claimed that his Hippocratic principles forbade him from refusing the call from someone in need.

In 1956 Oscar was able to return to public life and to appear on a television show in Los Angeles. Before he went on, he writes, he would take “five Dexedrines and—as a balance and check—ten milligrams of Thorazine.” Insanely elated, he would insult his sponsors and guests. He was thrown off the program for his comment on the marriage, by a rabbi, of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. “Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher,” he said, “Arthur Miller can eat her.” He then had a second nervous breakdown and did not appear on television until a year and a half later, when he was given his own show, a talk show on which writers and actors and politicians would be interviewed by him and questions from the audience read aloud by his wife. “This is Oscar Levant,” he would announce, “who has made insanity America’s favorite hobby. My show is now syndicated. It goes to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Bellevue in New York, and the psychiatric ward at Mt. Sinai in Los Angeles.” He called the show Disgrace the Nation.

In his last years, Levant managed to create a ghastly new métier. He had “retired five times”—as a pianist, a composer, a radio and film star, and as an author (although he was to write two more books). He now succeeded as a “personality” on television by making jokes about his drug addiction and his declining mental and physical health. In appearances with Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, and other talk-show hosts he presented himself as a Hollywood Philoctetes enumerating the sufferings his talents had imposed on him. In the second and third books he wrote, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance of Being Oscar, he wrote more and more about himself and increasingly so in the tone of a nightclub comedian. These later books are little more than compendiums of neurotic one-liners and inconclusive stories about famous people he has known. The theme of self-loathing is the leitmotif. “I’ve been doing archeological research and have discovered my own remains,” he writes, and “the results may be found in the ensuing pages.” He “lacks no failing.” A weekend with him, he says, causes neurosis in others. Recording machines hang up on him. When asked as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “an orphan.” Bad jokes crowd the pages of these books. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s “conversation is faster than her mind.” He knew Doris Day “before she became a virgin.” Leonard Bernstein “uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”

Like the creator of a television situation comedy, he develops in his last books a series of skits about his home life. He says that he sleeps twenty hours a day and never leaves the bedroom, where he reads the London Observer and discovers the origin of the expression “fudge” in Disraeli’s “Remarks On the Navy.” He indulges in mock hatred of his wife, who keeps drugs from him. She poisoned one of his daughters against him, he writes, by writing nasty notes and swallowing them during pregnancy. The secret of his marriage, he says, is that “neither of us can stand me.” (All marriage, in any case, is “a triumph of habit over hatred”). He is enslaved by complicated rules and prohibitions. He admits, for example, that “I never smoke a cigarette when there is a commercial with an umbrella in a closed room.”

These rites and superstitions were not all jokes. They seem to have become so demanding and complicated that he barely had time for his family, not to mention his work. He will not allow a lemon on his table, and has become frightened by “the bottle anger and rapelike aggressiveness of Coca-Cola.” Dressing and preparing for sleep each have numerological significance. When he enters his bathroom, “I put the index fingers of both hands on the slit of the door and silently count to eight. I repeat this once more. On my exit, I also do this twice.” When he takes off trousers or pajama pants, “the count is eight. But when I lie down on my bed, I lean my head to one side of my pillow and silently count to five twice.” When he turns on water faucets, “I tap each faucet with both hands eight times before I draw the water. After I’ve finished, I tap each of them again eight times. I also recite a silent prayer. It goes: Good luck, bad luck, good luck, Romain Gary, Christopher Isherwood, and Krishna Menon.” He realizes these exercises are pure superstition, but he feels comforted by them, and no psychiatrist or psychoanalyst has been able to induce him to surrender them. He even believes there is a reason for him not to give them up. They are, he says, the only physical exercise he takes.

Levant’s rudeness is often embarrassing. He is constantly crying out for attention from his wife, his doctors, his critics, his vast television and film audiences. Yet there is something endearing and honorable about him. He is honest. His self-dislike is the result of measuring himself against a high standard. He knows his musical compositions, for example, had no humor, “no light, no transparency”—and that he has allowed his talents to atrophy. He knows, too, that he has lost interest in whatever profession brought him success. (Success, he explains, makes him feel “guilty”—so much so that whenever he watched a courtroom drama on television and the accused was asked to stand, he did so.) Whenever he allows himself to be contemptuous of others his comments usually carry some point. When he brings others down with him, they rarely fall as low as he does. He observes, that Judy Garland took almost as many pills as he did; if they had married, he says, “she would have given birth to a sleeping pill instead of a child—we could have named it Barb-Iturate.” But he is just as hard on himself. It is characteristic of him to cite the transcript of an exchange he had with Jack Paar, who asked him, “Did it ever occur to you, dear old friend, that a lot of your trouble or illness may just be in your mind?” He replied, “What a place for it to be!”

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