The Unimportance of Being Oscar

Oscar Levant
Oscar Levant; drawing by David Levine

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…

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