Other people, when they arrive at a vacation house, may go out and check the views first, or the quality of the sheets, or see how far it is to the beach or the lake. I, of course, head to the bookshelves. I love the idea of coming across a book by chance at such a place--a book that lives there and won't come home with me--and opening it up with vague curiosity and getting drawn into an experience I couldn't have planned. It's usually only an idea rather than a reality for me, though, because I always bring along so many books of my own that I don't leave any room for serendipity.
There are a few exceptions: an apartment I sublet in Munich, where the tenant had clearly taken a class on the American sixties (in English), so I read Tom Hayden's memoir and--finally--All the President's Men instead of studying German, my reason for being there in the first place; the copy of Alec Wilkinson's Midnights, about being a cop on Cape Cod, that's always on the shelf the house my aunt and uncle rent there and that I've probably read two or three times by now. And there's that copy of Waylon Jennings's autobiography I liberated from a poolside shelf a few years back and decided deserved a better home in Seattle.
But last month I knew I was headed for a place with an outstanding collection of books, and for once I left some slack in my reading plans. It's a desert ranch that's been run by the same family for decades, and while some of the books there were left behind by previous guests, many of them--'50s hardcovers especially--have the name of the woman who once owned the place (her sons run it now) inscribed on the inside. I brought my usual assortment from home, of course, and read a few (and one of them, Christopher Sorrentino's Trance, which I'm halfway through, is so far one of the best novels I've read in years). But I also left myself room to sample the pickings there, which turned out to be even better than I remembered, with dozens of books I'd always wanted to check out. On a couple of evenings I sat down with a little stack and a wolfish grin and happily sampled from, among others, Victoria Glendenning's Rebecca West biography, Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, Whittaker Chambers's Witness, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World (yes, equal time!), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and, best of all, Moss Hart's Act One.
I knew Act One was a huge bestseller in the '50s and that it's thought of as one of the great theater memoirs, and I'd always wanted, in a vague way, to read it. And so I opened it up somewhere in the middle, saw he was working with George S. Kaufman on something, and said, "Hm, I'll see how this goes." Well, so much for my evening: about four hours later I closed the book, blinking my eyes in wonder at one of the most thrilling and enjoyable reading experiences I've had since staying up all night finishing Into Thin Air (which, come to think of it, I also came across by chance on vacation).
Hart doesn't climb a Himalaya in Act One. No, he does something far more interesting and impressive to me: he writes a play that, after an endless (but probably not atypical) series of setbacks, detours, and lucky (and earned) breaks, becomes a Broadway hit. Or, rather, he cowrites that play, with the Mr. Kaufman mentioned above, who these days occupies roughly the same half-legendary, half-forgotten place that Hart does in people's memories, but then was the king of the Broadway comedy while Hart was a young nobody, slaving away at play after play to break out of his exhausting and underpaid niche in little-theater productions and social directing in the Catskills. Only when he turned to comedy and wrote a Hollywood satire called Once in a Lifetime did he catch the eyes of a producer and then of Kaufman, who agreed to collaborate with the newcomer on a rewrite for Broadway.
And so begins Hart's adventure, beginning with awkward, workaholic writing sessions in Kaufman's brownstone; moving on through promising but failed out-of-town tryouts, with the two writers going back to their hotel after each show for all-night rewrites, trying to fix the second act and then the third; and finally to the kind of career-making hit opening night that a playwright can only dream of. Part of the fun for me (which I've now just spoiled for you--sorry) was not quite knowing what would happen: I knew Hart would eventually make it big, but I had never heard of Once in a Lifetime, so I didn't know if this was the one that broke him or was just a setback along the way. And I didn't even know that the story of that play's production would take up the entire second half of the book: I thought I was just reading a little episode in a memoir of many successes, but it kept going on and on, piling complication on top of complication, and then suddenly, soon after the opening night's final curtain, the book ended with the last word, "Intermission," leaving all his later work (like The Man Who Came to Dinner) for another book, and explaining--duh!--the title. (Hart never got to write Act Two, though, since he died just two years after Act One came out.)
But the story of Once in a Lifetime is more than enough for a book: almost impossibly dramatic, with the young Hart convincing a defeated Kaufman to keep going--not once but twice!--and try radical, late changes in the production as the vast expense and expectation of a Broadway opening fast approached, and with an absolutely joyful bravura final moment that I won't spoil for you here. And in Hart's hands it's an absolute marvel of storytelling, with wonderful character sketches (of Kaufman especially) and brilliantly constructed set pieces that are as effective with observant little bits of business (like Hart driven mad with hunger while Kaufman, abstemious and oblivious, provides just a few cookies and tiny sandwiches at their endless work sessions, or the two playwrights pacing in opposite directions at the back of the theater, too nervous to watch the tryout performances) as with the bigger dramas (of course it's all just about puttin' on a show, so how big can the drama get?). And its somehow fitting to have such a masterful demonstration of how to construct a story when the very subject of that story is the struggle of these two men to solve the dramatic problems of their play.
Perhaps it's that nested drama (shades of my beloved Topsy-Turvy) that left me wanting to turn the book into a screenplay more than I ever have before. (Actually, it's something I rarely have the urge to do.) Surely, I thought, with a bestseller that big and with such a thrillingly filmable show-biz tale, someone had done it before. And it's true: someone did, a 1963 movie directed by Hart's old pal Dore Schary and starring George Hamilton (?!?) as Hart, Jason Robards as Kaufman, and--oh my lord--Bert Convy in a tiny role as Archie Leach, one of Hart's fellow stagestruck aspirants who, of course, would soon become Cary Grant. But how good could that movie be--it's not available on video, and my god: Bert Convy as Cary Grant?!? You can actually get a glimpse of him in the trailer below.
Well, watching the trailer, which makes it look like an dutifully literal transcription of some of the best scenes in the book, does give me pause. Maybe the fact that Act One reads so much like a movie would make the movie version seem like a movie you've seen a hundred times before. But a half century later, maybe it's time to try again.