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Book Review

A Talent for Genius

A Talent for Genius by Kashner and Schoenberger

The Life and Times of Oscar Levant

Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger
New York: Villard Books. 1994. 514 pages.
ISBN-10: 1879505398
ISBN-13: 978-1879505391
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Well done, but pretty much coals to Newcastle.

Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger to some extent specialize in Old Hollywood, having written on the Taylor-Burton marriage and on George Reeves (the Fifties Superman). Oscar Levant – pianist, actor, composer, and world-class neurotic and wit – definitely represents a step up on the ladder of Kultur. Although a memorable actor in such films as Humoresque, An American in Paris, and The Band Wagon, Levant moved not only in high literary circles but musical ones as well. He studied composition with Schoenberg, knew Aaron Copland, Toscanini, and Horowitz, and most famously was close to George Gershwin. He looked a bit like a toad but managed to marry two beautiful women: one a Ziegfeld showgirl and the other a Hollywood starlet.

Levant was also one of the great American wits. When a radio-orchestra conductor requested a cut in a Brahms concerto, Levant replied, "I don't mind, but you'll hear from Brahms's lawyers in the morning." During the filming of Humoresque, the director – a stickler for accuracy – had John Garfield (no violinist) as the violinist in close-up, the fingerboard worked by one violinist and the bow by another, with Isaac Stern actually supplying the violin playing and Levant at the piano. Levant quipped that the five of them should go on tour.

There are many great Levant stories and bon mots, and Levant himself preserved most of these in two very entertaining reminiscences: Memoires of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance of Being Oscar. If you've already got these two books, do you really need this one?

Admittedly, Levant didn't tell everything, although he came pretty close. He was neurotic, but he was also compulsively honest about himself. Nevertheless he remained notoriously reticent about his childhood and about his composing. In fact, he claimed that he became a composer in part so that people wouldn't ask him what he was working on, and when he did answer, he usually hid behind flippancy. Moreover, the memoires end some time in the Sixties and he still had old age to go. Kashner and Schoenberger fill in these gaps: a childhood that was (as if you couldn't guess) horribly traumatizing, a compositional career cut short by Levant's demons, and an old age filled with horrors and finally something like serenity.

Kashner and Schoenberger do well, but of course repeat much of what Levant already wrote. It's a lively book, but then Levant was a lively guy. I borrowed the book from my public library and enjoyed it, but I don't know how much I would have soured had I paid actual money.

Copyright © 2010 by Steve Schwartz.